at New Langton Arts
April 8, 1996
by Douglas Quin © 1996
May 12, 1996
The work of sound artist, composer and film-maker, Richard Lerman, was the
subject of a mini-retrospective at New Langton Arts in San Francisco on
April 8, 1996. Co-presented with Cinematheque, the event was part of the
recent Soundculture '96 Festival. Live performance, film and video represented
a remarkable body of work developed from1980 through 1996.
At the heart of Lerman's artistic enquiry is his development and refinement
of self-built musical instruments which use piezoelectric transducers--"piezo
disks," as Lerman calls them. These are familiar to most of us in the
form of the little speakers found in wristwatches and video games. Manufactured
in a variety of sizes under 2 inches, they are also employed by drummers
as a type of percussion trigger used for electronic drums. When used as
microphone elements, Lerman attaches them to anything from a cactus to a
boat dock. Piezoelectric transducers are extremely sensitive and possess
a particular resonant signature; this imposes a veneer of uniformity onto
sounds. While each sound certainly speaks for itself, a unity of perspective,
like a coloured filter, is provided via the particularities of the technology.
As contact microphones, piezo disks provide a unique perspective in the
experience of micro-sounds. They are in direct contact with mechanical vibration
through different materials. In describing the focus of the retrospective,
Lerman writes, "All this work has evolved from my explorations using
piezo disks to amplify small sounds, which I began in 1976. I think of this
20 year process as investigation into the nature of both ear drums and microphones."
In technical application and formal concern, Lerman's art touches on phenomenological
observation and the primacy of sensory experience. The first work on the
program was a performance entitled, Changing States 3
(1992). Commenting on the evolutionary process of this piece, Lerman
comments, "I first used the technique of heating amplified metal with
flame in a performance piece from 1985. Early versions of Changing
States were more improvisatory. The title refers to the change
in the metal as the chromium atoms recrystallize after being heated. The
score uses labanotation-like symbols to tell the performer how to move the
flame over the metal to release the sound."
The remaining portion of the first half of the evening brought together
a selection of Super-8 films from the The Transducer Series
including A Copper Strip on Fire (1983), David
and Sharon with Pond Life (1984), Newfoundland
Transducer Series (1986), and A Windharp at La Pataia
State Park, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina (1988). In his program
notes, Lerman relates, "[These] films were begun in 1983, and were
all shot in Super-8. They were to be an open ended investigation of using
self-built microphones, both as camera subject and audio input. I made more
than 50 of these films, the last one in 1988."
Following an intermission, the artist presented Four Places at
South Point (1989); South Point is the southernmost point in
the US. The piece is a quotidian view and a two-channel soundscape of a
windswept island in Hawaii. The most recent of Lerman's works in video and
stereo sound is Sonoran Desert Ants (1996). The
sounds of tiny feet and the mechanically transmitted sounds of vocalizations
were matched with an equally focused close-up view of ants as they negotiated
a piezo disk placed near their mound. He writes that the composition is...
"part of a year-long project I am now engaged in called a sonic mapping
of the Sonoran desert. I have been recording cactus thorns, rocks, etc.
in the desert portions of Phoenix." The project is sponsored by the
Institute for Studies in the Arts at Arizona State University, Tempe, where
Lerman currently teaches.
The artist's films and videos are a form of expressing and describing landscape,
in whose images we are given closed and expansive views with dramatically
shifting depth-of-field. While compelling views of musical instruments and
their immediate settings are juxtaposed, a traditional, Renaissance perspective
is maintained. However, the soundscapes are the voice of specific and detailed
elements, not of the ambient or general environment; they relate to a part
of the whole, not the whole. The dynamic tension of aural and visual point
of view is a challenge to how we generally synthesize the two sensations
into a unified perspective.
Lerman also investigates associative powers of sound through those works
which relate to a sense of place and history; here too, the piezo transducer
is a lens through which the aural experience is realized. The video tape
entitled, Two Windharps at the Tokugawa Women's Grave, Tokyo
(1991), which was included here, was part of a collaborative installation
called Takuhon with artist, Mona Higuchi, and several other artists that
were presented in Tokyo. Pitched tones from aeolian harps provided an evocative
and contemplative basis for the views of the cemetery.
The most haunting of the video works was Manzanar and Dachau
(1994). Lerman writes, "This tape also became part of several collaborative
installations with Mona Higuchi--based on the liberation of Dachau by Japanese-American
soldiers in May, 1945 while their families were interned in concentration
camps in the US." There is a sense, within the intimacy of the varied
close-up perspectives, that the memory of sound is still resonant. The vibrations
of rusting barbed wire, emblematic of the Holocaust, resound today as they
did more than 50 years ago. It seemed as though imbedded in the material
itself are the voices of those who perished and those who suffered.
The finale on the program was a powerful performance of Incident
at 3 Mile Island: An Elegy for Karen Silkwood (1980). This
piece was premiered in May 1980, in Portland, Oregon, before the first entry
into the damaged reactor. Lerman, clad in a white suit, wearing gloves and
a welder's helmet entered into the installation of hanging tuning forks,
whose gentle rotations scattered light from a laser around the darkened
hall. The tuning forks were amplified using piezo disks and played with
mallets. Sounds gradually layered and formed a dense texture through the
use of pre-recorded tape delays from previous performances, suggesting a
dirge with half-lives...
For more information about Richard Lerman's use of piezoelectric transducers
refer to his article in Experimental Musical Instruments magazine (December,
1994). Experimental Musical Instruments, P.O. Box 784, Nicasio, CA 94946.
E-mail: ExpMusInst@aol.com. Recent compositions by Richard Lerman can be
found on "Within Ear Reach" on Artifact Records.