Instruments for Playing Water

Recently, I’ve been working closely with the artist Katherine Kavanaugh as she has designed and built a sculptural installation using bamboo, water, a plexiglass pool, and copper. On Saturday, I’ll perform a new composition at the installation’s official opening that I’m creating along with three fantastic musicians: Jacqueline Pollauf and Noah Getz of Pictures on Silence, and Peabody student composer Benjamin Buchanan.

My concept for the musical performance involves playing the water and other parts of the sculpture directly, and also moving throughout the space in order to evoke a ritualistic sensibility and to involve the entire gallery in the staging. As part of our collaboration, Katherine and I spent a great deal of time considering what tools we would utilize to create the musical sounds. Although we never officially voiced this constraint, we decided to limit ourselves to further manifestations of the materials contained within the installation itself. Bamboo cut to various lengths functions as mallet, trumpet, resonator, and even bubble producer; copper bowls become percussive devices and tone generators; crystal goblets (standing in for plexiglass) add another pitched element and the ability to create melodies.

Last weekend, all the musicians gathered in the VisArts gallery in order to explore the completed installation for the first time. As we physically examined the sculptural materials in order to see what intriguing sounds could be generated from the objects at hand, our varying sensibilities and proclivities allowed each person to produce unique ideas that would eventually be woven into the final sound world. Our united efforts quickly began to merge into a composition that hopefully has a discernible shape and structure and will allow visitors to experience the art in a new light. The curator tells me that she plans to display a video of the performance running on a loop in the gallery in hopes that patrons will continue to conceive of the sculptural display as engendering sonic ideas through time.

Although in our discussions, Katherine and I had agreed that she would leave the performance implements visible in the gallery as part of the overall whole, I was delightfully surprised to find them officially displayed, complete with a tag identifying them as “Instruments for Playing Water.” Yes, that’s exactly what they are. And yet, I found that the mere act of affixing this label to the wall had elevated these devices—which had seemed so utilitarian to me only days earlier—to an integral part of the installation itself. I had once seen these objects as tools, but now in my mind they metamorphosed into sculptures. Of course, I still needed to use them in order to create music, but my relationship with these little devices had been inextricably altered. All because of a little sign on a wall.

Just as I aspire to use sound in order to enhance visitors’ perception of the sculpture, the installation itself intensified my sense of the meaning behind its constituent elements.

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