‘Is it Music? Is it Art?’

February 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Resonance & Sound Art at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, the Netherlands

The Jan van Eyck Academy is an internationally renowned post-academic art institute, located in the quiet and quite beautiful ancient Latin Quarter of Maastricht.

Jan van Eyck Academy

On its web site, the Jan van Eyck describes its position within the academic art world as being one that, through research and production, is characterized by a profound multidisciplinary approach, and not led by whatever predetermined leitmotivs. Research at the Academy covers a wide range of subjects, from ‘replicas as artistic strategy’ to ‘the publishing practice of the punk movement’; from ‘the transformation of urban areas’ to ‘the crossroads of art and politics’…

Given the decidedly multidisciplinary nature of a great many, if not all, sound art installations, Intro in situ‘s choice to have the second Resonance presentation in Maastricht take place not in a gallery space, but in the Jan van Eyck Academy’s building, thus was both an interesting and a logical one, as it fitted perfectedly with the Jan van Eyck’s aim at encouraging collaboration, also outside the confines of the academy.

In his opening speech, on December 9th last year, Jan van Eyck’s director Lex ter Braak stressed the importance of such cross-fertilization. “I am very glad that, during the period of the setting up of these installations in the Jan van Eyck, there indeed was a quit vivid exchange between the Resonance artists and the researchers and artists working at our institute,” he said.

Lex ter Braak

Three Resonance installations could be seen and heard in the Jan van Eyck Academy building, over the last three weeks of 2011.

At the entrance, at the very beginning of the front hall, looking “as if it had been there forever”, visitors of the Academy building were welcomed by Evelina Deicmane‘s A Long Day.

A Long Day

“When you are walking under Evelina’s work, somehow you think of a cloud that is moving,” Lex ter Braak said about the piece. “But it is not a cloud, it is a lake, that is like a carpet. A carpet that is flying above you. With this work, the artist is referring to an old Latvian tale that says that people are living under a flying lake. And if you talk about it, or even think about it, it will come down, and swallow you completely. For me, this is like thinking about all the bad things in life that can happen. As soon as you think about something bad, it is bound to happen. But if you don’t think about it, then you remain happy…”

A Long Day

This interpretation of her work made Evelina smile. “I like it,” she said. “It indeed is more or less like that, though I’d say that Lex ter Braak’s story is a bit more dramatic than what I had in mind…”

The Maastricht installment of Maia Urstad’s ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai…’ found a nice and quiet spot in the (old) auditorium of the Academy, where the many radio’s voices softly hummed, far from the Academy’s ongoing to-and-fro.

Meanwhile in Shanghai

“My first impression of Maia’s work,” Lex ter Braak said, “was that I had entered some sort of a bazaar, where you can buy all kinds of different old radio’s. But looking a bit better, I discovered the movement of time. For there are radio’s from the 1950s, from the 1960s, from the 1970s, the 1980s and even contemporary ones. Some of them you might recognize. As a radio that you once had yourself. Or as the radio that was playing in your neigbour’s house…
In that sense, ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai…’ is a stroll through time. You realize what is happening with yourself, with images, and with the instruments that are part of our world and our lives.”

Meanwhile in Shanghai

Whereas the Resonance presentation in Riga was a homecoming for Evelina’s A Long Day, the Resonance exhibition at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht meant a homecoming for Paul Devens’ City Chase. A double homecoming even, as not only has Paul been a Maastricht citizen ever since he was born there, in 1965, he also once was a student at the Jan van Eyck Academy. In this version of his City Chase installation, Paul presented the piece that he created from sounds recorded while biking through his hometown, at his former school.

City Chase

The ‘made while moving’ field recordings that he uses for the pieces played back in City Chase (a new one for each city to which the installation travels), have no evident ‘focus’. In City Chase, the origin of sounds always transits from one source to another. One hears these prerecorded sounds only when the speakers move along the four metal rails, with one loudspeaker for each of them. Computer-controlled motors move them according to the ‘choreography’ that Paul devised for them.

“The speakers run like little racecars along their tracks,” Lex ter Braak observed, “where they play back sounds from the everyday life in our city. Together it sums up to more than a city soundscape: it becomes music. Or rather, I’d say, sounds that remind one of music…”

This last remark, brought up an interesting point, a question that continues to recur whenever ‘sound art’ is at stake: is it ‘art’, or is it ‘music’?

In his introduction, Lex ter Braak referred to a discussion he had on the subject with Bart van Dongen, Intro in situ’s artistic director. Lex made it clear that he considers the three Resonance sound art installations mainly as art. “For me,” he said, “this is art, with sounds.” Bart van Dongen, on the other hand, explained that for him the Resonance pieces are primarily about music. The artists are working with sound as a way to deal with, and think about, music. From this point of view, sound art becomes an investigation into new ways for presenting (and making) music.

Bart van Dongen

It is an interesting, and – due to many semantic pitfalls – pretty hard discussion, though at closer inspection many of the differences-at-first-sight, in opinion and interpretation, will turn out to be due to differences in background and focus (in ‘culture’) of the beholder. The director of an art academy will obviously look at the installations with his ‘artistic’ eye, while the director of an institute that mainly focuses on the production of musical works, will hear them with his ‘musical’ ear. It was not in the least place this very difference in culture and focus, that made the meeting of two worlds, last December in Maastricht, such a valuable and fruitful one.

Lex ter Braak and Bart van Dongen both expressed their eagerness to continue these ‘meetings of worlds’ on a more regular basis. Thus, over the weekend of 10-11 February 2012, the Jan van Eyck Academy will host a co-production of Intro in situ and the Rosa Ensemble: Europa 5.1, an interactive performance in image and sound, in which musicians create their ‘own Europe’ …. including ‘all the noise, misunderstandings, brilliant ideas and megalomania’ that come with it.

Will it be ‘music’, or will it be ‘art’?

You best go, hear, see and decide for yourself…

Europa 5.1 can be experienced at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht, daily from 20h00, on Friday February 10th, Saturday February 11th and Sunday February 12th. The entrance fee is €12,50.

[ The photographs of ‘Resonance at the Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht’ were all made by Moniek Wegdam. ]

‘There’s these noises in my head, they just do not let me in peace’

August 11, 2011 § 7 Comments

From August 12th until September 11th, Kunsthaus Meinblau in Berlin shows A Long Day, an installation developed by Latvian artist Evelina Deicmane during a project residency for the Resonance project. Earlier this year, while I was in Berlin performing and recording with the Dutch-French electroacoustic alliance Diktat, I met Evelina at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in the Kottbusser Straße. There she had just finished another Berlin residency, which also had given rise to an installation, then at view at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien Exhibition space: Burt Nieks (The flying lake looked down upon the village).

‘Burt’ means to bewitch, or to enchant. And ‘nieks’ stands for easy, effortless. It is a split up into two parts of Burtnieks, the name of a lake near the Latvian village where, in 1978, Evelina Deicmane was born, and which plays an important role in Latvian mythology and folklore. Like Burt Nieks, also A Long Day is inspired by the myth of the flying lake. The villagers knew that if the flying lake’s name were mentioned it would fall upon the village, submerging it and its inhabitants. A Long Day depicts the village as it now stands, indeed at the bottom of the lake. It is not necessarily a tragic tale, Evelina says, but flying lakes should not be ignored: each one of us has its own flying lake …

burt nieks

“In ancient times lakes flew around, looking for a place to land. Also the people of current Lake Burtnieks valley saw a lake flying as a dark cloud. It roared and howled. The day became dark as night. Petrified that it will fall down on their head, people lamented and screamed because they did not know its name. Then they went to the sorcerer and pleaded him to talk the lake away. The sorcerer just said ‘man burt nieks’ (to bewitch is easy for me), and it fell down right away. This is how the lake got its name.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 1

I found something that was quite different from what I expected, when on Monday June 20th Evelina opened up the door for Carsten Seiffarth and me, so together we could enter the room at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien where her Burt Nieks was installed. It was very ‘art’, very ‘gallery’. Quite empty (or maybe I should say: spacious) and white. One wall was covered with a great number of drawings on paper, all lined up, bare. On another wall there were a couple more drawings, framed.

There were also two wooden sculptures. Very clean sculptures, of a simple geometric shape. There was this wooden triangle, for one. It took a while before I realized that the triangle was moving; it was balancing, slowly but continuously. Inside the wooden structure one could hear the sound of the water, responsible for the back and forth movement, but so faint, that one really had to put one’s ears pretty much against it… Then there was this big rectangular wooden shape on the floor, an enormous chordophone, that looked like a blown up abstraction of an 11-string zither, a dulcimer or a cigar box guitar.

burt nieks

The huge instrument of course tempted me to crouch down over it, to pluck its long strings and hear what it would sound like. But when I did, the seven small motors suddenly came alive. Their ‘wings’, all simultaneously, hit the strings and made a deafening chord resound; it was as if a large boulder had suddenly materialized and, out of the blue, plunged right in the middle of the rippleless surface of, indeed: a lake on a bright summer’s day. Then it sank, and disappeared again, so that just little after one already wondered whether it was real, or merely something one imagined.

The chord was repeated every few minutes or so. There was but this one sound, that faded into oblivion no sooner than it had come into being, that could be heard while visiting Burt Nieks, an installation that needed time to discover and explore. The near to septic neatness of its presentation turned out to be a decoy; a cover-up for a fascinating turmoil of images and mystery; a text with many layers, to be read, again and again. A stubborn text, one that did not easily reveal itself, but that proved well worth the effort made to conquer it.

burt nieks

“In my childhood I dreamed of becoming Baron Münchhausen – a man who went to conquer the Moon sitting on a cannonball. After the teacher instructed me ‘to choose a more useful profession’ I decide to become an ice-cream seller.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 11

Evelina Deicmane

A little later that afternoon, in her studio Evelina made me a coffee, and we talked about her work. I started with sort of an obvious question, and maybe even a silly one. But then of course Resonance is a European network for sound art. So I simply had to ask her this:

Evelina, even though ‘sound art’ is a term and notion that is notably vague and open to a whole range of different interpretations, the Burt Nieks installation that I just visited, is not a work that on a first encounter anyone would easily classify as sound art; even though it does involve sounds. How does your work (this one, and in general) relate to sound? Would you describe yourself as a sound artist?

“No, I guess I would not describe myself as a sound artist. At least not in the way that I understand this. Because at least half of my work, a very important part, is visual. Even though there is always, of course the sound, it’s…”

What do you mean by: ‘There is always the sound?’

“Several of my works include mechanisms that were built to make sounds. They were constructed to produce sounds, but the way the mechanisms look – the visual part – is equally important. Here, as part of Burt Nieks, there are the strings, of course, and the triangle. But also in my earlier works … let me tell you about SeasonSorrow, which was at the 2009 Venice Biennale. It actually had two parts. One was a video projection in a small room, which had 12 speakers built into the floor. The video showed close ups of a group of people stuck in the snow. But much of the story was told with the sound, which included like ice cracking, and all these kind of cold sounds. The main sound was that of the person’s breathing in the cold. Because the sound of breathing in the cold is very different from the sound when one breathes in the summertime. And I recorded each person, so each of the 12 speakers was very personal. And I used this breath to make the sound of wind. The sound, like, of a very cold wind…”


SeasonSorrow, like all my pieces, is about the people that live in my country.
Often the works are even more personal, and deal with my grand parents, or the village where I was born. It is always kind of a looking back to where I came from.
Also the piece here at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, which is based on the lake Burtnieks near my village.”

So the people we see in SeasonSorrow are not actors, but people from your village?


And they let you bury them in the snow?

Evelina laughs. “Yes! Mind you, we were very careful of course. No one got hurt. Everyone was happy. Actually, the trick was that I made a very large table… And then we choose the right position to shoot the images, matching up with the horizon…”

Ah, that is smart! So the things are not always what they seem…

“But there is no additional digital trickery, or whatever, afterwards; like in Photoshop or something… And then there is the other part of the piece, this mechanism with metal gears, cog wheels, like in mechanical clocks.”


“At the one end you see a motor. That is moving the smallest of the cog wheels, which transmits its movement on to the second, larger one, and so on, like a chain, up to the big one. And the big one is playing a vinyl record.”

A record! One that you made?


What’s on it then? What do we hear?

“It is the sound of a snow ball rolling, from very small to very heavy. Which is, of course, what is reflected in the construction of the mechanism, the series of ‘growing’ cog wheels that set the record player into motion. This is the story: sometimes someone is making a snow ball, having big goals. The person is starting from a very small thing and then is like, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling, rolling until the ball has become so heavy that he cannot move it anymore. But then spring and summer come along. And nature will just melt the thing away. That’s very emotional. You cannot do anything about it. You can see it in the box that I use to transport the mechanism. At both sides there’s a little round window. If you look through, you will see a video. One is of a man, who is rolling the snow ball. And in the second one you see the same man in spring time. The snow ball is no longer there. It is himself now that is rolling.”


“It is what I call an ’emotional machine’. I really like to take some parts of some mechanism, and then make them play something really intimate. I built this machine because of all the wasted time and work. It doesn’t make sense that the human makes a snow ball, because always the spring will come, and the snow ball will melt away. So I built a machine. Now the work is done by a machine, and not by a human. Here is another example, that I made last year. It is called Grandfather’s Summer.”

Grandfather's Summer

It looks like a pair of lungs …

“I wanted to build a machine to play the instruments. There’s so many people that are going out, and try to earn a little bit of money by playing accordeon in the street. And I again found a mechanism to do that. You spin the handle, and then the accordeons are being lifted up and down, which is making the noise. And then certain buttons are pressed for the melodies … “

“So I say about myself that I am not really a sound artist. But there are some noises in my head that just do not let me in peace; and that is why the sound always comes back. Like the sound of coldness…”

Are these sounds that you remember?

“Sounds that I remember, or sounds that are in my head.” Again Evelina laughs. It’s an open and transparent laugh. Crystalline … Then she continues: “Or maybe the sounds are just in my head, I don’t now. It is certainly not only memory. It’s something… in general I get more inspired… Let me see … All things considered, when I look at what inspires me, it is often the sound, the noise, that then makes me see some kind of a visual… Let me show you…”
Evelina opened up a picture on the screen of her laptop.
“See, even for this work, which is actually just a photograph, I was inspired by the noise.”

Grandfather's Summer

Oh my, oh my! Oh dear, oh dear! I must say, now those can not have been pretty, pretty sounds! Is this the sound that you hear inside your head?

“It was a very hot summer last year, and every morning there was a man working with a saw and things. And I remember this moment when you kind of wake up, and you still do not understand if all is just inside your head, or if things are happening in reality. It is then that I became interested in this thing… like machine sounds. It just made me so much like… maybe not in peace… but that I should make some work… early morning, and…”

And this is how you feel like when you wake up in the morning?

“Yes,” she says, “when I wake up with a drilling. Especially here in Berlin everyone likes to drill things in the summer. So…”

Evelina then laughed one more time, a third time. It was a curious, modest little laugh, into which – because of our conversation, and because of the drawings that I saw, and all that she told me – I could not but read a great many different meanings. Meanings, that now make me look forward an awful lot to seeing and hearing A Long Day.

Soon …

Meanwhile, I will not lightly forget this one image, part of Burt Nieks, which, besides many other things, for me that afternoon in just a few simple lines seemed to sum up what ‘sound art’ could be all about …

burt nieks

“A man asked me if I wanted him to make my world smaller, this way it should be easier. I said yes. The man set out to work. He cut the world into halves and started to roll it smaller. Soon he got tired and did not finish the work. I guess sometimes men get tired of what they say.” Burt Nieks – Nr. 26

Evelina Deicmane’s A Long Day opens on Thursday August 11th, at 19h. The installation can be visited until September 11th from Wednesday till Sunday, between 14h and 20h. Long night: September 11th, until midight. Entrance is free.
Kunsthaus Meinblau.
Auf dem Pfefferberg, Haus 5
Christinenstraße 18-19
10119 BERLIN.

Sound City – De Klinkende Stad

May 16, 2011 § 3 Comments

Resonance at the Festival of Flanders in Kortrijk, Belgium

The Resonance Network celebrates its first anniversary at this year’s Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium, with Sound City (De Klinkende Stad). It is the network’s biggest showcase to date, bringing together the four sound installations that were realized during the first year of the network’s existence. For those who saw the earlier versions of some of the installations, the exhibition in Kortrijk provides a great opportunity to see and hear how these works evolve and ‘resonate’, when they are re-built and adapted to a different kind of space, which, indeed, is one of the motivating ideas that underly the Resonance project.

Pierre Berthet presents a third version of his Extended Drops. This work was first realized at the Singuhr Hörgalerie in Berlin (Germany). There it could be seen and heard from July till September 2010. Pierre did a second installment of the installation at Intro in situ in Maastricht (December 2010 – February 2011).
Esther Venrooy brings A Shadow of A Wall to Kortrijk, her joint work with Ema Bonifacic that was first realized and shown in Maastricht (December 2010 – February 2011). The installation for Sound City is the work’s second realization.
The remaining two installations are premieres. They were finalized in Kortrijk, in the weeks preceding the opening of Sound City: Maia Urstad spent several weeks in the small Belgian city working on her Meanwhile, in Shanghai…, while Paul Devens was touring the town on a bicycle, recording the sounds for his City Chase.

budatoren budatoren

_It was a hot and very sunny day, when I arrived in Kortrijk on Saturday May 7th for Sound City’s opening. As fas as I can remember (and I can remember pretty far), it was the first time ever that I visited this old Belgian city, which sprang from a Gallo-Roman settlement at a crossroad near the river Leie and two Roman roads. I walked the short distance from the railway station to the Grote Markt, where I dropped my luggage at the hotel, and then walked on to the Buda-eiland, the old part of town (named after the western part of the Hungarian city of Budapest) where the Sound City events are taking place.

The Resonance installations can be found in, and next to, the Buda-toren, the tower of a former brewery, that in the 1990’s was converted into a production house for the arts.

_Maia Urstad installed her “Meanwhile, in Shanghai…” on the tower’s ground floor.


Some 80 radio’s, radio cassette players, and some other radio-like machines are hanging motionless, just slightly off the floor, in long lines stretching across the crepuscular space. They are all facing the (obscured) windows. My first impression was that of a regiment of soldiers, lined up for inspection. When I entered the lines, this curious army seemed to be a silent one, until I became aware of the soft static that, in short bursts, came whirling like a mist, like whisper, along the floor. Every now and then, from this side or other, a voice arose, speaking a short message. But when I turned to try and locate where precisely the voice was coming from, it mostly had gone silent again. Sometimes the language spoken was familiar. Sometimes it was not. Such is the short multilayered piece that Maia Urstad composed. Each of the layers is transmitted via a short range FM transmitter to a corresponding group of radio’s.

The soft, crackling and ghostlike voices soon gave rise to a different image: that of a graveyard, where each of the old and pretty much obsolete machines acts both as a thombstone and an – almost but not quite yet – corpse, ‘speaking in tongues’ … I only wished there would have been quite a bit more of these voices …

The following few minutes of audio give an (of course highly approximative) impression of what I heard when I walked up and down the lines that make up Meanwhile, in Shanghai…

_The fifth floor is the top floor of the Buda-toren. It is where one finds Paul Devens’ new work, City Chase. When I talked to Paul late March in Maastricht, the piece was little more yet than a soundless drawing that resided on his laptop. Meanwhile the drawings had materialized, and four gondolettes were moving small loudspeakers back and forth along a long metal rack with four parallel tracks.

city chase

Shortly before the exhibition’s opening, Paul was still busy adjusting the mechanics and lubricating the tracks. Which was necessary to assure an as smooth as possible movement of the little wagons carrying the speakers, so that none of them will get stuck during the four-part linear choreography of the eight minute dynamic city sound scape that comprises the current, first version, of City Chase.

Here’s is a short sound fragment, that I recorded during one of the City Chase‘s test rides early that Saturday afternoon:

city chase

The soundscape of the city of Kortrijk was very loud and very prominent on the day of Sound City’s opening: these were the final days of the yearly Kortrijkse Paasfoor, a mega-fair that could be seen cramming many of the center’s old squares with blinking lights and metallic constructions, some reaching as high as 52 meters. As the afternoon advanced, the sonic excitement of the fair that came drifting across the river Leie to the Buda-eiland continued to grow. The swooshing, shrieking, clanking, beeping and the mingling of up-tempo bumpings of very deep basses of multiple musics, made for a densely ondulating sonic texture that enveloped the city center of Kortrijk throughout the day, and that was pretty difficult to ignore. For, as you will know, one may shut one’s eyes, but it is a pretty tough task to shut one’s ears…

Also on the fifth floor of the Buda-toren, with its marvelous view on the city, it was hard to lock that day’s “sounding city” out, even when the doors and windows were all closed. And given the fact that in City Chase this very same “sounding city” is framed (it is tamed, in a way), the proximity and presence of the Paasfoor‘s wild, unleashed sounds, made it a rather strange experience to hear the recorded city sound fragments of Kortrijk’s City Chase parade before my ears, watching the gondolettes glide back and forth along the bare metal tracks, at times providing past-time echoes of the fair sounds that meanwhile, outside, continued to rage in real-time random force and abundance. It almost felt as if the “sounding city” was taking revenge …

city chase

It had me wonder whether City Chase should not be taken away from the city, out to the country side. And then, maybe, there be experienced out in the open? Somewhere up in the mountains, where the real-time soundscape is of an entirely different type?

An essential part of City Chase is the idea of a ‘double movement’ of the recorded sound sources: a first movement while recording, and a second one during playback. But most city sounds are highly complex, and in many cases, indeed, the (multiple) sound sources in the recording are themselves also moving, thus severely testing the limits of our ability to perceive and distinguish the different kinds of movement of the sounds that are involved. I’m curious to find out how, over the coming months, City Chase will evolve, and how the work will sound when, in its upcoming installments, the collection of fragments used in its composition has become larger. The range of the current pallette of Kortrijk sounds struck me as being somewhat too limited for a full appreciation of the idea of the work, and of the ingenious construction that underlies its realization.

_Pierre Berthet installed the Kortrijk version of his Extended Drops in a former stable of the brewery, just opposite of the Buda-toren. It is a pretty long, but relatively narrow, space, shaped as a simple rectangular box, quite different from the spaces in Berlin and Maastricht, where the previous versions of the work were made. Pierre told me that he actually would have preferred such a simple space to start with, as it makes the setting up and tuning (of, for example, the intricate network of wires) of the installation quite a bit easier. It is maybe one of the reasons why Extended Drops in the long rectangular Kortrijk stable makes for such an impressively balanced, and very spatial sonic experience.

Here is a short impression of how Extended Drops sounded there on the day of the opening:

extended drops

On the other hand, I also found that the rectangular stable space, enabling one to overlook the entire installation, as it were, in a single glance, made Extended Drops lose some of the visual attraction (and with that some of the mystery) that it had in the Intro in situ space, and in the obscure and almost labyrinthine rooms of the Berlin Singuhr Hörgalerie, a historic waterreservoir in Prenzlauer Berg.

_Esther Venrooy & Ema Bonifacic’s A Shadow of A Wall, a work that premiered in Maastricht and in Kortrijk’s Sound City has its second rendition, can be found on the third floor of the Buda-toren. The original inclined wall, which is the heart of the installation (a patchwork of differently sized rectangular panels), was adjusted: a part of it had to be removed, in order for it to fit into the space. The decision to do so was a very good one. The low and not too large brick room with its wooden ceiling and floor appears to be near to perfect for the work.

shadow of a wall

More than in the very bright and white living room type space in Maastricht, here the inclined surface indeed acts as the ‘architectural intervention’ it was intended to be. Whereas in Maastricht the light, whiteness, and the relative small surface, but bigger height, of the room somehow seemed to keep the slope from thoroughly imposing itself, in the Buda-toren it does succeed to transform the space. Also at Intro in situ the slope was an intruder, very much so, yes; but in the Buda-toren the intruder really manages to, be it ever so gently, take control.

Though the work did not give up on any of its introvert serenity, it seemed to have grown up. I found it to be powerfully self-contained, and an easy match for the outside sounds that, from time to time, in intermittent waves, came drifting in through the door, that Esther had left open. On purpose.

shadow of a wall

_Following the official opening and reception in the Budascoop, around 17h30, visitors were led on a tour of the four installations. Then, after dinner, there were the evening performances, one by each of the participating artists.

Two of the concerts took place inside the artist’s installation, and two were done on stage, in one of the Budascoop’s concert halls.

The evening program began with a very varied, dynamic – and at times also very loud – duo performance by Esther Venrooy (on electronics & laptop) and a young, and equally versatile, Belgian percussionist: Lander Gyselinck.

esther performance

We then walked over to the ground floor of the Buda-toren, where Maia asked each member of the audience to take place behind one of the radio’s. It made for an interesting way of experiencing the short, quiet and reflective radioscape that she presented.

maia performance

Next we moved to the stable, for a performance by Pierre Berthet. Expirateurs et Gouttes is a two-part ‘concerto’. First part for drops, the second for vacuum cleaners. In the manipulation and control of both, Pierre Berthet undeniably is a master. The gradual building up of ever more intricate rhythmic drop patterns, giving way to the forceful swiping of vacuum cleaner tubes, and then onto the grand finale of an ecstatically trumpeting ensemble of Filter Queens, doesn’t cease to intrigue.

pierre performance

For the evening’s final concert, we returned to the Budascoop, where Paul Devens performed his Storm, for live electronics and fieldrecordings, based on John Cage’s Variations VII. At the end of his performance Paul managed to rest sound- and motionless for a very long time, thus forcing all of the audience to hold their breath equally long… until he finally relaxed, and invited applause. It was a forceful and worthy conclusion of a fine evening of music and sound.

paul performance

Especially for those who were not there: the following ten-minute audio track is a succession of four short fragments from the evening’s performances:

_When, after a couple of last drinks, I walked back to the hotel, the Kortrijkse Paasfoor was still going strong. While contemplating all that I had heard and all I had seen that day, I strolled along the Leie and on over the Grote Markt, where I watched with quiet amazement the quite monstrous (but many no less ingenious) machines, that were created to sell mere minutes of adrenaline pumping excitement.
With all windows of my room wide open I fell asleep, listening to the loud, excited and piercing screams of bunches of young fair-goers, that continued to fall from the Kortrijk sky.

Sound is a very funny thing, for I slept like a rose.

Sound City (Klinkende Stad) is the Resonance exhibition (with sound installations by Pierre Berthet, Esther Venrooy, Paul Devens and Maia Urstad) that is part of the Flanders Festival in Kortrijk, Belgium. The exhibition can be visited on the afternoons of Saturdays and Sundays, between May 7th and May 22nd. Entrance is free. On Saturdays at 15h there are guided tours (participation: €2,-).
On May 18th-20th an international symposium (with performances) is taking place, entitled Listen. Perspectives on Auditive Space, curated by Esther Venrooy. Locations are the Witte Zaal, in Gent (Belgium) on May 18th and 19th, and the Budascoop in Kortrijk (Belgium) on May 20th.

Sound/Spaces in, and of, art

February 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

For the official finissage on sunday January 30th that wrapped up nearly two months of Resonance in Maastricht, Stichting Intro in situ invited Peter Kiefer. The German sound artist and scholar presented his book Klangräume der Kunst (Sound spaces of art) in the Selexyz bookstore in the Dominicanen church. Kiefer (who originally is from Aachen in Germany, some 30 kilometers from Maastricht) is a classically trained percussionist and composer. He has been working as a sound artist for nearly 20 years. Kiefer taught for 15 years at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, where he set up the sound lab. Currently he is teaching at the University in Mainz, which has a college of music.

“In Cologne I was bringing music into new media. In Mainz I bring technology and new media into music,” Peter told us. “Since 2010 Mainz University has a master program in sound art composition, which is the first studies focused exclusively on sound art at a college of music in Germany.”


Klangräume der Kunst appeared in May 2010. It looks and feels like a bible or similar holy book. The work has nearly 400 pages, weighs more than 3 pounds, comes with a DVD that has over 1,5 hours of video and sound material. And – not very usual for a work focusing on the art of sound – there are near to 300 images in it.

“One of the notable differences between sound and the visual is that one perceives sounds unconsciously. That is because sound touches much more our emotions,” Kiefer explained. “Our listening is connected to the eldest brain part. It is an organ for alerting, a sense for alerting us. That is why you cannot close your ears. It is a warning sense, which creates a social space. If you sit in a cinema, watching a movie and you just have a look at your mobile phone, nobody will be disturbed. But if the mobile phone is ringing the people around you will get very annoyed. Because the sound is creating a social space. That makes sounds very different from images. We are continuously living inside a soundscape. Sound is created in space, and the way in which our brain locates sound within the space is very complicated. There is a horizontal level, left, right. Then the next level is up and down. And then, is it in front of you or in the back? On the neurological level one actually finds that the brain already knows where the sound comes from before you get aware that you are hearing it.”

Klangräume der Kunst found its origin in an exhibition that Peter Kiefer curated in Cologne in the summer of 2004. Klangraum/Raumklangbook cover started out as a quest for a possible – or impossible – museum of sounds, and came with a two day expert meeting and symposium on sound art.
“The symposium was very well received and it is an academic tradition that such a symposium is documented in a book: the symposium book. Usually that means a lot of text on a great many pages that take quite a bit of persistence to go and read through. I also experienced that the research in sound art, basically, came from musicology, which makes it difficult to explain to curators, which are often exclusively concentrating on the visual arts,” Peter said. “I therefore decided to make a book that would be more than just a report of the symposium, but which includes many other aspects and which has a lot of examples: visual examples. I think of sound art really as a combination of sound and (visual) art. It therefore should be placed also within the theoretical frameworks used by those working within the visual arts. This then really started my ongoing research into the relation between art and space and sound, and the uncovering of a lot of interesting examples, which show that already since thousands of years sound and image have been thought of as one union.”


More than just looking at sound art’s ways of melting sound and vision, Klangräume der Kunst thoroughly investigates different ways in which sound relates to space. Space of course is the ‘container of reality’: it provides a stage for all that we hear and for all that we see. The bulk of the 20 articles by 19 different authors that together make the book, cover the wide and varied ways in which sound determines space, and space is shaping sound. The complex and multifaceted relation of space and sound indeed is central to Peter Kiefer’s view on sound art. Klangräume der Kunst offers a useful, a practical, framework for discussing a great many, though obviously not all, works that generally are classified as ‘sound art’, without attempting to tie them down within a rigid, a for-once-and-for-all, theoretical construction. The view is kaleidoscopic. Reading the book, one is led through architectural sound spaces, musical sound spaces, museal sound spaces, public sound spaces and virtual (media) sound spaces, via a varied collection of fascinating historical examples (several of which were new to me), extensive descriptions of a number of recent works, many pictures, interviews, artists’ descriptions of and reflections on their work, and a number of more general theoretical and philosophical ponderings.

Most curious among the many contributions is Martin Carlé’s dia-lyrical report of an expedition that in the autumn of 2003 set out to Li Galli (also known as Le Sirenuse), an archipelago of little islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the largest of which has the form of a whale. A research team (comprising among others a media-philosopher, a conductor, a biologist specializing in animal sounds and a musicologist) took opera singers and amplifiers to the islands as their tools for an experiment in acoustic archaeology, aiming to re-construct the sound of Homer’s Sirens as it might have been heard by the blind bard’s sailing hero. Though for me, even on repeated reading, the precise results of this acoustic excavation remain hidden somewhere between the Pythagorean comma’s in the article’s whirling and near to never-ending German sentences, this is a fascinating paper. If nothing else, it managed to make me re-think these phrases from James Joyce’s book of the Sirens (the 11th episode of Ulysses), which is so brimful of musics and sounds: “The sea they think they hear. Singing. A roar. The blood is it. Souse in the ear sometimes. Well, it’s a sea. Corpuscle islands.”


As sound waves unfold and propagate through one space or another, when hearing the sounds we always experience a passing of time. Sound of course is intimately linked to both space and time. Peter Kiefer refers to these as the ‘Einstein parameters’ of sound. Projecting the four physical dimensions onto a two dimensional space-time grid provides an interesting means to intuitively position specific works involving sounds with respect to the weight given to the respective ‘coordinates’.
“Music compositions will be positioned primarily along the time-axis,” Kiefer explained. “They start, and they have an end: these are what we call ‘musical pieces’. Sound space compositions will be primarily positioned along the space-axis: you can walk in and walk out, there is no end and no beginning. As a listener you may yourself decide what are the bounds. In the lower left corner we place ‘signals’: very short sounds, with nearly no time or space. And in the upper right corner we would put, for example, surround music compositions: music which also involves space in its compositional process. Now basically all works of sound art can be positioned somewhere in this plane, between sound space composition and surround music composition.”

Time was flying that afternoon in the vast, old space of the Dominicanen church in Maastricht, where Peter took us on a dazzling tour of the many subjects and sound works discussed in Klangräume der Kunst. We heard music written for the Cologne town house carillon, Jens Brand explaining his Global Player (which uses the live-data of satellites in order to play back the earth’s surface as if it were a CD) and Christina Kubisch talking about her Electrical Walks (sounding the city and other public spaces via the omnipresent electromagnetic fields). We learned how thinking about sound spaces in architecture appears to be something of a forgotten knowledge, as witnessed for example by the acoustical vases that were used to manipulate the sound in churches and the brass vases that funcioned like amplifiers in amphitheaters, and that we only know about through written accounts of the different phases in sound construction in Greek theaters. We visited whispering galleries, saw how kings used the simple physical properties of the reflection and propagation of sound to eavesdrop on their guests, and learned that the very first transmissions of the live sound of concerts and performances (in 1881 in Paris) were, as a matter of fact, stereophonic.


Based upon a more abstract aesthetics are Xenakis’ architecture and music, derived from mathematical forms like the hyperbolic paraboloid. But also Traverse Frequenz, one of Peter Kiefer’s own works, an installation inside the Deutzer Brücke, a bridge in Cologne. In differently sized spaces within the concrete bridge he placed large wooden resonance sculptures, with a microphone inside. “The resonance frequency of the bridge is about 2.8 Hz,” Peter said. “You cannot hear it, but of course it is creating overtones and it’s creating octaves. The microphone is recording all the time the sounds which are resonating in the wooden resonating chamber inside the huge concrete resonance chamber of the bridge. If there would be no noise, you would hear nothing at all. But it is a bridge. There are cars going over, there are electric trams going over, which are continuously making sounds. These are then recorded and played back by speakers inside the bridge. This creates something like a feedback, which is only correlated to the dimensions of the space. It is creating a standing wave. That means that the wave in the space will have valleys: silent knots. And if you walk through the space, at some places you hear really nothing of the sound. But at other spots you will hear a very, very deep and impressive noise. It really sent a shiver through your entire body, and a lot of people had to walk out because they couldn’t stand it…”

Yes. Sound is physical. It not only acts on one’s brain. Sound acts on the whole of one’s body. This is why even the most abstract of music and sound art is able to (and should) evoke direct and intuitive reactions from whoever is present in its ‘sounding space’ to hear. This is not always, or merely, a matter of loudness or volume. One of the works that was part of Klangraum/Raumklang, the sound art exhibition in Cologne that was the basis for Klangräume der Kunst, was by Thomas Ankersmit. It was called Inverse. “In this piece Thomas was working only with the space,” Peter Kiefer told us. “He had just put a microphone in a space of a gallery. And then there was a computer system that was reversing the time. So this installation was a very pure installation. There was not really a lot to see and it was quite intellectual to grasp what precisely was going on there. At the end of the show, we had organized a small breakfast at the gallery on sunday morning. The people were sitting at the front, and the installation was running in the back. Now someone had brought a dog, and this dog was running in the space. He was barking, like wroe-wroe-wroe-wroe-wroefff. And when he did, of course he heard fffeorw-eorw-eorw-eorw-eorw. Backwards. Because Thomas Ankersmit’s installation was reversing the time. Now at first the dog was running completely like crazy, because he could not understand what was going on. But at some point, he suddenly got it. And he was going back and started to play with the time-reversed echo of his own barks. He was barking, listening, running out, going back again…”

Remembering the performing dog on that sunday morning in Cologne, almost seven years ago, brought a broad smile upon Peter’s face. “So, there you see,” he said. “The installation may have seemed to be something pretty much intellectual, but if even a dog can understand it, then the audience should have no problems at all…”

Peter Kiefer (editor) – Klangräume der Kunst. Texts by Barbara Barthelmes, Helga de la Motte-Haber, Volker Straebel, Marc Crunelle, Michael Harenberg, Wulf Herzogenrath, Paul de Marinis et al. (in German). With DVD. Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg 2010. ISBN 978-3-936636-80-2.

The Bells are the Sound of the City

January 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

A visit to the city carillon of Maastricht with Esther Venrooy and city carilloneur Frank Steijns

One of the interesting aspects of Esther Venrooy and Ema Bonifacic’s installation A Shadow of A Wall is that the relatively soft and slowly changing and shifting field of sounds that Esther created, will combine with the sounds of the city that come floating in from outside. In order to emphasize that side of the work, Esther had agreed with Maastricht’s city carillonneur Frank Steijns to try and arrange for a number of specially created melodies to be played regularly on the carillon of the Maastricht town hall, maybe not all the time, but at least for a part of the duration of the Resonance exposition in the workspace of Intro in situ. That of course was a wonderful idea, for indeed, as Esther explained to the visitors of the Café In situ evening in Maastricht on Tuesday January 18th, those bells are the sound of the city.

Earlier that same day, Frank took Esther and me all way up into the town hall’s belfry, to visit the carillon and explain us all about that wonderful instrument and its history.

bell tower

We passed via the town hall’s attic and from there climbed ever steeper 17th century wooden ladders, higher and higher, all the way to the open, windy and rainy top where one can find the bells. The oldest among these were among the last bells founded by the legendary Hemony brothers.

At successive stages of our ascent we came across ever more modern mechanisms for the automatization of the chiming of the bells, with hammers to strike the bells on the outside. The automatic chiming has been applied in Maastricht since 1910. From that year stems the enormous solid brass drum, the speeltrommel, made by the Dutch bell founders firm Eijsbouts.


Melodies are programmed, like on the old music boxes, by setting pins on the drum, which will begin to rotate when the drum-weight is released by the tower clock. Via a system of levers and wires, each of the pins will lift a hammer, which then falls back on the sound bow of the bells as soon as the pin has passed. (Here is a link to a detailed description of the mechanism.)

The speeltrommel was last used in 1962, by Frank’s father, who was Maastricht’s city carillionneur from 1952 until 1997. In that year his son took over. As Frank explained, the position of city carillionneur often, and still, is filled by successive generations of a same family. His father at the time succeeded five generations of another Maastricht family of stadsbeiaardiers. The speeltrommel mechanism was abandoned almost fifty years ago, mainly because of the resonance (in the big entrance hall just below) of the noise produced by the rotating drum. Frank Steijns, however, intends to have the mechanism restored. If all goes according to plan, the speeltrommel should be in working order again in 2012. Due to the mechanics involved, Frank told us, the sound of course is quite different from that obtained via the current automatic playing by means of a computer interface. The idea is to then use the speeltrommel in the evening, when in the town hall below no one will be bothered by the reverberation of the grinding sounds produced by the turning of the heavy brass drum. (You may imagine, though, that personally I am much looking forward to go there one evening with Frank in order to listen to and record precisely that sound…)

One level up we came upon yet another abandoned system for automatic chiming of the bells, also produced and installed by Eijsbouts, with – as Esther obseved – a very 1970s-like look, reminiscent of the futuristic machines we all love and know from watching too much science fiction and too many Dr. Who’s.


This one, a bandspeelwerk, is an electric relay system, operated by a broad white plastic tape in which holes have been punched, much like the book organs used for the playing of mechanical street organs. The holes here, however, are all of the same size, as the bells need just to be hit: there is no sustain, other than their resonating until being hit again.

This part of the town hall’s belfry looked as if it also served as the municipal dovecot. Which of course might be a thing of great value, as pigeons could provide the last possible reliable means of communication when in time of local, national or global disaster all other means fail. The pigeons responsible for the mess, however, were not civil servants, but mere squatters, that last summer invaded the tower, though no one actually has been able to find out how and where they managed to get in. Their presence accounts for the deplorable state of the nice little machine that is used to punch the holes in order to produce the tapes that are used to operate the bandspeelwerk.


Also the bandspeelwerk is not operational. There are also no plans to restore it, Frank told us. Not only would it be very costly to restore and then maintain, but also, in fact, each of the automatized systems uses a separate set of hammers to play the bells. Three sets indeed might be overdoing things somewhat, though I could not help getting pretty excited when I imagined the possibilities that having them opens up for a music that uses the three separate mechanisms to play the bells in three independent but simultaneous voices, and then add a manual part as a fourth voice on top…

We passed another level (where four perpendicular metal axes parting from the room’s center operate the clocks that are on the four sides of the tower) and then, from the outside came through a door in the tiny room with the carillon’s baton keyboard (the stokkenklavier), from which one more ladder leads up to the bells.

Frank Steijns

Up in the ‘control room’ Frank and Esther discussed the sounds and melodies to be played each quarter hour between 8 am and 10 pm, as part of the final week of the exposition of “A Shadow of A Wall” at Stichting Intro in situ. For this, Esther had determined five central notes, based upon the dimensions of the wooden panels used in the installation. She had written them down on the first page of a small note book, that she put on the carillon keyboard’s music stand: cis-4, cis-5, d-6 (approximately), ais-5 and cis-3.

Frank and Esther

Frank then played around a bit with these notes, by hitting the corresponding batons of the keyboard. He improvised and showed a number of possible ways of playing them, in the original sequence, or as a transposed one, with or without more or less quick arpeggio’s, simulating glissandi from one cis or fis to another… I am pretty sure that out in the city people looked up and wondered about the curious patterns of sound that suddenly came chiming down from the town hall’s belfry. It was a short foretaste of what the city would sound like every fifteen minutes on the days later this month, when the carillon would become a part of “A Shadow of A Wall”.

Of course Frank himself will not be up there every day of the week from 8 am till 10 pm, to play these melodic patterns manually. The playing will be done automatic, applying the mechanism for automatic chiming that is currently in use: a computer interface, built and maintained by bell founders Petit & Fritsen, who also provided (in 1997) the most recent bells that were added to the carillon, which currently counts 49 bells.


At the very end of our little excursion, however, it turned out there was a catch. When Frank tried to get the computer to actually play the carillon, it didn’t work. Even more so, the carillon most probably had not been playing for quite a while already. Something must have gone very wrong during the recent period of pretty low temperatures, when the hammers froze stuck, and the electronic interface continued to try to get them to play. We later learned that it would take at least four weeks before the interface can be repaired and put back in working order. Until that time the city of Maastricht will have to live without the sound if its bells. It also means that, unfortunately, there will be no quarterly melodic signals coming from the town hall carillon, to complement the sounds of “A Shadow of A Wall” for the final part of the exhibition at Stichting Intro in situ…

That’s a great pity.
Mais l’idée est bonne!
There will be other cities. The next installment of “A Shadow of A Wall” will be later this year in Kortrijk, Belgium.

There is a fine carillon also in Kortrijk.

Esther Venrooy‘s and Pierre Berthet‘s Resonance installations can be visited at Intro In Situ (Capucijnengang 12, Maastricht) until January 30th, 2011. Opening hours: Wednesday till Sunday, between 12h and 17h. Entry: €3,-.
On Sunday January 30th Peter Kiefer will talk about sound art and his recent book Klangräme der Kunst (Sound spaces of art), at Bookshop Selexyz, Dominicanenkerk, Maastricht. 13h30. After Peter’s talk all are invited to come over to the Intro in situ workspace for a drink and to visit the Resonance exposition.

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