Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 11, 2014
Former Cannery building transforms into art venue
Audio art and live performance stretch sonic boundaries
by Tevlin Schuetz
Upon entering the gallery at the former Cannery building in downtown Penobscot, things look like what one would expect: pristine white walls and track lighting, carefully aimed at the drawings on display. All normal for a gallery space; that is, until one notices a number of small speakers perched atop the walls at regular intervals around the room.
There also are pieces of computer hardware, interconnected by dangling wires, mounted side by side on the wall at the far end of the space, and high above them a mysterious electronic instrument sits in a window.
Shortly after a car hums by on Southern Bay Road, a quiet tone can be heard, which slowly grows louder and shifts across the room—changing from a square wave into an almost shrill saw tooth wave—before diminishing into to silence. Other tones follow, of different pitches and levels of intensity.
This is what creator and Penobscot artist N.B. Aldrich calls an “autonomously generated soundscape,” where environmental inputs are “sensed” and then “interpreted” by a logic system before being processed into a sonic output through audio synthesis.
In the case of Sine Wave Network, as this installation is called, light waves are transmuted into sound waves.
The system employs a small camera, aimed out the window at the street below. As Aldrich explained, the camera picks up movement on the street, and those changes in light create digital signals that trigger the neural network, or a brain of sorts, to create the noises heard through the speakers.
Another car travels slowly by, and another tone wells up from nowhere. There is a delay after a car goes by and before the electronic sound begins, so that the generated tone is like a sonic memory following the car’s passing.
Aldrich has been experimenting with such systems for years. He is currently Adjunct Curator for Sound Art at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and is also an Associate Professor at the University of Maine. His work has been presented regionally and internationally.
Aldrich described an additional feature of Sine Wave Network. The software program runs logarithms that change over time and affect the parameters of the computer’s response. This introduces different qualities to the sounds created.
This is not a random process; Aldrich stated that the software is always “reacting” to the input, and there are patterns.
George Stevens Academy student Brooke Wentworth created patterns of her own in pen and ink drawings while spending time in the gallery, listening and reacting artistically to the Sine Wave music. Her work adorns the walls, and the meticulous and electric designs she created in response to the sonic experience add still another layer of energy and interpretation to the exhibit.
Al Margolis, a.k.a. If, Bwana
The emcee and hostess of the event was Leslie Ross, the Cannery’s newest owner and occupant. She introduced those assembled to the next part of the evening’s program: a performance by If, Bwana, a sound artist from New York City, whose given name is Al Margolis.
If, Bwana piloted music software on his laptop, manipulating sound samples beginning with a single droning cello note. He took his time, deliberately adding just one or two more cello notes over the course of a few minutes.
As he gradually introduced more cello sounds, the experience intensified.
Notes at shorter intervals—or ones closer in pitch—combine to create real, palpable tension. They flutter and grind, pulsate and even growl.
It didn’t take long before what began as a wall of cello sounds had mutated into something more akin to scraping, rumbling machinery. A grinding bell tone could be heard as layers of harmonics piled up heavily.
Similar magic happened during the next movement, when If, Bwana used tones from different medieval recorders. Shifting levels of volume and the Doppler effect pushed sound around the room, and soon layers of recorder sounds morphed into something like a sustained gong noise with an airplane flying overhead.
Rain began during the performance, which was being held in the upstairs loft space of the Cannery building. Skylights were pelted with droplets, adding a percussive, hissing layer to the cacophony as the rain rattled and scratched its way into the music.
Another piece that would swell to similar thunderous proportions was composed of layers of saxophone and started in the same fashion, with just a few bare tones. Soon the sharp attacks of additional sax notes gouged their way into the sustained ones, and at times the whole onslaught sounded like a car horn.
Ross joined If, Bwana for the last piece, which began with soft, pitter patter sounds looped in a track in Margolis’s music software. Soon Ross breathed softly through her bassoon, which is equipped with 16 tiny microphones that pick up even the clinking of the instrument’s keys. This she recorded into a loop on her own computer, and the sonic pile-up was under way.
If, Bwana wielded a clarinet at one point, adding notes here and there, and ultimately pre-recorded voices crept into the soundscape as louder, unrecognizable swooping sounds undulated across the stereo field. The piece then receded into silence like those before it.
Margolis said after the performance that he relies on pitch shifting and note stretching to create tension and dissonance. He doesn’t use extra sound effects or processing to build up the compositions; the acoustics of a venue lend enough excitement and unpredictability, he said.