The Boston Phoenix January 18 - 25, 2001

[Music Reviews]

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The art of noise

Thurston Moore, singing sculpture, and more at the Museum School

by Ted Drozdowski

Art speaks to us. But it can also moan, howl, ping, crackle, hum, or bark. That's what a daring exhibition at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts aims to prove beginning this Wednesday, when a concert of rippling improvisation kicks off a month of sonic and visual adventure within the SMFA's red-brick walls.

Featuring Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, guitarist Nels Cline, and electric-harpist Zeena Parkins, the concert is the first blast of "Dangerous Waves: Art of Sound." It's a near-festival of exhibits and installations -- and a CD-release event -- that echoes the musical focus of the Museum of Fine Arts' current major show, the innovative "Dangerous Curves: The Art of the Guitar."

Moore and LaMaster

Improvisation as a musical force has always been one of the great transcenders -- a quality that taps directly into the human spirit. And when that happens, most audiences can recognize the results as art, whether the music is folk, jazz, blues, rock or -- in rare instances where spontaneous and free improvisation is encouraged -- classical.

Making such art is the goal of the concert that Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins, and Nels Cline will play Wednesday in the Museum School's Anderson Auditorium. And having players with their remarkable talent and experience at improvising is a short cut to that end.

All three have fat résumés in rock and the avant-garde. But the best known is Moore, who as leader apparent of Sonic Youth has been at the forefront of rock-as-art for 20-odd years.

"When we first started Sonic Youth, we existed in a community of downtown New York that was predominantly involved in experimental and avant-garde music and art," the guitarist says, tracing the changes he's seen. "During the '80s, when we were touring a lot behind our records on the SST label, we were considered the artsy part of the underground rock scene. There was a real purist punk-rock æsthetic, and we were kind of the unorthodox, weirdo adjunct in a way, along with Einstürzende Neubauten and maybe the Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets.

"When the whole punk rock scene became mainstream, with the success of Nirvana, etc., people started looking to the experimental underground for music with hip cachet. Then the advent of turntablism and DJ culture widened tastes, and young people started to become fascinated with avant-garde free-jazz and radical noise music. All of a sudden the things we embraced were being celebrated, including us, and now there's a huge -- well, maybe not huge compared to the teeny-bop stuff that's taken over -- interest in improvised music.

"The whole landscape has changed, so there are magazines catering to this music, stores like Other Music, and places like the Knitting Factory, which has built a reputation on this kind of music.

"Which makes the idea of playing at a museum appropriate. In a way, what we'll be playing -- whatever that will be -- is maybe from the place where a lot of the installations and artworks have come from. It's part of that evolution."

Boston-based avant-garde violinist Jonathan LaMaster, who leads the group Saturnalia and runs the Sublingual label, also points out the evolutionary link between established artists and those in training that "Dangerous Waves" celebrates. "The first show I ever promoted in Boston was Zeena Parkins & Elliott Sharp's duo Psychoacoustic in 1996. So I asked them if I could record last year's concert, and I became aware that Zeena was teaching at the Museum School. Through that experience, I met Lauren Weinger and the other folks in the sound-art program and became really interested in the sonic sculptures being produced by the students.

"Last April, when I put on a show for Chris Cutler, a musicologist and founding member of Henry Cow, I re-encountered the school's sound-art people again. Chris was delivering a lecture there on the revolutionary history of recording. I was amazed at the vision of this program that was bringing some of the brightest minds in new music to students."

"With the Acoustiphobia CD, I'm excited about being able to present the recordings of the students. They are fascinating, capturing tangible and intangible atmospheres of the acoustic spaces in which they were recorded."

-- TD

"Dangerous Curves" changes the context of the guitar from popular instrument to object of artistic beauty that's worthy of a museum's walls. "Dangerous Waves" looks to change the context of the walls by transforming the school from a mere structure into an interactive, resonating chamber that will surround those passing through with a host of surprising sound-art experiences. Among the more unconventional pieces installed will be Ron Kuivila's Sparks on Paper, which uses dozens of pairs of steel wires coursing with 12,000 volts of electricity -- wires that visitors are expected to touch. Their movement triggers unpredictable rhythmic sequences of flashes and crackles, and paper objects attached to the wires amplify the sound. Then there's Museum School instructor Doug Henderson's What Could Replace Opus?, a giant harp with eight strings between 35 and 65 feet long that's stretched across the Museum School's atrium.

"I'm intrigued by the sound that develops when you get past a string length of 10 to 15 feet," explains Henderson, who's also an instrument maker for the likes of downtown Manhattan improvisation cornerstone Elliott Sharp and has rebuilt harps for Zeena Parkins. "There is very little relationship sonically to what you'd expect from a guitar or harp. The strings end up creating different kinds of vibrations and harmonics [from stampedes of percussive tones to lush drones] which are really exciting for me to explore." And like Sparks on Paper, they're also quite a sight.

There are many other installations. Talk to the Building, by student Siobhan Rigg, uses a microphone installed by the front entrance to project visitors' words into other parts of the school -- after turning them into a William Burroughs-like cut-and-paste of sonic chowder. It's a deft way to raise questions about the nature of the sounds we make and their meaning, and about the nature of communication. Elliott Sharp also has a piece on display: his Chromatine is bass strings mounted on a wall that are activated both by a computer and by metal wands wielded by visitors. Then there's Ryan Sneden's mysterious Silence, four large loudspeakers pulsing monstrously under the burden of gargantuan tones too low for human hearing. Are the speakers on? What sounds are being made?

Such provocations are the essence of interesting student works that will be featured in a sort of walkway of sound art. Sound Portraits, in the first-floor Bag Gallery, explores the sonic implications of photography and the visual implications of sound. Students have turned 15 cameras and 15 radios into a giant surround-sound system. The lenses of the cameras have all been replaced by working speakers. Along with the radios they present audio snapshots ranging from the winds rustling through the dunes of Georges Island to a narrative on how sausages are manufactured.

The Pink Noise Gallery on the second floor houses six separate installations along a 75-foot hallway that, according to Lauren Weinger, director and founder of the school's sound-art program, use the low-level white noise of the building's air ducts -- which are situated between each piece -- to cleanse the aural palette between works. These include Eaves Dropping, a phone receiver hanging from the ceiling that reproduces a conversation overheard in a supermarket; Bird House, which pairs chirping birds with a voice begging, "Let him out!"; and Canine Comfort, a fuzzy, bone-shaped pillow from which emanates the sound of barking greyhounds, a can being opened, and other doggie delights.

"In another institution we might be more bent toward the musicality of science, but since this is a visual-arts school, there's more a sculptural and photographic orientation," relates Weinger. "Truly, this is a celebration of different manifestations of sonic art. The history of sonic art really comes out of the turn of the [last] century. The Futurists said all noise is music."

Doug Henderson amplifies this point with a personal note. "I see myself following in the tradition of Pierre Schaeffer and some of the other musique concrète composers. Even going back to Duchamp, who created some of my favorite sound pieces. One was filling railroad cars with coal. I've always been interested in the way that sound and visual imagery can inhabit the same world and inform or contradict each other to make something larger of the two elements."

Weinger, who was a blues keyboardist before she turned to creating soundscapes and blending music with performance art in the '70s, started the Museum School's unique sonic-art curriculum four years ago. "Our program is in acceleration right now, and I'm delighted by that." Indeed, this major show is a successor to a smaller but similar effort last year that kicked off with a concert by Sharp, percussionist Ikue Mori, and turntable artist Christian Marclay and featured students' works. That concert was recorded for local avant-music sparkplug Jonathan LaMaster's Sublingual label; a two-CD album, Acoustiphobia: Volume One, will be released on Wednesday. The disc also includes student pieces from Y2K ranging from the scavengings of surveillance microphones to the sound of a heavy chair dragged across the floor with a popcorn maker snapping out harmony.

"This year is particularly interesting for the sound-art program because of the guitar show," Weinger adds. "When we were invited to do this by the museum, I said, `Let's look at the differences between the museum and school and use that as part of our inspiration.' "

To underscore the connection between both institutions, Weinger says she "wanted to actually string the buildings together and find what would happen to the string and molecules around it. For that we needed Alvin Lucier's A Long Thin Wire, so we were delighted to have him as one of our participating artists."

The concert, Weinger adds, is more than a loud electric celebration of the exhibition's opening. It's a transient part of "Dangerous Waves." "Improvisation plays an important role in sound art. As artists we make choices about how our art comes alive or gets excited into being. That has to do with establishing certain parameters of our control, whether it's hitting a string or setting off a series of tones through a random pattern of sparks.

"Musicians and people who are more formally identified as sound artists are doing much the same thing. There are many ways of performing an improvisation. Some choose to get up on stage and play; others may create an installation that makes sounds that are affected by the changing conditions of the molecules around them. Either way, it's an improvisation."

"Dangerous Waves: Art of Sound" will be on display at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts from January 24 through February 4. Admission is free. Wednesday's 8 p.m. concert with Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins and Nels Cline starts at 8 p.m. in the school's Anderson Auditorium. Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling 267-1219. Next Thursday, January 25, at 12:30 p.m. Moore, Parkins, Cline, Elliott Sharp, Ron Kuivila and other artists will participate in a free panel discussion, also in the Anderson auditorium, on installation art, fine arts, and sound. The Acoustiphobia: Volume One CD will be available at Wednesday's show, at Twisted Village Records in Harvard Square, and from

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