Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sound Installations from Composers at U of L

Last week, I spent an hour and a half hanging different colored airplanes from the ceiling between the two wings of the music school. It provided an opportunity to think about the sound scape that I was helping install, about the nature of art in space in particular, and about the art consumption habits of music school students. I'm not going to discuss the installations themselves, I'll leave that for the composers, James Young and Leah Sproul Pulatie, to post comments and explain (and also link to any photos or videos they have). 

The first thought I had was how nice it was to be helping create something. I am not in any way trying to take credit for any of the ideas or more than a small pittance of the work involved. I simply mean that, despite the fact that I spend most of my day studying music, but very little time making any of my own. It was nice to feel how a composer must feel, as they bring something genuinely new into the world. Despite all logistical and reception problems, regardless of whether or not anyone in the world likes the work, creation is still important. Both installations took inordinate amounts of work, and both will be up around a month, and then will probably never be seen again. The courage to do that work for such a (seemingly, in this late capitalist consumer culture) little material reward is remarkable. I'd do well to remember this, and the small taste of how it feels, as I go on to teach and critique.

The second thought I had was about these works, in their spaces. Both installations were designed for a specific space. Both are spaces that I see nearly every day, and never think of. What I've found matters to me the most regarding these installations is the fact that now, I notice and think of these spaces. It's not merely that there is art happening in them. It is my awareness being broadened, forced to (re-) incorporate marginalized areas that I had before not thought of, areas which will forever be changed (even after the sculptures are taken down) in my mind because of the presence of these installations. I've found that this thinking is more marked with Jame's installation, because of the nature of the space. It is a transitional space, a way of getting from one arrival to another. If anything, it is normally seen as a nuisance, as a space that needs to be traversed before "more" can happen. Now, I am conscious of every step I take, and even find myself lingering in this transitory space, a space I would have no other reason to remain in, to take in more of the installation. I also find myself thinking more about similar spaces I see everyday and pay no mind to.

My third thought involves how students in music school, who will be in one sense of the word professional artists, received the installation of the sculpture. I understand how it could be annoying to have the walkway closed off, as it forces someone to take time out of their day in order to detour, and I don't honestly know how I would have felt about it if I had been in a bad mood (or not known the composer). I heard a LOT of complaining, which, inconvenience aside, is almost inexcusable. It would seem that, as future professional artists, each student here would be trying to consume as much as possible, if for no other reason than because they are curious. As I learned as I talk, write, and teach about music that I love, and as I ask others for music they love, they are a terrifyingly small number of practicing musicians who are actively listening, and that alarms me very much.


  1. Considering context. As a composer, especially one working with the new mediums that the 21st century can provide, I am constantly considering different ways in which to transmit art.

    The concert hall is a peculiar space. The audience is forced to react according to social norms despite whatever energies they might be feeling. The audience is subservient to what is on stage even while the performers on stage are trying to provide a service to the audience, escape. Personally, I think the system is flawed and even archaic. Not every piece requires quiet reflection. The modern audience is diverse.

    The installation solves many of the problems of the concert hall. It eliminates the ego of the performer entirely. The audience does not need to consider the feelings of a sony speaker or a paper airplane. The audience may approach the art completely on their terms, whether that be discussing it, avoiding it, or quietly reflecting upon it. In no case will they 'ruin the experience' for any other person. The installation is persistent and offers a fairly constant stream of information. The audience is then able to develop an opinion (or not).

    Speaking only for the hallway installation, the fact that it is in a mundane space is also a benefit. Because the space is no longer 'sacred' (concert hall, theatre, etc.) it requires no ritual to prepare for. It is as experiential as a flower on the side of the road. Quietly walking the hallway, I've overheard a huge number of comments, more so than with any other work. I think, perhaps foolishly, this is because the installation is NOT on stage, away from the audience. It has invaded THEIR world.

    You make a number of points that I'd like to comment on John, but I'll stop there. I will say thank you for that hour and a half. The gun was really right up to our heads there and you helped us JUST dodge the bullet.


  2. James- your comment reminded me of a book I read last summer. The author, Christopher Small, argues that music (which should be "musicking," a more active form of the word) creates the audiences/participants ideal community. He essentially deconstructs his main example, "classical" Western art music, to show how every aspect, ranging from the music to the arrangement of the performers to the space itself, reflects one type of ideal community.

    As you have hinted at, this community is not necessarily one that most of us would other wise participate in upon reflection. It is fairly autocratic (from composer to conductor to performers to passive audience), almost essentially univocal (the composer, and to some extent the conductor, although their job is to interpret the composer, so the conductor is still subservient to the one voice of the composer), and exclusionary (paying audience, accepted canon, social rituals, etc all look harshly upon the uninitiated) (how many times have you heard people grouse about clapping between movements?)

    Ignoring the social and aesthetic reasons the concert hall developed, I would completely agree that it is outmoded for several types of music (unfortunately non-canonic types, meaning they get played less). Since the techniques and compositional languages of music have developed so much in the last 100 years, it makes sense to begin expanding those techniques and languages into other spaces; or, conversely, stop trying to cram new musics into old spaces.

    Even simply hearing a symphony in a different space would create a different art work. What if the work was performed in a club or other venue? No chairs, no hegemony of viewings (people could mingle and move within the space instead of being fixed to one location, a location that limits both movement AND perception, since you can only comfortably focus in one direction). So many of your comments resonated with the Small and with recent thoughts I've had on music and space, and it is fantastic to have some concrete examples to bash my thoughts against. And you're kind to thank me, but the pleasure was all mine.