Tag: installation

Bonnie Jones: The Sounds of Not Belonging

Bonnie Jones

If you are attending an event in Baltimore that includes improvised electronic music, experimental theater, or multimedia installation, the chances are good that you will cross paths with sound artist and poet Bonnie Jones. She is arguably one of the most active and engaged members of the Baltimore art community, and rightly so—she gets things done, and has been doing just that for the past 20 years. Whether she is curating shows at The Red Room, helping organize the annual High Zero Festival, performing a set of her own improvised, noise-based music at the H&H Building, or teaching young girls to build contact mics from scratch through her organization Techne, she is actively bringing art to life, and at the same time feeding her own creative practice. Jones considers creation, performance, curation, and community service all as crucial facets of her artistic persona.

Jones’s music, which fuses electronic noise and text, emerges in large part from the sounds of her childhood, growing up on a dairy farm in New Jersey. She explains, “I grew up in a rural, very quiet, sound space that was punctuated by atypical sounds, which is to say machinery. Like a lot of machinery. The sounds that I remember as a kid were the buzzing of the low flying crop-dusting helicopters that came through. Airplanes overhead. Lawnmowers—big ones, not suburban ones, but huge tractor-like mowers. All kinds of other mechanical sorts of sounds…and the sounds of animals mixed with that.”

Those sounds made an impression, but Jones’s first artistic interest was in creative writing. She studied English Literature and poetry in college, and upon moving to Baltimore after graduation, she became immersed in Baltimore’s experimental poetry community. Her interest in the performance aspect of poetry led naturally to improvised music-making, and soon she was experimenting with combinations of language and sound in live performance contexts.

“When you are writing, or when you have a piece of text, you can talk about the past. And you can take a person to the past in language. It’s not quite as easy to do that musically. It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

“It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.”

It was while she was living and studying in South Korea on a Fulbright grant that Jones discovered the sonic materials that fit her artistic voice; electronic music pedals that could bend and twist sounds into nearly any form possible. She says, “When I went to Korea, and I was first introduced to these electronic music pedals, the moment that the sound came out of those, I was immediately like: This is the sound. These are the instruments. This is the sound space that I’ve been interested in intuitively but hadn’t really found the instrument for… These are the sounds that nobody wants.”

As it turns out, the sounds are indeed wanted, as she has increasingly been receiving grants and commissions to create new work. Her recent installation, 1,500 Red-Crowned Cranes, funded in part by a Rubys Artist Project Grant from the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, incorporates text, sound, and objects to create, “a layered, intricate, installation work about bodies in migration, the consequences of borders and boundaries, and the imaginative potential of in-between spaces.” This work marks the beginning of an artistic shift for Jones, from improvised performance to the more fixed, less ephemeral experiences that installation work can provide. She says that her focus will still be on sound but will emphasize different ways to experience the work in real-time, such as moving sound through space, or the effect that objects have on the transmission of sound.

While Jones’ work takes many forms, the thread through it all hinges on creating visceral experiences that can lead to an increased understanding of the materials and subjects at hand. In this interview, she discusses the benefits and challenges of combining sound and text in improvisatory settings, her personal development as an artist, and about elevating the art scene in one’s community through participation and service.

  • I spent a lot of time sleeping in a camper, falling asleep to old-time or Appalachian music.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • It’s hard to use sound to move people through time. Even though it’s a time-based medium, you can move people through the present time, but it’s not the same as moving a person through historical or subjective time.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • I’m gonna work with the sounds that nobody wants

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • I have like completely combined my organizing, curatorial, and community service aspects of my practice into one thing. I don’t make any divisions anymore—all the parts are my practice.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • Sound vibrates in every material; it’s an impenetrable phenomenon.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • Not having any money doesn’t mean your parents pay for some things, or your partner pays for some things—in those cases you don’t have a lot of money, but you have a lot of safety net. Not having any money means you just don’t have any money. What you make is what you have to work with.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • I don’t think I’m going to refashion myself as a visual artist at this point. It’s just not something that I can do. I’m a musician for sure.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones
  • Certain individuals and their personal subjective realities haven’t actually been seen in art, or in art history.

    Bonnie Jones
    Bonnie Jones

Sound, Architecture II: Fog, Ruins, and Ellington

My last post, “Sound, Architecture, and Necromancy,” shared thoughts about recording at ancient sites in Greece and Italy. This post examines the development of Lavender Ruins, a four-channel sound composition created in collaboration with artist Fujiko Nakaya and experimental lighting designer Shiro Takatani. (Lavender Ruins plays simulatneously with Nakaya’s fog sculpture Fog x Ruins at Franklin Park, Boston, through October 2018.)

In celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, curator Jen Mergel commissioned Nakaya to create five site-responsive fog sculptures to be installed along Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a five-and-a-half-mile chain of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (FLO). Experiencing the sculptures is immersive and wet. Changes in the wind, humidity, temperature, and light transform the sculptures. Speaking of her work, Nakaya says, “The atmosphere is my mold and the wind is my chisel to sculpt in real time.” The exhibition, titled Fog x FLO: Fujiko Nakaya on the Emerald Necklace turns the 1,100-acre Emerald Necklace park system into a platform for artistic creation, celebrating both Olmsted’s foresight to connect the city with greenspace and Nakaya’s fifty-year practice. The exhibit included an open call for artists to propose on-site interventions, in response to Nakaya’s sculptures. Fog x FLO is a first for Boston and Nakaya’s most expansive exhibition in her 50-year career. It is expected to attract more than 800,000 visitors over twelve weeks.

I experienced Nakaya’s work before we ever met. In 2014, I wrote about the futuristic Pepsi Pavilion which was covered by a fog veil of Nakaya’s design and created by the group Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) for Expo ’70, Osaka. In 2017, I saw Nakaya’s mesmerizing performance collaboration with Shiro Takatani, composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and dancer Min Tanaka at Ten Days Six Nights at the Tate Modern. Nakaya also saw my performance with Phill Niblock the following day at the same festival. On the eve of her arrival in Boston from Tokyo in February 2018, Nakaya came to my concert at the ICA Boston called “Sounding the Cloud,” with Scanner and Stephen Vitiello. By April, when Nakaya again visited me, we already had a clear understanding of each other’s practice. She invited me to create sound for her Fog x FLO fog sculpture at the Overlook Shelter Ruins, a pavilion designed by Olmsted that was destroyed by fire in the 1940s, leaving only the stone remains.

Overlook Shelter stone steps

For me, the Overlook Shelter Ruins are the Necklace’s most evocative site for an installation. The remaining stone archway feels like a timeless relic. Three stairways that once flanked the building’s entrance now lead to open sky. The corner walls are overgrown with wild foliage. An added allure is that, beginning in 1966, the ruins were used by famed Bostonian Elma Lewis to host annual concerts by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. I imagined the sound of Ellington’s reed section lingering in the air. Lead alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges and baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, both born within miles of the ruins, probably played with Ellington on-site. I’ve spent countless hours in Franklin Park and the nearby Arnold Arboretum. These are parks where I fell in love, taught my son to bike, and still visit to replenish myself. The commission became an opportunity to revisit the personal importance of Olmsted, Ellington, and E.A.T.

Nozzle array

The size of this installation, production logistics, and changing weather presented a number of challenges and opportunities. For Fog x Ruins, Nakaya designed a 96 x 40-foot rectangular structure comprising scaffolding and an array of 900 mist nozzles perched atop the perimeter. A nearby fire hydrant emits a 90-PSI stream of water, regulated by computer-controlled pumps, to produce cycles of fog that intensify for a minute or two and then stop entirely, allowing for the fog to dissipate. When visitors walk into this pavilion, they see their friends disappear in the mist, strangers emerge, a ceiling of fog above obscures the sky. Takatani’s lighting design gives the sculpture a spectacular presence as night falls.

Creating sound for a large outdoor installation has been a dream of mine for years. This installation was a challenge because there were a lot of unknowns, including elements that could not be tested until the sculpture was finished and I could hear my audio on location with the fog. I also knew that the timing of fog and light projections were subject to change, even after I finished the music.

As composing started, I sought to link Ellington and Nakaya’s work. I listened to related themes by Ellington, including Lady of the Lavender Mist, The Kissing Mist, Atmosphere (Moon Mist), A Blue Fog That You Can Almost See Through (Transblucency), and The Fog That Clouds It (Schwiphti). I chose the first three ethereal chords of Lady of the Lavender Mist as a point of departure for writing the music.

The Tank, a 65-foot-tall empty metal water treatment tank in Langley, Colorado

For this project, I booked a five-day recording session at the Tank, a 65-foot-tall empty metal water treatment tank in Langley, Colorado. The Tank has a convex floor, concave roof, cylindrical walls, and a 40-second reverb. A container just outside the Tank is outfitted with recording gear. The size of the Tank expands and contracts based on temperature changes. Heat, windstorms, howling dogs, and the noise of trucks dictated when I could record. However, when conditions were right, I heard saxophone notes linger in the cavernous space above like a cloud of sound, with specific harmonics coming in and out of focus. The room responds like an old band mate who knows your music well and plays your performance back in harmonic variations.

Engineer Bob E. Burnham came on the final day and set up four stereo pairs of microphones surrounding the saxophone. We multi-tracked both alto and tenor parts to get more of an ensemble sound. I thought of the audio recording process as something like a four-camera shoot. The four mics could be used to construct a 360-degree panoramic sound field, or used individually to highlight specific angles of listening. My thinking was to create a quadraphonic piece surrounding listeners inside the fog, where the alto saxophone played from one end of the sculpture and tenor played from the opposite side. Much of the actual sound of the saxophone would be edited out, and the resonant harmonies of multiple notes lingering in the Tank would be emphasized.

In the end, I composed a fifteen-minute quadraphonic piece to play at the Overlook Shelter Ruins. I used waterproof JBL speaker arrays placed in the four corners of the structure. There are no electronic effects on the saxophone and, as visitors wander freely inside the structure, there is no “best” listening point. In that way, the listening space is designed after my experience in the Tank.

At our first sound check, presenting the draft with pride, Nakaya responded, “It is so serene. Should I make the fog more serene?” At first, I admittedly took this to be her way of saying, “Not turbulent enough.” During the same auditions, Mergel pointed to the perimeter of the scaffolding where nozzles cut a line of fog upward and wondered if the sound could reflect the contrast of solid architectural shapes and soft ethereal droplets. Listening to Nakaya and Mergel, I added vignettes of impulsive computer-regulated clicking and noise bursts that gave a sense of turbulence, which Mergel equated with “an Arctic icebreaker cutting through.” In the end, Nakaya requested that the sound be extended from the originally planned sunset hours and be heard for the entire day as an “integral part” of the collaborative work. It also turned out that the music was not subordinate to the fog. As Nakaya noted, when the cloud is thickest, “the sound gives a form to the installation.”

Despite having done a number of outdoor projects, this was my first opportunity to create sound for a long-duration, outdoor piece in a widely accessible urban site. As much as any work I have been involved with, the audience is in dialog with the art. Some visitors return daily, while others make a single pilgrimage to the site. I hear them talk about their experience amongst themselves. As Mergel has noticed, “While Nakaya’s fog is set at the former roofline of the building to float like a cloud dome that fills the space, Leonard’s clarion sax sounds in Lavender Ruins reverberate on invisible walls, surrounding us with echoing generations of genius: of Olmsted, Ellington, Nakaya, and Leonard, the past and future fading into each other.”

Fujiko Nakaya and Neil Leonard

Fujiko Nakaya and Neil Leonard at the opening
Photo by Jen Mergel

Quotes are from an email exchange with the curator on Oct 7, 2018

New England’s Prospect: Beyond the Sea

Lining out Matthew Ritchie's Monstrance/Remonstrance, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

Lining out Matthew Ritchie’s Monstrance/Remonstrance, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

Introducing his collaborative piece Monstrance/Remonstrance at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on March 28, Matthew Ritchie—currently in the midst of an 18-month stint as the ICA’s artist-in-residence—gave a whirlwind, 30-second history of the philosophical object. His endpoint was deliberately unfathomable: the object-oriented ontology of Graham Harman. In Harman’s view, the ingrained philosophical habit of considering objects only inasmuch as they are used or encountered by human consciousness is forever incomplete: in addition to perceived and idealized objects, there are real objects, with their own ontology, existing whether we sense them or not. “[The] real world,” Harman writes, “is made up of individual objects that are withdrawn from all theoretical, practical, and even causal access.”
Harman’s philosophy isn’t much concerned with aesthetics, but one can see why an artist might love it. It’s full of sentences

 The interplay of dust and cinder blocks and shafts of sunlight is haunted by the drama of presence and withdrawal no less than are language or lurid human moods

—that could easily double as mission statements for any number of post-modern conceptual art installations. If you were looking for them, you could see Harman’s real objects as a recurring feature of Monstrance/Remonstrance. They also were, in the end, something else: an alibi.

***

See and hear: music was an integral part of the piece. Ritchie had recruited an impressive group of collaborators, drawing heavily from what might be called the Parenthetical Parallel Résumé wing of the new music establishment: vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), guitarist Bryce Dessner (The National), clarinetist Evan Ziporyn (ex-Bang on a Can All-Star), sound designer David Sheppard (Sound Intermedia). The performance started in the ICA lobby, site of the ICA’s art wall, turned over to chosen artists on a regular basis for large-scale murals. Ritchie’s mural sprawls across the wall and into the adjacent glass facade. The imagery—spiraling lines, jagged, vectorized tendrils, vaguely organic circles—is congruent with his mural, Remanence: Salt and Light, currently covering a large wall in nearby Dewey Square (itself, not so long ago, the site of Occupy Boston); the mural recycles elements from Ritchie’s painting The Salt Pit, on display elsewhere in the ICA. Ritchie further echoed the imagery in the foam pads scattered across the floor in place of traditional seating.

David Sheppard (center) under the art wall, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

David Sheppard (center) under the art wall, ICA/Boston, March 28, 2014.

The music for this portion was Propolis, devised by Dessner, Ziporyn, and Sheppard, first performed in 2008 as part of The Morning Line, a Ritchie installation in Seville, Spain. It is a framework for improvisation, though this performance had documentary specificity, being filmed and recorded for subsequent incorporation into the space, via playback and smartphone-accessible video. It started with Dessner and bassist Blake Newman slowly layering over a mulching electronic background, with Sheppard hovering nearby, manipulating the sound from a tablet computer. Then violinist Shaw Pong Liu began to weave through the crowd, soon joined by trombonist Randy Pingray, and then Ziporyn. Everybody was amplified; the conversation—or, maybe, competition—between local and global perception was constant.

The piece itself fell into four large sections: an opening in which the overlay of electronic noise predominated; an industrial breakdown (the “three minutes of excruciating pain” Ritchie warned the audience about, though it was actually pretty inviting in its head-banging way—a chunky, asymmetrical stretch of metallic thrashing); collective commentary over a pleasantly bumpy bass clarinet loop; and then a long coda settling into rich, Ligeti-like clusters. The improvisation had a tendency to default to a particular style—bursts of extended-technique scribbling over minimalist grooves—a little of which, for me at least, goes a long way. But the slower sections, where the players had an expanse of resonance to play into, built up into shimmering walls of sound.
The physical interaction between the players was minimal, ending in an apt tableau in which Pingray, Ziporyn, and Liu faced the wall, away from the audience and each other, while continuing to play. (Dessner had already left the space by this point.) The performance seemed to occupy the interstice between a group improvisation and five people improvising. Maybe you could call it a symbol of the gap between the perceived object and the real object.

***

Monstrance/Remonstrance then moved out of the museum, along the pier, and across the street, to the Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel, for the second part of the piece: a screening of Ritchie’s film Remonstrance, to the live accompaniment of Dessner’s To the Sea. This, too, was a revival, having been premiered at the short-lived L&M Arts gallery in Los Angeles (though, like all of Ritchie’s works, it’s been continually tweaked and altered). Remonstrance was already playing as the audience was herded into the chapel. The film mixes sea imagery, computer animation, and allegorical ideas, all filtered through a sepia-toned, painterly filter of video processing. A drone flies over a beach; we see the pilings of a pier and a decaying bridge. (Harman: “The reality of the bridge is not to be found in its amalgam of asphalt and cable, but in the geographic fact of ‘traversable gorge.’ The bridge is a bridge-effect; the tool is a force that generates a world, one in which the canyon is no longer an obstacle.”) The whole is invaded by protozoa-like spheres, again recapitulating visual elements from painting and mural.

Worden and her on-film doppelgänger then made their entrances. (The film incorporates footage from an earlier, 2011 version of the piece, which included an installation/performance component that took place on Venice Beach.) In the chapel, Worden processed up the aisle with a model boat—a carvel-built, 17th-century English-style vessel, by the looks of it, appropriate for a pilgrimage—while on-screen Worden summoned seaweed-clad golems from the Pacific. Her costume made, perhaps, Harman-esque commentary: geometric patterns that evoked both fishnets and the harmony of the spheres, a carapace-like mask made of interlocking iterations of those jagged tendrils.

She was singing all the while, long, keening lines buoyed by Dessner and three trombones (Pingrey, Ian Maser, and Christopher Moore) and organ (Elaine Rombola) and Ziporyn, who turned up at the end. Perhaps this is reading too much into Dessner’s instrument of choice, but To the Sea seemed to derive its sound-world from a paradigm of guitar feedback: overtones and layers of pitch and noise built up into a shiny, grainy harmonic edifice. The basic progression was simple—a grim, lush circle of minor chords—but the musical surface (once again amplified and processed) was rich with constantly shifting texture. (One casualty of that texture was the text: Worden’s crystalline tone soared, but the actual words were largely a wash.) At the climax, Dessner veered into some marvelous big, dissonant, Messiaen-like chords: wide-angle, saturated luminosity.

***

I was kind of half-waiting for all of the disparate parts of Monstrance/Remonstrance to click into place, to come together in some summation, but they never do. Ideas mill around the same conceptual space, images are mirrored and echoed. It’s a series of partial glimpses of some theoretical, larger whole. I’m sure that’s intentional, but it kept running up against the notion that the piece was site-specific; the sites were more specific than the piece was, which sometimes made for an odd imbalance. It also brought to the fore how music is automatically site-specific in a way that visual arts have to work at.

Our Lady of Good Voyage, for example, is a utilitarian box of a building; apart from a couple of statues, some stained glass, and appropriately uncomfortable pews, there is not much in the architecture to suggest religious transcendence or mystery. Which is, one could say, part of the ontology of the place, a chapel for working sailors and fishermen whose required divine grace is of an unapologetically practical form: safety, security, survival. The way Remonstrance evoked the elemental nature of the sea, by way of mythology, was a little bit dissonant with such a practical place. I kept thinking of that most powerful of New England seafaring myths—Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—and how its literary summoning of the sea’s power is inseparable from its exhaustive, anthropological detailing of the rituals and rules of shipboard life and the equipment and techniques of 19th-century whaling.
Of course, this was where the invocation of Harman’s real objects could answer any such quibbles. The performance’s disconnection from the place could, after all, reflect our inherent disconnection from the world of objects. The seeming jumble of images and ideas could, possibly, be taken as a shadow of a web of meaning beyond our perception. But Melville is dealing with real objects, too—he’s just doing it by describing, cataloging, narrating as much as he can, up to the limits of language, and in the process making you realize that it’s still not enough.

In press materials for the show, the ICA proposed that “the performance connects Boston’s seafaring history with its new identity as a hub of technology and innovation.” I could see a few connections in retrospect—that drone flying around at the beginning of Remonstrance, for instance—but, then again, you can see those connections just by walking around the neighborhood: building and development is going on all around the ICA. (Our Lady of Good Voyage, situated on prime real estate, is about to be moved.) Would I have been primed to think about those connections without the experience of Monstrance/Remonstrance? Probably not—in that sense, Ritchie’s project was a success. But I wonder if the connections would have been more immediate, more powerful, if it had been just the music—if we had heard the snaggy machinery of Propolis with only the view of the girders and excavators in the ICA’s parking lot, if we had heard the deep currents of To the Sea with the chapel as the main visual component, rather than just a box to be filled.

But what does it matter what I wonder? According to object-oriented ontology, none of it, not the sea, not the buildings, not the bulldozers, not the instruments or the loudspeakers, not the paintings and sculptures and rolls of film, not even my eyes and ears, none of it needs my consciousness in order to have presence and withdrawal and biographies and philosophical actuality. Maybe that’s the ultimate point of Ritchie’s work, that art, or anything we make or do, turns to music, essentially, as soon as its made or done: in the world, apart from us, beyond our sway or even comprehension. What is art? In multiple senses: it’s out of our hands.

Paula Matthusen: Attention to Light


The work of composer Paula Matthusen draws attention to the way sound and space interact with one another. Her use of light within performance settings plays an important role in focusing the audience’s listening experience, and in creating a sense of space. Whether a composition is realized as an electronic installation or written out in a score for performance by other musicians, the physicality of whatever sounds may be involved—and specifically how they behave within a given context—are always important considerations.

Matthusen’s installation works often involve hand-built electronics in addition to extensive computer programming; she says that she enjoys the sort of “inefficiency” and “Pandora’s box” nature of the results. She likens soldering to knitting, explaining, “I like the repetition of it. I like the heat. I like the smell. It’s fun to see something physical come to life like that.” Her instrumental works, which are specially tailored to the personalities and abilities of the performers for whom they are written, also have a handmade aspect to them.

For portable, eight performers walk around a darkened space wielding flashlights as well as vintage suitcases fitted with radio receivers and transmitters that produce sound based on the location of the performers relative to one another. In nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht nacht, three performers crank away at music boxes while four others strike matches, offering glimpses of the unfurling paper rolls and providing counterpoint to the fragile music box tones.

Given Matthusen’s aesthetic inclinations, she’s the ideal person to teach composition through an experiential approach involving listening, creation, and performance. The Experimental Music class at Wesleyan University (where she is an assistant professor of music) is the very same course that Alvin Lucier taught for over 40 years. (No pressure!) Matthusen actually considers Lucier to be one of her musical heroes. Her 2012 composition for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the ontology of an echo, features field recordings from inside the Old Croton Aqueduct that were created by re-capturing recordings of the performers in a manner consistent with Lucier’s I am sitting in a room.

Flying in the face of what she calls the “cultural fantasy” of synchronization, the sense of pulse in Matthusen’s music is often irregular and broken. Events line up (or don’t) based on organic structures that are set rolling and allowed to run their course. By stepping aside and allowing the music to unfold naturally, she finds satisfaction in the resulting creative discoveries. “It’s a matter of being open to something that is completely surprising,” she explains, “but then also being aware enough to be able to appreciate when it actually happens.” By reveling in the small details and rough edges of her musical landscapes, she creates musical environments that heighten perceptions of the ephemeral nature of sound, and ensures that surprises can be found at practically every turn.

CLOTS at the Museum of Human Achievement in Austin

Though clouded in some locational mystery, I finally found myself in the Museum of Human Achievement (mentioned previously here) thanks to composer and percussionist Nick Hennies’s latest project CLOTS. The museum keeps a bit of a low profile, but I can tell you that it’s in a warehouse on the east side of Austin. Finding your way there is apparently enough of a check of your bona fides that, once you arrive for a show, you are given the option of becoming a museum member. If you choose to join, you can select from a few dozen handmade membership cards which are then further customized with your name, the day’s date, and your member number. Given that areas like the once fun, funky, and occasionally unpredictable south Lamar are now populated by row upon row of condos, it’s really nice to find a place that is the antithesis of the “Times Square Disneyfication” that is creeping through town.

Nick Hennies performs CLOTS

Nick Hennies performs in CLOTS

CLOTS, created over a four-year period in collaboration with electro-acoustic musician/visual artist Sean O’Neill and designer/UT lecturer Clay Odom, was conceived as a “large scale interdisciplinary work that parasitically engages and encompasses the entire space of the venue.” The work was presented at the MHA as part of a week-long series of shows curated by Hennies and bookended by the CLOTS performances. Hennies et al. hoped to create a museum-like environment in which the audience members could move through the space and spend whatever amount of time they liked experiencing the art.

I attended the final performance of the week and, arriving a bit early, had a few minutes to survey the venue. Situated throughout the space were colonies of overhead projectors, some with their lamps pointed up to shine through thick translucent plastic sheeting, others projecting images onto the plastic. The sheeting was attached by guy-lines to the ceiling on the left side of the room, then fell across the floor of the stage, and rose again at a forty-five-degree angle on the right side of the stage, climbing over the entrance and terminating at the ceiling. Underneath and to the right of the rising plastic near the entrance was the first projector colony and to the left was an area featuring a lone kick drum tented by another hanging sheet. There was room for the audience to maneuver fully around all the created spaces.
CLOTS preshow
The Projector Colonies
The audio didn’t start with a downbeat as much as it sort of rumbled awake. A drone peppered with metallic filigree whirled around via several speakers situated throughout the space, and after a few minutes Hennies made his way to a vibraphone located in the middle of the stage. A small projector next to the vibes was rigged with a camera pointed into its light source. This image was then projected onto another sheet behind Hennies as he performed. Hanging from a frame above the vibes were several “chimes” built by Travis Weller. Looking every bit like giant metal clothespins, each chime roughly corresponded to a bar on the vibes and had a contact microphone attached to it. Hennies began to play a short, syncopated, repeating figure which only lasted about five seconds, and as the mallets moved from the equally tempered vibes to the differently tempered chimes, wonderfully rich combination tones resulted. I say “differently tempered” as I don’t know what system Weller used, but those guys were separated by just enough cents to make things nice and wobbly. As this figure was performed, people circulated through the space while others set up camp on the chairs and benches. For twenty minutes at a time (the amount of time one is instructed to perform transcendental meditation) Hennies would play the figure. When this time elapsed, he would move to the bass drum, take two beaters, and perform a long quiet roll while sitting cross-legged behind the drum, his head inclined and nearly touching the drum head. This sound was felt more than heard, and after several minutes Hennies would return to the vibes to begin the cycle again, all the while accompanied by the visual and aural electronics surrounding him.


While the various curtains of plastic, lights, and projectors served to frame the space and direct attention, the seating arrangement also played a significant role. Putting a few benches in front of the performer might have been intended as a waypoint for weary travelers, but in the context of a performance they were a magnet (maybe this is where they “clot”?) and focal point, or at least a place to view the focal point. The point is that people who might have had a more circulatory experience ended up planting themselves for large chunks of time and watching Hennies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in speaking with patrons who had been to the opening CLOTS performance, a few commented that some modest changes in the show (including chair placement) had a significant impact on their experience. No one said it was better or worse, but it was interesting to hear that something as simple as seating design could have such an effect.

Despite the invitation provided by the benches, the most compelling element of the show was the degree to which the audience could choose their own experience. While there is a difference between sitting in the tenth row at an orchestra concert and hanging out with the grad students in the third balcony, the performance is still essentially the same. However, a trip to a museum can be different things to different people. You might walk through the whole place or spend an hour fixated on a single work, and these two possibilities played out among the audience members throughout the CLOTS show. And whether they sat, stood, or strolled, all participants experienced a show that, like its venue, was an example of what makes Austin a great place to see new art.

CLOTS was come one, come all

CLOTS was come one, come all

Sound Room: The Humans and the Machines

SOUND ROOM

The basement of the SOUND ROOM installation is where the bass frequencies live. Down here, at the bottom of a three-floor brick building on an industrial side street in Chicago, there is almost no light. As you walk through the dark space, you can begin to make out the shapes of hulking speakers, some large enough to lie down on. If you stay in the basement during a surge of bass and volume–like the one during Mike Gillilan’s electronic work Tonar—you’ll swear that the sound is coming from the giant wooden beams in the ceiling, roaring out from the walls. If you sit on the cold cement floor and close your eyes, it is as if you are inside an enormous subwoofer.

As you leave the basement and head for the stairwell, you’ll feel a blast of cold air. The heavy metal door is slightly open to the fall night. But this cold zone of SOUND ROOM is also its most resonant spot: tall, narrow, and enclosed, it’s where the bass frequencies downstairs meet the dynamic sounds happening above them.

Upstairs is where most of the human beings can be found. The composers, the improvisers, and most of the audience are here. Upstairs, the sounds move quickly, like tiny creatures on light feet. This is where, during Kyle Vegter’s Interiors 2: The Actions, we feel surrounded by an enchanting, energetic cacophony of bells. This is where, during Daniel Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, simple intervals played on a piano seem to collide with each other in mid-air and break into gorgeous fragments. And it is where Ryan Ingebritsen, holding an optical theremin, makes music with the air around him by leaping, diving, and dancing.

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SOUND ROOM was an evening-length performance of electronic music hosted by High Concept Laboratories, an arts service organization which incubates some of the most forward-thinking art in the city. The show was a collaboration between composers Ryan Ingebritsen, Kyle Vegter, and Daniel Dehaan–multifaceted artists and sound designers who, while very different stylistically, share deep roots in electronic music. Vegter studied composition at the University of Florida, where electronic music is strongly emphasized; Ingebritsen was responsible for, among other things, calibrating several of Steve Reich’s early tape pieces for the massive sound system of Millennium Park; Dehaan teaches electronic music at Columbia College’s Digital Music Lab. Together, they created and installed a complex, multi-channel speaker system throughout HCL’s three-story building. They also created custom designed software that makes SOUND ROOM a uniquely responsive performance environment, “a three-dimensional sound spatialization system, specifically tuned to the acoustic nuances of the High Concept Laboratories space.”

SOUND ROOM

For the culmination of their fall residency at High Concept Labs, the composers programmed an evening of their own work, as well as electronic pieces by composers Mike Gillilan and Claire Tolan. Ingebritsen’s three works were all improvisations, including one in which improvisers James Falzone, Jenna Lyle, Glenn Rischke, and Ingebritsen himself interacted with the system to create restrained, timbrally fascinating textures. Dehaan’s forty-minute Speaker Symphony No. 1 was a fully electronic work, performed by the composer at an Ableton controller. Vegter’s works did a bit of both: his delicate, spare Interiors 1: Bingo Yen was fully electronic while Interiors 2: The Actions, included a live element, with haunting vocal work from Maren Celest.

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Because the programming for SOUND ROOM was so innovative and diverse, and because I’m not fluent in the electronic music idiom, it is a struggle to write about the fascinating and often deeply moving concert experience that was SOUND ROOM.

As I walked around the space, examining the music from different vantage points, the experience reminded me of John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit in Millennium Park. The difference, of course, was that I was not strolling around listening to individual musicians as they struck their triangle or wood block. Instead, I was paying visits to electronic things: a big black speaker, a small white one, a stray wire tucked under the leg of a chair.

The speakers may not be alive, but as 21st-century listeners, we know their capabilities intimately. These are the sounds of our lives; the sounds of great pop, the essence of great film soundtracks, and the obliterating foundation of a great live rock show. As clueless as we may be about the computers, software, and hardware that bring the sounds to life, once we hear them, we find that they are familiar creatures. These booming bass frequencies and the jangling electronic bells are our friends, our family. Speakers are, in a way, the ultimate vessel for realizing a composer’s precise vision. They are (comparatively) predictable, they do not get tired, they do not resist certain tasks.

Is it obvious why I’m trying to give human characteristics to amplifiers and cables? It’s because I’m a performer, and in electronic music, the absence of a clear performer can be disconcerting. A performance of composed electronic works is not like a string quartet performance, in which the music plays itself out on the musicians’ bodies and faces like a story, and in which you can relate each sound you hear to a physical movement by a human being. Instead, the makers of electronic music are more like Oz behind the curtain, their faces illuminated a little by a laptop screen, the tiniest movement of their hands producing a sea change in a massive wall of sound. If there’s anything that my experience at SOUND ROOM showed me, it’s that electronic music is not about what is seen, but what is heard. And even more so, what is felt.

In the work that closed the program, Dehaan’s Speaker Symphony No. 1, there was a great deal to feel. For me, the emotional center of the piece came in the second movement, in which a fragment of dialogue played over and over. “Are you the poet?” a stern headmaster voice demanded in a British accent. “I shan’t tell you,” a small boy’s voice replied. “Are you the poet?” he repeated. “I shan’t tell you,” the soft voice came again.

Here, power appeared to be in dialogue with powerlessness. As my heart gravitated towards the voice of the child, I remembered the delicate and gorgeous piano samples that had dominated the first movement. My memory now registered them as the improvisations, or perhaps the musical dreams, of an intelligent and lonely child. As the third movement approached, with the frightening sounds of hail thrown onto a tin roof and a steadily growing roar that threatened to obliterate us all, I felt I was listening to the sound of pure power–human and inhuman.

SOUND ROOM

The author and her husband consider the music.

The piece, in other words, immersed me in a human story, told through deeply expressive musical gestures and the subtle power of psychological suggestion. It’s quite likely that the composer’s psychological narrative of the piece is different from my own. But as with any great symphony, the epic scale and emotional depth means that the hero is no longer the composer. The hero—as Alex Ross put it in Listen to This—is you.

As I listened, I occasionally caught glimpses of Dehaan, his gaze fixed intently on the screen, his hands touching small square buttons as they lit up. These were the only human hands shaping the sound. When the piece was over, and the last electronic gasp faded, I found myself staring at the speaker closest to me. It was on the floor: an unremarkable black rectangle. It emitted a distinct buzz. I stared at it in a kind of disbelief that I can’t wait to feel again.

**All photos by Daniel Dehaan