“Sound creeps into a space’s every little corner…”
December 8, 2010 § 10 Comments
Esther Venrooy & Ema Bonifacic cast A Shadow of A Wall in Intro In Situ’s workspace in Maastricht (nl)
My present for this year’s Sinterklaas was a freezing Maastricht, all cast in white. I crackled my way through the Capucijnengang where, halfway the Markt and the Vrijthof, a former hat factory is home to the office and workspace of Intro In Situ. As the door opens a soft sustenuto organ-like sound comes whirling down the stairs and misses me by inches. It bounces, three, four times on the thin layer of ice that covers the pavement, before it is silenced by a dense stretch of snow that fills up the gutter.
On the first floor of the workspace Esther Venrooy is busy preparing her installation A Shadow of A Wall, one of two elaborate sound installations (the other is Pierre Berthet’s Extended Drops) that can be visited and experienced in Maastricht from December 10th 2010 until January 30th 2011, as part of the Resonance project.
Esther Venrooy, who is of Dutch origin, but lives and works in Ghent (Belgium), is a relative newcomer to the field of sound art. After having finished her training as a classical saxophone player, it was James Fulkerson who, during a residency in Arnhem, introduced her to the music and writings of Alvin Lucier, which incited her to start concentrating on the composition of electronic music. “Initially,” Esther says, “these were all just 2-D works. All was stereo, though already in my earliest works one can find clear reference to space and architecture: in the titles I used words like ‘modular’, or there were specific references to buildings, to constructions… But it was only in 2008 that I did my first spatial work, in collaboration with Belgian visual artist Hans Demeulenaere. For this new installation at Intro In Situ the audio-technical support is provided by Johan Vandermaelen/Amplus.”
Up in the exhibition space on the bright white upper floor of the Intro In Situ workspace, Esther is looking at the screen of her laptop. She sits behind a table and faces a large inclined patchwork of wooden panels. The plane covers the full length of the back wall and takes up about one third of the room’s surface. The sight reminds me of things Japanese. It must be because of the untreated light wooden frames and the rice paper color of the panels…
“I wanted to do an architectural intervention,” Esther explains. “I wanted to be able to have the visitors experience and see the architecture of the space in a different way. Therefore I collaborated with architect Ema Bonifacic. Our intention was to design something that intervenes in a space, without being specifically about that space. Something that is not too imposing, but which does provide me with planes that resonate sounds. The panels that you see are actually the speakers. One of the two technologies that I am applying here is that of transducing. Literally that means: the conversion of one type of energy to another. Below the panels there are cylinders that sent the energy of the sound into the planes and make them resonate, like the membrane of a loudspeaker. The result will depend on the size and the sonic properties of the plane.”
So that is why there are different kinds of panels: I see two sizes of squares (a big one and a small one), and one rectangular shape.
“Yes, all of that is connected… And then there is a second technology, that I never worked with before and that I use here for the first time. It is a bipolar system ( † ). Below the large inclined surface there are four bipolar speakers. These use the acoustics – the reflections of the walls – to spread the sound even more. Each one is directed towards a corner or towards a wall. As a result it will be impossible to tell from where the sound is coming. It should be like a huge cloud, softly floating in the space. I will try to tune it in such a way that the tone is changing when you move your head. And the sound will feel very differently when you are close to a wall. A wall absorbs the sound and a wall reflects the sound. Even more so in the corners. A corner is like a funnel, it can catch an awful lot of sound. That was the original inspiration for this project: the wall actually will cast something like a shadow on the room.”
A sonic shadow. A shadow of sound?
“It is an acoustic shadow. Instead of using a virtual filter we have the room with its specific way of reflecting and absorbing, that emphasizes certain things and hides others. A little bit. Because sound creeps everywhere. It is not like a picture. If a picture is behind a wall, you cannot see it. But if you put a sound source behind a wall, you can still hear it. That’s the idea. I also wanted to have a single perspective. In the work “Vessel” (2008) the listener had to sit on a small bench, in the dark. From there one had sort of a panoramic view. Here the idea is that the visitors will mount the inclined surface… Let me show you …”
The visitors will have to take off their shoes. Maybe there should be slippers that they can put on?
Esther shakes her head. “No, that would be too theatrical.”
She takes off her boots and jumps onto the surface.
Then she turns around, sits down and comes sliding back down again.
“The plane is pretty steep and the surface is rather smooth. So you can easily slide down. Eventually you will end up sitting below, with your back to the wall. The construction is strong enough to hold about twenty visitors simultaneously. I think that people will like it a lot, to climb up this surface and slide down again.”
It sure looks like it is fun. But it will also make sound when people are sliding up and down the wooden surface. It may even make a lot of sound.
“I don’t mind that. There are sounds in the panels, so it will allow you to make a really physical contact with the work. You will feel the vibrations, you will feel the sound. And then the experience will again be very different when you put your head on, or close to, the panels.”
Will it be like a massage?
“No, it is not that strong… But there are a couple of things that come together here. The light in the room is changing in the course of the day. It will cast changing shadows on the surface. And also the sound is changing. The sound is changing when you walk, when you go up the plane; it will change when you lie down on it. This is what the work wants to be about: the very physical impact of sound. It does not have the pretense of some big concept. What counts for me, what counts for us, and what we want to share, is this very intuitive auditive experience. And, despite the large wooden plane, you keep the original size of the space. You keep the original panoramic view. There is no wall that you will bump into. The installation is imposing: it poses itself. But it is not specifically tied to this particular space.”
In another space it will work in an entirely different way, I suppose. You would have to totally re-think the sounds.
“That is precisely the research that I now have to embark upon, when in the near future we set up the installation in other places. The experience will each time be a different one. I am very curious, for instance, how it will work in a small church or a chapel, where there is a lot of reverberation. Here the space is more that of a living room. I find that extremely fascinating. It was very interesting to determine the spots to put the bipolar speakers. Those spots were chosen very carefully, in relation to the space. And, as I already said, there is actually but one perspective when you sit down. You can look at it, and observe it from the front. Or you can sit or lie down, and then opt to experience it. And when you do, you will forget about the image. When you lie down on the plane, you will no longer notice much of the installation. That makes it rather subtle, I think.”
The sounds that you intend to use will be partly based on the sounds of the city, specifically upon those of the town carillon.
“I have now chosen the frequencies that I want to use, and what I want these frequencies to do. I would like very much to have a slow glissando, something that goes from high to low. For a while already I have been working with room tones. Of course I know the size of the room, it is somewhat less than 11 meters, so the fundamental frequency that fits is about 31 Herz. And then 62, 124, and so on.”
And then you add the overtones?
“I add overtones, but what I also do is that I choose samples that fit into these frequency ranges, and that are very dense. Or I use recordings of the space, in which I push these frequencies. Or I use frequencies based upon the sizes of the panels, that – in centimeters – are 120 x 120, 60 x 60 and 120 x 60. And all of these then come together and interfere. That is an artistic choice. It is not some system that I always apply. I am looking for sounds that are capable of interfering, that are dense and complex. Sometimes I do use sine-tones, but that is rather to add some accents here or there. Or I use them in clusters, so that it becomes a very complex sound again. And then I also have to search for the right volumes. How loud should it be? … I continue working like that, until everything has found its proper place and balance. The sounds will have themselves become like panels that are shifting and moving the one over the other… Then there will also be the correspondence to the sounds from outside. I will have a number of frequencies, and these will correspond to certain notes and to a scale. During the opening concert on friday evening, Boudewijn Zwart will improvise on the town hall carillon using these notes. Maastricht’s town carilloneur, Frank Steijns, is going to create a number of open melodies with these notes. And after Christmas time, in January, each quarter hour the town hall carillon will play one of those melodies.”
Then we should open the windows!
“Then we can open the windows. Every now and then.”
But what will the sound be like inside? What will visitors hear when they come up the stairs and find your installation?
“The sound part of A Shadow of A Wall will be much less a composition than the sound in my other work. I devise the system. Then the system runs its course. I make several modules, that each have a different length. These I will play back (from CDs and digital players) in a loop. The modules thus move independently one from the other. What I like is that in this way you have little control over what will come together and when it will come together. It will be different, all the time. The actual result will be rather subtle. One will not, and should not, be overwhelmed by the sounds. It is not meant to be a Disneyland. It needs to be experienced, but – let me put it this way – ‘not in your face’…
In order to experience A Shadow of A Wall, visitors then should stay a while, spend some time with it.
“It is an invitation. I leave it up to them.”
But what would you consider the optimal way to experience the work?
“I don’t know, really. The space here has the advantage that it is somewhat more inviting than some of the other places where I did installations. Sometimes it was cold and people just stepped onto the work with their shoes on. But here it is warm. You can take off your shoes, stay a while and approach the work in a more careful way. Personally, when I go to see an installation, I like to stay for a while. To look, to listen …”
When people go to see a concert, with but very little exceptions, they will stay for quite some time as well. Also a sound installation has that temporal dimension. It is not merely an image.
“Yes, you should lose yourself in it, surrender to it. But I will not mind when someone steps in and is gone again after just 2 seconds… No. That I don’t mind. I leave that up to them.”
[ ( † ) A bipolar speaker has two or more speakers that output sound in mulitple directions, in order to make the sound field more diffuse so that the sound location cannot be pinpointed. In a bipolar speaker, both drivers are ‘in phase’: both speakers output sound at the same time.) ]