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Art review: 'Aftersound: Frequency, Attack, Return' at Miller Gallery

| Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
'Stiles 1,' Jesse Stiles, 2015
Miller Gallery
'Stiles 1,' Jesse Stiles, 2015
'Helmholtz,' Paul DeMarinis, 2015
Miller Gallery
'Helmholtz,' Paul DeMarinis, 2015
Detail from 'Turn of My Century: Dub plates and test pressings 1998-2014,' Marina Rosenfeld, 2015
Miller Gallery
Detail from 'Turn of My Century: Dub plates and test pressings 1998-2014,' Marina Rosenfeld, 2015
'Folk-Telharmonium,' Michael Johnsen, 2015
Miller Gallery
'Folk-Telharmonium,' Michael Johnsen, 2015

The exhibit “Aftersound” is not so much about looking as it is listening.

On display at Carnegie Mellon University's Miller Gallery and organized by Melissa Ragona, an associate professor of art history, media and sound studies in CMU's School of Art, and Margaret Cox, a musician and the gallery's assistant director, the exhibit features the work of more than a half-dozen contemporary artists using sound as their primary medium.

Aftersound, as Ragona explains, is inextricably tied to the concept of an afterimage. “In the same way we continue to ‘see' an image (light) immediately after we have viewed it under intense circumstances, i.e. strobe effects, direct sunlight, etc., we also continue to ‘hear' sound after a sounding device or instrument is no longer played.”

And so it is that the first piece visitors will come to, “Helmholtz (DUO),” features rotating mirrors that reflect sound-wave patterns illustrated via gas flames.

The piece is by Paul DeMarinis, a professor in the department of art and art history at Stanford University.

One of the first artists to use microcomputers, DeMarinis has toiled since the 1970s in the areas of interactive software, synthetic speech, noise and obsolete or impossible media.

Here, he has incorporated glass, spherical-shaped Helmholtz resonators, which are named after 19th-century scientist Hermann Helmholtz, who rediscovered the unique resonant properties of spherical enclosures that had been used to equalize the sound of ancient Roman theaters.

There are two resonators in the installation. Each is connected to gas torches. In front of the resonators, tall PVC pipes act as subwoofers that belt out bass tones from a digital source.

The flames from the torches respond as the tones emanate, forming a “manometric flame apparatus” similar to what German physicist Rudolph Koenig designed in 1862 that made sound waves visible.

Cox says it was inspired by the discovery of “sensitive flames” by American scientist John LeConte in 1857. LeConte noticed the quality of a gas flame changes shape in response to ambient sounds.

“It was the first time (a scientist) noticed that sound waves had a physical form,” Cox says. “The flames pulse when the resonators reach a particular pitch.”

Ragona says the works in “Aftersound” also address the “ubiquitousness” of sound art and sound in culture. “We were also thinking of the political resonances of sound, where sound is now used in a really aggressive political way to break up protests. ... It has a long history that really hasn't been recognized fully,” she says.

The politics of sound are as deeply tied to the ontology of sound as they are to its social position. “By intoning the notion of aftersound, we are borrowing from a historical inversion of sound, initiated by John Cage's overturning and expansion of the definition of silence,” Ragona says.

Cage (1912-92) was an American composer, music theorist, writer and artist. A pioneer of electroacoustic music, he was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde.

To that end, included is Cage's print, “Fontana Mix (Light Grey)” from 1981. Ragona says the piece points directly to Cage's four-channel tape work, “Fontana Mix” from 1958, in which an infinite number of compositional strategies allude to an infinite number of ways in which volume, timbre, mixing and other elements might be performed.

Many of the visual scores and graphic notations exhibited in the gallery borrow and extend Cage's pioneering inversions of the compositional score.

For example, Victoria Keddie's “Headbanger” takes Cage's indeterminate structures to a physical extreme. Based on studies of patients with a painful sleep-related rhythmic movement disorder that causes them to unconsciously bang their heads during sleep, her piece brings this repetitive notion full circle with a sculptural piece made up of a steel monolith into which she pummeled a sledgehammer and a video component that rasterizes the sound of the banging.

Michael Johnsen's “Folk-Telharmonium” offers an ersatz version of telharmonium, the “mother of all electronic synthesizers” built by Thaddeus Cahill in 1897, that he cobbled together from kitchen utensils and an old Sony tape recorder. Here, visitors can play with tones and pitches with toggles and switches to infinite end.

Also offering infinite aural compositions, simple votive candles form the basis of Jesse Stiles' “IR Chorus.” As they slowly burn down, tiny digital oscillators connected to heat sensors change in pitch.

Then, there is Marina Rosenfeld's “Turn of My Century: Dub Plates and Test Pressings 1998-2014.”

Made up of a 16-year archive of the artist's collection and an archive-making digital machine created in collaboration with artist and computer programmer Caroline Record, the piece is a daily program of playback and recording over the exhibit's 81-day run.

With the assistance of gallery attendants, Rosenfeld's personal archive of original 10- and 12-inch acetate records and test pressings — annotated in nail polish and magic marker — are heard one side at a time, from start to finish. A tandem digital work captures and logs each “long-play,” entering the resulting recording into a temporary aural archive visualized as an infinite tower of spiral lines that visitors to the gallery can navigate and play.

The remaining works are just as compelling, and several are interactive. It all makes for a fun and enlightening exhibition experience.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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