Retort Ateliers is a complex of 34 artists’ studios located in the west of Amsterdam, providing much-needed working spaces in a city that has long suffered from overcrowding and high rents. The room I find myself in is the smallest of the studios at 15m2, but still has space for a desk, a workbench, shelving, and storage. Natural light floods in through the skylight. Sitting on the desk, amid various papers, hard drives, and other paraphernalia, is an OP-1 synth and a copy of RoseLee Goldberg’s canonical book Performance Art. I have the feeling that I have come to the right place.
Frouke Wiarda, the studio’s current occupant, is a producer of musical sounds from materials and processes that are normally considered non-musical. Many of these sources are rooted in either the historical development of sound practices, or in traditions of handicraft or manual labour. Previous projects involved the use of cement mixers, charcoal, concrete, and ceramic tiles to produce music and create new sounds. Although the presentation of these projects has sometimes involved something approaching a regular ‘concert’ performance, other outcomes have included theatre pieces, material objects, and architectural sculptures.
She hands me a ceramic tile onto which circular patterns have been etched. “This is a record,” she explains. “I made this with a homemade phonograph. Ceramics for me is partly about identity. Why do we know something about people who lived 2,000 years ago? Because they wrote things on clay tablets. So we know a lot about their society. It’s a heritage, or a history that is transmitted. I was trying to find a direct way to put sound into a material, so that you can play it back immediately – it turned out to be a really simple process. And it’s how the sound feels like, actually.”
For Wiarda, these porcelain records resonate not only with the origins of writing, but also with the history of the early development of sound recording, and with the golden record that was sent with the Voyager space probe as a document of humanity’s cultural achievements. The material qualities of the ceramic, and the story of its development and usage, are both expressed by the sound produced when the record is played on a standard 78rpm record player. “I work with vitreous porcelain, and also bone china,” Wiarda says, “to give warm sounds or sharp sounds. The vitreous china sounds a little bit softer. I don’t like it, I like the harshness. The bone china has a really nice, crisp, ‘kkgghhh’. And you don’t really hear what I’m saying when I’m talking [in the recording], but sometimes you have a sense of, “ssshhh”, “aaaah”, “hheee”, something like that. Vocals work the best, but I tried putting different sorts of instruments into it. Beats also work well.”
The etching of acoustic traces onto the surface of the ceramic echoes the very earliest uses of the material as a simple writing or drawing surface, but Wiarda has also explored other aspects of the relationship between ceramics and sound, an area of research she refers to as ‘ceramophonics’. She points to a number of melon-sized globular objects sat on the workbench. “These are my Helmholtz resonators,” she says. “He [Herman L.F. von Helmholtz, (1821-1894)] invented them in the 1850s. And you could put them to your ear and listen to why the sound characteristics of a guitar are so different from a violin or from other instruments. Why do we recognise a guitar? Why do I recognise your voice? It’s so different from mine. What kinds of high tones and lower tones are in the sound, the frequencies of sound which make the sound colour of an instrument?”
Most sounds are what Helmholtz called ‘compound’ sounds – a complex mix of lots of different tones at different frequencies. Helmholtz discovered that if a compound sound was played into a narrow tube that opened out into a spherical chamber, a single resonant tone was produced, the frequency of which depended on the kind of sound being played and also the dimensions of the chamber. This effect, called Helmholtz resonance, is what is heard when blowing over the mouth of a bottle. The same note played by different musical instruments elicits different resonant frequencies from the resonator, and Helmholtz believed that these ‘pure tones’ were somehow central to human perception of sound, as if we were able to subconsciously hear them and use them as fundamental building blocks to identify different types of sound.
Wiarda has used the principles of Helmholtz resonance to produce beautiful ceramic objects that are able to transform the sounds we hear around us. She is currently working with The National Glass Museum in The Netherlands with the aim of getting closer to the frequencies and volumes of the original resonators used by Helmholtz, and also hopes to compose a sound piece for them.
Wiarda’s porcelain records and ceramophonic resonators demonstrate her keen interest in how the physical properties of different materials can be used to produce and manipulate sounds. For her latest project, however, she has turned to a less tangible sound source: wind. “In Victorian times, actually in England, scientists and philosophers were writing about sound, arguing that the spoken words of people, for example even Napoleon’s voice, were still there in the atmosphere. The words may have been reduced to small little particles, but they are still there. So I wanted to catch these voices, these sounds – it has to do a little bit with acoustic archaeology.”
Such notions of sound, like the ‘pure tone’ theories of Helmholtz, may have few words dedicated to them in modern textbooks on acoustics and musicology. But by exploring the poetic ideas of early sound theorists, Wiarda’s work imagines new ways of listening to sounds in the here and now, forms of attention that require the creation of new instruments and hearing apparatuses. “How can we capture and amplify the sound of something that we cannot see? You need a translation, you need an instrument that can translate it into sounds. So I was immediately thinking about kites. The motions of the wind are translated into vibrations in the line, and then translated again in this device I made, it’s like a bridge [on a violin], with a contact mic. It’s a really howling sound. And every time it’s different, because every wind is different.”
Wiarda has invited eleven visual artists to design kites for her, and eleven composers to compose music using sounds from these literal ‘wind instruments’. The results are due to be performed later in the year in Utrecht and at the Into The Great Wide Open festival in Friesland. Like the production of ceramics, the harnessing of wind too has a long and significant history in a country whose land was drained by wind power, and whose trade empire was built using sailing ships. Yet by involving dynamic and unpredictable atmospheric forces in the sound generating process, Wiarda is allowing chance to play a major role in her work.
“I always work with materials where you can never get a ‘pure’ sound,” she asserts. “It’s always dependent upon how you break the charcoal, or how you break a tile or concrete, you can never do it in exactly the same way twice. So coincidence is always there. I think that’s very exciting. It asks you all the time, over and over again, to adapt to that particular moment. With the kite – I never went that far in that way before, you really don’t know what you are going to get! The sound goes up and down, sometimes silent or sometimes not. So everyone who is involved in my project is taking a risk. I didn’t know if everybody would say yes! For the composers it is the most stress. But I think they said yes to me because it is such a beautiful thing, a kite, and they like, maybe, the unpredictable.”
To some degree it could be said that Wiarda’s practice rests on the reciprocity between highly specific, yet historically situated material objects on the one hand, and unpredictable, intangible sounds on the other. Yet even this dichotomy soon breaks down, because the sounds themselves resonate with the traces of how they were produced, and thus have a history of their own, while the objects give rise to their own uncertainties and inexactitudes. Wiarda plays imaginatively with the possibilities and meanings of sound, encouraging us to listen again to the objects and processes that surround us in our everyday lives, yet nonetheless have their own unique stories to tell.