New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: sound art

Oliver Beer Repurposes Ancient Artifacts For His Brand New Sound Installation at the Met Breuer

Oliver Beer placed microphones inside a large assortment of bowls and vessels in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collections to find out what musical pitches they resonated to.

Then he assembled an organ out of them.

If those artifacts were to be auctioned off, it would be the world’s most expensive electric organ. Beer calls it the Vessel Orchestra, and the installation is on display at the Met Breuer starting today, July 2 through August 11. The way it works is that the mic inside each artifact is patched into an individual channel on a simple analog mixing board, and activated by a specific key on an electronic keyboard. Each object was chosen for its ability to resonate a single, perfect pitch in the western scale. Every day, the “orchestra” will play a simple, peaceful, preprogrammed melody by Beer. But the result will be different each time.

For one, there’s going to be bleed and quite possibly feedback from the mics, which will vary according to the level of crowd noise in the somewhat boomy, sonically uninsulated fifth-floor space. And as singer Helga Davis demonstrated yesterday (and encouraged the crowd to join her), singers who project loudly enough will hear their own voices joining the misty hum…or the looming swells of sound.

In addition, many musicians have been invited to play their own works on Beer’s creation, and experiment with it on Friday evenings. Only a portion of the schedule has been announced; it should fill up soon, and impromptu performances – beyond patrons of the museum raising their voices to be heard – seem likely. Some extraordinary and adventurous talent is already on the bill. Indian singer Roopa Mahadevan with her Women’s Raga Massive bandmates Trina Basu on violin, Amali Premawardhana on cello and Roshni Samlal on tabla will be there on July 26 at 6:30. On August 9 at 6:15, John Zorn will be joined by singer Sara Serpa – whose softly enveloping, crystalline voice is ideal for this configuration – along with percussionists Sae Hashimoto, Kenny Wollesen and Ikue Mori.

The objets d’art are a mixed bag, to say the least. At one end, there’s a 19th century German cast metal vessel in the shape of a bull, who at first glance seems to be decapitated. A closer look reveals that his head is the lid. At the other, there’s a goofy, pink, hollow phallic object: Italian artist Ettore Sottsass’ 1973 Shiva Vase, modeled after classical Indian iconography. In between them are containers in metal, wood, clay and ceramic from across the centuries and around the world. In a stroke of considerable irony, some of the most ancient and also most resonant objects are from Iran, whose musical tradition doesn’t utilize the western scale.

Beer’s creation is cross-cultural and cross-generational in the purest sense of the word – and by repurposing these objects, casts them in a completely new light. In addition, one of the museum staff quipped that his installation has brought a new sense of harmony to the Met’s famously territorial curators, many of whose collections Beer sampled and eventually plundered while piecing together this unlikely, magical instrument.

Pensively Entertaining Cinematic Soundscapes From the Mexican Avant Garde

This year’s Celebrate Mexico Now festival wound up yesterday at the Queens Museum with the multimedia performance of Paisajes Sonoros, a deliciously textural, boisterously entertaining, relentlessly catchy electroacoustic score to powerfully metaphorical projections by Vanessa Garcia Lembo, performed by violinist/keyboardist Carlo Nicolau and percussionist Vicente Rojo Cama.

The projections pondered humankind’s dubious impact on nature, and its many ramifications. One recurrent, provocative image was fingerprints or zoning diagrams superimposed on imposingly out-of-focus images of a massive, grey Mayan temple. Another persistent image was a twisted, bright crimson heart. The funniest sequence of all  was when the percussionist crinkled a couple of empty plastic water bottles together, running them through heavy-duty reverb while an old, faded black-and-white turn-of-the-century German postcard of bathers at Coney Island faded into and then out of the picture: look what I found in the waves, ma!

Another amusing interlude involved an old 1950s beatnik avant garde trope: rubbing two balloons together. Put enough reverb on them, and suddenly the squeak and squonk take on an unanticipated menace. Symbolism anyone?

The rest of the program’s twelve pieces, segueing into each other, were more pensive and often downright troubled. A handful turned out to be intimate arrangements of orchestral pieces from Nicolau’s recent album Music For the Moving Imagination. One of the more animated themes was a Romany-flavored violin melody and variations, which could have been Schubert. When Nicolau wasn’t playing that on the violin, he was layering shadowy ambience and white noise, bubbling through an uneasy microtonal patch on the keyboard. In more concretely melodic moments, he built lingering, austerely moody piano themes. Meanwhile, the percussion echoed and whooshed in and out, other times evoking steel pans or a gamelan via an array of singing bowls and small gongs spun through a vortex of effects.

The video aspect was often similarly grim. Something that could have been a mossy rock but also some kind of dead cetacean washed up on a beach; gritty industrial decay contrasting with serene, ornate doorways and architectural ornaments from bygone centuries. Yet ultimately both the music and visuals reflected a resolute optimism, hope residing in the handmade and the artistic rather than the machine. At the end, the musicians dedicated the suite to the survivors of the Mexico City earthquake, and also to the hope that cross-cultural collaboration will trump conflict. It made a vivid reminder that long before the days of Frida Kahlo or Luis Buñuel, Mexican artists have been a force in the avant garde.

Lesley Flanigan Builds Uneasily Enveloping Sonics at National Sawdust

Singer and sound sculptor Lesley Flanigan headlined at National Sawdust Friday night with the epic title track to her new ep, Hedera. Onstage, depending on the piece she’s creating, sometimes she ends up doing a floor ballet of sorts, a constant, rigorously physical dialogue with the mixer and speakers and mics positioned around her. This was not one of those situations. On her knees, brow knitted, almost motionless, she switched on an old, broken tape recorder, amplified to the rafters, and launched into the piece..

On album, and to an extent on the new ep, Flanigan’s sonic creations often have a dreamy quality. Not so at this performance. The sound was LOUD. National Sawdust has banks of custom-designed speakers positioned way up in the ceiling- think Issue Project Room multiplied by a factor of ten. This amplified both the distant menace of the mechanical loop as well as the dichotomy between that and Flanigan’s bright, resonant vocals. In the studio, she’s a strong and nuanced singer, with an unadorned, pure pitch: she was even stronger here. Adding one layer of vocals after another, she built a many-faceted sonic Rothko, up to a sudden moment of insistent angst. The effect was viscerally chilling. The recorded version seems to reach a calm resolution; this performance was more ambiguous and unsettling.

The opening acts were a mixed bag. Singer Daisy Press and keyboardist Nick Hallett joined forces for a trio of Hildegard Von Binghen songs, which they reinvented as starlit, twinkling art-rock. Hallet supplied a kaleidoscope of deep-space textures and baroque-pop loops for Press to soar over. There was an allusively Middle Eastern quality to her ripe, wounded soprano, channeling buttery, lascivious allusions in Latin: a cantor or a muezzin might have sounded much the same around 1150 AD. Getting to hear Flanigan and Press back to back was a rare treat: the former gets credit for having the guts to follow the latter on the bill.

Turntablist Maria Chavez built a pastiche out of spoken word albums; the only thing missing was “Number nine, number nine, number nine.” There was a joke about noisy neighbors that drew some chuckles, otherwise, it could have gone on for half as long and nobody would have suffered. Or maybe you just had to be 420ing a little early to appreciate it.

As for the night’s first act, C. Spencer Yeh, it took nerve to give the crowd a fat, raised middle finger for as long as he did. Puckering up and running his vocal pop-pops through a mixer, he first created a rain-on-the-roof tableau that suddenly became just a single stream of liquid. That was hilarious, and foreshadowed the rest of his act. That quickly became the kid upstairs at 6 AM bouncing the basketball on your ceiling. Over. And. Over. Again. And then farting noises. Self-indulgent? Totally. Puerile? Uh huh. Pure punk rock? No doubt. Yeh gets props for being fearless, but be aware that if he’s on the bill, you may be subjected to something like this.