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.