The climate of air and sound, Monheim Triennale

My aeolian wind harp installation Powerless Flight has been migrating to different locations over the past few years. From June 3rd to July 2nd, 2023, a special version of the installation with 4 towers was presented at the second Monheim Triennale in the frame of The Sound, Sonic Art in Public Spaces, curated by Frank Shulte. I have covered the previous exhibitions of this installation here and here.

Video produced by Jan Höhe for Monheim Triennale

Monheim am Rhein is a small city located at the mid way point between Düsseldorf and Cologne. The installation was located in a large city park in Monheim that makes up a bend in the Rhine river. As always, the greatest challenge with aeolian wind harp installations is to find the right conditions and to “tune” them to those conditions in such a manner that allows them to sound regularly. I have worked out a design that attempts to have the harps “work” in a range of weather conditions, from light air inversions to windy breezes. But understanding these conditions is far from a simple matter. Wind is the embodiment of chaos as complex chaotic behaviour of air particles and how they move in a given environment. This makes understanding the behaviour of wind harps (and other aeolian effects) somewhat complicated and unpredictable,. This is not unlike how we relate to the weather in general in facing a certain level of uncertainty. So much of the skill needed to decide on the placement of the installation rests on making a best guess estimation based on a series of observations and considering the seasonal weather patterns.

This ‘attuning to the local climate’ was actually the basis of a series of workshops that I conducted in Monheim during my ‘scouting’ visit in April. The workshops were made in cooperation with the Monheim Musikschule. I owe thanks to Achim Tang, one of the resident artists of the Triennale for greatly helping facilitate both workshops.

“Tell it to the Wind” performed by students of Monheim Musikschule

Tell it to the Wind

“Tell it to the Wind” (excerpt) performed by students of Monheim Musikschule under the direction of Angelika Sheridan

Local musician and improvisor Angela Sheridan worked with more than 20 flute players from the Monheim Musikschule to develop a site-specific musical performance entitled ‘Tell it to the Wind’. The piece was inspired by the sounds and behaviour of wind harp installation. As flutes are in the family of wind instruments I feel there was a natural connection of the students to understanding what an expanded idea of a wind instrument can be. The difference however is how aeolian harps function and sound in relation to the given environmental wind conditions, which most would consider in a musical sense (human vs non-human ways of “playing”). So how to bridge these two diverging forms of wind based instruments? To approach this question we made a series of listening exercises in a park near the music school to ‘listen to the wind’. Upon listening the flute players would mimic the movements of the wind through the trees in the park on their flutes. This resulted in spontaneous clusters of flute tones that would rise and fall with their breaths. Once the students became familiar with this new language Angela introduced other elements into the piece such as choreography in the space and hand made flags to highlight the movement of the wind in real time. I am truly grateful to Angela and her students for engaging in such a musical experiment. The resulting performance was enchanting in many ways.

Score generated out of a 3 minute collective listening exercise with students of the Monheim Musikschule

(workshop) Listening to the Micro-Climate

Live playback based on the ‘micro-climate’ score

This workshop was built around a series of listening exercises that were conducted on what some would consider a sound walk. I took a group of students to various points in Monheim and asked them to listen for minute and reflect on what they heard. After several points we ended up in the main park not far from the Rhine river. The park was relatively quiet but had a diverse range of things happening, enough to develop a score from. So the exercise was to listen for 3 minutes and ‘record’ what was heard as a memory. We then returned to the music school and proceeded to make a collective word cloud of all the sounds heard. The various sounds listed were then shaped into a sequence that all agreed bast fit the collective experience. This was the resulting score you can see above. We made two takes of the score with each student playing his or her instrument mimicking the sounds in the score to recreate the listening experience from the park.

Later, on my second visit in June, when I explained what we had done to some other artists, Hans Koch recalled that this piece was similar to Alvin Lucier’s “(Hartford) Memory Space (1970)”. In this piece Lucier invited a performer to enter into and later return to an “inside performance space” and emulate the ‘language’ of “urban, rural, hostile, benign” ‘extra-musical sounds’ (Lucier and Simon 1980). While similar in nature, I wasn’t specifically defining the environment we were listening to but rather inviting the students to think of the sounds they heard as a complex micro-climate in a shared space they inhabit. In this shared space, they (we) were not just passive listeners, but active interpreters as well. Our ‘language’ was musical to the degree that we were able to express ourselves and that listening experience through instruments and objects that could also sound.

The score and a range of instrumentation

Additional images

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