As founder and director of Lampo, a Chicago nonprofit organization that supports artists working in experimental sound and intermedia, Andrew Fenchel has organized more than 250 special projects and performances. With this experience in mind, we invited him to share his encounters with Resonance: A Sound Art Marathon, a daylong celebration of interdisciplinary experimentation held at the Walker Art Center on May 18.
The concert organizer in me knows about happy accidents and their virtues. The parent in me has learned these lessons too. The sandwich in me was surprisingly delicious. Whatever your field, I believe you have stumbled upon an inadvertent solution or discovery, one that could only come when things don’t go as first planned. So it was with Resonance: A Sound Art Marathon, organized by the Walker on May 18. Eight site-specific performances were designed for the Cowles Pavilion and Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, until a forecast for cold temperatures and thunderstorms compelled a move inside.
Here the silver lining was a black box, constructed on stage at the museum’s McGuire Theater. The venue change was auspicious, and not only because it kept us warm and dry. Each performance was now alienated from the site that had conceptually inspired or physically shaped the work. However, our dislocation would prompt unexpected questions about sound, space and time, how sound transports us, and what it means to be out of place.
Throughout the daylong event, artists Philip Blackburn, Christine Sun Kim, Walter Kitundu, Jules Gimbrone, Matana Roberts, Camille Norment, Craig Taborn, Tarek Atoui, and Haroon Mirza offered performances that crossed between the visual and performing arts. Each put field recordings, found sound, jazz or electronics, in dialogue with video, everyday objects, sculptural instruments or light. Ever-present too was the absent pavilion and its image. It is a real location, but one I have never visited. The pavilion became a sort of abstraction, a place to picture as I traveled there in my thoughts over the ten-hour program.
Philip Blackburn had the pavilion and its specific environment very much on his mind with his work. In The Prairie Pavilion (2019), sounds take their shape from the dimensions of the Cowles structure. With Heather Barringer and Preston Wright, he evoked other primary and secondary sites—the 1930s of Henry Cowell’s Rhythmicon (homophone!); the desktop space of that instrument’s virtual version, used in this performance; and a St. Paul garden of native plants, depicted in an accompanying video.
The performance began with a series of heavy beats, as photos of wildflowers tiled across the screen. Some of the images were of the same spot of ground, but photographed at different hours of the day. Was this a wink or link to our intended outdoor marathon? In three sections of music, the trio built rhythms from basic electronic pulses, static and noise, adding synthetic alarm bells, harmonica, maybe marimba, and high-pitched tones like a wet finger rubbing the rim of a glass, before they landed us safely in a clearing.
Descriptions of sound are common in concert reviews. They are meant to make vivid what the reader cannot hear. First, I sell with copy. Then you do your part, referencing your prior rim rubbing. I am not above using this convention, but we can also inspect its assumptions, that these characterizations are accurate and reliable, that they add to your understanding, that they place you where you were not, that they give you a sense of what you missed, that they give you a sense.
In Caption America (2019), Christine Sun Kim combined objects, text, and audio in ways that were poetic and often wry, and not directly descriptive, as a means to explore language and sound—and her personal experiences as a wife, mother, artist, and deaf person.
Using an overhead projector, Kim paired printed ephemera with handwritten captions, while domestic recordings played. We saw her boarding pass, read (knock on car roof), and heard kids’ music. We saw an ASL instructional card, read (chair squeaking), and heard baby gurgles. We saw her marriage license, a Whitney Biennial Wacky Pack, a fortune-teller fish, an SM58 microphone user manual, and a Bart Simpson sticker (she’s a fan). We read (soft rhythmic thumping), (rap song continues), (turns music off), and (elevator button click). We heard laughing, coughing, rustling, T.V.-show clips, and songs from the radio.
The objects were personal but not really revealing. The captions described small gestures and unheard sounds, and we conjured these for ourselves. The playback was quotidian and incidental. When we heard something other than what was described, we were tugged away, perhaps to another story. The work was made from everyday life, but the push-pull did not allow us to settle down. Separately, all of this was ordinary stuff. Together, the effect was confounding and happily so.
Walter Kitundu’s performance located us in more than one place, time, and genre. Songela: sounds for red (2019) is his meditation on racial injustice and police violence, and a tribute to Malcolm X. The artist and instrument inventor is best known for his phonoharp, which is a hybrid turntable and stringed instrument that he uses to sample and manipulate sonic material. Here, with vocalist Mankwe Ndosi, he created a mix of altered historical spoken word recordings, plucked rhythms, looping melodies and references to the natural world.
Kitundu is also an avid birder. He opened and closed the work with birdsong, conceivably to suggest forces bigger than us, or that we have come full circle, a reminder of how little has changed. In between, he played various vocal recordings, selectively obscuring the words with beats, a strummed tune, or the chants and rhythmic breathing of Ndosi. What sounded like an African speech was incomprehensible. Later there was a contemporary account of a white police officer’s 1966 killing of a black teen that sparked the Hunters Point riots in San Francisco. Kitundu introduced record scratches, finger-taps on the platter and noisy disruptions. He drummed the tonearm and strings of the phonoharp, and then he switched to play a handmade kora. Allusions were fleeting—jazz, hip-hop, electroacoustics, and griot music.
Jules Gimbrone transcended other forms in The Whole Is Also a Hole (2019). For this work, which was the only one presented inside the Walker Cargill Lounge, the artist gathered a chorus of human-size glass vessels filled with varying levels of liquid, miked, and activated with electronics. The resonant tubes transmitted tones and became literal speakers, converting signal to sound.
In fact, they sang and spoke. Amplified words or parts of words developed. I imagined the vessels were enormous lab equipment, seeking solidarity with Claes Oldenburg’s giant Three-Way Plug—Scale A, Soft, Brown (1975), which hung nearby. Maybe that’s silly. What was not silly was how aware I was of our social arrangement, my body, among other bodies, grouped around this figurative ensemble, trying to receive what they were trying to communicate. I continued to listen and supposed I heard: “is, is, is,” and then “it … is.” Gimbrone directed the action with a controller. While I wondered what I was experiencing, the vessels answered: “it, is, it, is …” and asked: “is, it, is, it … ?” The work was never only this or that, as sculpture, instrument and performer all at once.
When the marathon resumed in the McGuire, saxophonist Matana Roberts stepped on stage, and rather than responding to the pavilion and the Theaster Gates sculpture in the garden as intended, she responded to and engaged the audience, leaving no question that our accidental site was still specific.
She said hello and then played her alto. The music was for us, but also a way for her to feel the room. After several minutes she stopped and said, “That’s your pitch.” She asked, “Can you hum that for me?” We hummed, not unlike the vessels earlier. “I enjoy making people sing together,” she said. “It brings us closer together than we were before. It changes the energy of the space.” Throughout, she nurtured that energy, with cycles of horn, our humming and her stories.
Narrativity and family history are central to Roberts’ work. In this performance, she shared personal stories about childhood mistakes (stealing a lipstick, starting a fire) and adult unease (traveling, getting lost)—wrongs made right by her grandparents’ unconditional love. Music summoned these memories, just as memories inspired her stirring music.
Roberts closed with a message: “… that base of love is like the base of song that we’re singing. It’s a foundation,” she said. “I encourage you, even when you’re not singing along with people, to find that foundation, to spread that foundation, because we really need it right now.”
Camille Norment and Craig Taborn also brought traces of history forward with their performance. In Again (2019), they project an idealized past into a utopian future, neither of which looks certain upon inspection. Positioned behind the front-end of a 1950s Pontiac, which covered subwoofers, they played a slow, dissonant music of brass bowls, singing glass, and atmospheric electronics. The salvaged car was their vehicle to travel the spaceways.
Multimedia artist Norment focused her attention on the rare glass armonica, invented by Ben Franklin in 1761. Made of crystal bowls nested together horizontally on a rotating spindle, and played with fingers dipped in water to excite the glass, the armonica produces high-pitched frequencies, something like the sine waves of minimal electronic music. Its tones were thought to be the voice of angels. Critics blamed the armonica for many physical and psychological effects—dizziness, hallucinations, mental breakdowns—and it came to be banned in fear. For the Oslo-based American, the instrument creates sonic tension and signifies social tension, designed during an age of reason and individual liberty that excluded women and supported slavery.
Their performance was a cry from the past and a menacing premonition, spanning centuries, never quite advancing. Norment and Taborn played on gear antiquarian and modern, with very little musical progression. The classic car sat on blocks, only just vibrating with bass. These constructs of time and transport moved me, to examine our selective histories, our present nostalgia and its political manipulations that provoke our anxiety.
Tarek Atoui joins other Resonance artists with a likeminded curiosity about the social and cultural complexities of place. In I/E (2015–) he uses field recordings he has collected from harbors and ports in Athens, Abu Dhabi and Singapore. These recordings capture the sounds of human activity and economic exchange and provide a means for artistic exchange with collaborators.
His sonic manipulations also involve trade. Atoui swaps sounds from various locations in performance. His aim is not to create any kind of site simulation but to do the opposite. By abstracting sounds from their sources, he creates new places and possibilities, and reconsiders how field recordings function within experimental music practices.
In all respects, the project is about give and take. Whenever Atoui makes recordings and performs, he also partners with sound recordists, musicians, composers, artists and photographers. That was the case here as well, placing his work in relation to Haroon Mirza’s sound and light installation Waxing Gibbous (2019).
The concert began with Atoui crouched over one of his self-built sound boxes, a beautiful wooden housing and interface to control digital samples. Ocean waves set us on the waterfront, before they gave way to the crackle and hum of electricity, increasingly dense, and then opening up to leave a temporary spaciousness. Atoui introduced cymbals, sirens, and percussive chants that intensified and then faded. Part 2 wakened with birds, a rooster and a dog, chirping, crowing and barking, in Greek, Arabic or Mandarin. These natural phenomena were masked by a rising mystery throb, while the stage lighting dimmed and Mirza’s installation brightened.
By this point in the evening, large triangles, all pointing to the right and arranged in an enormous ring containing the audience, had been looming over us for several hours. When the action started, the anticipation that also had been hanging there was released in a burst of energy. Each triangle was built of three LED lengths in red, green, and blue. Sides flashed on and off, slowly then quickly then slowly again, activated by the same electricity that also buzzed in rhythmic time with the colored patterns. The electronic disturbance moved in a circular orbit around us to the left, to the right, and in both directions simultaneously like a coded message, and one that hinted at recurring themes.
Cycles and lunar subjects repeat in Mirza’s work, in part to locate us within a shared space, on earth. His title, Waxing Gibbous, which refers to the last phase just before the full moon, or the moment of reaching fulfillment, also positioned this installation in the marathon’s programming sequence. The piece was equally suited to end our experience. It was a loop around a day of looping ideas.
Made for the Cowles Pavilion, to be viewed and heard up close but also from far away, the indoor Waxing Gibbous was itself surrounded now. Atoui flew an airplane overhead to ground us. I don’t know if I would have noticed that was part of the show, had we been outdoors. In the final minutes of Resonance, we heard voices and song, dance beats and celebration. Our last sounds were from some distant cultural performance I could not place. As the circle powered down, the public sphere had emerged.