Dangerous Waves: Nels Cline, Thurston Moore, Zeena Parkins
Exhibit: "Dangerous Waves"
The School of the Museum of Fine Arts
January 24, 2001
January 24 offered two unusual aural experiences at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts. The first was the "Dangerous Waves" exhibitfeaturing installations by students, staff, and otherswhich looked at interesting connections between visual and sound art. The second was the "Extended Strings" performancefeaturing Nels Cline, Thurston Moore, and Zeena Parkinswhich toured the outer boundaries of instrumental expression. This article presents reviews of each element. A recorded synopsis of the combined experience may eventually be found in Sublingual Records' yet-to-be-released Acoustiphobia, Volume Two.
"Dangerous Waves" aptly described many features of the recent sound art exhibit at Boston's sMFA. The installation by Ron Kuivila, "Sparks on Paper," featured pairs of wires separated by a few millimetersbusily arcing electricity run through them at 12,000 volts. (Visitors were encouraged to touch the wires, but I didn't see too many people eager to plug into that one.) This electric installation had a surreal effect: sparks erupted everywhere in a darkened room, each accompanied by a violent snap. Pieces of paper regularly strewn on the wires personalized the sound and focused the energy. A few minutes in this installation was all one needed to reach enlightenment. (Speaking from the 2-meter perspective, the stereo effect of wires hung at that height was truly dramaticnot to mention somewhat unnerving.)
Another item on display was a bible laid open with small speakers installed on either side. Overlaid on a backdrop of biblical recital, herds of sheep baa-ed in the background. Danger, indeed.
In another installation, a set of speakers vibrating at frequencies below human hearing made an interesting point about vision as it applies to perceived sound. But as I closed in on the center woofer, it popped dangerously loudly at 1 kHz. Time to run away!
Less precarious but no less remarkable was Doug Henderson's massive "What Could Replace Opus?" Henderson, a sMFA instructor, created a massive stringed instrument out of the foyer of the building. Steel wires 35 to 65 feet in length connected in harp-like fashion from the second floor balcony to the opposite wall. A small rod intermittently struck one set of wires, yielding a percussive attack. Meanwhile, small motors resonanted the other wires. The entire building provided acoustic support.
A room in the back housed a high-tech installation by sound artist Liz Phillips and video artist Anney Bonney entitled "Suspended Frequencies." Highly interactive in nature, this unit responded to audience number and position with changes in the evolving geometrical video and overlaid sound. Supposedly the installation made use of the "ghosting" phenomenon that describes radio interference by architecture and geology. Walking around the room changed the ever-evolving video and soundtrack. But it was hard to get a handle on how it worked, exactly, with everyone milling about in the unpredictable way people tend to do at art exhibits.
After a couple hours of wandering around the exhibit, a substantial crowd gathered at the entrance to the auditorium. The sheer volume of this audience reflected the front-page coverage this performance garnered in Boston's weekly arts/events paper, the Phoenix. Most of the people present were around twenty and carried an artsy-fartsy flair. sMFA students reflected an attitude of art=body=art (persona as walking art exhibit). Punkers strode in with spiked hair, miscellaneous piercings, and zippered apparel. A portion of older audience members like myself (at the ripe old age of 30) appeared curious about the music for reasons other than fashion or attitude. Perhaps some Sonic Youth fans from twenty years back were present as well. Some impatient prankster in the line called out, "Lookit all these people! They're just Thurston for more!" (duh.)
The three string players had set up a truly amazing array of electronics onstage in preparation for the performance. Three amps, four monitors, and two massive speakers were set up onstage to conduct sound. Each amp was multiply miked and connected to a bewildering assortment of pedals and stompboxes. For the unfortunate people who didn't manage to make it into the SRO crowd, a couple of mobile handycams transmitted live video into the foyer for all to see. (Meanwhile, I cleverly made it to the front row, where I could stretch out and see exactly what was happening on stage.) At the last minute, a genie appeared with a huge box of ear plugs and passed them out to the audience. (Hint, hint. Some of us came prepared...)