Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Park Nights at Serpentine Gallery – Public Experiment: Sound - Valentina Ravaglia

Park Nights at Serpentine Gallery – Public Experiment: Sound,
7 September 2007

This year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, designed by Olafur Eliasson in cooperation with Norwegian architect Kjetil Thorsen, was not intended to be used as an auditorium. Even though the Serpentine Pavilions host a variety of events every summer, which regularly include film screenings and live music concerts, the acoustics of this year’s creation is all but imperfect, with its uneven polyedric timber surfaces reflecting soundwaves in a disperse, chaotic fashion and creating all sorts of disturbing reverberations and sound distortions. That is precisely the reason why it is, conversely, a very apt setting for sound experiments, the unpredictability of its acoustics making it all the more exciting for sound artists to play with - in all senses.

For the Pavilion’s Opening Night, Eliasson has gathered a few artists specifically interested in the relationship between sound and the space in which this is produced/reproduced, as well as perceived; once again, a demonstration of his ongoing interest in the physical qualities of a spatial environment and of the psychological reactions on the people who experience it. The atmosphere of the pavilion, in fact, stands halfway between the quiet contemplation and the unexpected dizziness given by the somehow daring exploration of its whirling structure. While the interior of the pavilion glimmers in warm brown-red colour tones, highlighted/contrasted by especially designed lamps, its spiral ramp invites the visitors to explore its external surface, ending on a surprising balcony that overlooks the interior space with a vertiginous bird’s eye view. Moreover, the perimeter of the pavilion is higlighted by a harmonious motif of ropes that encircles the ramp in its entire length, almost resembling the strings of a harp. Standing like a sort of gigantic musical instrument, the sinuous constuction seems to resonate with its light, modulated from subtle and warm to loud and bright white.

With such material, the artists invited to experiment with the potential of this resonating chamber on the opening night were presented with the fascinating challenge of making the audience feel inside a musical instrument rather than in a concert hall, and in this respect the potential of the pavilion has been explored in quite diverse ways by the artists, turning it from the extension of a violin’s boards to an electric intonarumori of monumental proportions.

The first sound artist to experiment with this space was “live convertor” Kaffe Matthews, one of the first electro-acoustic composers to make live improvisations with self-designed instruments using microphones and sensors to capture environmental sounds and movements, allowing her to manipulate this found material and reproduce it within the very space that generated it. Her rather long preformance was a truly collaborative event, as the audience was not just a passive receiver but the very creator of the aural event. Matthews made this clear by inviting her public to help her by moving around and “playing” with the space of the pavilion. And the public gradually responded, activating a chain of reactions that made her set an enthralling sinaesthetic epiphany, capable of revealing the spatial qualities of sound while enriching the aesthetic experience of the architectural space.

Violin designer Hans Johannsson and architect Andreas Eggertsen then presented their ongoing creation, a high-tech violin that applies the most advanced technologies in digital design and sound engineering to reproduce the unique sound qualities of glorious Stradivaris. With a minimal body, complemented by separate resonating chambers, this creation was indeed a fascinating surprise, even though the performance ended up taking the form of a sort of product demonstration, with the creators trying to convince the public about the amazing qualities of their prototype.

Much more engaging was the final set by the duo Haswell/Hecker, who have been working together in a number of live and studio collaborations that push the boundaries of electronic composition and the experience of live performances to their extremes. Their approach to music-making has lately become increasingly conceptual, each set thought out as an experiment in the use of specific devices. For this performance they chose to use the material of the pavilion as an instrument for a concrete noise tour de force, as in Haswell’s trademark style. Two fans were attached to what appeared to be spare timber boards from the pavilion’s covering, generating a loud vibration that the duo recorded and reprocessed in real time with laptops and synths. It was of course delightfully mean and potentially dangerous for the listeners’ hearing, but the result seemed to have little to do with the specific acoustic qualities of the pavilion, as the timber panels were used in a limited way, only to generate a single, well calculated type of sound. Haswell and Hecker thus imposed their purpose on the pavilion and made their own show, missing the chance to fully explore what its particular acoustic and structural features had to offer. The pavilion closes on the 5th of November – so there is still some time, in case they change their mind.

Valentina Ravaglia

1 comment:

hans johannsson said...

On the new violin experiment by Olafur Eliasson, Andreas Eggertsen and Hans Johannsson:
Our presentation was probably not precise enough, as we tried to make it quite clear that there is absolutely no reason to compare contemporary creative endeavours with ancient creations. Your use of the words glorious stradivari perhaps shed some light on your point of view. The rather difficult attempt at describing the methodology of this project was far from being a sales pitch and it was made quite clear that the experiments conducted were by no means complete "products".
Hope you enjoyed the sounds anyway.