March 11, 2013 § 5 Comments
Over the past couple of years, the Dutch duo made up of designer Jitske Blom and sound artist & composer Thomas Rutgers has been creating quite some public hubbub (Openbaar Kabaal), by their occasional invasion of public spaces with a small army of remotely controlled ‘ticking devices’. Little percussionists, like tiny electric woodpeckers, that Jitske and Thomas stick, in the abstracted form of transparent wireless boxes, to lampposts, litter bins, traffic signs, benches, doors, shop windows, and to whatever else that through its materiality will provide an interesting sounding response to the ticking stimuli of the mechanical mini guerrilla musicians. And then they have the little buggers play… To the often not little surprise and astonishment of unsuspecting passersby.
“The pretty unobtrusive small ticking boxes (they’re almost invisible) incite us to have a new, fresh look at the space that they – and we – are in,” Thomas said, “because through their ticking, they all of a sudden make us hear that space. This public hubbub work actually started out as a fixed composition, for eight of such tickers, that was performed at each of the different locations that we installed the piece. Later on it became more of a live improvisation, in which I manipulated the ticking via a Pure Data interface.”
Openbaar Kabaal / Public hubbub was the starting point, the genesis, for The Beaters, a work devised by Jitske and Rutger for the Resonance Network, which will premiere at the ECI Cultuurfabriek in Roermond (the Netherlands), between March 15th and April 15th 2013.
What is the precise relation between your variable public interventions with the ticking boxes, and The Beaters? Is the new work a more formal version, a dynamic public intervention captured in a more static installation?
“It actually involves quite a major shift of attention,” Thomas explained. “In our work with the little boxes the goal was, so to say, the creation of a little ‘symphony’ made up from existing objects; the objects that we glued the boxes to. In The Beaters our attention has shifted from these objects to the subject: from the thing that is being ticked against, to the thing that is ticking. The focal point now is the ticker itself.”
“It is still all about materiality,” Jitske added. “But now it is about the material of the ticker itself.”
And the ticking, the beating, will be all the time agains the same object?
“Yes, for The Beaters we actually built sort of a gigantic wooden sound board. It is almost like a fake wall,” Thomas said.
“It really is like a wall,” said Jitske, “wooden boards separated by a layer of air. We made four of them, that function like modules that can be put together in different ways, depending on the space that is available. Each of them is about 2 meter and 20 centimeters by 1 meter and 20 centimers. In Roermond we will put them together into one huge rectangular panel, but elsewhere we might make two little walls out of the four boards; or even place all four of them separately in the space, like four musicians.”
Did you pick a special kind of wood?
“Not so special; it’s just wood,” Jitske explained. “We ended up choosing a type of plywood, not for some deep technical reason, but because that was what to us sounded best.”
So The Beaters are the black things that we see on the wooden panes in this picture of the work under construction? They really look like ‘stylized’ woodpeckers, don’t they? They also remind me a bit of little pumpjacks (jaknikkers).
“They are all of different dimensions, all have different sizes, and all are made from different materials,” Thomas said. “Some of them are solid, some are hollow. Some are made from plastic, others are made of wood, metal, rubber, styrofoam… They form a family. Like you have families of classical instruments: violin, viola, cello, et cetera.”
Or maybe even more like the different kinds of sticks, of different sizes and materials, that are used by a percussionist…? Did you compile this collection of sizes and materials in some sort of a systematic way?
“We wanted to use as many different ones as possible,” said Jitske. “But with the condition that they’d all have a similar visual appearance. As you can see, the beaters all look the same. Their materiality is being disguised. We don’t want the audience to be able to see what kind of material a particular beater has been made of. So that has driven our selection: use as many different materials as possible, but sticking to the condition that they all should look the same. That has been an important part of my research, experimenting with all sorts of different kinds of plastic, et cetera.”
But all the beaters are powered in the same way?
“Yes, they are all moved electrically, by small electric motors,” Thomas replied. “And it now is an essential part of the work that you actually can see the movement. The little transparent boxes of the Openbaar kabaal series all contain the same small ticker, and there is actually not much to be seen there. But in The Beaters, the visual information conveyed by the movement of the beaters is an inextricable part of the composition.”
So that the composition will actually also be sort of a choreography?
“In a way The Beaters are not unlike kinetic art,” added Jitske.
But each of them has its fixed spot on the wood. They do not move along the panes, from one spot to another, do they?
“No, each one has its fixed spot on the board,” Thomas confirmed. “And that’s where they are going back and forth. An important part of the composition consists in bouncing mouvements, like that of a ball bouncing on the floor.”
But then vertically …
“Indeed!” Thomas smiled. “So that is one little devious play: it suggests that gravity is being defied. A question that is at the heart of the work is whether it is possible to manipulate the sound, or one’s expectation of a sound, via the visual information that comes with it. If I pretend that I am going to hit you, you will startle in a backward direction already quite some time before I will actually hit you. So with the movement of the beaters, long before you hear a ‘hit’, you will feel that it is coming because you react to the visual information entering via your eyes. Also, the bouncing effect and the bouncing movement convey a sense of time. If we disregard friction, two objects on earth will bounce in the same manner. So what if things suddenly seem to be bouncing slower, or faster?”
Because you are hiding the specific materiality of the beaters, it will not be easy for a viewer to anticipate on a beater’s sound; unless he or she already has been watching and listening for a while, and formed sort of an auditive catalogue of the work…
“We use a number of ping pong balls,” Jitske replied. “Their sound is very recognizable; so these you will be able to pick out rather quickly.”
Are there more duplicates? Or are most of the beaters different?
“There are some duplicates,” Thomas said, “but most of them are different.”
How many beaters do you have beating? And why?
That question made Rutger laugh. “There are 31 beaters,” he said. “And why 31? … Well, you know that often when programming things, or putting things together with electronics and computers, you end up working with powers of two. So this is … well, it’s odd, so maybe it’ll give you one as an extra …
31 is the 5th power of 2 minus 1. So it is more than just ‘odd’. It is also a prime number. Actually it’s the 3rd Mersenne prime. OK, I guess that’s a good enough reason to pick 31… Joking apart, what I have been wondering about in the context of specifically the Resonance project, is why you decided to construct something fixed, something that is like an instrument, instead of taking the opportunity to ‘invade’ spaces like you have been doing before, and use the beaters to investigate the different locations that the work will be presented in, make use of the different materials and their different acoustic properties, etcetera.
“That has been the outcome of quite a long process,” Thomas explained. “Our starting point indeed was closer to that of the public hubbub, but while thinking and working on the project it occurred to us that for practical reasons it would be much better and far more convenient to build, say, our own wall, and bring that to the different locations. And actually, I am very curious to experience how this will work in the different places, each with its own and very different acoustic properties. In Roermond it will be in a very open, very high space, and floating freely as one large rectangular panel, at some distance from a wall. In April, at the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, The Beaters will be in a very different space, much smaller, and far more closed; also a space that in relation to the visitors fulfills a very different function… All these are very interesting aspects, and it is in this respect that the work will still continue to be a work in progress. It is a composition. But it is also an installation. It is the relation between the two that fascinates us.”
You are still working on the details of the composition. Which will indeed be a composition, I mean, a piece that has a well defined starting point, a fixed development, and a well defined end.
“Yes,” Thomas said. “It will be a fixed composition, with a duration of about 10 minutes; a composition for clicks, and, of course, to have nothing but clicks is a major limitation for a composer. A click in itself is not short or long; it has no duration, and therefore gives you almost no means for expression. There is just the moment of ‘click'; that’s infinitely short. So what I will be investigating is whether the visual information makes it possible to add expression to this click. Can visual clues make a click last longer? Or shorter? The beaters are pulled towards the wooden panel by some sort of a gravitational force, but sometimes, halfway that movement suddenly will stop dead. This gives a kind of tension that is being released, or not released; almost like in a classical harmonic progression. So these may provide equivalents of musical building blocks that can be applied in a visual manner. This is the type of research this composition will be concerned with. Research that is situated somewhere in the borderlands between choreography and sound; somewhere between sound and music.”
Isn’t it also typically a work, a situation, in which you would expect some sort of an interactivity? Between the actions of the beaters, and those of the visitors of the installation? With the density of beatings depending on the number of onlookers? Or vice versa?
“That would of course be possible,” said Thomas. “And certainly not too complicated to implement. But of course, it would add another infinity of possibilities. And personally I am not very interested in such forms of interactivity, that necessarily imply that the music gets some sort of a generative character. I find it difficult to make that interesting, because it mostly implies a relation that is very one to one; or, if it is not one to one, the relation is unclear… so… No, my preferences lie very much with a fixed form composition.”
But does a fixed form composition, of a very limited duration, that is continuously, literally, being repeated (a sound track), not contradict the idea of an installation work, which in itself does not impose any duration, no beginning and no end? Which would suggest some form of variability or evolution (not necessarily interactivity or generativity), instead of strict and unrepentant repetition. Sometimes, also for that reason, sound installations make use of a number of fixed composed parallel tracks, each with a different duration, which upon playback therefore will result in continuously shifting layers. Which, I guess, is more of a pseudo solution than a real solution…
“For the time being I am going to stick to the fixed composition, of about ten minutes, that will be continuously repeating,” Thomas insisted. “It will be a piece with very gradual changes, and of course people can step in somewhere in the middle of it; or leave in the middle. But it will be a relatively short cycle, that’s true. It remains a fascinating problem indeed, how to compose for a sound installation. And a problem, that, I think, does not have an easy and straightforward solution. When you use such shifting layers, to me that feels like giving up control; you then already switch to another level, far more abstract and far more ‘macro'; which can be OK. If you are willing to accept that. For me it remains a challenge, to look for forms that continue to provide me with enough control, but that also allow me to make something that remains dynamic…”
Even though it was maybe not intentionally conceived as such, The Beaters is – besides many other things – also clearly an instrument, a percussion instrument. And Thomas now is writing the first score (in Q-Base) for this instrument. Could he imagine inviting other composers to write pieces for The Beaters?
“Yes, that is definitely a possibility,” Thomas replied. “For this of course is another border that we are investigating. Is The Beaters an instrument that is playing a composition? Or is it one piece in which image and sound tell one story? The fact that this is not at all clear is, we think, part of its charm and its force. And I am actually considering using The Beaters in the future in performances. One can easily imagine pieces for The Beaters and all sorts of different ensembles… That would be fantastic to do!”
… “The Beaters” has been produced for RESONANCE by Stichting Intro in situ in Maastricht, the Netherlands, with additional support from the Dutch Province of Limburg.