BY JOSH OTTUM.
This is a set of three creative nonfiction essays interspersed with ambient sounds that give voice to the liminal landscapes found between urban and rural contexts. By exploring the sonic contours of suburban consumer culture, I aim to amplify the attenuated devices of comfort and control that spill out white earbuds and increasingly abandoned shopping malls. These essays explore the shape of particular spaces of consumerism found in Orange County, California, home of Disneyland, 10-lane freeways, and the beach.
To best experience these essays, they are to be read in conjunction with the audio file embedded below this introduction. Simply set your volume to a low level, press play, and begin reading. When finished, you will notice an embedded video at the end. If the music is still playing feel free to scroll back up and stop it and let it play out. The final video component attempts to meld the topics of the essays into sonic visual montages of the audible line where urban and rural meet. Before diving into the cool waters of California Scenario, a few words on the history of background music….
The functional mission of Muzak’s product is to provide an experience to be heard but not listened to. The service originated with the US Military’s experiments in finding ways to increase productivity amongst troops. These pseudo-scientific musical methods were then brought into hospital wards to expedite the healing process. Finally, Muzak made the jump into the commercial realm, thereby encouraging the commando, the confined, and the consumer. Like the spaces of malls and parking structures, the accompanying acoustical architecture is here to generate a sense of place, encouraging a desired emotional relationship between the human and her environment.
Easy listening artist Ray Conniff pioneered the idea of the “shadow choir.” With this clever device, he used the human voice to evoke a mood rather than demand a sing-a-long. The shadow choir shines a light on the interior world brought about by the practice of humming. Conniff often left the word out of the picture in favor of reverberating androgynous “ooh’s” and “aah’s.” My use of synthesizer vocal presets is intended to bring about a similar kind of co-presence. The aim is to enrich the experience by providing an opportunity to read along with an audible companion.
But fear not weary reader: the accompanying sounds are not intended to leave you disturbingly bored, annoyed by an intrusive voice that could envelop the private hum of your superb interpretational skills. That would be counter to the task at hand. Such a self-alienating state of mind could result in the witnessing of your own “destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” And that would be a shame. That would be like listening to music that was only designed to be heard…and who wants to do that? Nobody. Afterall, the intent of California Scenario is quite simple. As we set out on our journey, with healing at starboard and productivity portside, we can sail forth with singular purpose. And that purpose is to get stoked.
There’s an island one mile inland from the Pacific Ocean. It was discovered in 1967 and has stumped scientists with its generative enlivened ecosystem, its ability to increase in size over the years. The island is known as Fashion Island. There are many like it but none so circular, none so picturesque. It sits like a partially submerged nautilus, stuffed into a gradually sloping hill. Rising high into the salty air at the south entrance to a then-Robinson’s-now-Macy’s you can bear witness to a lesser known wonder of the world: The World’s Largest Wind Chimes.
Fashion Island has been sanded down over the years into a quilted pile of sandstone. It beckons the Orange County consumer to buy reliced iPhone covers for the price of an iPhone itself. The swirling architecture comes from the spinning mind of entertainment complex guru Jon Jerde. Jerde has spread his architectural seed across the world resulting in memorable spatial experiences such as The Mall of America, the branding for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and San Diego’s checkerboard Horton Plaza. A young Jon Jerde got lost in his father’s oil refineries. Jerde liked getting lost. He designed Horton Plaza with three floors on one side and four on the other, a maneuver to encourage lostness. Jon and Ray Bradbury were friends. Ray liked malls. He wrote an essay called “The Aesthetics of Lostness.”
Sculptor Tom Van Zant felt lost when his chimes got silenced. He was commissioned to build The World’s Largest Wind Chimes as part of the establishment of Fashion Island in 1967. There are 73 golden brown bells with tiny porch-style wind chimes welded inside each dome. The bells hang on vertical chains in five columns. Shortly after their debut, the chimes were silenced.
The reason for the silencing is unclear, but one can speculate. The easy answer is that the royalty of Old Newport Beach was not pleased with the noise pollution. It could’ve been longtime Newport resident John Wayne. But what could The Duke say? “Life is hard…it’s even harder when you’re stupid. It’s even worse when these wind chimes keep bumming out the little lady when she’s heading into Robinsons after a long day in the kitchen.” While larger chimes get tuned to soothing pentatonic scales, evoking a sort of back porch Orientalism, small chimes are pitched too high to discern any culturally specific harmonic relationships. They just chime and ring, clinking out like millions of glasses at happy hour.
Brian Wilson liked happy hour. He also liked donuts. He wrote a song called “Wind Chimes” just before he got into bed for a few years to eat donuts and have a nervous breakdown. His co-writer Van Dyke Parks penned the lyrics:
Hanging down from my window
Those are my wind chimes
On the warm breeze the little bells
Tinkle like wind chimes
Though it’s hard I try not to look at my wind chimes
Now and then a tear rolls off my cheek
Close your eyes and lean back now listen to wind chimes
In the late afternoon you’re hung up on wind chimes
Though it’s hard I try not to look at my wind chimes
The tension is in that last line. It polishes the compulsive streak that runs through Wilson’s music. Wilson, and many of the other Beach Boys, had an array of addictions: cars, girls, drugs, self-realization, etc.. The Beach Boys made significant contributions to the creation of California as a commodity, helping to reveal addiction as the ultimate structure of the commodity itself. Surfers are addicted to waves, they’re “on safari to stay.” Cougars feed on botox, they’re fountains of plastic energy. Everyone’s adding fuel to the fire, or in more local terms, everyone’s getting stoked.
What would it sound like if the chimes at Fashion Island began to melt. Melting chimes. Melting bells. Hear an imaginary slow wind chime. Does it have to sound like a sludgy pitched down tone? Its cool melting, liquefying the nervous little metal chiming. They just start splashing and dripping, releasing bigger chunks of cold molten metal, melting bells and chimes dripping straight up. Not sucked up by God’s vacuum, but dropping upward like goosebumps raising arm hair. Merging with the marine layer, the sonic soup would spread out all the way to Disneyland. It’d be hard, but you’d try not to look. The sound of the World’s Biggest Melting Silent Wind Chime flowing straight up out of Fashion Island: is this something to get stoked about?
Up the road from the chimeless Island sits South Coast Plaza. Both Fashion Island and South Coast opened in 1967. Victor Gruen, the father of the American outdoor shopping mall, put his thumbprint on the first, now defunct, phase of the complex. There are no silenced wind chimes, no residue of constricted sound. Just the quiet scream of right now.
Upon opening what would become the highest grossing mall on the West Coast, could Orange County developer Henry Segerstom conceive of the surreal pleasures of loitering afforded to disenfranchised I wonder if he had a dream about a soon-to-be-married couple running through South Coast after hours. Could Segerstrom’s auditory imagination be tuned so finely that he could both hear and listen to the future polyphony of teenage procrastination?
Perhaps Segerstrom’s daydream sounded like this: young lovers with shopping bags, planning on cutting through the mall to get to their parked car on the other side of the sprawling complex. Time slowing down as they gradually realize their illegal solitude in the hollow sanctuary. Shiny floors, echoing tunes, luminous signage. Silhouettes against Tommy Hilfiger six packs and airbrushed faces of an 80 lb. models. Indoor palm trees and slick tan tiles giving way to an exit. All happening at half-speed.
South Coast sits just above the golden triangle of intersecting 405, 73, and 55 freeways in sunny Costa Mesa, California. This three-sided phenomenon maintains a distinct identity from other triangular cultural hubs in the area. To the south, Irvine Spectrum and its ferris wheel inhabit the v-shaped sliver where the 405 and 5 meet. To the west, at the intersection of the 55 and 19th Ave West, stands Triangle Square, an illogically named pie-shaped property with douchebag font. There, at Triangle Square, an impossible form reflects the impossibility of addiction: the Pretty Kitty Brazilian Wax shop, an Herbalife dealer, and a Cold Stone Creamery. It’s all you could never want inside of a shape that could never be.
These impossible shapes, lodged between transitional spaces, materialize the quiet scream vibes of the Southern California coastal region. Even the idea of “coastal” evokes a kind of scenario or sense of likeness, as in…like, totally almost likeness. Like being almost totally hammered. Like going coastal instead of postal. Like…OHMYGOD. The timbre of Orange County voices reflect the impossibility of the propagating architectural shapes that dot the landscape. The sounds are fried, like the vocal fry of Britney Spears’ most intimate verses. They go down like a shot of wheatgrass. The voices sound even better blaring out of a compressed cell phone in speaker mode: screams of delight, shredding through the frequency spectrum. If you get too close you might hear more than exclamations…and that would be, like, tooooo close. The perfect distance allows for abstract sonic contour, bubbling and peaking, oohing and aahing like a shadow choir.
Beneath the unthinkable subterranean infrastructure of South Coast Plaza lie the remains of a soupy agribusiness. The Segerstrom family fortune is based on a large piece of land that once functioned as a lima bean farm. Henry Segerstrom and his cousin Hal opened the mall with big dreams. In order to make a significant gesture toward establishing the area as a civic and cultural bastion, they sold land to Sears and May Company for a buck apiece. The plan worked and raised the international profile of the place. Weary travelers can fly to John Wayne Airport and take a trillion dollar cab ride to the largest mall on the West Coast in just ten minutes.
There must be a million lima beans down there, heading the exact opposite direction from those upwardly mobile wind chimes. They’re so much lower than South Coast’s discounted prices, so much lower than the lowest cut tank top Wet Seal ever sold. The spirit of the lima bean sinks deeper. And that’s where it stays, underground, all tangled up in weeds and decomposing matter.
Noguchi Garden contains seven components to reflect California’s rich landscape:
spirit of the lima bean
These seven components are spread across a 1.6 acre box of land surrounded by two mirror-window skyscrapers and two creamy white walls. One wall functions as an exterior support to the surrounding parking structure while the other blocks the buzzing 405 freeway.
To further his interests in commerce and the arts, Segerstrom reached out to Los Angeles-born artist Isamu Noguchi. Noguchi was known for his modernist sculpture, landscape architecture, and Herman Miller coffee tables. He also did stunningly minimal set design for the Martha Graham/Aaron Copland ballet Appalachian Spring: pastoral sounds, expounding on the merits of the simple gifts of a shaker hymn, wide open American imagination. So much space. Such a far cry from 405 traffic and little yellow BMWs whizzing by on their way to packed pilates classes. Is it possible that, back in 1980 when Segerstrom started the project with Noguchi, old Henry could hear the sound of his own pulse? Could he dream/hear that little yellow Beamer driver’s sweaty pulse? Could he hear/dream her stoked heart as it throbs to the beat of Pitbull’s new record Global Warming?
Segerstrom asked Noguchi three times if he’d build a garden for him. He finally said yes. It must have been spirit of the lima bean kind of money. How else could he agree to bring his spiritualized minimalism into such a bulging cleavage landscape? In its current state, Noguchi Garden is no more than a transitional space to pass through from the parking garage to the mall. It’s also a good place for TGI Friday’s employees to take a smoke break.
Dangling around on the rearview mirror of the speeding yellow Beamer is a Little Trees disposable air freshener. It slams against the cold black plastic and occasionally obstructs the backward glance. Paranoia is part of the thrill of speeding. Like getting stoned and wondering if there is a cop in the fridge. Its the one place you want to go but it contains your worst fear. But the driver doesn’t think about psychoanalysis. Pilates ends at 7:00 and she’ll be slamming bright blue shots at the Costa Mesa’s Anti Mall by 8:30. The Anti Mall was NOT designed by Victor Gruen or Jon Jerde. It was designed by a guy with a beard who has 3 billion instagram followers. He despises capitalism. He’s appalled by such flagrant, fragrant displays of consumerism. He wants his IPA to be fragrant and his products to look like they fell off a tree. He wants Jon Jerde to get lost, permanently.
The Anti Mall is located across from Camp, another bastion to anti-capitalism. Like Noguchi’s sets for Aaron Copland’s wide open ballets, these are areas for the common man. Jack Johnson took the torch from Aaron Copland. You can hear him singing about banana pancakes out of speakers embedded in bushes and little trees throughout Camp. You can also find an Urban Outfitters, Native Foods, Sushi Bars, Buffalo Exchange, super expensive coffee, an airstream converted into a used record shop, and even a fixed gear bike shop. It all comes naturally.
Noguchi’s garden shows up on most maps as Noguchi Garden. But the true name, its maiden name, is California Scenario. Read it s l o w. Drink it like a blue shot. Now keep it where your tonsils used to be. Gargle it. The branches of the “Forest Walk” gentle giants sway gently, offering reflective glimpses of themselves in the mirrory exteriors of the surrounding banks. The reflections can be loved like the originals. The counterpoint of laughter wafts out of the nearby TGI Friday’s. Sounds of trees and traffic pad the sugary chimes of happy hour.
A mid-60s, ex-hippy nature writer might be bummed on this scenario. He might personify Noguchi’s nine redwoods, saying they seem to sigh under the weight of their task. All the weight of the looming banks and the trafficky air. Ugh. InstagramAntiMallCamp guy, future ex-hippy 2.0, is even more pissed: thoughts dripping upward, eco-friendly, quietly boiling over, thinking, “modernism can suck it…ugh…anyway, I wonder how many followers I have?”
In an interview with the Laguna Beach Art Museum, Segerstrom recalled that Noguchi “wanted little weeds to grow up between the stones as the mortar cracked…because he wanted the garden to return to nature.” 30 years on, not a single weed can be found. Maybe all the weeds are commiserating under the Spirit of the Lima Bean Sculpture, with its 15 pudgy lima bean facades etched out of a million pounds of stone. Maybe the weeds already made a plan. Now they’re busy running the length of the 55 freeway, down toward Fashion Island. They’ll hit the Island full force, sprout lima beanstalks straight up out of the ground and shake the hell out of The World’s Largest Wind Chimes.
Or not. Maybe there are no weeds. But the lack of weeds is no bother. The trees aren’t sad, the banks aren’t smug. In a sense, the garden has already returned to nature, it never went anywhere. There is no return to a pure nature. There is no pure nature. Just pure scenarios: Putting your ear up to a fake nautilus, listening for the spaces between non-existent sounds, knowing that the animal inside was never there. Lack turns into non-lack and unemptiness is easy to locate. All of this, in Orange County? Just north of the Costa Mesa VA Hospital where unproductive soldiers are healing to the therapeutic sounds of Muzak. It’s California Scenario and it’s right there next to TGI Friday’s, across the street from the lima bean farm.
Josh Ottum holds a Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Arts from Ohio University and is currently Professor of Commercial Music at Bakersfield College.
Cover photograph © Fred Moore