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
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."
"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
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
"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."
"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
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
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
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 www.sublingual.com.
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