Review: Constellate by Doug Van Nort

Last weekend, I went up to the Tang Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs to check out Doug Van Nort‘s Constellate, which is installed in the Tang’s elevator. It’s open until October 14–that gives people a couple of weeks to catch it.

The Tang is a small museum–it bills itself as a teaching museum. Instead of having a small elevator for guests and a big freight elevator for moving large pieces somewhere behind the scenes, there’s just the one elevator. It’s substantially nicer to be in than the typical freight elevator; it moves quite a bit more slowly than a standard passenger elevator. Why is this relevant? Because the experience of being in the elevator and elevator’s motion contribute crucially to the piece. Constellate is not an installation stuck in an elevator. It is designed in dialogue with the elevator.

Constellate occupies the elevator, using audio transducers to turn the walls, ceiling panels, and various hanging surfaces made from different materials into speakers. Some sounds are simply the sounds of the driven surfaces of the elevator: the creaks and rattles tuned out by the typical elevator rider become the basis of the music. Other sounds are samples chosen to complement the elevator sounds.

For those of you familiar with Van Nort’s work as an improvisor, Constellate is completely different. It’s highly structural. I went up and down the elevator a few times and was impressed by how well the 16+ minute loop of sounds was painstakingly designed to mesh with the elevator experience. Epicycles of calm and tension take temporal cues from the elevator’s motion. If a rider walked in, pushed the button, went to another floor, then walked out, they would experience something that seemed musically complete. But the piece keeps offering new ways to experience the elevator for anyone interesting in hanging out in the elevator for 16+ minutes.

When I first stepped into the elevator, I lucked out and caught the piece in one of it’s ebb states–these states are frequent enough that odds of catching one of these sweet spots are reasonably high. In fact, I imagine that except for a few clear climaxes, the timing and cyclical nature of the piece will make it almost always seem like the listener is walking into something that is just starting. And it will always seem like it is musically going somewhere.

I pushed the button for the second floor and the rattling of the elevator gradually built up, drawing my attention to different parts of the elevator sounds and bringing in interplaying non-elevator sounds. I felt compelled to wander around the elevator, listening to different surfaces. After going up and down a few times, I sat on the floor to listen for 20 minutes or so. I couldn’t tell where the large loop boundaries were; the structure of epicycles made it psychologically feel like continuously evolving sound, even after I knew I had to be hearing things I’d heard before.

Over the years, I have heard many versions of the debate in music technology: do you shoot for risky interactivity or stick for something robust like a tape loop. An interactive installation that’s got to sit there for months and keep working day in and day out is risky. Something might go wrong and no one at the museum would know how to fix it. There’s also a risk with interactive pieces that a sufficiently passive audience or space will cause the music to dwindle, causing a downward spiral in which there is less and less to interact with. As sexy as interactivity is, sometimes a long loop is the right choice for a sound installation. I find myself extremely impressed that Van Nort composed a loop that seemed to intensely interact with the space. I think the choice to produce sounds by driving the actual elevator surfaces instead of just using samples was crucial, as was deriving the temporal structure of the piece from the motion of the elevator.

I’ve been in a bit of a musical rut lately. This Doug Van Nort’s Constellate made me want to go home and compose. I think that’s the highest complement I can give.

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