TURIN, Italy — Tinkles and toots. A steady rattle. Reverberations. Deep, tubular honks. I’m standing in the middle of an unconventional ensemble: Massimo Bartolini’s Four Organs, at the Fondazione Merz, in Turin, Italy. It is an exhibition of several sculptural objects that are both kinetic artworks and functioning, autonomous musical instruments — forming one intoxicating experience of sound.
The title makes reference to Steve Reich’s 1970 composition of the same name, his for four electric organs and maracas — what Reich called “pulse” music. The original, revolutionary piece is brutally minimal (I urge you to listen), with a repetitive, relentless harmony. It resembles the squawking mechanisms of a factory line: uncomfortably raucous yet guaranteed to stubbornly churn around in your head for hours afterwards. In Bartolini’s Four Organs, the artist has created his own version of Reich’s composition, arranged by composer Edoardo Marraffa, a frequent collaborator, exploiting the high ceilings and acoustics of the gallery in the same way that a traditional organist would a cathedral. The noises from each instrument bounce up and around, timed to either harmonize with each other or be discordant. This exhibition is all about the act of listening.
Bartolini has long used music and literature as material, often in collaboration with Marraffa. Last year, at Frith Street Gallery, London they worked on “Golden Square” (2016), a sculptural and musical interpretation of Charles Dickens’s 19th-century descriptions of the same square on which the gallery is built. In the novel Nicholas Nickleby, the author reports that “sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence.” Now in Turin, the two have recalibrated Reich’s “Four Organs” for this space and these machines, and Bartolini weaves his literary references into titles that provide hints of dizzying emotional context.
For example, the sculpture “Otra Fiesta” (2013) refers to an obscure Roberto Juarroz poem. The last line is “Pero en el centro del vacio / Hay otra fiesta,” or “But in the center of the void / There is another party.” Bartolini literally
recreates this line through constructing a central source of music surrounded by a grid of black space: a huge web (or void) of black scaffolding. The musical mechanism is comprised of a rotating steel drum on top of a large plywood box (technically known as a wind chest) which pumps pressurized air through air vents in the scaffolding. The result? A functioning pipe organ. The sculpture produces a cavernous, resonating sound that reverberates throughout the gallery and grabs the gut. Although the exhibition doesn’t use wall texts, it is accompanied by a little booklet with titles, dimensions, and a short rationale for each piece, referencing Juarroz without sharing lines from the poem.
It’s a curious work: an interpretation of a cryptic, existential poem that may allude to the nature of noise itself. Such a thoughtful title makes one listen more keenly for clues. The piece’s aural effects echoes, in my mind, the clanging, physical presence felt both in Reich’s original composition and Marraffa’s new arrangement. As the unconventional pipe organ is so loud and so encompassing, it reminds me of walking into church — a space where one is expected to acknowledge a higher being, or be in a spiritual, more reflective state of mind. Situated to greet you as you step through the doors, “Otra Fiesta” also acts as an introduction to Reich’s abstract, alienating music. As Four Organs is the overarching theme, it is my understanding that the rest of the works continue in interpreting Reich’s rich and complex composition.
Likewise, “Voyelles” (2017) makes complex emotional connections between title, object, and concept. Firstly, the title is taken from Arthur Rimbaud’s visceral poem of the same name, in which vowels are assigned the colors black, white, red, green, and blue, according to their perceived origins. For example, Rimbaud wrote: “E, candeurs des vapeurs et des tentes, / Lances des glaciers fiers, rois blancs, frissons d’ombelles,” which means, “E, whiteness of vapors and of tents, / lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley.” Each of the five, wall-mounted pipe organs take a color, and is meant to reproduce an individual vowel in the “Vox Humana,” a traditional reed stop in the instrument which is meant to resemble a human soloist.
This is not to suggest that “Voyelles” is an academic exercise — you can enjoy its phonic assault alone without any further reading (again, the gallery brochure has not reprinted the poem). And it is an assault: the pipes vociferously toot and caw off-key, almost in protest, like a cartoon tugboat with a painful sore throat. There’s something slightly disturbing about “Voyelles”; it is the first work in the show that I consciously anthropomorphize. These man-made objects do convey individual personalities, and this one is distinctly melancholy; perhaps it is thinking about those vapors or proud glaciers it will never see. “Voyelles” in particular provokes a contemplation of what a “voice” is, and how the quality of timbre from a musical instrument can be incredibly suggestive of human singing. I start to think of the pipe organ working in a similar way to the larynx, lungs, diaphragm, and mouth; each part of the mechanism has its own job to do to contribute to the overall sound emitted.
My favorite piece — I return again and again to listen — deviates from the theme somewhat by not alluding to Reich’s “Four Organs”, but rather to one of his influences. “Three Quarter-Tone Pieces” (2009) is named after Charles Ives’s 1924 composition for two pianos, in which one is tuned one quarter of a tone higher than the other. It’s revealing to note that Reich stated in a 2002 interview that he found Ives’s music to be “heartbreakingly beautiful.” I would agree; this piece, however, is also aims to disorient, using an unexpected pitch. Bartolini’s artwork creates a suitably uncomfortable sensory effect which echoes the other-worldly feeling of the original piano piece. It is, at times, unbearable: a sickening drone that implies the imagined sounds of a deep-sea monster, or the throttling of alien spacecrafts as depicted in movies. “Three Quarter-Tone Pieces” is perversely pleasurable, leaving me with the beginnings of a headache yet unable to tear myself away. Its construction is also worth noting, as it really is at odds with this overwhelmingly monstrous noise — resembling a set of plywood furniture from IKEA punctured with subtle vents. It is even described in the catalogue as “a wardrobe, a trunk and a kitchen cabinet.” Perhaps this suggestion of domesticity is a tool with which to lull the viewer into a false state of security; coaxing us closer to the source of the sound, before releasing a series of nightmarish, low hums.
Massimo Bartolini’s Four Organs continues at Fondazione Merz (Via Limone, 24, Turin, Italy) until October 1.