Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sound Crawl Nashville edition 3


The downtown Art Crawl generates a swarming, buzzing mass of people, squeezing themselves in and out of galleries, diving for miniature cups of wine, and talking about art, artists, and everything else. For all the intensely social quality of the event, people do have their eyes open. And once a year two musical entrepreneurs ask them to have their ears open when they add the buzzes, clicks, swooshes, and blips of electronic music to the buzz of people in the Arcade. 

For three years now, Kyle Baker and Aaron Doenges have curated Sound Crawl a festival of electronic music presented in conjunction with the Art Crawl. Each time they’ve tried something a bit different, but the basic idea is to invite composers from around the country to submit works that will be played in the Arcade and environs during the Crawl. From the first, Sound Crawl has had an enthusiastic response from composers looking for audiences for their music, and the sounds in the Arcade heighten the 40-ring circus feel of the evening.

Baker and Doenges use the term Sound Art rather than electronic music for what they present, a signal to the audience that what they will hear won’t have many of qualities people (unless they are familiar with contemporary classical music) will associate with “music.”  As Doenges puts it, these works have “no notes. Usually no instruments. There isn't a performer. And rhythms (even arhythmic rhythms) are often obscured by the newness of the listener to the medium. "Sound Art" leaves people without a preconceived notion of what they will be hearing so we feel that they come with more openness to the experience.”

However, most of the pieces follow the basic rules of music—they have a beginning, middle and end and are composed with a logic in their sequence of sonic events. And therein lies a problem. While the Art Crawl provides a great opportunity to introduce a lot of people to these unfamiliar sounds, it isn’t the best environment to really hear the works. In the Arcade, you’re more likely to catch a snippet here and there, not the full shape of the composition.

The problem is no different than most video art, also a time-based medium. With video, you usually walk into the room somewhere in the middle of the piece and decide whether to stick around for the end or not. Plenty of people sample a few random seconds of the video and move on. You have to evaluate the length of the piece and decide if you want to take the time with it. Sound Crawl limits its submissions to 7 minutes or less, so listeners don’t have to wait forever to come around to the beginning, but they don’t have video’s title sequences and copyright notice at the beginning and/or end to provide orientation.

While the Arcade is lively on Crawl night, there’s no way to make it a place where you can concentrate on music with an abstract structure. So last year Baker and Doenges also presented pieces in more of a concert setting in the sanctuary of Downtown Presbyterian Church. It’s a great room for music, but off the beaten path and it required taking a break from the flow of Art Crawl.

This year Doenges and Baker have new variations in the Sound Crawl events. They will still present pieces in the middle of the Arcade in the middle of the Crawl—it keeps the festival connected to the crowds in the galleries, and Doenges adds “I just think it’s fun to do.” To this they’ve added two events, one later on Saturday and the other on Sunday evening that will expand Sound Crawl into settings where their material becomes the destination—people won’t stumble across the performances while visiting galleries, but will make a decision to attend these separate events. Part of the purpose of the project has been to expose this music to people who will just bump into it at the Crawl. Now they are taking a little more risk and seeing if they can also get some people to search it out.

After the Art Crawl on Saturday, Sound Crawl will sponsor a kind of after-party at the Bank Gallery on 3rd Avenue.  Calling this event the “Listening Room,” they will present some of the selections from the Sound Crawl in less hectic environment. According to Doenges, “we wanted to provide a space where people who were more interested in the works could really listen but without the strange formality of being in a concert hall with nobody on stage.”  

The next night, on Sunday, they are inviting people to come back downtown to Downtown Presbyterian Church for “Art of the Future,” which looks like the core of the Sound Crawl this year. Using several rooms in the church, they will present a series of performances sequentially (not simultaneously), along with listening stations for purely recorded work. In addition to the basic ticket price ($10, $5 for students), there’s a VIP ticket for $20 that includes dinner.

The Sunday offering at Downtown Presbyterian Church represents an evolution of Sound Crawl from recordings of electronic compositions into electro-acoustic material with live performance, improvisation, and work that extends beyond pure music composition into a realm that more justifies preference for the name Sound Art over electronic music.

Some pieces have elements of theater, like Elizabeth Roberts’ “Title,” which is her response to an artistic depiction of an antique chair. The performance incorporates the chair into a stage setting with an electronic track and piano improvisation.  Michael Kalstrom’s “Life is Dreaming” is a sort of short opera where video accompanies a vocalist, an instrumental soloist and electronics. Visual elements obviously will figure prominently in a piece of video art by Quinn Collins and Tyler Kinney where the sound and images are integral to each other.  Paul Schuette goes further into the middle ground between sound and visual art with an instrument he built called Mobile2 that combines several oscillators that mimic the properties of an Alexander Calder mobile. 

Most significantly in this evolution for Sound Crawl, they have installed a system built around a software called Weiv which uses Wii controllers to allow several users to interact with video scenes projected on a clear projection surface that floats in air like a hologram. This system will be used with for a performance of a movement from Derek Webb’s recording “Feedback.”   

The selections in the Sound Crawl may not always live up to the level of medium transcendence suggested by the phrase Sound Art, but looking at them as musical compositions points to an even more audacious quality of this event. Baker and Doenges have created a festival of contemporary classical composition in plain sight in Nashville. Our town does not have a prominent contemporary music ensemble like the Contemporary Music Forum in DC or Boston Musica Viva. The Symphony and Alias program contemporary pieces regularly but not in great concentration. No one in Nashville presents as much work by living composers to such a large audience in a focused format as the Sound Crawl does each year.

A shorter version of this piece appears on the Art Now Nashville website.

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