Over the last few months I've experienced three
very different assemblages which combined objects,
constructions, sculpture in the broadest sense,
with sound. All of them were impressive in very
different ways. Just to keep things in order, I'll
start with the most recent and go back in time.
Sequence of Waves at St. Cecelia's Convent
This room contained a set of automated instruments,
while a video image was projected on the wall
to the right.
is the patron saint of music, and also
the patron saint of a large Roman Catholic church,
school, auditorium and so forth in Greenpoint, or
rather where Greenpoint begins to become Williamsburg.
It used to be as well the name of a convent, but
apparently convents are no longer popular, and the
church, which continues in vigorous existence, has
allowed the building to be put to various other uses.
One of these was a astonishing one-day
mixed-media event in which sculptural
design and sound, musical and not
so musical, played the predominant
roles, put together by a person or
persons whose nom de guerre
is Rabid Hands. (I won't 'throw that
into the ditch of what it means'!)
A handmade analog sequencer. As the center
pole rotates, various circuits are completed,
driving a series of other devices.
The convent building is rather small, with small
rooms; 'nuns fret not at their narrow convent room'
was, I guess, the design principle. One might say
the building is the antithesis of our favorite
contemporary art spaces, large, empty, glossy
factory lofts and garages with large glass windows
and expensively suited attendants. This building was
jammed with an indescribable variety of 'instruments',
some of which spanned more than one room (and one
climbed the staircase) while others were small,
even tiny. Almost all of them made sounds of one
kind or another, some for the human ear, and at
least one other for a house radio station, which
collected sounds and rebroadcast them into the house.
There were also intermittent performances by human
beings and, in one case, some rather large rocks
in a cage. All of the sounds mixed in with one
another in the small space of the convent, but the
visitor was not overwhelmed with a uniform cacophany;
rather, one kept getting a different variety of sonic
threads and textures as one moved around. In effect,
each member of the audience was inside the
instrument they were listening to and a participant
in playing it.
This combination of fans and ribbons made
a large, soft, windy noise as well as creating
a striking display of fluttering light.
The convent's largest room was a small chapel.
This space hosted the 'Gamelatron', a robot
gamelan orchestra built and operated by Zemi17
(Aaron Taylor Kuffner). The operation of this
assemblage was not entirely random as were some
of the other devices; rather, different sections of
it were fed by midi sequencers, so that the train of
sounds produced by it were an interwoven mixture of
fairly coherent melodic sequences (or so it sounded
to me). The chapel still has its benches, so one
could sit in it and drink in the play at one's
leisure, unlike any other part of the building,
which was full of devices and wondering multitudes
of such density it was sometimes hard to find a
place to stand, much less sit.
Here, someone is adjusting a secret machine
in the basement of the establishment.
An idea of the sound can be obtained from
this video, but in the case of St. Cecilia's,
unlike this video, there
was a continuous background of sound coming from
the rest of the house. That was only fair; there
was probably no part of the house where the
Gamelatron could not be heard, as a sort of unifying
sound principle flowing throughout the
entire house. It was the star of the show.
I don't know what was going on in this
room. There were two people in it (one
is visible on the left), the large lantern
you see in the middle, and a rather large
video camera barely visible to the right.
I couldn't hear anything from the hallway,
but it was certainly picturesque.
(The Gamelatron was assisted by a similar percussive
device provided by Phillip Stearns and Martyna Szcz
(from 3rd Ward)
which 'responds to inactivity in the room.')
One of the more curious constructions (and that is
saying something here) was the Radio Room, curated
and partially built by John Roach, mentioned above.
There were a number of small instruments or devices
in the room; these were picked up and broadcast
throughout the house by radio for a variety of
receivers. Roach also went about the building with
a microphone and transmitter in his pocket, so that
other performances or displays could be fed back
to the radio and retransmitted. The effect of this
construction resulted in a elaboration of the
The pieces of the mannikin rotated at
different speeds, while images were projected
upon its surface.
Quite a few constructions invited audience
participation. A favorite mode were strings and wires
available to the touch of passers-by, directly or
indirectly, or resonating what went on near them.
The strings taken out of a piano and amplified with
feedback were a favorite of the many children present.
Some of the constructions spanned two or more rooms.
Some were more effective sonically, while others
were chiefly sculptural in effect. In another case
one could affect sounds being generated by a music
box in another room and conveyed via air ducts by
This is a part of John Roach's automated ratio
studio, in which numerous instruments played
themselves and were broadcast throughout the
An interesting aspect of this event was the
variety of its audience -- people of all ages and
kinds showed up -- and its happy artistic collectivity. I've
usually experienced this sort of event as something
produced by your average lone monster crank genius, but
this was different -- one work flowed into another
quite happily. That may be a sign of some kind of
corner being turned in the artistic world.
A small part of the Gamelatron.
There is no way I can possibly give an accounting
of all that I saw and heard here, and I am sure I
have only scratched the surface of its totality. I encourage readers
to check the links below, because many of them contain
videos or sound recordings which are the only way one
can get a sense of the event. True, 'Ya hadda be there.'
and for once I was. Those who participated, even if
only to walk through, will be talking about it for
a long time.
And check this out for a brief taste of sight and sound:
The Forty-Part Motet
The 40-Part Motet Installation, not in New York,
however, but Tokyo.
And now, back to October, 2010....
In October, for the second time, New York
was visited by Janet Cardiff's "The Forty-Part Motet"
which, oddly enough, was presented at the Frederick
P. Rose Hall of Jazz at Lincoln Center, a seriously
institutional outfit not in Lincoln Center but
up an elevator at
the busy intersection of 60th Street and Broadway
in the Time Warner Center -- Downtown, so to speak.
It was a sort of appendage to the White Light
Festival, designed by Jane Moss (see below) at Lincoln
Center, "a new annual fall festival that focuses
on music’s transcendent capacity to illuminate
our larger interior universe", "a reprieve from the
digital din" according to the New York Times
(although some of the pictures suggest that
some sort of electronica may be sneaking around in
the background). In spite of this rather weighty
epigraph, the videos make much of it look at least
entertaining or enlightening. The motet installation
fell into this category.
The installation is a kind of performance of Thomas
Tallis's Spem In Alium Non Habui, which one might
call one of the Renaissance composer's biggest hits.
A peculiarity of this work is that it is a complex
polyphonic a capella piece written for forty
separate voices. Once squeezed through an ordinary citizen's
sound reproduction system, most of the ability of human hearing
to separate the voices is lost. In the original
performance, the singers stood in groups in a large
hall, some on balconies, so that their voices could
be distinguished by location and differences of
resonance by the small aristocratic audience in the
middle of hall.
In this case the 'singers' were black speakers on
single-leg supports about five feet high, placed in
a ovoid arrangement in a large room. Each speaker
produced sound as recorded by a microphone in front
of an individual singer. Although some seating
was provided, wandering about was encouraged by
the setting so that one could get the benefit of
the distribution. The result is that one could
hear the work from a number of different angles,
making it possible to separate the voices or
allow them to mix in more customary manner. It is
about the only way a normal human being can hear
more than three or four voices of similar timbre
It was interesting to hear this piece in this way,
in a sense for the first time, but I felt that an
opportunity for a light show (which seems to have
occurred with this piece elsewhere) had been foregone.
Maybe I am spoiled by too much hot media. I think,
my purely abstract sense of the music, necessary for
the advertised transcendence, was distracted
by my wandering, which after all required that I
not fall over the speakers or the other listeners.
You win some, you lose
some. It was certainly a worthwhile effort and
similar things could be done with more and
different kinds of music.
The installation, is normally
resident in Ottawa, Canada, but has toured the
world and is evidently still touring.
Made of 'reinforced concrete, metal & galvanized
poles, chain link fence, drive in audio system,
PA system, Theatrical Par flood lighting, wood,
plants, nylon, food product remains', 16' x 25'
x 40', Lior Shvil's sculpture represented the
drive-in movie theater of another era to visitors at
Socrates Sculpture Park this last fall and winter.
Unfortunately, it spent much of the last two months of
its life buried under the snow (of yesteryear? There
seemed to be enough of it for several of them.)
In the midst of the installation, looking forward, one
saw through a partly built 'screen' the skyline of New
York City to the west; under it, in large letters, is
the inscription 'AMERICA' in large red letters, indeed
correctly identifying the view to westward. There is
a chain link fence next to a sort of concrete platform
that seems sliced out of a drive-in's parking area.
On a post at one side is, sure enough, an old-time
speaker of the sort you hung in your half-opened
window back in the day (if you have days enough),
and at higher posts a set of angular loudspeakers.
-- and from the other side of the fence --
The drive-in speakers emitted pieces from the sound
track of what sounded like a 1940s romantic movie --
I could not say which -- on some kind of continuous
loop that took about five minutes to run, while the
taller speakers periodically emitted barks more worthy
of a concentration camp or military base -- the 'real'
world of the 1940s, perhaps, impinging on the era's
dream machine. The food detritus had disappeared as
food detritus tends to do in an open area.
I found the piece profoundly evocative, although not
particularly nostalgic -- drive-ins were already
fading out by the time I was old enough to drive
to one. 'Once Upon A Time' applies not only to the
fables presented by the drive-ins of old, but to the
drive-ins themselves. Some still remain -- see
Wikipedia on drive-in theaters
but there are only a few.
The loudspeakers of reality....
The work seemed to encapsulate and represent an era
which I myself touched upon only a little before
it vanished. Yet even this may date me hopelessly;
some teen-agers came up to the structure while I
was there and seemed cheerfully confused by it.
We got into a conversation about drive-ins and I
told them how the speakers were hung in the window.
They looked at one another and one said, "Ooh, gross."
Then they wandered off. Not for them were the curious
artifacts of yesteryear. One can take this as a part
of the work itself, the ice on the cake, the
snows of yesteryear.