Art

Rediscovering Bill Viola’s Forgotten, Resonant Sound Compositions

Bill Viola, The Talking Drum for Herman Heins, 1979, Photo Kira Perov
Bill Viola performing “The Talking Drum” (1979) (All photos by Kira Perov, Viola’s lifelong companion and collaborator; courtesy of Bill Viola)

LONDON — I am sitting in the middle of an empty car park. The space would be completely dark if not for some spotlights that dramatically light up pipes and other details of the architecture around me. I hear drumbeats — first one, then, after a long pause, another. They become more heavy and rhythmical, like the heartbeats of someone running. After every beat, the sound waves reverberate through the lot, lingering among the bare walls, filling the space. The drumbeats are now so frequent that I can’t tell them apart. The sound they create is an overwhelming, continuous resonance. I remember reading somewhere that in Greek tragedy, the sound of lead balls dropped on well-stretched animal skins was used to announce the intervention of gods.

Bill Viola’s sound compositions “The Talking Drum” and “Hornpipes,” presented at the Brewer Car Park as a collaboration between The Vinyl Factory and Blain Southern Gallery (which is also showing Viola’s Moving Stillness (Mt. Rainier), 1979), serve as a subtle invite to slow down and focus the mind.

To better understand these early, rarely exhibited sound works, visitors have to go back in time. The compositions were written well before the Hollywood-style video works that made Viola a world-famous artist. They belong to an early experimental period in his career that is being rediscovered only now, thanks to the current interest in audio installations and sound.

Bill Viola testing gating system for The Talking Drum, 1982, Photo Kira Perov
Bill Viola testing a gating system for “The Talking Drum” (1982)

While studying art at Syracuse University, Viola took classes in electronic music, and after graduation in 1973, he met David Tudor, a respected avant-garde pianist and longtime collaborator with John Cage. Viola performed in Tudor’s Rainforest project, a group dedicated to the composition and live performance of electronic and electroacoustic music, which later, as Composers Inside Electronics, toured and performed Tudor’s famous “Rainforest IV.”

Tudor’s complex, conceptual work aimed to create an electroacoustic environment, with different performers contributing through sound manipulation. These performances, along with other collaborations with artists and sound designers, left a deep impression on Viola.

The rising popularity of electronic music in the 1970s, combined with Viola’s interests in non-Western music and religion (he had already travelled to Japan twice), expanded his experimentations. Echoes of traditional instrumental Japanese music can be found in both “The Talking Drum” and “Hornpipes.”

Bob-Bielecki-and-Bill-Viola-testing-systems-The-Talking-Drum-1982-Photo-Kira-Perov
Bob Bielecki and Bill Viola testing systems for “The Talking Drum” (1982)

Moreover, the beginning of Viola’s career coincided with a crucial advance in sound design for traditional cinema: in 1977, Star Wars introduced the high-quality THX sound reproduction standard. George Lucas’s movies were also among the first to employ Dolby Surround, a three-dimensional sound to go with the bi-dimensional frames of a movie, which created an immersive atmosphere and revolutionized the experience of going to the cinema.

Viola spent the late ’70s and early ’80 doing a residency at Media Study/Buffalo, New York. While there, he collaborated and experimented with several other composers, including Ralph Jones, Bob Bielecki, and Yoshi Wada. The relationship between particular conditions of space and sound was fundamental to Viola’s audio experiments in those years. In both “The Talking Drum” and “Hornpipes,” he focused on combining the technical properties of the instruments — percussion and wind instruments, respectively — with the physical space of the performance: an empty swimming pool.

Bill Viola, Hornpipes, 1979-1982, Photo Kira Perov
Bill Viola, “Hornpipes” (1979–82)

While “Hornpipes” explores harmonics through the use of metallic and PVC pipes, “The Talking Drum” is built on the relationship between drumbeats and their architectural reflections, producing a complex array of sound — as the press release describes it: “the reverberating waves continue to reinforce, cancel, and generally interfere with one another in the room.”

In an interview with curator Akio Obigane in 2006, Viola described those years and the experimentations he conducted:

There was a period when I was working exclusively with sound, and my main interest was the science of the acoustic, the behavior of sound in space. I was very interested, for example, in why a blind person can know how big the room is just by clapping or tapping a cane on the ground. […] I distinctly remember feeling that I wanted to see the emptiness of space, to become the space and be extended out into every part of it all at once.

Viola’s career has been marked by a particular combination of technical knowledge and spiritual interest, and these are fully present in “The Talking Drum” and in “Hornpipes.” The two compositions are still fresh and don’t betray the weight of time, which is a true merit. It is surprising that they have not been presented more often, as they certainly should be.

The Talking Drum continues at the Vinyl Factory Space at Brewer Street Car Park through November 7. Bill Viola: Moving Stillness (Mt. Rainier), 1979 continues at Blain Southern through November 21.

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