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Beauty Is In the Ear Of The Beholder: Artisphere Presents 'Fermata'

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Fermata co-curators Hays and Ryan Holladay are the duo behind the experimental music group, Bluebrain.
Courtesy Caitlinn Teal Price
Fermata co-curators Hays and Ryan Holladay are the duo behind the experimental music group, Bluebrain.

You know the saying "beauty is in the eye of the beholder?"

At “Fermata,” the newest exhibition at Artisphere, beauty isn't so much in the eye, as in the ear.

“What was interesting about removing the visual context from a lot of these pieces is that you can enjoy them and in some cases get completely get lost in a sound, and you'd have no idea what it is that you're hearing,” says Artisphere’s new-media curator Ryan Holladay, who curated Fermata with his brother, Hays, as well as visual-arts curator Cynthia Connolly.

A sight to hear?

Visitors can see Fermata now through Aug. 12, but can you really say that about an exhibit devoted to sound?

“That’s a good question,” says Ryan. “I don’t know. Language fails us at every turn here when it comes to sound, doesn’t it!”

In a way, it does. I mean, even the word “exhibit” has visual connotations. It suggests a “display,” which the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “a setting or presentation of something in open view.”

Not that Fermata is devoid of things to view. Inside the spacious gallery you’ll find a handful of leather couches and a sprinkling of red and brown beanbag chairs. And the sounds in the show emanate from a physical, and literal, wall of sound: dozens of different-sized speakers, mounted in a grid-like pattern on one of the bright white walls.

“Everyone in the show has the ability to have 14 channels of audio,” Ryan explains. “So these are distinct channels that are kind of mapped throughout the speaker grid that every contributor had access to.”

The nearly 30 contributors hail from the world over: Australia, Japan, Macedonia, England, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain. Some are composers, some are field recordists, at least one is a scientist. Some keep things simple, by using just one or two channels on the speaker grid. But others, like Canadian artist, CFCF, go a little bit wild.

“He had this work that was inspired by Phillip Glass and Ryuichi Sakamoto [another Fermata contributor]… this kaleidoscopic work that kind of builds throughout the whole thing,” Ryan says. “But he sort of deconstructed this piece he had already composed, and then reimagined it for this space and for this speaker wall.”

So, as Ryan explains, “you’ll be standing in one place, and then you’ll hear a piano start on, say, the other side of the room, and then trumpets come in next to you, and then all these different sounds start to sort of activate the room in a way that really would only be possible with a set-up like this.”

Other contributors looked at the speaker grid as more of a map. Like Lucianne Walkowicz, who works on NASA’s Kepler mission, and uses the telescope’s light readings to study star spots and stellar flares.

“A lot of the time was I created this diagram of what the speaker wall would look like, and just shared it with potential contributors, and said ‘What would you do with this speaker matrix?’” Ryan recounts. “And Lucianne got back to me right away, and she said, ‘Here’s exactly how I would do it.’ And she showed me this map of how Kepler looks at the sky.”

She took that map of Kepler’s view of the sky, and superimposed it on top of Ryan’s speaker grid.

“So she took light readings and turned them in to audio,” Ryan says, “and then actually placed them within the speaker wall, relative to where they were in the sky. So she’s really using this layout that we have as a sonic manifestation of how Kepler sees space!”

So, as you can see — agh! I did it again! As you can hear, I mean, the sounds Fermata offers really do run the gamut. CFCF’s piece, “Glass,” is more of a musical composition — or decomposition, rather. Lucianne Walkowitz’s “Stellar Tathata” uses sounds from space. Then there’s “Machine Room DPA March 31” by The London Sound Survey.

“It’s actually this kind of beautiful ambient tone/drone, but what it is is the sound of the gears in the engine room inside of London Bridge,” Ryan explains. “So this is the sound of the bridge opening. Which is kind of cool because this is a place that is not open to the public so you’re actually hearing something that you wouldn't be able to hear.”

Redefining how you listen to sound

It’s this wide variety of sounds that inspired Ryan and his fellow curators to name the show, “Fermata.” In musical notation, a fermata is a mark you place above a note or a rest on the staff, “so it indicates to the conductor or player that they can sustain that note for longer than the note value indicates,” Ryan says. “And so we took that idea and applied it to sound in general, and said ‘ This show is an invitation to suspend your preconceived notions of how you come to sound.’”

“It’s an invitation to the visitor to expand their definition of sound. Am I saying the same thing again? Sustaining this answer is what I’m doing!”

Fermata will unfold in three parts, or “Movements”: you can hear the first loop of pieces through May 25th. The second through June 22nd. And the third through July 20th. The last part, titled “Coda,” will run through August 10th, and feature works by emerging local artists under the guidance of Ryan Holladay and other mentors.

So all in all, Fermata will include roughly 30 pieces of all kinds of sound, from all across the planet – and, thanks to Lucianne Walkowicz — beyond!

Ryan Holladay says he believes Fermata is the largest sound exhibition that’s happened in the D.C. area to date. So, in a way, it truly is breaking the mold.

“Yes, but again, a visual analogy, right?” he says with a smile and a laugh. “We need something that’s sound!”

Music: "Ulysses at the Edge" by Harry Partch from The Harry Partch Collection

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