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Oliver Beer Constructs a 32 Frequency Scale

New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art
07/02/2019 -  until August 11, 2019
John Zorn: Improvising on Vessels
John Zorn (Vessels), Sara Serpa (Voice), Sae Hasmimoto (Vibraphone), Kenny Wollesen (Vibraphone), Ikue Mori (Electronic percussion), Michael Nicolas (Cello)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is on the cutting edge of music presentation in the United States. A contemporary opera based on the Tales of the Genji was produced this year at the Astor Chinese Garden Court in the Museumís main building. The Orchestra Now has given us Anton Webern and Morton Feldman in a Museum auditorium.

Many of the more adventuresome productions take place in The MET Breuer, down the street on Madison Avenue. Here the British artist Oliver Beer assembled a vessel orchestra. He selected thirty-two of the Museumís thousands of vases to mount on pedestals and mic. The Ďorchestraí of vessels sits on a group of pedestals forming a rectangle in the center of the fifth floor gallery. This grouping is aptly referred to as an organ. Only the wind system is missing. An electronic keyboard is connected to the mics which hang inside the vessels.

Each vessel, it turns out, has its own unique frequency. In whatever room the vessel sits, ambient air is stirred up and probably helps release many notes from the vesselís unique architecture. One frequency, however, dominates each vesselís inner space. Beer picked out notes from lower C to high G on a chromatic scale.

Each of the vessels was miced to pick up the frequency and transmit it to an electronic keyboard. Beer composed a twenty minute piece which played regularly during the exhibit. On Friday evenings, artists were invited to come and play the orchestra with additions of their own choice.

Nico Muhly took to the keyboard and looked like a longtime organ master, leaning back, his arms stretched out straight. He was in dialogue with Nadia Sirota on the viola. He created a repeated phrase in four to seven notes. Often his vessel notes underscored the viola, which had a richer, livelier tone. Yet once in a while, Sirota provided the base.

The final eveningís performance was an improvisation by John Zorn. Zorn grew up in Joseph Cornellís Queens neighborhood, and dedicated a work to him. Never did he think to get the ambient frequencies of a Cornell box, and make music. It would have been a wonder.

Zorn clearly gave much thought to the potential of what at first seem like dull, plain notes emitted from the vessels. No overtones here. To enable many notes to be played at once, he had a collection of socks filled with heavy brass balls. With them, he could press more keys at once than he could with his hands alone. Toward the end of his improvisation, so many notes were emitted together that what was bland singly became a richly resonant palette.

We were set up by two chiming vibraphones, whose sounds range from celestial tones to a river of steel in the mallets and hands of Sae Hasimoto and Kenny Wollensen. Just as Zorn had extended the texture of the vessels by playing many Ďnotesí at once, the vibraphones were equipped not only with mallets, but also with the bars of the vibraphone. When run across the instrumentís surface, these tines sounded like the jangles and chinking of a chain gang made beautiful. Hasimoto has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera and at Carnegie Hall. Wollensen comes to us via Sean Lennon, the Sex Mob and the Himalayas.

Zorn encourages the other instruments he conducts to improvise with texture. The cello is miced under the bridge. Some of the sounds that usually characterize the instrument are apparent. Yet we also have a racket as the mic picks up wood striking wood briskly. Michael Nicolas was game, producing both beautiful bowed notes and harsh wooden strikes.

The human voice of Sara Serpa starts on a long held tone. She colors the jazz landscape Zorn suggests. Soon she too is dancing. The electronic percussion is a veritable laboratory of odd sounds. Etching and shifting beat and rhythms, Ikue Mori added an intriguing collection of ticks and clicks to the improvisationís rich texture.

All are pulled together at the end by a fading drone from the vessels and then quiet.

Ceramicist and sculptor Edmund de Waal comments that in creating a vase or vessel, the artist senses its personality. Curators may divide the vessels into utilitarian and lovely-to-look-at. De Waalís major divisions are nouns, solid in their shape and weight; and verbs which are in flux.

Zorn, when he talks about his methods, says that they are immaterial. If they result in sounds that please and entice the ear, the methods have worked. No other artist working with the vessels came up with as many textures as Zorn did. Small rectangular shapes light up when a vesselís frequency is being played. Zorn could light them all up at once with the weight of his brass balls. Massing sound he brought forth an unexpected tinkling delicacy. Tom Bass, the sound engineer for all vessel performances had an elegant touch.

Zornís improvisation on the thirty-two vessels selected from the Museumís collection by Oliver Beer was a triumph. The ways in which the Vessel Orchestra can be used are as various as the human imagination. Zorn leads the way in making a memorable moment with the Vessel Orchestra.

Susan Hall



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