As the Cat Stevens–loving Maude declared to a morose Harold in the 1971 film Harold and Maude, “If you want to sing out, sing out!” But for those of us who are too self-conscious or cursed by shrill tones and off-key octaves, having such belting confidence is hard. For such introverts, Ranjit Bhatnagar has created “The Singing Room.”
Brooklyn-based Bhatnagar’s small orchestra of mechanical instruments is installed at the Clocktower Gallery in Lower Manhattan. “The Singing Room” was commissioned back in 2011 by the Métamatic Research Initiative and finally finished this March; later this fall it travels to the kinetic-art-celebrating Tinguely Museum in Basel. Constructed specifically for the “Shy Person” to be able to express their vocal longings away from the judging ears of others, the piece involves robot players activated by visitors singing in a closed room, and although those outside the sound booth can’t hear a word of the secret song, they can watch and listen to the metal guitar, xylophone, bells, accordion, and tambourines play an interpretation based on each syllable.
At last night’s opening, the range of the art goers’ voices seemed to limit the instruments a bit, with not all being activated while I was there. Sometimes just the delicate bells tapped minimally along in a John Cage–like way, or the guitar was hit with a frantic Steve Reich–like repetition. One downside to “The Singing Room” is that there’s no way for you to know how your private singing expressions played out by the machines are going over with the audience outside, although this is probably ideal for the shy: if it’s a poor showing, the unfeeling robot instruments will take the jeers.
These sound art installations are an ongoing focus of the innovative Bhatnagar, who each February for six years has done an instrument-a-day project, with results including an 8-bit violin and a laser kazoo. He’s also adept at other technology-bending art, such as the ongoing “Pentametron” algorithm-based site that finds tweets that rhyme in iambic pentameter for found-word crowd-sourced sonnets. When visiting “The Singing Room,” keep an eye/ear out for another piece by Bhatnagar at the Clocktower entrance — “Vexbot,” designed to “perform hazardous tasks which might otherwise endanger valuable pianists,” is playing “Vexations” by Erik Satie over and over in response to the composer’s assertion that “in order to play the theme 840 times in succession it would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand and in the deepest silence by serious immobilities.” Another musical challenge overcome by art!
Ranjit Bhatnagar: The Singing Room is at the Clocktower Gallery (108 Leonard Street, Manhattan) through May 9.