The theater is an older establishment with comfortable red velvet seats and ruby red velvet curtains that stretch across a wooden stage. Twinkling lights highlight the constellations on the blue domed ceiling above us as we wait for the concert to begin.
This performance is described in the program as an instrumental composition using a quartet of unique musical sculptures created especially by Robert Wilhite for this event. These musical instruments are simple geometric shapes chosen for their reference to art and not intended to enhance their sounds. Also, as most musical instruments fall into the categories of wind, string, and percussion instruments, these unique musical sculptures are exceptional departures from those catagories. Instead, these basic musical groups have been replaced by another standard: sounds created in air, water, and the earth, combined with one that emits silence. These instruments are said to create sounds at the extremes of human sensitivity, the high and low end of our hearing abilities.
A yellow Cone sculptural instrument produces the complex and often ultra sonic sounds of birds. The range of human perception to sounds at the high end is around 20,000 Hz. Sounds above that are referred to as ultrasonic.
The avian vocal organ is called a syrinx. It is located at the base of a bird's trachea, and produces sounds without the vocal chords mammals have. Birds’ songs are produced by the vibration of the walls of the syrinx and by air flowing through it. The streaming air sets up an oscillating system that modulates the flow and creates the sound, sort of like a whistle. The throat muscles modulate the sounds by changing the tension at the bronchial openings. The syrinx is different than the larynx of mammals, it is the located where the trachea forks into the lungs, and because of this many songbirds can can control both sides of the trachea independently and produce more than one sound at a time.
The hearing range of birds is from below 50 Hz to above 20 kHz in the ultra sound range. Birds hear with a “cochlea,” like humans. However the cochlea in birds is a blind-ended tube called the cochlear duct rather than the coiled one unique to mammals.
The second sound sculpture in the quartet is a large blue cube. It emulates the infrasonic noises and sounds emitted by Odontocetes, or toothed whales and dolphins. Their infrasonic noises are those that are below the 20Hz hearing range of humans. Odontocetes were chosen for this musical sculpture because their sounds are sent and heard completely underwater. It will be interesting to see how the effect of underwater sounds will be accomplished with the sculpture.
Sounds from whales and dolphins are not from their larynx. Instead, they make complex clicks, pulsed sounds and whistles using their nasal system. The nasal system is made up of a number of nasal sacs and plugs that open and close when air is moved from one sac to another. It seems that the movement of the air stimulates vibrations. These vibrations are amplified by special resonating
Nasal cavities. These sounds are then channeled through the hump of fat in their foreheads
called melons, to produce a beam of sound very powerful and precise.
Also, the fact the sounds created by whales and dolphins are produced underwater greatly amplifies their intensity and the distance they can be heard or felt.
They hear by bone conduction, in other words, they feel the sounds. Whales and dolphins are able to detect both the direction and distance by their sensitivity to vibrations through their bones. The great whales, before the advent of commercial motorized shipping, were able communicate across entire oceans with their clicks and whistles.
A third sculpture is a large pink sphere. It will recreate the powerful sounds of both earthquakes, and earthquake booms.
Earthquakes are shifts of the earth’s mantle and caused by the movement of tectonic plates rubbing against one another. These huge natural events could be considered massive stridulating percussion instruments, in harmony, but not in scale, with crickets and cicadas.
There are two types of waves that radiate outward from the source of an earthquake and travel within the earth: P waves and S waves. The waves that travel the fastest from the initial shock are the longitudinal shock or P-waves.
The second wave to arrive, and nearly always the stronger, is called an S-wave. The vibration of the S-wave is sideways to the direction of propagation, and is usually the only wave felt.
The pink sphere emits both waves. When played forte, both waves can be felt but during moments of less intensity, only the S-wave is noticed. We will think we "heard it coming," when the P-wave had already passed us by.
Earthquake booms, mistpouffers, and Seneca guns are the other sounds the sphere emulates. These phenomena are loud booms quite similar to the sonic booms made by jet aircraft or bolts of thunder. They occur without incident and have been reported for centuries long before powered flight. They are mysterious loud events with many theories as to their causes. Mostly heard in waterfront communities, they have occurred in many places around the world, from the banks of the river Ganges in India, to the Finger Lakes of the United States. They have been reported as well in areas of theNorth Sea, Japan, and Italy. On rare occasions, these unknown booms have even occurred away from water.
In 1850, James Fennimore Cooper, author of the Last of the Mohicans, wrote a story entitled, “The Lake Gun,” in which he described the phenomenon.
Meteors entering the atmosphere, gas escaping through the earths surface, decaying vegetation, earthquakes, thunder, and even resonance from solar flares have all been theories as to their cause. To date, however, there are no concrete explanations for the phenomena. The pink sphere is believed to be the first attempt to duplicate their sounds using a musical sound sculpture.
The last instrument, and possibly the most curious member of the quartet is a silent cube: a musical sculpture able to create silence. One asks the question: can something initiate silence like one does a sound with a beam or a wave? Or even if total silence is even possible at all? Many artists have created silent compositions, of course. They include Marcel Duchamp, and John Cage, but also include a long list of pop recording artists like KORN and even Marilyn Manson. The compositions of Duchamp, and Cage were similar to one another in one respect: they both set up situations where random and ambient sounds were the sounds of the composition. Someday though, they all might be performed silently.
Music inherently depends on silence to distinguish and emphasize moments of sound and allow the dynamics, melodies and rhythms to have greater impact. These uses of silence are intentionally positioned voids within the music and articulate the sounds both before and after sound.
To create silence as a positive and tangible essence, does one articulate the absence of sound as a void or can one create a tangible positive called silence?
This silent musical sculpture is unique as the first instrument to ever produce silence as a tangible presence rather than an absence or void.
The lights have now dimmed to dark and the theater spotlights are focusing on the center of red curtains before us. The curtains suddenly split and slowly open revealing the four unique geometrically shaped instruments grouped on the stage.
As the rustling sounds from the audience diminish, the volume of silence from the hanging black cube increases until it is screaming silence in anticipation of the voices from the other sculptures. White rings, like a series of smoke rings leaving a smoker’s mouth, hang directly in front of the hanging sculpture to amplify it’s sound.
The Yellow Cone plays next with a high thin whistle of a Cedar Waxwing, varying tempo and timbre, repeating the melodic song 5 or 6 times in succession. Harmonizing with the Waxwing’s song, one both hears and feels the pressure of a series of subsonic clicks and whistles from the Blue Cube, immediately followed by two powerful blasts from the pink sphere, shaking the room, vibrating walls, seats and hanging lights. Two distinct crow calls then sing out, accented by delicate notes from the silent cube, as the concert continues.………….
Robert Wilhite was born 1946, Santa Ana, California.
Selected solo shows include: The Robert Wilhite Store for Art and Design, Kunstverein, Amsterdam, NE. (2011); Musical Drawings and Sculptures, Gallery Neuartig, San Pedro, Calif. (2011); The Bomb, Barry Whistler Gallery, Dallas, Texas (2009); Off- Main Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif. (2001) Off-Main Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif. (2000) Off-Main Gallery, Los Angeles, Calif. (2002); Huguette Caland Studio, Venice, Calif. (1998).
Recent selected group exhibitions and performances include: Chinese Cocktail, A Concert, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery Theater, Barnsdall Park, Los Angeles, Calif., Pacific Standard Time Performance sponsored by X-TRA Magazine and Getty Grant, Curated By Shana Lutker and Aram Moshayedi (2012); IGLU, a play by Guy de Cointet and Robert Wilhite, (2011); Harold M. Williams Auditorium, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Pacific Standard Time Performance. (2011); IGLU, a play by Guy de Cointet and Robert Wilhite, STUK, Leuven, Belgium (2010); The Beat Goes On, Barry Whistler gallery, Dallas, Texas (2009).
Robert Wilhite has also been involved in a number of works for theatre, performance, and concerts, such as: "One String Quartet", Al's Bar, Los Angeles California (1999); "Delahunty Concert", Delahunty Gallery, Dallas, Texas (1984); "Mach One", Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, Santa Barbara, Calif., Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum. (1980); "Parallelogram", PS1, Long Island City, New York (1979); "Hypno-Disc", Franklin Furnace, New York (1978).
Public Art commissions include: "Gyro / Cone" sound sculpture, Pershing Square, Los Angeles, Calif. Commissioned by the New Music America Festival (1985); and "Jade Garden"' Artist Apartment, Created in collaboration with David Ireland, Washington Project for the Arts, Washington, D.C. Funded by a matching Grant from the National Endowment For The Arts. (1983). He has been awarded artist fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1979, 1981, and 1986) and received the 1977 CETA Grant for Art In Public Places.
Nominated by Kunstverein Amsterdam
Image caption: Geometric Sound Sculptures
This work is part of ICA SOUNDWORKS - www.ica.org.uk/soundworks