'Volumes' offers immersive audio-visual artistic experience at The Ringling
The latest contemporary exhibit at The Ringling helps visitors understand the connection between visuals and sounds.
| 6:00 a.m. September 4, 2018
Arts + Culture
Some artists see colors when they close their eyes. Others hear songs when they rest their head. Contemporary artist Ezra Masch wanted to see light whenever he played a note on the drums.
This connection between audio and visual is the core concept behind Masch’s piece “Volumes,” now on display at the Monda Gallery for Contemporary Art at The Ringling.
“The idea is that the experience of sound is directly linked to the experience of vision,” Masch says. “It’s incredibly challenging because instead of just playing the drums, now you’re performing with light and space.”
SETTING THE FOUNDATION
“Volumes” is an immersive audio-visual installation that uses live sound from a drum set at the head of the gallery to activate hanging columns of 12-volt LED lights organized in a three-dimensional grid.
Velocity and pitch determine the amount of light released and its pattern. The pitch of the drums is represented from low to high on a vertical axis, Masch says, and the volume of the drum set is represented laterally starting from the center of the room moving out. The louder you play, the farther the light spreads.
For example, hitting the drum softly three times produces a pattern of three flashes of just a handful of lights in the middle of the room, whereas hitting the drum three times as hard as possible creates three flashes of most (or all) the lights in the whole room.
The exhibit is only viewable when a musician is sitting at the drum set, so since Aug. 12, the installation has hosted daily performances by a wide selection of drummers.
Masch’s goal is to visually represent the unique sound produced by each drummer, but also to encourage the drummer to respond to what they’re seeing. Masch calls this a “visual feedback” — he hopes the audio-visual interaction at the core of the exhibit influences the drummers’ creative process while they’re performing.
Masch says he chose the drums because it’s a fairly basic instrument with only about five tones that can create a stripped-down, raw representation of the audio-visual connection.
“With music as with visual art, I think working within a set of constraints often allows you to be really creative with limited means,” Masch says.
PICKING UP THE DRUMSTICKS
Curator Sonja Shea points out that “Volumes” is a rare crossover between performance and visual art.
“I love the idea that Ezra has essentially built this sculpture that can only be seen if there’s a performer here playing it,” she says.
For Masch, one big highlight has been the eight special performances he curated himself.
When the museum put out an open call for drummers to interact with “Volumes,” more than 60 responded. Masch says many of the resulting musicians are from the South Florida region, but there are also several performers who have traveled from out of state to participate, which was an exciting development.
The last of these Thursday night performances is Sept. 6 with Antonio Sánchez, the Mexican drummer, composer and bandleader who created all the music in the Academy Award-winning film “Birdman.”
Sanchez is a five-time Grammy Award winner who currently tours with guitarist Pat Metheny, as well as with his own group, Migration. When he’s not touring, he’s composing original works for television and film.
“He’s incredibly talented, interesting and experimental,” Masch says. “He produces some unusual textures and sounds with the drum set that you wouldn’t expect would be coming out of that instrument. And I think his connection to composing for moving images will translate in a really interesting way.”
Taylor Gordon, an LA-based drummer, producer and multi-instrumentalist with experience performing with everyone from Patrice Rushen to Beyoncé, kicked off the ticketed professional performances Aug. 16.
“I’ve always — as a musician — been intrigued by the idea of carrying visuals with music,” Gordon says. “I was really interested to see what different rhythms look like visually and how drum patterns translate visually.”
Masch is not only a visual artist, he’s also a percussionist who plays drums and piano, so he shares the same fascination with the intersection of audio and visuals.
He encourages drummers to improvise and work with the installation to create their own individual sound throughout their time in the space rather than just playing a set list they’ve pre-determined.
Gordon says she definitely prepared some pieces, but after her first of the two performances, she ditched her plan — and ended up feeling significantly more comfortable when she let it go.
“It was something I had to feel out,” she says. “I had to change everything around because I realized the equipment was a lot more dynamic than I had anticipated — it was like the lights made the music for me. They told me what to compose as an artist.”
MAKING IT HAPPEN
This is the fourth iteration of this project, which Masch has been working on for roughly seven years. It started as part of his graduate school research while working toward his Master of Fine Arts in Studio Art from the University of Texas, which he obtained in 2012.
Now, it’s a full-blown installation that’s completely site-specific and thus re-created from scratch every time it moves to a new space. The Ringling is the first museum to host it, and it’s also the first time it’ll be displayed for more than a few days and feature more than a couple performers.
Shea first heard about Masch’s project from another Ringling employee who showed her a video of an earlier installment.
“I immediately thought of the Monda Gallery and I just thought it would be really interesting to see how it would fit here,” Shea says.
About a year ago she contacted Masch, and he came down for a site visit to evaluate the space and determine whether it was possible to host the exhibit. After walking through with the prep and facilities team, they decided to make it happen.
It took six weeks to build and install the piece. Masch designed and built all the light fixtures by hand with the Ringling team, so he says this iteration has been his biggest undertaking — but perhaps also the most exciting.
This version also uses LED lights rather than the fluorescent lights he used previously. LEDs are much more responsive and sensitive, he says, so by redesigning he was able to technically improve the project and create a more vivid audio-visual connection.
SEE TO UNDERSTAND
To anyone interested in seeing the exhibit in its final few days, Masch says it’s an experience best enjoyed from the comfort of the gallery floor or while leaning against the walls of the gallery.
The house lights will be off and it’ll be pitch black until the performance begins, he says, and the bright LED lights will be less alarming if your body is at ease and your eyes can adjust to the sudden spurts of light.
Shea thinks the exhibit fosters a unique relationship between visitor and performer.
“You’re totally connected to the drummer — You’re almost seeing and feeling what they’re putting into the drums and it’s a really interesting experience,” Shea adds. “The space totally comes alive.”
One of the most interesting aspects for Masch is seeing how the performers react to the installation. The natural tendency is to play beats on the drum set, he says, but what’s most interesting is the shapes and textures musicians produce when they’re thinking about the sound they’re producing in three-dimensional form.
“I hope that it will open people up, both musicians and non-musicians, to a different way of thinking about what they’re hearing,” he says.