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The Ears Have It

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There Is a Pod: Anna Hallin and Cheryl E. Leonard's "The Making Smashing Machine--a living vessel" houses an interactive soundscape.

Sculptors shape sound itself at WORKS/San Jose

By Ann Elliott Sherman

The last wave of SoundCulture 96, the third Trans-Pacific festival of contemporary sonic art and sound practice, has reached the South Bay. In keeping with its name, the exhibition at WORKS/San Jose turns the warehouse gallery into an electro-acoustic exploratorium.

Ted Apel's steel-plate sound sculptures consist of wall-mounted loudspeakers designed to call attention to themselves. In Coupled Shifts, two brushed-steel rectangles backed with springs are excited by a composed audio signal, producing a sound that is a combination of the plates' natural vibrational modes and the electronic signal. One plate may vibrate, rumble and rattle, creating a thundering roar that resolves into a gonglike effect, while the hum put out by the other goes from white noise to a resonant tone. It's a little like waiting for the effects of the next in a series of aftershocks, minus the anxiety.

Rather than painting geometric planes of solid color, Yuzo Nakano executes his designs in dashed lines of clear, subdued hues on a white canvas. Some areas are overwashed with translucent white, intensifying the hazy, veiled effect created by the broken lines when viewed from a distance. Up close, different surfaces become prominent or recede as the eye travels across the painting, producing a kind of reversible-image illusion.

The four works on display are intended to be the visual equivalents of the accompanying musical score, Memory of the Star, a sparsely orchestrated soundscape incorporating shimmering antique cymbals. As for the integrated significance of the installation, I haven't a clue. Perhaps the music becomes more dense and dynamic in its middle passages, as do the centermost paintings, but I confess I didn't listen to the entire 50-minute CD.

Taking sound sculpture into the realm of social commentary, Kirsten Stromberg contributes three variations on the theme of the dominance and submission inherent in domestication of animals, with a sexual subtext that includes human domestic relations in its scope.

In the first variation, a crotched branch is hung from a rusted hook and chain, its bark accentuating the vulval appearance. On one side, the branch is stripped bare and carved to end in a tiny, unnaturally arched foot; on the other, it ends with a cow hoof and is anchored by a cowbell on a long tether (Human Hoof). Harness bells are embedded in the center of a smoothed log suspended from a hook, wagon hitch and chain in Belly.

The rustic found objects hold a real, visceral horror instead of the usual trite nostalgia--almost to the point of defeating their effectiveness as sound sculptures, since the cruel-looking things don't exactly invite playful interaction. Obviously, in Stromberg's unrelenting view, there is no romance in getting hitched. Only Stringalope, a truly upright bass fashioned out of a forked branch hooked up to an amplifier, allows a more relaxed interest.

A retreat into wonder and conspiratorial delight is offered by The Making Smashing Machine--a living vessel. Depending on which aspects you focus upon, Swedish sculptor Anna Hallin's concrete dome--crowned with furrows that sprout bilateral bunches of cable--looks like a womb or a brainwashing helmet from a science-fiction movie. The foam-lined pod accommodates one person at a time; speakers are installed at varying heights around the interior. Weight-triggered MIDI switches under the rubber floor mat and light sensors in the structure translate the occupant's movements into parameters that help determine the progression of sounds from those programmed into the computer.

From the initial creaks and cracks of a glacial cave, watery plops and underwater vibrations, to sharp hisses, processed moans and industrial noise, there sometimes emerge low-bowed viola, gongs and woodwinds played by the American composer Cheryl E. Leonard (who appears in person throughout the run of the show).

The solo audience is involved in an intimate duet with Leonard while enjoying a rare kind of public solitude. This is technology as a tool for communion, for introspection and interaction with the natural and man-made world. Emerging from the inner sanctum to the noontime bustle of Japantown, a heightened sonic awareness turns car engines and footsteps into an extension of the musical landscape--aural attitude adjustment of the highest order.


SoundCulture 96 runs through May 18 at WORKS/San Jose, 260 Jackson St., San Jose. (408/295-8378). Call for schedule of Cheryl Leonard's live performances. Benefit screening of Craig Baldwin's Sonic Outlaws takes place Thursday (Apr. 18) at 7:15pm at the Towne Theater, 1433 The Alameda, San Jose; tickets are $10.

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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