The Ringing Wealth of Curves

October 9, 2010 § 2 Comments

When I was much younger than I am now I often sat under bridges and marveled at the reverberation and the echoes that came whirling back to me from the curved (concrete, metal or other) structures above my head. And I found that while strumming my guitar there definitely was good, screaming, shouting and stamping around were even better.
As far as the screaming and stamping goes, I especially remember one little bridge in the small town of Luxembourg, which crosses the Sauer from the Luxembourg to the German side. Here is a picture:

wasserbillig bridge

Part of the reason why I do remember that particular spot so very well is that it was under this Wasserbillig bridge that in the summer of 1973, with a small battery powered portable cassette machine, I made one of my very first outdoors recordings. The resulting five minute soundbite always remained dear to me. Every now and then I listen to it ( † ). And though of course even the best recording would not be able to emulate the physical sensation of being part of that small curved space and its particular acoustics, it does ensure that I will never forget the Wasserbillig bridge.

It therefore is no wonder that I was struck by a Wasserbillig ghost when on Monday October 3th I entered, for the first time, the upper floor of the Wiebengahal on the Avenue Céramique in Maastricht and heard the rattling echoes of my footsteps under the low semicircular concrete shell roof.
The peculiar acoustics of this vast (some 800 m2) space is the subject of Panels, an intricate installation by Dutch sound artist Paul Devens.

paul devens panels

Paul molds, transforms and re-shapes the hall’s acoustic ‘matter’ by means of four metal ‘bridges’. These are the panels that the title of the installation refers to. Covered with acoustic foam, and according to a fixed, programmed, scheme, they slowly move along four long metal tubes that on both sides are fixed just above the floor. When they do, they squeak and moan. Softly, like chained and forgotten old Céramique ghosts. And there was a distant crackling, irregular yet rhythmic, as if raindrops were hitting a thin metal roof.

paul devens panels

The panels’ ride continuously transforms the space and its acoustic. This ongoing transformation is made audible by means of feedback, generated by 16 loudspeakers on one side and 16 corresponding microphones on the other side, placed in a wedge-like pattern. In order to avoid that the resulting tone field gets dominated by single pure frequencies, a notch filter is applied as soon as these emerge. Here is a short sound file to give you an impression:

A mere recording, though, can do Panels no justice. And neither does the work’s matter-of-factly and prosaic title. (But that is of course a matter of taste. Or of temperament.) The panels are the tools that are applied to reveal what is the true heart of the matter: the ringing wealth of the very special acoustics of this curved surviving trace of Maastricht’s industrial past. The Wiebengahal is one of the few buildings that were spared when, starting in the late 1980s, the industrial park that used to be home to the Société Céramique, was transformed into an office and residential area. Paul’s equally industrial installation fits the Wiebengahal’s attic, almost literally, like a glove. The result is monumental. Panels fills the hall with slowly meandering clouds of almost tangible sound that make the vast empty space seem eerily timeles. I was both surprised and impressed, already then, in broad daylight. But while I wandered back and forth beneath the gliding arcs I wondered. Would the magic not be even bigger were one to come here alone and sit and listen at night, with nothing but the glow of the city lights, maybe along with that of the moon and some lone stars, falling through the roof’s curved glass windows?

It was at this precise moment of reflection that one of the moving panels accidentally set off the Wiebengahal’s burglar alarm. With its painful and penetrating yell it blew up the clouds and chased us away, along with our dreams and all of the Céramique’s ghosts.

[ Panels can be seen and heard daily (except on mondays) until January 16th 2011, at NAiM/Bureau Europa, Avenue Céramique 226, Maastricht (the Netherlands). October 29-30 the installation will be the setting for a two day symposium with a series of performances, centering on the manifold aspects of the relation between space and sound. For a detailed program, see the previous post. ]

[ ( † ) The curious and courageous may find my 1973 Wasserbillig soundbite here. ]

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