Volume 17 • Issue 5 | June 25 - July 1, 2004


The Rock’s Role (After Ryoanji
Art In General
79 Walker Street
212 219 0473

Sound exhibit based on Zen garden

By Jaclyn Marinese

Sound, something that takes place in many forms, is being utilized in new and creative ways, outside the realm of the everyday experience. Sound art is infiltrating downtown with an auditory exhibition curated by Ron Kuilvila entitled Rock’s Role (After Ryoanji). The show, taking place at Art In General is part of “New Sound, New York,” a citywide festival of performances, installations and public dialogues featuring works by a variety of sound artists.

Based on the original Ryoanji, one of the most famous Zen gardens in Japan and the title of a series of pieces composed by sound artist John Cage (1983-1985), this exhibition was created by gathering 17 works from an open call for submissions. Composers and sound artists were requested to create short works that responded to a piece by John Cage, who was also inspired by the famed rock garden and his interest in Buddhism. The visual and auditory affect of the exhibit is meant to mimic the effect of a Japanese rock garden like the famous one at the Ryoanji temple in Koyoto visited by Cage on his first trip to Japan.

With this project, curator Ron Kuivila wanted to evoke two types of sound. “The Rocks,” the continuous elements of the overall work are the up-front sounds, never reaching an ultimate pitch or moment.

“The Sand,” or the irregular pulse, are the discrete sounds, underlying the entire soundscape which are meant to notate the passage of time with no beginning, middle, or end.

“What makes it really original and what Ron talks about is the idea of embracing overlap in sound, that each sound is not isolated,” said Jennifer Gootman Communications director for Art In General.

“This kind of, in a way, embraces that intrinsic property of sound, that it will escape.”

The ultimate idea was to explore how space and music interact with each other and the idea that any sound including natural, electronic or even silence, is significant and should be considered a musical form. The Japanese Rock garden represents the idea that music functions as either sand or rocks, continuous or isolated occurrences of chance, and therefore no single sound interval is repeated at any time during this exhibit. Every sound experience showcased here is literally a singular event, only to take place at one point in time, and never to be repeated in the same sequence.

“Rock’s Role explores the possibilities open to sound works to embrace, rather than eschew, the leakage and overlap that is an inescapable attribute of the physics of sound,” writes Ron Kuivila in an essay about the project. “By refusing any stable distinction between signal and noise and by accepting that the soundscape of the semipublic space of the gallery is to be shared, this exhibition provides an experience of “multicenteredness and interpenetration” on a physical level.

The final product is a composition of sounds that combines the individual pieces of each artist into one, without jeopardizing the uniqueness of each composition. By utilizing the SuperCollider computer program, each composition is selected automatically and plays in coordination with the others at purposefully organized irregular intervals. From 15 speakers, representing the rocklike boulders in the Japanese garden and placed throughout the large sixth floor loft space gallery, sounds are emulated.

The speakers sit in a sea of Styrofoam peanuts, which cover the ground, representing the white pebble surface of the original garden. Wooden benches span one side of the room, so that listeners can sit adjacent to the exhibit while taking in both the obscurity and obviousness of this selection of sound clips.

Next to the main gallery is a smaller space with Cage’s compositional scores and notes regarding his ideas surrounding the original Ryoanji, a Nam June Paik video of a Cage Performance, and a map of the speakers in the main room, displaying the name of each artist in highlighted letters as their composition broadcasts over the speakers.

The sounds force the listener to reinterpret their notion of the traditional synchronized sound of music. Whereas most ears automatically expect to find patterns in produced sounds, this exhibition challenges the notion of synchronized, and easy accessibility in sound. The “sand” is portrayed through pieces like Bernhard Gal’s “Three Whites” which continually displays the loud clanking of billiard balls at non-rhythmic intervals, continuous beneath the “rock” representations in the rest of the piece. John Hudak, whose work focuses on the minimalism in sound below the usual threshold of hearing, contributes “Breathe” which softly blows whispering, breath-like sounds which are only audible in the more silent spans of sound in the piece.

Representing the “Rocks” are artists like Mike Hallenbeck who works with the sounds of daily life. His piece “Bronze Concrete” was created from the sound of four bronze sculptures being scraped along a concrete floor and then interspersed with silence episodes. Masahiiko Sunami contributes the “Soundwave Garden” which is based on a principle of random sounds at different frequencies making the listener’s experience completely based upon their position within the space itself.

While some sounds, like the billiard balls or of those of voices or sirens, can be immediately recognized and associated with physical situations, others including the sound of electronically produced feedback remain abstract and mysterious. When juxtaposed these different sound experiences are accentuated by each other and represent the many possibilities of sound as well as the use of silence itself as an instrument.

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