This month, thanks to the Branch Library Improvement Program, the North Beach library gets yet another upgrade—it will be home to world-renowned sound artist Bill Fontana’s newest project, Sonic Dreamscape—a compilation of the sounds that make North Beach sound so, well, North Beach-y. We grilled him about the project.
San Francisco: What makes this project different from your other work?
Bill Fontana: I happen to be a resident of North Beach. The library is a five-minute walk from where I live.
What is it, exactly?
It’s an immersive channel sound piece. I recorded sounds in Chinatown and all over North Beach. Some recordings go back to 1979, but many are recent as well.
So what are the sounds of North Beach?
Chinatown markets, cafés, a lot of music from the Green Street marching band, fragments of parades on Columbus Avenue, sea lions, foghorns, birds, kids in playgrounds, and, of course, the parrots of Telegraph Hill.
How do you go about recording people without their knowledge?
I have become a master at clandestine recording. I clip a high-quality lavalier microphone that feeds into a small digital recorder onto my eyeglasses. Then I put on noise-canceling headphones, so it looks like I’m just listening to music, but really I’m listening to what’s out there in high definition.
What are you most proud of about your North Beach project?
For the rest of my life, it will be there. As my kids grow up and come back to North Beach, it will always be a part of that neighborhood.
Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco