Understanding the Wavelength: A Guide to Resonance
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Understanding the Wavelength: A Guide to Resonance

collage with tree, Ariel, and conservatory

You don’t need a roadmap for Resonance: you will want to get lost.

Resonance: A Sound Art Marathon is a 10-hour event you navigate through your own sensing body—your eyes, ears, skin, and your lived experiences. The porous boundaries between musical genres, artistic disciplines, and physical structures (including the body) will be navigated by some of the world’s top sound artists. These performances and structures will create a world all their own, one that is bound by time and space, built and destroyed in just one day. Resonance is the realization of the Walker’s long-standing interest in the trajectory of experimental music and makes a strong case for the necessity of multidisciplinary experimentation.

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Sound art and new music are, in many ways, just like the music heard on any radio station: however technically complex or thematically weighty, whatever language a song is sung in, you can “get it” simply by listening. This is because music is comprised of only a few simple elements: time, space, and vibrations in the air. What makes music really alive is us, the vessels through which sound waves are given meaning. The length and frequency of these waves alone create a litany of effects—notes with different tones, pitches, and rhythms—but our human experience gives sound its depth. The feelings, memories, and/or biologically programmed bodily sensations that sound can evoke are accessed through an intervention on these waves, organized into meaningful patterns and sequences.

In classical composition a composer, urged on by an emotion, finds the right intervals, timbre, and rhythms to relay this emotion or idea to an audience. The listener receives this idea and judges the result, in this case a composed score, on the merit of its ability to translate emotion as well as its general level of entertainment. This process is upheld by educational institutions, by philanthropists, by history itself, and finally by the general public’s understanding of music. All of this can be said about popular music as well, with a few semantic alterations.

Sound art and new music (or experimental music) piggyback off this established framework, the vast physical and emotional world of sound, and build upon it. These genres subvert methodologies of musical composition to ends which may not culminate in a traditional “song,” per se, but symphonies of sound, light, and sensation that push forward both music as a medium as well as our personal and collective capacities for perception and human connection. So in what creative biome does this music plant its seeds? And during what cultural season?

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In 1958, American experimental composer Milton Babbitt made waves when he published a now canonical and historically contentious essay, “Who Cares If You Listen?” (the title begged to spark debate, though the author despised it after the publishing editor used it to replace his original title). Babbitt essentially argues that new and “serious” music “has little, no, or negative commodity value,” as it is not intended for public consumption and enjoyment, but rather works towards the renewal and advancement of music and sound. He argues that the public is not and should not be interested, and that new music artists should remove themselves from the public sphere. As much as this sounds like an indictment of new music, it’s actually a plea for new music composers to rid themselves of public scrutiny and retreat to the same private sphere that has been handed out to other advancing arts and sciences, like physics, mathematics, or painting. Thus, in the dark corners of this “isolation,” music can continue to evolve without need to appease the public.

This seems to be at odds with how many of the artists performing at the Walker’s Resonance marath0n would talk about audience, performance, and spectatorship. Some see sound art as an idea in limbo until acted upon by a listener. As participating composer Philip Blackburn explains, “I decided long ago that the world didn’t need more pieces of music in it, but that it might need more occasions for paying attention through our ears and other sense.” He speaks of a “listening practice, no matter how fancy the theorists might make it seem.”

This world of sound art is an active listening opportunity, one where it is upon the audience to finish the piece through their perception of it. This problem is not unique to sound art and can be traced to the philosophical works of Descartes and Schrödinger, as well as the old adage: if a tree falls in the woods with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? Physical science tells us yes; our imagination says maybe not.

“My works,” Blackburn continues, “tend to be about the interaction of sonic phenomena and the people experiencing them.” This thesis culminates in an almost direct rebuttal to Babbitt: “Experimental music for the masses is just more fun than for your few friends in the new music ghetto.”

Philip Blackburn and his windharps. Photo: Jane Rigler

Blackburn is known for his large-scale compositions (literally—he’s used entire sewer systems and wide, active harbors as channels for sound) that play with architecture as much as they do with sound. Some artists at Resonance play traditional instruments; others invent them. Some come from jazz backgrounds, like Craig Taborn, who draws ideas from a lineage of musical thought to use as a jumping point into wild sonic experimentation.

Despite their differing backgrounds artists, Blackburn, Taborn, and Haroon Mirza are focusing on a similar theme for this performance: the particular environment of the Cowles Pavilion. “[My performance] aims to be as uniquely informed by the location as possible, on a structural level,” says Blackburn. “While many of my works are loose and organic, this one is definitely about absolute numbers and proportions. It sounds the way it looks.”

Taborn and sound artist Camille Norment have also formed a spatial “vernacular” for Resonance. “The performances are designed to involve the elements of the environment in how the form of the pieces unfold, but we are working with somewhat specific models and a certain conceptual ethos in what materials we are bringing to bear,” Taborn says. “These performance works are meant as artworks,” adds Norment, “meaning there is a greater context to bear and consider as part of the experience.” Taborn and Norment’s performance involves “golden age” car parts as an instrument, evoking in each audience member a “personal, physical, and cultural memory.”

The hood, quarter-panels, bumper, and lights from this 1950s Pontiac—obtained by Walker staff from a nearby junkyard—will be utilized by Craig Taborn and Camille Norment in their Resonance performance. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

The sensory environments of Haroon Mirza vary from space to space. Whether it be in the gallery, an outdoor sculpture, or a performance, each of Mirza’s works create sensorial encounters where optical, auditory, and spatial elements combine to activate the physical and physiological processes of perception in meaningful ways. In his most recent show, reality is somehow what we expect it to be, sound work lives in anechoic chambers, indoors, where most conditions for how things look and sound are controlled. His “stone circle,” a large scale outdoor sculpture in the Texas desert, while outdoors, is relatively isolated. “The space and the context are always imperative for me,” he says of his installation with Tarek Atoui at Resonance. “Knowing that it’s open air also means that a lot of sound will both disappear but will also be heard elsewhere by other people.  Likewise the light will be seen from a distance. However it will be in the center where everything collapses into an immersive experience.”

Mirza’s sound work, like the work of other Resonance artists, has the potential for the audience’s physiological transformation and transportation. As new age and dubious as these claims first appear, Mirza points out that there is still merit in these concepts of sound altering the physiological self. “There have been some fascinating studies recently on how people being exposed to sound and light waves at the frequencies of neural oscillations replicate their physiological functions.” Whether or not these phenomena are based in truth or chance, the effects and experiences are ultimately up to the listeners. “I believe it’s what an audience member brings to the work that helps steer if it’s a meaningful experience or it takes you to another sensorial dimension.”

The spaces sound creates are nearly inescapable. Although invisible, sound’s presence, the physical space it takes up, can be oppressive. Sound resonates through, around, and from our bodies whether we want it to or not. Artist Jules Gimbrone is no stranger to this notion of resonance. The double meaning of the term as both a quality and an action is rich: something can possess resonance, while something else can actively resonate. Gimbrone uses this to their advantage. Their work with sound ranges across media and venues and investigates the sonic, political, personal, and emotional resonances of social performance.

Jules Gimbrone’s Dysmorphias Draw a Line (2018) “asserts the presence of the flexible, nuanced body, in particular, the sounding of queer subjects that are regularly silenced in the public sphere, through an ecology of transmorphic, responsive materials and audio.” Photo courtesy the artist

In their piece for EAR | WAVE | EVENT, A Room without Walls: Experimental Music in Queer Space, Gimbrone locates experimental music in queer space—one, as described in queer theory, that is just below (above? beside?) the surface of observation, a shifting, non-hierarchical, and alternate to heteronormativity. With sound, Gimbrone signals the presence of queer subject and queer space through resonances between structures. In this way, they deconstruct social performance by revealing all its contours and unlikely reverberations through the everyday. Sound is a lot like these social structures—although invisible, and oftentimes subliminal, sound possesses power in its invasive and evasive qualities.

Another way sound can be used to explore the unseen and the performed is through its connection to communication. Christine Sun Kim visualizes communication and the ways the hearing world’s preferred method of communicating is  inextricably wrapped up in sound. Deaf from birth, Kim’s work reveals this world of sound and communication, which is often taken as a given. The prioritization of hearing as a standard of perception and communication has led to an unspoken set of societal rules for sound—who makes it, when, why, how, etc. In her TED Talk on the musicality of American Sign Language (ASL) and through her performances, installations, and drawings, Kim reveals the often unnoticed power the world of sound has over our bodies, behaviors, and communication. During Resonance, she will provide sound captions for various objects and images, some collected from TV and movies, some written herself.

“I will essentially play matchmaker. In the background is an audio recording of my baby and I watching and signing to #animalsofinstagram videos: ‘Dog is asleep. Cat is eating. Bird is swimming.’”

Still from Close Readings (2015) by Christine Sun Kim

Sound can be like a black hole: it draws in, with an unmatched ferociousness, all things around it so that nothing can escape, so that what we hear is a complex, entirely unique soundscape. Take Matana Roberts, a sound experimentalist and epic saxophonist from New York. Her ongoing work, Coin Coin, is described as “panoramic sound quilting,” a term that comes fully to life through its latest installation, river run thee. Using field recordings, her own voice, loops, her saxophone, and other tools, Roberts curates wide sonic spaces that bring the histories of jazz and spoken word into the mix. Roberts’s work directly confronts certain ills of society, in particular issues concerning race and history, and in Resonance she’ll do so by conceptually and physically responding to Black Vessel for a Saint (2017), a work by Theaster Gates in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

Resonance: A Sound Art Marathon is just as much concerned with sight as it is with sound. The pavilion, the machines, and the instruments that will be generating sound, the sculptures and car parts—whatever the material, sound is a physical phenomenon. Walter Kitundu, instrument maker, sound artist, and nature enthusiast says, “Sound is deeply physical, but being aware of that fact is both a matter of scale and of calibrating our attention.” Kitundu uses the grooves of a vinyl record as a direct and leading example of this relationship.

Kitundu is widely known as an instrument creator—as in, he invents the conceptual aspects of new instruments and then actually makes them. The Kronos Quartet commissioned him to build it one of his Phonoharps, a mostly wooden structure that uses a turntable to alter the sounds of attached strings that are splayed out in a fashion reminiscent of the “golden ratio” spiral. Just one of Kitundu’s many creations, the Phonoharp embodies the idea of sound and physical objects having a closer relationship than is given up by their inherent visual properties and sense-data.

Blue Phonoharp. Photo: Walter Kitundu

Tarek Atoui concerns himself with a similar idea in his own work. The Reverse Sessions was a project in which Atoui and his team almost completely deconstructed the idea of the instrument and sources of sound through a series of actions—performances, composing, recording, and improvising. Using ancient instruments of which the musicians had no prior knowledge, a group of artists played these artifacts with only their intuition to guide them. Atoui then took those sounds and composed group pieces around them, performing them at a later date. As a last act of obscurity, he took these recordings—just the sounds, no visual aspect of the instruments—and worked with inventors on creating new instruments that produced the sounds of the ancient instruments. In a way, we’re hearing echoes of sounds produced so long ago, filtered through the chrome of the present future.

As daunting as this all may seem, the only thing one has to do to understand is open their ears. This is summed up in a rebuttal to Babbitt’s essay, written by composer Christopher Palestrant: “Without both a medium and a listener, they are like an incomplete circuit: the energy has been spent, but it has no effect. Compromise is not unprofessional in a composer, as he suggests, but essential to the art.”

Though we may wonder if our sounds could exist in a vacuum, we can believe that they wouldn’t be complete without ears and eyes and bodies to fall upon. It’s entirely possible that Resonance is a synthesis of philosophies destined to remain at odds, and by creating a particular space for these artists to explore in front the public eye, they’re allowed to experiment within their own context while being given an attentive and active audience—not to mention what the physical environment, natural or otherwise, will provide as well.

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