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Magnetosphere- Art as Science, Science as Art

At Fusebox we are excited to be partnering with graduate students from the Performance as Public Practice Program at the University of Texas to provide previews and reactions to the artists at our festival. Here is a review of Magnetosphere by Michael C. Moench

-Timothy Braun, Editor-In-Chief of New and Social Media

While visiting Matthew Steinke’s installation, one of the first thoughts that occurred to me was the diminution over the centuries of the ideals of the Renaissance, in particular the Renaissance view that mastering the fine arts and the hard sciences are complimentary, not mutually exclusive goals. Steinke’s work which uses electromagnets, run by an automated software program, to produce music through household objects can be seen as a step towards reclaiming at least that part of the Renaissance legacy. This led me to bemoan internally how Western Culture has since largely dichotomized these fields, and how the popular imagination has come to view “left vs. right brained” as opposing functions or dispositions. Work like this helps remind us that the two realms, science and art, need not be so distinct.

At its core, the magnetosphere is process music, designed to draw attention in many different ways to how the music is generated as you are experiencing it. The room itself was lit very low, though this varied somewhat over time, with a few strategic light fixtures that help subtly illuminate the instruments as they are activated in the half-darkened environment. The instruments are made from different found objects of ferrous materials: cups, cans, bowls, washbasins, gasoline canisters, etc. Many of these were arranged in two rows hanging from the ceiling, while several others were situated on the floor within rectangular wooden resonating chambers. The only conventional instruments in the ensemble were a small celeste/toy piano, and a set of percussion controlled by a mechanical module that includes tambourine, wood blocks, frame drum and shaker on a small stand. As one is casually surveying the objects it is easy to neglect or altogether miss some of them until one is made aware of their presence when they are activated. This seems to be by design, in order to create a sense of surprise and discovery as one freely wanders about the space.

The pitches of the different objects are produced through electromagnetic inductors, which cause the metal within them to vibrate at their fundamental frequency (each object thus producing its own particular tone). While the work as a whole bridges art and science generally, this particular technique also connects at least two different fields of science, electromagnetics and acoustics; electromagnetic vibrations that we cannot see or hear being used to produce the vibrations of air pressure that the human brain perceives as “sound.” Music fans often resist efforts to view music from a scientific or mathematical perspective (“you can’t like quantify art maaaaan”), but this exhibit demonstrates how music is not possible without at least some recourse to supposedly left-brained processes. If nothing else, if you want to make or tune an instrument, you should have some understanding of materials and their acoustic properties. The software program that runs the piece is described as a “digital piano roll,” though whether this is just an explanatory analogy or a direct description of how the software functions is not important.  When Steinke at one point had to manually cue or perhaps restart the piece from a computer console in a partially concealed alcove, his intervention called into question how fully automated the process truly is. However, that in itself did not break the “illusion” of self-generated music so much as provide a useful reminder that ultimately this is a product of human work and human agency.

The composition cycled through about once every hour, with different passages designed to emphasize different instruments and different spatial relationships. Most musical performances and recordings place a great deal of emphasis on space, be it the acoustics of a live venue or the headphone spatial impression created in the final mix of a recording. In the magnetosphere, space is even more integral since the audience is invited to literally walk around inside the composition. Fellow patrons would even position their heads directly under or inside of some of the hanging bowls, for either whimsical photo-ops or as a way to get even further immersed in a particular instruments’ tone and timbre.

As for the music itself (a phrase ethnomusicologists like myself are often wary of saying as though we were invoking Lord Voldemort), the piece is surprisingly accessible despite the avant-garde nature of the presentation.  A great deal of it seems to have a minor key tonality and an overall haunting or eerie mood. Some segments merely relish in pitch combinations that may or may not conform to traditional chords, others feature the percussion and have only spare interjections of melody. Much of the tones produced by the hanging objects create the impression of a giant organ or calliope (and there is a decidedly “circusy” aspect to certain themes), while the tones produced from the metal plates embedded in the resonator boxes at times resemble either a cello or tuba. Certain contrapuntal passages would not sound completely out of place in a Baroque era toccata, others would work well in a modern film score. One sequence in particular that featured percussion heavily engendered a visual evocation of some kind of demonic factory or assembly line that could have stood in for a Danny Elfmann score for a Tim Burton movie.

While the more staunchly traditionalist connoisseurs of music often lament the increased role that electronics, computers and digital media play in modern music, all music making that utilizes an instrument apart from the human voice and limbs is in fact technological, and thus to an extent scientific. Whether Steinke considers himself a Renaissance man, or whether or not works like the Magnetosphere are emblematic of a futuristic utopian dismantling of the hard dividing line between science and art, works like Steinke’s Magnetosphere help remind us that art, like science, requires tools, experimentation, calculations, and engaging with the fundamental physical forces of our universe

Creighton Moench is a doctoral student in Ethnomusicology at The University of Texas, Austin

Written by Timothy Braun

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