Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sound Installation Review: “Chamber Music 8: Particles/Waves” by Steve Peters; Jack Straw New Media Gallery, Seattle

An entry in a guest book in the gallery foyer described this music as “delicate splatters”. And that’s what it is: delicate splatters of sound, and also metaphorically of light.

When you first walk in, it seems that there is nothing in the room (more on that idea later!). The walls are bare white. There are no pictures in the gallery. The ceiling lights are obscured but a white sheet (in fact, in the daytime when I went, they were not even lit). It is a blank white space with a round seat in the middle.

One becomes aware of the sounds. There are indeed delicate “splatters” of sound, single resonant notes or dots (which once when I was there spontaneously formed themselves into a melody). There are deep reverberating drones that enter one’s consciousness and cross-fade into other drones, sometimes below the threshold of hearing. There are occasional high squeals and sighs that would sound like auto brakes screeching, were they not so quieting.

Those high squeals probably were, in fact, originally derived from auto brakes. The sounds of this installation were made “from thin air”, that is, from the resonances of rooms in the gallery itself (think Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting In A Room”) – and by extension, the sounds that have entered the room from elsewhere. I don’t know the details of the process by which they were then turned into this music – but the result is a set of sixteen continuous loops of sound (of different lengths) that are broadcast quietly by sixteen speakers placed around the gallery room floor and ceiling. Since these sounds were drawn from the room, they cause the room to echo in return; and they also blend with the sounds outside the room (which would have been filtered by the walls of the room when they were recorded) – in this case, the traffic sounds outside become part of the composition (I’ve written about that phenomenon in this blog before) and a commentary on the recorded sounds.

It is a profoundly meditative sound-space. I sat there and listened for about twenty minutes, then lay down on the round seat for another half-hour, listening still. I would have liked to have stayed longer. I drew this "picture" while listening, with the thicker lines indicating the deeper drones.

I started thinking about the nature of what I was hearing. These sounds are drawn from “nothing”. Yet they are not nothing. They are drawn from the reverberations of the room(s) in which they were recorded. Reverberations are not “nothing”. These sounds are drawn from empty space, but empty space (on earth) is full of air, and even a vacuum is full of quantum particles that continuously appear and disappear. Like the other works in Mr. Peters’ “Chamber Music” series, this is a (probably intentional) negation of the ideas of nothingness and emptiness – I’m also reminded of John Cage, who eloquently and beautifully disproved randomness by writing “random” music that is not random at all. (I realize that some would consider this a misinterpretation of Cage’s work – but I’m speaking of the results of his music and the “mood” and feeling that it produces, not the concepts behind the music itself.) Morton Feldman also comes to mind, and the “color field” paintings of Mark Rothko – because the sounds of Mr. Peters’ installation also can be interpreted as delicate splatters and washes of color in a blank expanse.

Another graphic using the same principle of pulling design from “nothing” – and again, there is no “nothing” here…

“The Jack Straw New Media Gallery, located in Seattle's University District at Jack Straw Productions, opened in 1999 to support artists working with visual and installation art, with an emphasis on sound.” – Jack Straw website. “Chamber Music 8: Particles/Waves” will run until November 12, 2010.

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