Let’s Hear It for Soundfest

Submitted on Sunday, 3/3/2013, at 12:25 PM

Article by Katherine Duke '05

Photos by Cole Morgan '13 and Rob Mattson

The sunny afternoon of Sat., March 30, certainly looked and felt like spring—and sounded like it, too. But I was on campus to immerse myself in the more unusual auditory stimuli of Soundfest, a featured event of the 2012–13 Copeland Colloquium: “Art in Place / the Place of Art.”

As Wendy Woodson, the Roger C. Holden 1919 Professor of Theater and Dance, had told me the previous day, this year’s colloquium is designed to make the arts more visible (and audible) at Amherst College; to allow for interactions between the academic realm, Copeland Fellows from around the world and the many artists who are active in the local community; and to encourage greater cross-disciplinary collaboration by the college’s Departments of Music, Art and the History of Art and Theater and Dance, as well as the Mead Art Museum and Frost Library.

“I think all of us in the different art departments feel very energized by this interaction. It’s been a huge amount of work, but we’ve all gotten to know each other and are having, I think, a really good time,” Woodson says of the yearlong colloquium. “We are fervently hoping that we will be able to continue this dialogue and interaction and initiative—that there’s more of a sense of ‘The Arts’ at Amherst, rather than, ‘Oh, there’s this department, that department, that department.’”  

Tim Eriksen '88 points to shape notes on a chalkboard in the Babbott Room of the Octagon, where Amherst's first music professor, George Cheney, led singings 150 years ago.

Soundfest, in particular, was set up to prompt students and community members to traverse the campus, experiencing various indoor and outdoor sound installations and performances along the way. The afternoon began in the Babbott Room of the Octagon, where acclaimed Americana musician Tim Eriksen ’88 led local shape-note singers and “church bass” (bass viol) player Loren Ludwig in renditions of 18th-century American hymns. Publication of these hymns flourished in Northampton and Amherst, Eriksen explained. In the mid-19th century, the college’s first music professor, George Cheney, was involved in a revival of them—he would lead, in that very room, “Old Folks” concerts involving students and townspeople.

A visitor to the Rim light installation lies on the floor of Studio 1 in Webster Hall.

Colloquium Coordinator Phil Dupont ’12—dressed in a black tailcoat, as if for a formal concert—then led the Soundfest audience over to Studio 1 of Webster Hall for Rim light, an installation scored by Woodson and local composer/percussionist/sound artist Jake Meginsky, with lighting design by Kathy Couch ’95. We took off our shoes and crept into the dim blue light of the studio. Out of four speakers on the floor—first in one corner, then in another, then in several corners at once—came the recorded voices of California-based artist and former Copeland Fellow Zeina Nasr ’06 and Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Ron Bashford, reciting poetic texts by Woodson on a 12-minute loop. ( ) The effect was both eerie and calming. Woodson had told me that, after creating Rim light as part of a Mellon Seminar in the summer of 2012, she staged it again in November, and “the audience came in, and all of a sudden they started performing in the space, and this was really interesting to me.”Sure enough, I saw a few audience members around the room begin, without any prompting, to lean against one another in strange poses, curl themselves up in seated positions or drag themselves across the floor on their bellies. While taking notes, I dropped my pen, and as I reached down to pick it up, I wondered, “Does this look like a performance? Am I performing as part of this installation?” There was, of course, no clear answer.

Visitors pass through Jake Meginsky's Secret Beach in a hallway of Holden Theater.

Eventually, we emerged back out into the sunshine, and Dupont directed us to Holden Theater for Meginsky’s Secret Beach. To my surprise, the installation was not in the black-box stage area itself but in a narrow hallway behind it. We passed between two steel sheets through which transducers were sending low-frequency vibrations. “If you listen along the surface of the sheets,” the artist had written, “certain areas contain patches of higher volume as these collisions create standing waves, while other areas of the surface suddenly drop in volume as juxtaposed waves cancel each other out.” Secret Beach was Meginsky’s attempt “to to recapture and formalize [the] early aesthetic experience” of leaning in close to the foundation of an interstate highway and listening to the vibrations from passing vehicles.

Eric Leonardson sits near his Springboard during his Similaria performance in the Mead Art Museum's Rotherwas Room.

Listen to an excerpt from Similaria:

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The fourth part of Soundfest, Similaria, took place in the Mead Art Museum’s historic walnut-paneled Rotherwas Room. The audience sat in a square around Chicago-based artist Eric Leonardson, who was positioned with a laptop computer and his original invention the Springboard—“an electroacoustic percussion instrument made from readily available materials” such as metal springs, pieces of wood and what appeared to be a dish rack and an elderly person’s walker. While recorded “sounds from around Amherst” played from four speakers, Leonardson coaxed sounds from the Springboard by touching it with bows, mallets and his fingers. In the resulting “sound collage,” I heard noises of heavy machinery and plumbing, but also hints of a string quartet and vaguely humanoid voices; it led me to ponder both the construction of the Rotherwas Room and the artistic uses to which it is now put—its past and its present.

Just outside the Mead, in and around Stearns Steeple, was the final installation, by electronic sound artist Steph Robinson, a visiting lecturer in theater and dance. Isosteeple featured amplifiers playing highly processed recordings of the carillon located inside the steeple (the carillon player being Campus Utilities Engineer Aaron Hayden). As Robinson wrote, compositional elements were based on the medieval and Renaissance technique of "isorhthm" (listen to a sample stereo rendering here). Thanks to motion-detection software written by Mark Santolucito ’13, we visitors could change the sounds subtly with our movements. Santolucito—a computer science and music double-major on his way to study computer music in a Ph.D. program at Yale—also designed a video projection inside the steeple that cast swirly colors onto a plaque. (You can check out Isosteeple between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day through April 4.)

As we headed away from Stearns Steeple, I overheard one Soundfest visitor ask another, “Shall we proceed to the real world?”

I knew what he meant. What I’d seen and heard on the Amherst campus that day was positively otherworldly.