SculptureCenter, Long Island City
June 12, 19, 26
Under the glow of a suspended upside-down pink drumset, and next to a hanging spiral of pulsating speakers, a mélange of glass objects, inflated balloons, and electronics come to life as Miguel Frasconi, Ricardo Arias, and Keiko Uenishi begin to perform. They gradually play through a full spectrum of sound, ranging from sine wave–like purity to granulated noise. With these sounds resonating from floor to ceiling, the musicians have completely transformed a space that was quiet just minutes ago. This was the beginning of the first installment of TrebleLive, three concerts accompanying the Treble exhibition, curated by Regine Basha and on view at SculptureCenter in Long Island City until August 1.
SculptureCenter’s program director, Anthony Huberman, selected musicians whose artistic interests amplified Treble’s three themes: the relationship between sound and object (Arias, Frasconi, Uenishi), sound and drawing (the graphic scores of Cornelius Cardew and others), and sound and architecture (DJ Olive). The suspended drums and speakers, by Jude Tallichet and Stephen Vitiello, respectively, characterize the exhibition itself in that they are pieces that undeniably take on the subject of sound, but not necessarily in audible ways.
Huberman brought together the unlikely trio of glass, balloons, and electronics after seeing Frasconi and Uenishi as a duo. Having heard recordings of Arias’s work on a "balloon kit" (a home-rigged set of many shapes and sizes of inflated balloons), he felt that Uenishi’s work on a laptop would be a sonic backbone holding the other objects together. The trio took advantage of the physical properties of their instruments, at times alternating between jarring rhythmic and textural contrasts and sublime harmonic consonance. Though Frasconi and Arias supplied the acoustic parts of the trio, the materials of their instruments couldn’t be more different. Ethereal and sonorous as a musical medium, glass is so fragile it can easily shatter when struck by one of Frasconi’s mallets. (Frasconi says that breakage is an opportunity, since he ends up with more pieces to play.) Balloons, inflated and pliable, carry the tension of sudden rupture during contact, which actually happened twice in this performance. Arias tugs at this tension by snapping rubber bands atop a giant red bass balloon and creating friction with wet sponges and his fingers. Underlying these acoustic elements, Uenishi’s laptop also has an association with "objecthood," albeit an electronic one. Using the Max/MSP software package, she constructs and moves object-shapes to create subtle, jagged atmospheres that hover around Frasconi and Arias’s acoustic exchange.
The second of the three performances pushed a more pronounced visual connection, centering on drawn graphic scores by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Cardew. After setting up their instruments, the group, led by percussionist Jim Pugliese, literally turned their backs to the audience—not with dismay, but as an invitation to make the scores, not the musicians playing them, the object of the listener’s gaze. The centerpiece of this concert, Cardew’s mid-sixties work Treatise, contains 193 pages of notation and not a single direction. Some of its pages contain recognizable, albeit altered, musical notation, and others consist simply of abstract shapes. By its very nature, the composition took on the identity of Pugliese’s trio and its setting at SculptureCenter. Near the end of the group’s selections from the piece, Pugliese announced that they would each choose their favorite page and play them simultaneously. Given Treatise’s open-ended character, the result was not too different from the previous parts, with Pugliese sending colorful rhythmic passages back and forth to Daniel Goode on clarinet and Peter Zummo on trombone, who likewise stretched out and refined the limitations of their instruments. At the very end, Pugliese encouraged the audience to participate. Keys rattled, bottles dropped, random voices sprang up across the room. One man got up to scrape his keys down a corrugated cargo door, and somewhere in this noisy process, the audience left behind its traditional role of seated silent spectators.
Treble includes drawings by five artists, but of particular interest here is a collage by the Argentinean artist Jorge Macchi, who collected newspaper reportage of gory accidents and deaths. He pasted these line by line into standard music staves and left inconspicuous gaps along the lines. Close to the score panels, headphones hung down from the ceiling, and figuratively speaking, there is nothing to hear. The series of notes being played on piano (E, G, B, D, and F) actually correspond to the missing spaces in the lines of the stave. One could continue with this kind of linguistic wordplay, in the double meaning of Macchi’s piece as a "graphic" score—musically, in his construction, and literally, through the content of the newspaper clippings. The telling title, Incidental Music, plays with both the historic definition of the phrase and the police-type events he’s chosen as his building materials.
"Buoy," the third TrebleLive concert, was created by DJ Olive specifically for the space, to investigate the relations between sound and architecture. Before beginning, he encouraged the audience to enter and lie down inside Brad Tucker’s large dome-shaped sculpture, which sits prominently in the middle of the room. Olive also gave people the option to free themselves up and walk around the space to hear different angles of the four-channel surround-sound piece. To allow for a completely aural experience, he even supplied eyeshades—a collection from two years’ worth of overseas touring.
Depending on whether one’s eyes were open or shut, two separate pieces existed. Eyes open, one was visually able to understand the artist’s intent of "building an awareness of architecture through our fingers as much as our eyes." DJ Olive made buoyant tones by tapping a finger on the surface of his turntables or scraping the sides of them. He dropped metal balls on the concrete floor, amplifying the sound with closely placed mics. Watching closely, it was apparent that many of the same sounds that came from these live events were also played on his laptops. But with the eyes shut, one could barely differentiate between the two.
Listeners were enveloped in a borderless sound field that drew attention to the porous, infiltrating nature of sound. The shuffle of footsteps, children’s voices, a toilet flushing—which sounds were intended and which were part of the built environment? This experience reminds us that it’s less important to know which is which than to linger between the known and the unknown and enjoy such clever perceptual interplay.
As with "Buoy," a basement installation by Andrea Ray called Inhalatorium connects the body with architecture. As one walks atop a ground of solar salt and down a vaulted corridor, the crunch of each step varies acoustically in proximity to the archways above. Two recorded voices exchange long tones that are stretched as far as a single breath will allow. These sounds beg visitors to do the same with their own voices and breaths, adding harmonic layers to the corridor voices as they phase out of pitch.
In an exhibition that generally stands still, the TrebleLive concerts ushered in the element of theater, with all of its bodily rituals of organization, direction, and confinement. But it was different in this space—here, bodies turned around and sank into the floor to hear, and walked in order to listen.
Bethany Ryker is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. Her radio program, the "Stochastic Hit Parade, airs weekly on WFMU. She is currently completing a masters thesis at The New School for Social Research on the aesthetics of mechanical music in the digital age.