Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Null Point: Singing Silos, Decay/Reverberate

Silo City, site of Null Point's Decay/Reverberate
The grain silos in Buffalo's Old First Ward have been an attractive location for the city's experimental artists for many years.  These vast, now empty structures are the site of several well-known events, including the Silo City Reading Series, the City of Night festival, and the Silo Sessions video series.  Most of these events take advantage of the resonant acoustics of the large grain elevators, using the silos' natural reverberation to extend and transform a wide variety of sonic art forms, from folk music to literary readings.

Last week's Decay/Reverberate, however, took a different approach.  Sponsored by the Robert and Carol Morris Center for 21st Century Music's co-sponsorship program, and presented by Null Point, a Buffalo-based platform for experimental music and sound art, the four-day event (June 11-14) centered around site-specific works that recognized not only the silos' acoustic features, but also their architecture and history—a history that is entangled with often-troubling subjects like habitat destruction and labor exploitation.  Event curator (and UB composer) Colin Tucker sought out works that "build new musical and sonic syntaxes from the ground up in dialogue with the site, revealing Silo City in new and unexpected ways."  Null Point's call for works attracted a surprising number of artists—with submissions coming from 18 countries on 5 continents—all eager to engage with the site in this way.

Tucker developed a curatorial strategy he called 'double negation':  "[The] site and aesthetic negate each other, creating a third space which is not reducible to either, and yet which opens up unnoticed aspects of both.  The site provides resistance to aesthetic business-as-usual, while the artwork brings into focus aspects of the site that might not be apparent in its everyday existence."  This resulted in a program of works that were site-specific not only in their dependence on the physical and acoustic properties of the silos, but also in their reckoning with and consideration of their social and ecological history.

Materials from Christof Migone's Record Release 7-inch
which uses surface-resonating speakers, contact microphones, 
and small pellets used to make vinyl records in an interactive 
For some artists, this entailed turning the silos themselves into a kind of large-scale musical instrument.  One such work was Lena Nietfeld's "…some workers it casts into barbarous types of labor, and others it turns into machines", in which "the floor, walls, and the remains of metal grain hoppers are scraped and struck with a variety of objects of historical significance."  These include shovels and brooms (used to move loose grain from ship hulls to the grain elevator) and beer bottles (representing the grain scoopers' dependence on saloon bosses).  In Nietfeld's work, five musicians perform a repertoire of actions that reflect the kinds of work done when the grain elevators were fully operational.  "In some cases this can be very visceral," Nietfeld explains, "but in other cases it is more subtle."  Noting that the introduction of grain elevators to the waterfront produced a significant change in the First Ward's soundscape, the performers of "…some workers" do not read from a traditional score, but instead rely on cues from each other and/or unpredictable environmental sounds (bird calls, ships, machines, etc.).

For the collaborative work, Slow Drip, media artists Tom Stoll and Ezra Teboul took the simple sound of dripping water—ubiquitous to abandoned industrial sites—and developed it into an expansive sonic sculpture.  Based around a set of hanging bowls which slowly drip water into each other—mimicking the funnel structures of grain silos—the piece used opto-interrupter sensors to measure the dripping, and relayed this information to a computer, which spontaneously created real-time sonic responses from a repertoire of drop-like sounds pre-recorded by clarinetist, Krista Martynes.

Shannon Werle, a Dartmouth-based artist specializing in the intersections between architecture, sound, and urban research, offered Filter Index.  A culmination of months of research into the relationship between impulse-location and tone-color, the piece consisted of several dozen balloons positioned throughout the silos popping in succession.  This activated "the reverberant interior of the Marine A elevator, making manifest the unique acoustic architecture of the silo."  Werle has created a preliminary fixed media version of this piece—with an accompanying video diagramming each point's location—which can be seen below (additional documentation from Decay/Reverberate will be released on Null Point's website over the coming months).

Other pieces included works by frequent Center collaborators Daniel Bassin and Matt Sargent.  Bassin performed his Typographies II:  Opera, a series of 35 improvisational modules for trumpet (Bassin) and drum set (UB percussionist John Bacon).  The piece—based on a compositional germ Bassin first cultivated in a string quartet composed for the Ardittis at June in Buffalo 2010—utilized the silos' reverberations as a "virutal third player" and was subtitled "sempre pianissimo":  referring to the 'intensity of listening' demanded by the piece as well as the "potential violence that comes as soft sounds give way to silences."  Sargent's Tide (10+1 basses) was a collaboration with bassist Zachary Rowden.  The work's eleven lines (10 recorded + live performer) consisted of an interaction between software and improvisor, just as its realization depended on an interaction between sound, space, and audience.

Daniel Bassin & John Bacon
perform Typographies II: Opera
Nearly all of the nearly twenty pieces featured at Decay/Reverberate were world premieres, composed especially for this site and this event.  One of the few exceptions was a performance of James Tenney's classic having never written a note for percussion, a frequently-performed open work for percussion, consisting simply of a crescendo from pianissississimo to fortissississimo and back again.  During last week's realization, percussionist Brandon Bell performed the work as an extended roll on a simple gong.  "However," Tucker notes, "the real instrument was not the gong but the silo itself—as the gong's volume rises, the silo begins to 'sing' as its resonant frequencies become activated."

The singing of the silos was a integral—if not deliberately understated—component of Tucker's own work, surplus, an electroacoustic installation whose specific location was unannounced.  In surplus, two unmarked speakers played back a large number of field recordings taken at Silo City, which had been overdubbed and filtered in order to reinforce low frequency broadband noise emanating from nearby industrial fans and distant traffic.  As a result, the sonic environment near the concealed speakers became something of an acoustic black hole, as the speakers strongly emphasized certain ambient sounds while masking others.  "[I] liked the idea of just strolling around the site and [wondering] 'What's that going on over there?" Tucker told WBFOsurplus aligns closely with Tucker's original curatorial project, as the piece, in his words, "materializes a socio-ecological contradiction in sound, denaturing the site's present day scene with faint traces of the unresolved antagonisms constitutive of its past."

—Ethan Hayden