Sound

Public Art in the Sonic Realm

by Charles Eppley on June 23, 2014

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Crowd view of Norte Maar’s ‘Sound Event’ at Socrates Sculpture Park (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Socrates Sculpture Park, a small non-profit public art space located in Long Island City, is a pillar of the Queens contemporary art scene. Formed in 1986 on top of an abandoned landfill, the site has long been a home to large, outdoor sculpture and site-specific installation. However, the park opened its grounds to a group of sound artists, musicians, and dancers over the weekend, challenging the materialist roots of the sculpture garden — and questioning the boundaries of public art.

Sound Event was organized by Norte Maar, a Bushwick-based non-profit founded by Jason Andrew and Julia Gleich that hosts interdisciplinary events throughout the city, including the popular Beat Nite series. The evening was presented as a sort of miniature sound art festival, a curated selection of artists who performed on a schedule, but at different locations throughout the park. The diverse lineup offered a crash course in contemporary sound practice, including musical performance (scored and improvised), sound installation, and sound sculpture. The evening featured performances by renowned and emerging artists, including John Driscoll, Tristan Perich, Maria Chavez, and Jakob Kirkegaard.

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Tristan Perich (right) performs with Russell Greenberg (left)

Tristan Perich — recently included in the Soundings exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art — performed a minimalist-inspired musical score on two sets of small, circular chimes attached to electronics. With the help of percussionist Russell Greenberg, the duo tapped out hypnotic polyrhythmic phrases, recalling the repetitious workouts of Philip Glass; each time a chime was struck, a short corresponding electronic tone was emitted, resulting in an ethereal electro-acoustic display. Jakob Kirkegaard (also included in MoMA’s Soundings) and Katinka Fogh Vindelev presented a new composition, Tone Poem for Richard Strauss (2014). The composition is based off of the last scores written by the late Romantic composer shortly before his own death, a musical suite entitled “Vier letzte Lieder” (Four Last Songs) that reflected on the demise of life. Their homage was centered on a playful, cutup revision of the original libretto, intermixed with field recordings, electronic noise, and classical voice, allowing Kirkegaard and Fogh Vindelev to examine the legacy of the composer and the relevance of his music today. Sound Event also featured a group improvisation by the trio of Lesley Flanigan, Maria Chavez, and MV Carbon, contemporary mainstays of experimental music in New York. The group used non-traditional instruments and extended techniques, including turntables, speakers, and other sound generating objects, to upholding the traditions of avant-garde music, in part by challenging them with a modern sensibility.

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John Driscoll in ‘Rainforest’ (1973)

In contrast, the sound collective Composers Inside Electronics presented an adaptation of avant-garde musician David Tudor’s infamous Rainforest project. First performed in 1973, Rainforest was an immersive electro-acoustic sound environment, an irreverent amalgamation of handmade circuitry and sound objects. The piece consisted of various materials and objects that emit sounds as the listener navigated through the space without direction, a chance-based score realized by one’s movement through an aural environment. This instance of Rainforest was performed continuously throughout the evening, and was led by the musician John Driscoll, who worked with Tudor on the project before his death. The sounds of the installation — actually, it was more of a machine — were at times soft but mostly abrasive, and could be heard throughout the park. As such, the sounds often merged — or interfered, depending on your perspective, with those of other performances. This indeterminate gesture may have preserved the playful character of the original work, but it was one that also resulted in slight confusion, even tension, among the audience and performers.

Indeed, the theme of the park as a site of encounter was present throughout the evening, and the topography of the space featured in several works. For example, Doug Van Nort presented an improvised performance based on audio recordings taken from the East River, on which the park is settled. The improvisation shifted between murky drones and deep earthly noise, as well as the occasional rhythmic popping. The sounds were entirely derived from signals transmitted from hydrophonic microphones placed in the river, displacing and relocating the unheard sounds of the aquatic environment above the surface. Sound Event also catered to dance, another durational medium, represented by a nomadic display of experimental vocal choreography by Audra Wolowiec. The white-clad troupe of seven performers wandered throughout the park, moving through the crowd cautiously and at a slow pace, all while emitting indiscrete vocal utterances that both amused and disturbed the audience. Their movements were peripatetic, if vaguely spiritual — a humanistic attempt to, as described by Norte Maar, “create intimate encounters in public space.”

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Jakob Kirkegaard and Katinka Fogh Vindelev, ‘Tone Poem for Richard Strauss’ (2014)

The open structure of Sound Event resulted in a casual atmosphere, where one could sit in on a performance, or station, without feeling pressured to stay through its entire duration. Instead, visitors were invited to sit down, get up, walk around; grab a bite to eat; talk with friends; go kayaking; leave and come back, or stay away. Furthermore, the event also raised questions about the boundaries of public art, namely that such works need not be material, or even permanent, revealing that sound can be public too. Sound Event can be situated in a larger history of convergences between avant-garde music, sound art, and public performance in New York, including Charlotte Moorman’s recurring Annual Avant-Garde Festival, which operated between 1963 and 1980, ending just six years before the Socrates Sculpture Garden opened.

Many people in attendance were there specifically for the Norte Maar event, but an equal amount of visitors were there by chance, and happened to come across a festival of experimental art and music. There were dozens of people in the park who came to celebrate the summer solstice, including swarms of children who became intrigued by the noisemakers and instruments (and at least one barking dog that was suspect of the entire ordeal). In turn, the sculpture park was transformed into a sort of community center: one not to look at art in isolation, but to experience it in a communal setting, and one that preserves the democratic character of public art: it is there for you if you want, but feel free to move along. Sound Event worked within this paradigm, presenting an evening of sound-based art that was avant-garde but still accessible, one that not limited by the private, class-tinged barriers of the concert hall or art museum.

Sound Event took place at Socrates Sculpture Park (32-01 Vernon Blvd, Long Island City) on Saturday, June 21 from 5–10pm.

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