Music can be propagated through everyday objects, and that is the premise of the latest exhibit currently at Drexel University’s Leonard Pearlstein Gallery, which explores the unexpected profundity of sound and its prevalence in our lives.
Presented by Bowerbird, the Sound Machines exhibition features an abstractive sculpture that pairs well-known orchestral instruments alongside household objects. It comes to life through performances that produce the sounds characteristically made by an orchestra — but with only two single performers who rely on an elaborate network of levers and strings to manipulate sound.
“It’s all full of doing stuff we’re not supposed to do — like putting harps on top of pianos, using toys and instruments in the same place — and it’s fun,” Dustin Hurt, the artistic director of Sound Machines, said.
Based on a 1973 concept known as the Zwei Mann Orchester, which was coined by German-Argentine composer and artist Mauricio Kagel, this is the first time a structure of this kind has made its way to the United States. According to Hurt, this uniquely-tailored Philadelphia edition contains about 200 instruments intermixed with everyday objects, including kids’ toys, ladders, bowling pins, buckets, bottles, a record player and jacks-in-the box. Each apparatus of sound is connected with over 120 separate sound machine devices and everything gets used only once during a performance.
Hurt helped to design and build the structure, in addition to instrument builders Yona Davidson and Neil Feather, sculptor/wood maker Scott Kip and trained percussionists Andy Thierauf and Ashley Tini, the machine’s designated performers.
According to Hurt, Kagel devised the structure to subtly mock the bourgeois, elitist nature of orchestra music by showing that he could create a machine that was capable of producing the entire range of tonal expectations of an orchestra using just two people, and this comedic impression still encapsulates the structure today.
“This piece is tongue-and cheek, poking fun that the violin in an orchestra can be replaced by a person pulling a lever or a string to play the violin,” Hurt said. “In the actual performance, violins are treated with the same respect as a rolling pin.”
The Philadelphia edition shares many characteristics with the original Zwei Mann Orchester, but Hurt explained how its form depends on the available resources.
“It’s pretty much whatever you can get your hands on. The hope is to be able to represent all of — or as many of — the instruments of the orchestra,” Hurt said, noting objects obtained through various thrift store excursions and even from the Pearlstein Gallery itself.
While the individual components of sound change with each installation, there are some rules the building team must abide by to maintain the integrity of the original piece, Hurt explained.
“The piece exists sort of as a Rube Goldberg-esque structure with three platforms — one for each performer and a shared platform in the middle. Performers are not supposed to stand during the performance and are restricted to benches,” he said, explaining how these predetermined dimensions force creators to build up, which results in a tower-like structure.
Hurt said the construction is the result of an intensive three-month period of research and development that came together in about three weeks — with much trial and error — once the team arrived at Drexel.
While its creation was intense, he says it was worth the long hours, as it coincides with his personal mission at Bowerbird.
“I’m interested in work that is about interacting with the everyday world that we live in,” he said.
In addition to highlighting how music exists within everyday commodities, Hurt pointed out the overall artistry of the sculpture.
“The other key aspect for the piece is that there is an aesthetic interest putting found and household objects on the same playing field as venerated classical instruments,” he said.
Hurt said most of the work he does with Bowerbird involves slowing down the experiences that we are already having to view opportunities from different angles — which, ultimately, presents more clarity in an intricate world of complexities.
“Experimental music, in its best form, is a way to understand the world that we live in even better,” he said, explaining how this particular project accentuates aspects of life that we typically take for granted.
He explained how we often don’t consider the physical action needed to make a sound, and since most of the music we listen to is through speakers, we forget about the mechanical sources that work to produce sound. However, Sound Machines seeks to reconnect audiences with this process, while also reminding listeners that silence itself is a manifestation of sound.
“You might have taken for granted the fact that a violin is playing by moving a bow across the strings, but with this piece, you can sort of see humorously the bow staying stationary and the violin moving, which sort of reminds you of this idea of physical movement,” he said.
While it’s a simple concept, he says that doing it on an absurd scale makes it inviting and fun to interact with.
“For us, an art gallery, it’s a really different experience to include something that is regularly activated through performance,” Pearlstein Gallery coordinator Leah Appleton said. “The piece is beautiful on its own but it’s also just a really interesting invention; there’s a series of inventions occurring at the same time, which gives a different kind of viewer engagement because everything is silently performing while it’s there.”
Appleton says that the exhibit encourages innovation in a fantastical way, which correlates with what the gallery already aims to do.
“The gallery is a kind of place that offers a different kind of learning than anywhere else on campus — it’s experiential learning that’s predominately self-directed,” she said. “These are the kinds of things that people can come in here and go home and do — to an extent — on their own, which is something I’m interested in doing: engaging folks to interact with art on an individual level.”
Appleton says the power of Sound Machines is that it allows us to reimagine familiar objects in our lives.
“It’s an empowering thing to reevaluate and reinterpret your world. It’s a really nice metaphor,” she said, explaining how this applies to other issues people are facing, particularly in their work lives.
“We want to give people as many ways to view the world around them as possible,” Hurt added.
Hurt said the overarching theme of the sculpture and its supplemental performances is that it’s important to be more mindful of sounds we consistently interact with, whether they yield positive or negative influences on us.
“We are existing in a world that is constantly filled with sounds and so much of our human interaction with the world is actually tuning that out, shutting it out. Stop trying to ignore the sounds and dive into it,” he said. “It’s a ridiculously beautiful thing.”
The exhibition will run through May 31 with remaining performances all at 7 p.m. May 13, 17, 20 and 24.