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Primary structures

By GREG COOK  |  October 8, 2014

DRONEY Perich's 'Microtonal Wall: 1,500 divisions of four octaves from  C3 to C7.'

The simplified compositional structures of 1960s minimalist music are the inspiration for the immersive sound art installations in “Audible Spaces” at Brown University’s Bell Gallery (64 College St, Providence) and Cohen Gallery (154 Angell St, through October 12).

Coincidence Engine One: Universal People’s Republic Time by Emmanuel Madan and Thomas McIntosh, who work together as a collective under the name [The User], displays hundreds of identical little white ticking alarm clocks arranged in a sort of amphitheater. The sheer quantity of it is impressive and sort of dazzling, like a representation of infinity. It sounds like chattering insects or clacking typewriters in a hive of cubicles. If you step into the display, the noise of this mechanical symphony can also feel overwhelming.

When I visited, some of the clocks had begun to go slightly out of phase, but they mainly were aligned to the same time. But all those clocks somehow made me feel like I was under observation. It got me thinking of the relentless, repetitious regimen of time, with all those indifferent clock faces whipping us along.

Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall: 1,500 divisions of four octaves from C3 to C7 is a 25-foot-wide grid of 1500 little black speakers, filling the room with a droney racket, a bit like what you might hear on a subway platform. If you walk along it, you find that their sounds vary, with low notes at the left and higher notes at the right. Pace from one end to the other and the sounds seem to crescendo a little like the whoosh of a rocket.

Zarouhie Abdalian’s In Unison fills the Bell’s main gallery with 10 glass vases lined up in two neat rows on 10 white pedestals. Each vase is filled with varying levels of water. As you circulate through the room, a piercing electronic buzz — like a ringing in your ears — gets louder or quieter. It seemed to come from above, but the evident presence of the vases kept making me wonder if the sound was somehow coming up from the pedestals. Upon inquiring, I learned that the sound was coming from eight directional speakers mounted along the ceiling. Each one emits the same frequency of sound, but the sounds you hear change as the sounds from each speaker bounce off the walls or overlap with the other speakers. I pictured the ripples of waves interacting in a bathtub. Like Perich’s piece, I recognize an artist tinkering with some possibly fascinating scientific property of sound — but it felt more like a sturdy science museum demo than something wondrous.

“Until quite recently, sound art has been historically marginalized in relation to the visual arts,” curator Alexis Lowry Murray writes in an exhibition brochure. Walking through this exhibition, I wonder why sound art seems to lean toward mechanical or electronic. Why can’t sound art include something like New Orleans Airlift’s recent shantytown of stairs that chimed when you walked up them and musical shacks that you could play? With all the possibilities for sound and music, why do art world sound and videos always seem to end up with the cold, steady, endless electronic pulses of drones?

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