What brings a jewelry box, gas mask, cheese grater, pencil sharper, coffee grinder, fire extinguisher and other sonically inclined everyday objects to life? The FLEA (FIU Laptop & Electronic Arts) Ensemble does, and did, last Friday at the Wolfsonian-FIU.
In their interpretation of David Tudor’s original Rainforest IV, the FLEA Ensemble selected objects in the The Wolfsonian-FIU’s vast collection and converted “analogs” of those objects into instruments. The performance wasn’t what I had expected.
When I entered the sonic rainforest, a low-lit classroom-sized rectangular space on the first floor of the museum, (I thought the performance would be in the main museum space) the objects were strung up and suspended, mostly down the center of the room, and dangled above the audience like a canopy of home and office supplies. The objects, connected to several wires, and presumably a microphone, were attached to laptop computers and equalizers manned and womanned by the FLEA Ensemble. The FLEA Ensemble occupied three quarters of the room’s perimeter as the audience stalked curiously throughout the performance. Some audience members staked out chairs that were set up along the north perimeter of the room. Everyone listened. No one spoke a word.
For visual folk like me, it was all about the installation and the interaction between the suspended objects and the the audience who also became part of the performance process. It wasn’t until I saw an audience member lean in to listen to a conventional tea pot kettle that I realized I should listen, too. So I leaned in. And listened.
The sounds I discerned and/or imagined emanating from the devices:
Cheese Grater: something like a low-key car muffler opera, a ventilator and/or defibrillator (nor sure what that really sounds like), but it sounded like I was listening through ear muffs.
Quick-Aid (Brand) Fire Guard Extinguisher: internal church bell, soft, stop & go kind of ringing vibration, Gregorian anti-chants, hums and whispers in a hermetically sealed metallic antechamber.
Tea Pot Kettle: electronic/synthesized chants, slow foot shuffling, and sounded like a typewriter under water, or an alien transmission (therefore we’re aliens!), raindrop tango on an aluminum roof, squeaky door, or robot cat. Or none of the above!
Zero Fan: a fusion of card shuffling, underwater fan blades slicing through caramel mined with marbles.
Gas Mask: I was too obsessed with the mask to pay attention to the sound.
Brownie Reflex Synchro Model Camera (Kodak): sounded like a camera on a ventilator, or what I imagined a camera would sound like on a ventilator, a muffled, static radio transmission accompanied by a ridiculous chorus of cats purring and then played in reverse.
Pencil Sharpener: flashback to grade school and a slow-grating-dragging of nails across an electronic chalkboard.
The pencil sharpener got me thinking about the origin of sound and/or how we, as human instruments, interpret those sounds and apply meaning to them. How did my school years influence the sounds I heard emanating from a pencil sharpener? How much of our past experiences, as school kids, office workers, Nespresso addicts, determine how we hear, listen to, interpret and enjoy sound?
Poet and memoirist Maureen Seaton wrote in “On Language, Love and Tiny Musicians” that “when someone loves words for the words themselves they can listen to any language that has ever existed and [enjoy] it, even when the poet speaks in tongues.” The same theory can be applied to these sonic objects. If one loves sound for the sounds themselves, one can listen to any sonic vibration coming from any instrument and enjoy it even if one can’t adequately describe it, but understands it intuitively.
The FLEA Ensemble created an intuitive performance that relies just as much on the audience’s interpretation and interaction with sound as it does on the objects they used to create those sounds. The ensemble brought these objects to life. But they also gave the audience an opportunity to discover and experience for themselves the tiny musicians that inhabit the interiors of objects that occupy their everyday lives — toaster, fan, gas mask. I almost want to say that I’ll never listen to a pencil sharper the same as before. But I can’t. I’m not sure if I can erase its indelible record in my head.