_When instruments become architecture : On liquefying frozen music Thor Magnusson, 2011
_What happens when you aestheticise the musical instrument? Conceive it as a sculpture? Aesthetics in the design has always been important in the world of acoustic instruments. Form surpassed functionality with all kinds of decorations and minor details that added to the instrument’s overall value. However, although the ornamentation of the 17th and 18th century instruments became less prominent (the cellos lost their female breasts for example) acoustic instruments never took on the modernistic design principles. Acoustic musical instruments are still in the spirit of 19th century design, almost fossilized in time in their incredibly slow evolution.
Not so in the world of electronic instruments. For more than a century new electronic instruments have been invented, innovated, become popular or forgotten. Tradition is not the name of this game, but rather experimentation, pioneering visions, and the revolutionary in terms of man-instrument relations and musical expression. As opposed to acoustic instruments, the design is modernistic, functional and simple. No ornamentation, following the key element in contemporary design of emphasising function and showing the active structures of the objects we design and use. An ideal example would be the Centre Pompidou in Paris, where Rogers et al. decided to invert the building with the pipes, ventilation and staircases exterior to the building.
So we can ask the question again. How would we aestheticise the electronic instruments of today? A clear and direct attempt in answering this question can be found in the work of Peter Vogel. This work is not necessarily to be defined as being musical instruments, but they are definitively objects of sonic interaction. The objects are functional and spatially laid out. Ornamentation is absent, yet the pieces exude beauty. Every sensor, cable, transistor, capacitor or speaker are visible and architecturally placed in a nervous system of electricity that feels alive, as a system of consciousness or a homeostatic cybernetic being. The instrument has been inverted, expanded in space and has indeed become a sculpture. Yet it remains a playable and interactive system yielding musical results when interacted with.
Due to their sculptural or architectural nature, these instruments are not to be packed in a bag and used in the typical pub gig. They are rather to be placed on walls, on the floor, or on podiums where the audience explores the instrument through engagement and interaction. The observer becomes a player of a piece that is both visual and musical. The sounds are typically simple low-bit waveforms, resulting from the rough and primitive electronic ingredients used in the works. The speakers are small, placed on walls or wires, without a body that could emphasise the deeper sound frequencies. The idea of working with sound in space becomes important: speakers point in different directions or are placed far away from each other, creating attractions and forcing the audience to move through space in order to engage with the work.
Vogel’s art encompasses both temporal and spatial dimensions. Even in his robotic music ensembles, largely appearing as being non-interactive, the three dimensional form of the robot musicians are reduced to two dimensional drawings through the use of light and shadows. As listeners, the audience is tempted to approach the robots and explore them, but as spectators they have to stay behind the light source, or else breaking the play of shadows. This maintains the traditional stage/auditorium, performer/audience rift, but only accidentally and delicately, since the interested viewer can enter the space between light and robots thus entering the play of shadows, once again placing interaction as an important element of the work.
Vogel's pieces are thus characterised by a certain triangle of instrument design, sound and interaction. As such, the label of sound art would be a limiting definition of his work: and in his case all labeling would be reductive since it involves sound, music, instrument design, sculpture, architecture, choreography, cybernetics, interaction, and more. Initially the spectator is faced with an architectural structure supporting a cybernetic system, but when engaged with, the focus on physical form is moved into that of immaterial sound that reacts to the audience behaviour. Not instruments, not sound art, not mere interactions, Vogel's work extends beyond such definitions in its embracing of sound and silence, light and shadows, sonic and physical movement, kinaesthetics and aesthetics, temporal and spatial dimensions, control and autonomy.