Sound Forest & Unsound: Resonance in Riga & Krakow

January 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

The old gated building at 58, Miera ielā (Peace street), in the city of Riga, the capital of Latvia, used to be a tobacco factory. It was there that the Latvian company Rīgas Tabakas Fabrikas, and later, as of 1992, British American Tobacco, produced Elita filter cigarettes. For a very long time Rīgas Tabakas Fabrikas, founded in 1887 by Abraham Maikapar, was Latvia’s biggest tabocca plant. It was forced to close down in 2009, apparently due to vast amounts of cigarettes that were being smuggled into the country.

Following its closure, Riga’s tobacco factory became one of those former industrial spaces in which, all over the world, contemporary art can be seen (and heard) to come to blossom.

tobacco factory Riga

Last fall, from mid-October till beginning of November, the Rīgas Tabakas Fabrikas provided stage and scenery for four Resonance sound installations, presented by Resonance’s associated partner Skanu Mesz, as part of the 2011 Riga Sound Forest festival.

The presentation in Riga was a ‘home coming’ for Latvian artist Evelina Deicmane‘s Resonance piece A Long Day, that was conceived last summer in Berlin, and premiered there at the Kunsthaus Meinblau: A Long Day is based upon the ancient myth of a village submerged by a flying lake, that is part of the Latvian folklore that originated in the area around the lake Butnieks, not far from the city of Riga and near the village where Evelina was born and raised.

A Long Day A Long Day

Whereas A Long Day found a small and almost hidden niche in the former tabacco factory, shown in the pictures above, that seems a perfect fit for the sweet mystery of its subject, Esther Venrooy & Ema Bonifacic’s A Shadow of A Wall, compared to the previous installment of the work in Maastricht, and, especially the one in Kortrijk, looked a bit lost within the freshly decorated factory corridor, which, on the other hand, did account for a quite stunning visual effect.

Shadow of a Wall
Shadow of a Wall

And here are some impressions of how Pierre Berthet installed his Extended Drops in Riga’s former tobacco factory:

Extended Drops
Extended Drops

The fourth Resonance piece on show in Riga was Maia Urstad’s “Meanwhile, in Shanghai…”, comprising 80 portable radio’s that took up their temporary residence in what used to be the tobacco factory’s garage. There, in a way, they changed places with the trucks that transported tobacco also to Maia’s home country, Norway, until no more that a few years ago… “I found that former garage space very inspiring,” Maia wrote, “especially for a work like ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai…’. The garage was like a thin shell to the outside world, with autumn leaves swirling between the radio’s, and with Latvia’s history as part of the former Soviet Union not even a stone’s throw away. It is as Viestarts Gailitis, the exhibition’s curator, said: there was a truly wonderful symbiosis between the installation and its location, it really seemed to belong there…”

Meanwhile, in Shanghai...
Meanwhile, in Shanghai...

[ All the above picture of Resonance installations at the Riga tobacco factory ©Ansis Stark ]

For the fifth Resonance piece on show last fall in Riga, one had to go outside, to the boards of the Daugava river, where Stefan Rummel did the second outdoor installment of the Articulated Chambers installation, that he created last year in Maastricht. Like in Maastricht, Stefan’s piece also in Riga became an intriguing addition to the cityscape, an alien element, that nevertheless looked as if it had been placed there for some mundane, practical reason. But what reason could it have been… ?

In comparison to the Maastricht installment, the sounds were playing back a little louder in Riga. “But the tracks had the same basis as in Maastricht,” Stefan wrote. “They were a little longer, though. Also, I added a couple of recordings that I made in Riga.”

Articulated Chambers
Articulated Chambers

[ There is a detailed online review, in two parts (and in Latvian), of the Resonance sound art show in Riga to be found on the Arterritory web site. ]

From Latvia, Esther Venrooy & Ema Bonifacic’s A Shadow of a wall, travelled on to Poland, where it joined Paul Devens’ City Chase as Resonance’s contributions to the 2011 edition of the Audio Art Festival in Krakow, also one of the network’s associated partners. A Shadow of a wall could be experienced there, November 18th-27th, in Bunkier Sztuki, be it in a far smaller version than that of its previous installments…

Shadow of a Wall
Shadow of a Wall

Paul Devens did a second version of his intricate City Chase installation for the 2011 Krakow Audio Art Festival, which could be seen and heard in Kathedra, from November 19th till 27th, this time re-sounding a piece composed from the fieldrecordings that Paul collected while biking around the city of Krakow.

City Chase
City Chase

On the Audio Art Festival’s web site you will find a telling video documentary on the many things that were going on at the Krakow festival, including short impressions of Paul Devens’ and Esther Venrooy’s installations.

From Riga and Krakow, City Chase, A Long Day and “Meanwhile, in Shanghai…” moved on to Maastricht, for the December Resonance exhibition at the Jan van Eyck Academy.

The next stop is Bergen, Norway, where in February a Resonance showcase will be hosted by Lydgalleriet, yet another of the network’s associated partners.

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.

Café In situ – January 18th, 2011

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

On the evening of the day that together with Esther Venrooy and city carilloneur Frank Steijns I climbed the tower of the Maastricht town hall, at Intro in situ there was the first edition of the monthly Café In situ.

There Esther Venrooy and Pierre Berthet explained and showed us their Resonance installations, and they recounted their Werdegang. Esther told us how her parents had been convinced that their daughter was an artist, already when she was but a baby girl aged 2. Pierre, on the other hand, recounted that he picked up the guitar all by himself when he was about 11. Because he loved the Beatles. And then he mentioned the onforgettable experience he had in 1969, when he was living for six months with his parent near the Lake Michigan in the United States.

“Every day the black community of the neighborhood would meet around the lake,” Pierre told us, “and play the drums. All these drums on the lakeshore… for me that is a fantastic sound art remembrance. It was an amazing sound to experience…”

in situ

As an example of her earlier work Esther played us two of her first, very concise and condensed, computer compositions. And Pierre had us listen to the recording of a duet that he performed with Arnold Dreyblatt in Groningen, in the late 1980s.

Towards the end of the evening we came to talk about the current gradual penetration of works of sound art in the world of commercial galleries, museums and into the homes of collectors. I asked Esther whether she would sell me (a version of) A Shadow of A Wall. And I asked Pierre whether he would come over to install Extended Drops in the dungeons of the little castle that one of these days I will acquire, in a warm and deep southern part of Spain…

in situ

Now Esther was categorical about it. “Yes, of course!” she said, with a malicious smile. “You can buy my car, you can buy anything you want …” Pierre had to think a little more. He seemed to wonder what would be the interest. But then soon enough he told us that if someone really insisted and had that much interest, he would be happy to come over and install his Extended Drops.
For free…

It was a telling conclusion to an interesting evening. You can listen to a short lo-fi audio report of this first Café In situ just below…

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.

“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.”

[ Esther Vernooy’s A Shadow of A Wall and Pierre Berthet’s Extended Drops can be visited at Intro In Situ‘s (Capucijnengang 12, Maastricht) from December 11th, 2010, until January 30th, 2011. Opening hours: Wednesday till Sunday, between 12h and 17h. Entry: €3,-. Intro In Situ is closed on Christmas days and New Year’s day.
The opening of the exhibition is on Friday December 10th, and starts with a special concert of contemporary music performed on the carillon of the Maastricht town hall, at 20h. ]

[ ( † ) 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.) ]

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