In the Garden of Sonic Delights Part II: The Offsite Exhibits

Last week I covered the opening of a 15-installation exhibition and took in 10 of the projects at once.  This week, I went looking for the rest.  A four-hour road trip led to an art center, a garden estate and a farm; despite the rain, it could not have been a better day.

I left the house during a torrential downpour, trusting the radar, which indicated forthcoming breaks in the weather.  As the rain pummeled the windshield, I began to think of my car as an installation.  Whenever I passed beneath a bridge, the sound paused, only to resume on the other side.  Slow cars cut long swaths of puddled timbres into the soundscape.  Crossing over the Whitestone Bridge, I saw the monstrous storm over Manhattan on the left and clearer, brighter skies on the right.

HVCCAAn hour north of the city in Peekskill lies the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art, seemingly small on the outside but spacious inside.  The current exhibition, Art at the Core: The Intersection of Visual Art, Performance and Technology includes some stunning pieces, perhaps the most impressive being a gigantic set of angel wings that (despite being made of can tabs) inspires a sense of awe.  Credit Jeffrey Schrier for the powerful vision.  But where was the piece I was looking for?

After a quick consultation, a pair of women from the Center invited me to get back into my car and follow them to an abandoned warehouse (in retrospect, this sounds scary, but they were completely trustworthy).  The Hudson River was directly to the west, and trains were passing by.  As we exited the cars, Abby took out a set of keys to open the windowless building, noting, “the rain will probably work well with the installation”.  I was led in the dark to a small circle of chairs.  (Again, not as scary as it sounds!)  And the performance began.

gamelatronAaron Taylor Kuffner‘s Gameltron Sanctuary: Suara Sinar (The Sound of Light) utilizes a series of gongs and cymbals from a Balinese gamelan orchestra.  The piece begins slowly as the eyes adjust to the light.  Soon one can make out the shapes of the gongs as they are struck by mechanical mallets.  Alternating spotlights highlight the instruments as they produce reverberant echoes.  Every few minutes, a miniature cacophony develops.  Kuffner originally considered placing these later in the composition – the whole of which lasts four hours – but decided that people might not stay long enough to hear them.  The overall effect is a little bit eerie (due to the setting) and a whole lot holy (due to the sound), a sonic reflection of worship in a Hindi temple.

My gracious hosts had remained respectfully still and quiet throughout my time of active listening.  I asked Sarah (who enjoys contemporary folk music) and Abby (who prefers ska) what they thought.  Each was enthusiastic about the installation.  “How would you react if you heard it on the radio?” I asked.  “It would get my attention”, Sarah responded, “but it would be missing the full effect.”  In a single sentence, she underlined the importance of installations, which are far more than just music.  Kuffner’s aim was to provide “a refuge, an offering, a respite, an escape and a confrontation”.  This installation is a hidden gem; he has succeeded in his aim.

SONY DSCTraveling down Route 9, I drove through Sleepy Hollow (yes, that Sleepy Hollow).  During last weeks’s panel discussion, Ed Osborn mentioned that he loved the setting, steeped in history and lore.  His Palm House Transect may not look like much from the photos – a glassless greenhouse on the grounds of the Lyndhurst Estate in neighboring Tarrytown – but it’s well worth the visit.  I had the good fortune to arrive just as the rain was ending, and had the whole place to myself.  One can hear the piece as one approaches.  A generative sound sculpture, Palm House Transect offers a series of tones ranging from low drones and what seems like gamelan (a nice coincidence) to running water (some broadcast from speakers, some circulating in a fountain), crackle and wind.  One can follow the piece as it falls silent then follows a linear path through the greenhouse.  Osborn performed the piece live at the opening; other concerts will take place in the space throughout the summer.

One of the best sounds I heard was a baritone bird.  After investigation, I concluded that its cries were not coming from any of the 30 speakers.  Listening to Osborn’s sounds had made me more sensitive to sound itself.  As I walked back to the car, I heard more avian activity than I had in years – partially due to the fact that birds seem to love this sanctuary, but partially due to the fact that I was more aware, living more in the moment, thankful for environments both natural and created.

Seven BellsA short trip northeast, and I was at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, an oasis tucked neatly between the Taconic and Route 9, away from the usual traffic.  Bruce Odland‘s Seven Bells for Stone Barns is perfectly described as a “sonic treasure hunt”.  The sheet for the self-guided tour reads, “We invite you to stop, listen a while and start thinking with your ears.”  The seven bell systems are nestled in some surprising locations.  One is a weather bell, looking over a vegetable field; another is a watering bell beside an irrigation system.  My favorite single bell is located in a sonorous silo, and is struck every few minutes by an oscillating hammer.  This particular bell has a storied history, having enjoyed previous lives as a planter, a charcoal grill and the nose cone of a fuel rocket.

baaaaaaaaaaaA couple weeks ago, a YouTube video of otters playing keyboards at the Smithsonian Zoo went viral.  These otters have nothing on the Stone Barns Center.  Pigs rub against rubber boots, activating bells;  a bellwether and ewe wear bells that help farmers to track their location and activities; an apiary is wired with micro laser beams triggered by bees as they go about the business of the hive.  This last installation appeared inviting from the car, but as I approached on foot I decided not to sit inside the lovely array of pastel-colored boxes!  The bellwether and ewe bells also made me think of a flock of sheep, each with a different-toned bell; I wondered if any farmers had ever thought of such a thing.

A serendipitous observation: the gamelan theme continues in Stone Barns’ Greenhouse Gamelan.  Unlike the Lyndhurst greenhouse, this one has glass.  Tiny gamelans and wind chimes are activated by the sun and wind.  These installations are related in ways that the creators, working separately, might not have imagined.

A leisurely lunch in the cafe (cheddar cheese biscuit, sweet potato yogurt, flax brownie, cappuccino) and trip to the gift shop completed the day; I was able to return home before the rain resumed.  Those who are counting may be wondering about the remaining pair of Sonic Delights installations; each is scheduled to open soon.  A huge congratulations to all of the artists, and again to Stephan Moore for making this all happen.  Finally, a tip of the hat to the staff at each location for their friendliness and good cheer; the artists can rest assured that their works are in good hands.

In the Garden of Sonic Delights

Richard Allen


  1. Pingback: LCNL 053: A Machine In The Garden [mix] | a closer listen

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