Minneapolis is an appropriate place for Ray Lee’s Siren. One of the many things I love about this city is its emergency sirens. After moving here from Milwaukee, where all of them consisted of the same tone, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Minneapolis’ differently-pitched sirens. When multiple ones go off across the city, whether in as a test or in a real emergency, the result is a mesmerizing sonic collage that makes me want to stay outside during a tornado just to listen.
This is the only experience that comes close to describing Siren. The performance took place on the McGuire Theater stage; all of the curtains were closed and we were encouraged to walk around the space. Upon entering, all we could hear was a low-frequency hum. As the performance began, Lee’s assistants began switching on the more than 20 machines individually, tuning each note with a screwdriver. Each machine consisted of two sets of circuits and speakers; different speakers were used to achieve more subtle gradations of tone. The piece began with a perfect fifth, one of the most basic of musical intervals, although many of the other sound bars were tuned more closely together, usually a 2nd or 3rd apart.
As the piece slowly developed, I started to forget where I was as the sounds swathed the theater and its occupants. It’s a testament to Lee, however, that his work never collapses into a jumble of undifferentiated sound. Even as they swirled around me, individual sounds and novel combinations continually emerged through the soundscape. At times the soundscape sounded almost hurdy gurdy-like, with overtones popping seemingly out of nowhere; it was enveloping without being overpowering, or, as I’ve also experienced with some sound art, physically debilitating. The final touch was to turn out the lights, revealing small red lights on each speaker that twirled like insects at different speeds. Near the end, the low-frequency hum that served as the work’s foundation suddenly disappeared, seemingly unmooring the sounds to float freely in the space.
The work ended as it began, with a perfect 5th from a lone sound bar, after all the others had stopped spinning and were turned off one-by-one. And after this was shut off, the very air itself possessed a newly-charged silence, interrupted only by return-you-to-the real-world applause from those in the room. This is easily one of the best things to come through the Walker since I’ve lived here and should not be missed.