Byron Westbrook’s “Interval/Habitat”

August 29, 2013

One of the best things about  living in LA and participating in the experimental sound and art community is that you get calls like this:

“I’m looking for one or two people…for a semi-specific idea that I’d like to have happen in the space…I would like the group to walk around the space and hold a chosen chord at a very low volume, basically adding to the noise floor of the room as all of the lighting/sound events happen around. It involves attention to both movement, perceptibility and sound.  it may work that one person stays still in the center of the room the others follow a pattern, or maybe there are other ways.”

And of course you say yes.

Last week it was sound artist Byron Westbrook who found me through the network of experimental musicians that stretches from east LA to Brooklyn and across the Atlantic to Berlin. While the idea may sound foggy in an email, in reality it was pretty much exactly as he said; I played a single note on the viola while walking around warehouse-type space with another violinist for about forty minutes. What isn’t clear from the email is that he creates the container and you create the contents and it works very very well.

When I arrived at the performance space, early as I am after all a gigging string player, it was bright sunshine outside and pitch black on the inside. The light and sound installation was already running and it took my eyes a minute to adjust to the complete darkness of the space. Gradually the lights changed and I was able to see that there were 5 or 6 dancer/actors performing a choreography game. There was also sound, a mixture of pink and white noise, that played at differing intervals which was running sometimes in harmony with and sometimes in opposition to the light cues. The lights lined the walls as did the speakers with the exception of one low lamp that worked as a spotlight in the centre of the room.

The piece acts as a concerto or a conversation between 2 parties, the room and the performers. While the room has its own rhythm and is essentially looping its lights and sound, it is such a long loop that the audience would have to watch for hours before being able to anticipate the next cue. As a performer you feel that each cue is different because from your perspective you are playing a different sound or standing in a different place and so your perception of what is happening is dramatically different each time. The room noises swallow the sounds of the strings and then abruptly stop to leave you hanging out to dry with your little chord and a spotlight on your head.

As any stage manager will tell you, the audience is controlled by lights and sounds and in this piece the artist is doing just that. This is such a simple concept but so perfectly executed that you can put any kind of performance art into this container and it weaves it together in such a way as to make it look like every connection and every missed connection between the two voices could have been planned. My only regret with this performance is that I wasn’t able to play in the space for longer.

Here is the formal program note for this work:

Byron Westbrook’s Interval/Habitat installation at Human Resources approaches the space as a dramatic stage. Inviting several guest performers and the audience to activate this stage, it plays looping sequences of light and sound to create “scenes” and filmic “cuts” to impose a time-based narrative form over all activity within the space. The piece approaches light and sound as physical, structural material to facilitate a changing awareness of self, body, space, and presence of others, defining social boundaries by limiting what visitors can see or hear, and dynamically shifting their focus between navigating internal psychological space and external physical space.

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