I’ve never been one of those people who complains about Times Square. I’m not from the city, so when I would visit as a child and a young adult, New York, to me, was Times Square. I would come here with my grandparents or, eventually, by myself and spend most of my trip going to plays in the theatre district. Now that I’ve lived here for a while, I do avoid Times Square because it’s the most inefficient way to get anywhere, but it will always be a place of nostalgia and wonder for me.
Among this year’s digital offerings in the PROTOTYPE Festival, is the “sonic journey” Times3 (Times x Times x Times) by writer Geoff Sobelle and composer Pamela Z. Times3 looks at this area as a liminal space. What even is Times Square? What was it and what will it be? In a thirty minute experience that veers from podcast-like narration to experimental vocalization, Times3 explores the sounds of Times Square, aboveground and below.
One of the more striking segments comes when Pamela Z, functioning as the narrator, asks “What do you hear?” to a variety of people in the Square. Some say things like cars and birds, but, unsurprisingly, the vast majority say “people.” The soundtrack layers these responses one on top of the other until they culminate with someone saying “very few people” and then the voices decrescendo as the desertion of Times Square during the pandemic comes around. It is an effective way of evoking the passage of time without explicitly mentioning coronavirus.
Times3 takes the word “time” as its jumping-off point. The New York Times, for which the square is named, is not a focus. There are moments where the soundtrack is dominated by someone saying “tick” over and over again, which is a bit too obvious. It’s more successful when the speakers talk about what Times Square was like before it became what it is today. It was the land of the Lenape people, taken from them by the Dutch. “So much of the wealth of the city,” one speaker says, “is built on stolen land.”
There is talk of the verdant hills that were flattened to create Manhattan’s grid and the four streams that converged around the location of 45th Street that can still be seen, but only when it rains. The narrator encourages us to listen for the water underground, now powered not by the runoff from mountains, but from the eight hundred electric pumps that control the city’s water supply. The surface of Times Square is only the beginning; the ground we stand on is the top layer of a long history. Times3 is not so concerned with the middle years of the square, but it draws a powerful line between its origins and its current state: the quiet we hear now is akin to the quiet when it was an undeveloped patch of earth.
Similar to how it ignores the namesake newspaper, Times3 is also mostly uninterested in what people call the “Disneyfication” of Times Square, but does address it in a roundabout way. In looking over the square, one of the voices asks, “What was designed here?” and Z’s score picks up the natural musicality of his cadence, echoing and supporting the statement. This five-note theme, one for every syllable of his question, becomes the piece’s anthem. There are some bleachers, one of the voices says, and some benches. There’s no design, only profit. The music here takes on a different texture than the rest of the piece, amplifying its message.
Times Square is the convergence of a lot of things: train lines, commerce, tourism, history. It’s congested and gross and bright at all hours of the day, but there’s something romantic about that. Times3 gazes at this no-man’s-land with affection, but a tinge of sadness. When we’re all vaccinated and free again, maybe we’ll appreciate it a little bit more…for a few days, at least.