Chroma, the latest sound art oddity from Nickolas Mohanna, dilates from the smallest pinprick: a sustained piano chord, ground into digital plaster, looms into view. The notes quiver in place, floating aloof beside a 60hz hum, chopped and looped with a deft surgeon’s hand. Forecasting a surge, a wavering wah-wah line sweeps across channels, minced into flurries, sparring with wet, hollow feedback. As a pulsing keyboard line renews itself, the magnetically charged soundwave dissipates into a granulated sandstorm, returning to the Rembrandt black from which it was born.
Buoyed by bleary-eyed mysticism, Nickolas Mohanna specializes in making drone music sourced from city sounds. Beginning with a scaffolding, Nickolas then supplements his found sounds with acoustic instruments — prepared piano, modular synthesizer, and bowed strings. By trimming the attack and decay from his samples, Nickolas manages to conceal their identity, thus leaving the heart of each sound anonymous. Merging studio with metropolis, his compositions are architectural in structure, yet psychedelic in concept: heavy, but not hard; deep, but not dark; the city exits the way that it entered: through every pore in your body. If it leaves you puzzled, well good. Chroma is a mysterious monster by design: a problem child, no doubt; but an intriguing study, nonetheless.
Much like a whirling dervish’s wild gyrations, ceremonial skirt spinning in mesmeric motion, Chroma’s woozy rotations are trance-inducing: every turn bringing you face to face with God. Curiously, after numerous listens to Nickolas’s beguiling fun-house of psycho-acoustic phenomenology, sounds which initially appeared misshapen eventually appeared more appealing – and vice versa. True to all perishables, Chroma is a dense, burning encounter that eventually expires, dredged by crepuscular vocals evoking pitch-shifted Tibetan chanting.
The term chroma, meaning purity or intensity of color, was coined by Albert Munsell in the early 20th century. A painter and professor who likened the study of color to the study of music, Munsell developed a rational system for analyzing color which united artists and scientists across vast practices (from soil researchers to quality control experts). In similar pursuit, Nickolas seeks to unite his multi-disciplinary interests — drawing, video, and sound art – while blurring the lines between them.
A telling press photo features Nicholas standing rigid in a black pea coat next to an apartment doorframe tagged by graffiti. Amid the mess, a single sticker placed at eye level lures the viewer: FUN STUFF. Although Chroma is hardly a case study in easy entertainment, it does make a strong case for an aesthetic of identity politics. Whether Nickolas intends to pummel or seduce is unclear, but with a surname that has Sanskrit roots meaning “bewitching,” who are we to question Nicholas’ creative spinnings? While scientists study how the hypnotic patterns created by the skirts of whirling dervishes may be linked to atmospheric weather systems, Nicholas studies how the hypnotic patterns of unassuming sound are linked to weather systems of the soul. Chroma, at its most feverish, leaves the listener sweaty and breathless, lost in a moment of rapture. If you are not dizzy and half-crazed by the end, then it is time to join the dance. (Todd B. Gruel)