A One-Man Audience

For two weeks, hundreds of visitors collaborated to create thousands of unique sounds and songs in our installation, Sound Maze. Our goal for our collaboration with Visions and Voices was to challenge our visitors to perform on Paul Dresher’s experimental instruments and to engage with his creations as both art pieces and tools of music. However, our interns serendipitously became the built-in audience to hundreds of private shows played by the public. Their many hours in the gallery allowed them to hear the improvisational music unfold in real time. They decided to share a little bit of what they heard and saw over the two weeks and bring the fleeting beauty of improvisational performance to our blog:

  • Approaching Paul Dresher’s work in the Fisher Museum is like walking into a futuristic cathedral. Like any good basilica, the museum’s powerhouse instrument is an organ, but there’s something about their song that makes it foreign. It may be the fact that the organ is electric, and is played with drum sticks with thin metal disks at the tip, fashioned by Dresher. The wooden beams that fan out into the museum space call the brave soul to stoke its upright keys and coax out its full sound.
  • Eventually a patron unintimidated by the structure takes up the sticks and begins the ensemble. The organ lets out a scattered but passionate collection of notes, and often, a sly smile begins to form in the corners of the musician.
  • In the background, there is a woody, clicking noise that creeps into every corner of the museum. It originates from ping pong balls, that rock back and forth in small plywood boxes on flexible stilts. Hands push and pull the boxes, and send the apparatus into a hypnotizing pendulum motion.
  • Clashing with the beat of the swinging boxes, a heavy metal hula hoop, set off by another guest, sets its own pace. The hoop reveals its rhythmic power after a few silent seconds. Slowly the thumping gets faster and faster: the music of gravity.
  • The room truly becomes a sonic treasure hunt when the long violin-like device with an electric wheel under its strings begins to wail. Layered over the other instrumentals, the long strings produce an eerie complementary to the other, more wholesome sounds. One guest cackled while pressing down on the strings, as the speed of the wheel sent a vibration up her arm.
  • To those who are not classically trained musicians, it’s hard to tell why the collection of notes produced can feel like just sounds one moment, and then a familiar melody the next. But the continual shift between chaos and harmony is a thrilling roller coaster. Through all those hours, one cannot help but to stop and appreciate the grandeur and novelty of each sound, and appreciate each instrument as sculptures that expand into the unending dimension of sound.

Blog post by Jordan Winters, intern at USC Fisher Museum of Art.