Sound in Space, Sound in Place - New Bedford Art Museum catalogue and list of events.

There’s a new exhibition at the New Bedford Art Museum. But it doesn’t include paintings or drawings. It features Sound Art — works of art meant to be experienced in person with your *ears.*

Lucky for us, Artscape producer James Baumgartner checked it out and brought his microphone along so you can hear it.

Narr: The New Bedford Art Museum is in a very serious looking building. That’s because it used to be a bank. But back in a small room similar to a vault, you’ll find something that looks much less serious. There are three neon-colored plastic whirly tubes on the wall. A whirly tube is one of those toys that when you spin it makes a whistling tone…it goes higher the faster you spin it. The tubes are attached to motors and they’re all pointing at different angles, like toy lightsabers frozen in time. But every 45 minutes, something special happens.

James Baumgartner: Here we go

Suzanne de Vegh: Oh it’s so exciting.

[sound of slow spinning Whirly Chorus]

Narr: The tubes start spinning together at the same slow speed, creating a drone effect. One by one, they speed up and slow down, creating a series of pitches and harmonies.

[tubes speed up]

NARR: The piece is called “Whirly Chorus” and it was created by Tess Oldfield, a grad student at RISD studying digital media. Here’s the museum’s executive director Suzanne de Vegh.

Suzanne De Vegh: The individual sculptures in the series can be considered singers in a sense, and together they form a chorus. Tess approaches technology and physics in a highly playful way, and coaxes an angelic voice like sound from the mechanical singers.

[Whirly Chorus at full speed]

De Vegh: The visual and Sonic aesthetics and the mood of the chorus for me, although different, summons the memory of the singing computer at Bell Labs and the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.

[sound: Daisy from Bell labs 1961, 2001: A Space Odyssey]

Narr: Walker Downey is an assistant teaching professor at UMass Dartmouth, teaching classes in art and media. He curated the new exhibit…it’s called Sound in Space, Sound in Place.

Walker Downey: Yeah, and I think you're right to draw the Space Odyssey comparison, because there is this sense of arcane artificial intelligence at work.

Narr: Downey transformed the museum from a quiet space of contemplation to a place to explore sound art. 

Downey: So sound art as a sort of consolidated artistic genre has existed really for about forty years. And it was always it's always been a sort of hybrid entity stitched together from experimental music and, and aspects of sculpture and installation work.

Narr: While Whirly Chorus is tucked behind a curtain in a small room, the majority of the museum is taken up by a piece called “Cluster Fields” by Phil Edelstein and John Driscoll. [sounds from Cluster Fields throughout] The artists were putting the finishing touches on the installation while I was at the museum. Here’s Phil Edelstein.

Phil Edelstein: About eight and a half feet up on the wall, there's these PVC plumbing fixtures that have the guts of loudspeakers mounted in them where you can’t see them.

Narr: It looks like a trumpet from a Dr. Seuss book: The PVC pipes are about 10 feet long and they have a graceful arc to them as they bend towards the ground, ending in a round horn. In the middle, there’s a gray, 12 inch, translucent plastic globe. There’s a device about the size of a hockey puck attached to the globe that makes it vibrate at its resonant frequency.

Edelstein: And the idea is rather than serially providing a line of sound that a person sitting in a spot can hear, we're providing a situation where a listener can walk around and discover essentially, different sounds in different parts of the room. So it's a it's a discovery process on behalf of the listener. There's this transition that you go from kind of going “What is this?” to listening to becoming kind of immersed in the work.

Narr: The piece turns things you can buy at the hardware store into speakers. Black corrugated drain pipe snakes around the walls. And sheets of mica hang from the ceiling like wings. The artists play recordings through the objects. 

[mica sheets vibrate]

Narr: Sound art can also document and re-interpret the sound of a place. The museum put out a call for members of the community to record the sounds of New Bedford as they hear them.

De Vegh: It was very important to both of us when we began to sort of brainstorm about how we wanted to put this exhibition together, that it'd be local community voices, that we have participation across generations and across backgrounds.

Narr: They call it “The New Bedford Soundscape.” There are about 20 recordings that have been sent in so far, but they’ll continue to collect recordings from the public and add them to the exhibit. 

[selection of recordings]

Downey: so listeners will be able to experience the New Bedford soundscape in two ways. The sounds will be present in the show, there will be a headphone listening station, and there will also be an interactive map online with sounds tagged to the locations at which they were recorded.

Narr: This interactive map means that the show will be able to move beyond the museum space and it will live beyond the dates of the exhibition as an evolving, living portrait of New Bedford.

De Vegh: We live in a visually dominated field. And we're saturated with images constantly. And we perhaps don't don't privilege our hearing and other senses as much. And this is an opportunity to wake that up and have new perceptions of the world and a new consciousness. But you know, the other thing that makes this exhibition super cool is that if you live with low vision, or are blind, you can come and enjoy this exhibit. And perhaps our previous ones weren't accessible to you as much as this one is.

Narr: There are several public events to go with Sound in Space, Sound in Place. John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein will lead visitors through their Clusterfields sound installation…There’s a workshop where you can learn how to create your own sound art…

And Scott Bishop will perform selections from his EP, NBWaves, it was created using samples of sounds recorded around New Bedford. Here’s one of those songs, it’s called The Gull Catcher.

[The Gull Catcher by Scott Bishop]

Narr: Sound in Space, Sound in Place is on now at the New Bedford Art Museum and runs through June 4th. For The Public’s Radio, I’m James Baumgartner.