Wolves, we all know, are not to be trusted. They disguise themselves in sheep’s clothing or wait at the door for impending ruin. They come as a howl in the darkness, their presence heard but not seen. To cry wolf is to raise a false alarm, thereby forfeiting trust and belief. In music, a wolf sometimes lurks in a stringed instrument, often a cello. When a bow is drawn across the strings at a certain pitch—it is different for every instrument—the body of the instrument resonates at the same frequency and pushes back against the string, creating a problem called a wolf tone. A wolf tone is essentially a feedback loop, one that results in dissonant sound that is hard to suppress or control. Fingering an octave above or below can sometimes tame the wolf. So can hugging the cello tightly with one’s knees. A piece of hardware called a wolf tone eliminator can be screwed onto a string and positioned at the frequency where the tone occurs to keep the wolf at bay. But while such adaptations restore the precision of sound to the musician, the possibilities of the wolf tone remain unknown.
Artists Nancy Shaver, Maximilian Goldfarb, and Sterrett Smith adapted the phenomena as the organizing principle for their collective practice, an ongoing collaboration they named Wolf Tones. Inviting the uncanny energies released in visual art to challenge and guide them, the group assembles their individual work into sprawling site-specific improvisations, creating feedback loops of their own that resonate with, push against, or deftly move through the discordance that arises from their appositions and from the social contexts within which they are built. The group’s first eponymous show opened in March of 2019 at Soloway Gallery in Brooklyn. A year later, on March 13, 2020, Wolf Tones II opened at Derek Eller gallery, some three days before New York City went into lockdown in the first wave of the pandemic.
For their third iteration, the trio extends their collaboration beyond physical space, this time conjuring the wolf tone within the pages of a book where source images, finished works, and the documenting of past exhibitions meet and collide in rhythmic patterns. More than an archive, the book amplifies the concept of the wolf tone through photographs chosen by each artist and sequenced in spirited combinations that call and answer one another in sometimes harmonious, sometimes dissonant amplifications. Central to each artist’s process is the act of looking, an experience that extends to the reader, who is made privy to the impressions and thoughts that guide their work.
Juxtaposition is the key to things here, and in my first navigations of the book, I found myself flipping to the back pages where each image is credited to one of the artists. It seemed important I learn their styles in order to recognize their intersections. Goldfarb, whose work involves replications of found objects, pulls most of his imagery from his “500 Tableaux” series (2015–21) which recalibrates found imagery and materials in dialectic relationships. Shaver’s contributions come from the content of her store, Henry, in Hudson, NY. Smith’s images are often of her magpie sculptures, wonderful constructions of painted ceramics tangled and wrapped with found materials. Eventually, I realized my methodical plotting was missing the point; it is the ensemble as a whole that makes the music here in the soloing of thoughts, the harmonizing of voices, and the clashing of tones.
“When playing the wolf, the energy returning from the bowed string to the hand holding the bow verges on the uncanny; the intensity of the outburst is startling,” writes cellist Charles Curtis in one of ten essays that accompany the photographs. Rejecting the idea that the wolf is problematic, he describes his collaboration with Éliane Radigue on Naldjorlak (2003–2005), a concert-length solo work in which the cello is tuned and played to intentionally summon the wolf. For him, the wolf tone is not so much a problem as a possibility:
The force and unruly richness of the wolf mean that we must approach it with care and attentiveness, rather than domination. Its variability means that we hear it anew each time, each time in different and specific dimensions, each time as an exception: a unique aesthetic moment expressed in a wave of energy.
Sound and media artist Anna Friz echoes this thought by tracing the history of noise per se from its origin as a social construct delineating class to information theories that fail to define its purpose. Moving beyond the notion of noise as an unpleasant problem to be eliminated, she offers a new perspective in which “distance and noise may be generative, and discord may serve as embodied, audible evidence of the work of collaboration.”
Reframing discord, defined as disagreement or a lack of harmony, allows for an approach in which resolution and containment give way to living within unresolved, ongoing dialogue. Resisting modes deemed pleasing because of their conformation to tradition expands the possibilities of what untethered voices can do; in best cases, they initiate catharsis and renewal.
“The group does not deny or suppress dissonance, but works through it—kindly, conscientiously, with patience, persistence, and an exceedingly rare amount of trust,” writes David Levi Strauss, who attended the opening of Wolf Tones II. He describes the exhibition in what he calls “an act of ephemeral ekphrasis”:
The collaborative piece was a glorious, intoxicating flow, with direction but no conclusions. The disparate parts gradually came together to form a coherent composition, while retaining their singular properties as discreet works. The eye rested on individual pieces, then moved on to the shifting juxtaposition of forms, and roamed over migrating energy flows, like a contemporary cloud of unknowing.
Strauss’s description of experiencing the exhibition can also be used as a how-to guide for handling the book: the movement of the eye from the individual, to the gathering, to the energy flow itself provides a way of looking that is formal yet intuitive, and perhaps the best approach for catching a glimpse of the wild dog that lies hidden in it all.