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Polyphonies, Centre Pompidou 2016

An exhibition curated by Christine Macel

"From the gramophone to the smartphone, humanity has exploited its inventions to project its voice into alternative times and spaces. The voice lives outside the body: recorded, it is immortal. While technology can produce voices using software, a generation of artists have made the voice central to an artistic practice that calls for the presence of flesh and blood. The Polyphonies exhibition in the Museum’s Emerging Art space is organised around the theme of the voice as material, a raw material that presupposes the human body in its relationship to sound and space. Franck Leibovici stages “an opera for non-musicians”; Oliver Beer’s videos are concerned with the relationships between space, instrument and voice; while Mariechen Danz is interested in the relationships between body and language."

Making and Breaking Tristan is a live performance in which the artist cuts away the strings of a grand piano, note by note, in a specific order: to first build and then subsequently eliminate Wagner’s notorious Tristan Chord. The sustain pedal is fixed down so that the strings can resound freely, and with the percussive impact of every cut string the piano resounds powerfully, with just the remaining strings vibrating. The famous chord gradually emerges from the dissonance. Once the superfluous notes have been eliminated and the perfect chord is heard, it is then itself deconstructed – cut away note by note – until there are no strings left to resound. The cut strings are then collected, tied up in the felt of the piano itself, and hung like a wreath on the gallery wall. 


The Tristan Chord is the chord that opens the opera Tristan and Isolde. It has remained musically significant and controversial because it is the first example of music from the classical canon which departs so dramatically from the rules of functional harmony and ‘key’. Just as some would look for the roots of modernism in painting in the works of Manet or Cézanne, its destabilising effect has gained it the reputation for being radical, and at the root of the modern classical music.

The video Mum’s Continuous Note presents a moment of intimacy with the artist’s mother. Eulogy on the beauty of sound and harmony, and the emotions which they can provoke, for 3 minutes she sings a continuous note without seeming to stop to catch her breath. Through the subtitles which appear beneath her image, the singer explains – not without humour – her apparent virtuosity, her method of circular breathing, and emotive potential of the harmonies which she creates with the aid of a miniature blue guitar. 


Behind its light tone, the work presents an ontological dissection of the nature of sound and the voice. The singer explains how a single sung note is in fact composed of five or more harmonics, which our brain synthesises and interprets as a single sound. 


In Composition for Two Pianos and an Empty Concert Hall (2012) two young trebles play two pianos with their voices, without ever touching the keys. Using the acoustic phenomenon of resonance, when a note is sung in proximity to the strings, the specific string that corresponds with that same note will pick up the vibrations and resound in sympathy with the voice. The boys are thus able to provoke specific strings to resound just by using their unamplified voices, to build a chord progression by singing. The chord progression itself – cyclical and infinite – was discovered and arranged by Beer when he was around the same age as the children in the film. 


As the harmony develops, the camera caresses the surfaces of the walls, textiles, musical instruments, and human skin in an examination of these vibrating materials. A female observer in the background of the auditorium watches the two boys. Through an examination of this simple acoustic phenomenon – an apparently magical link between objects in resonance – the viewer is confronted with the unequivocal physicality of our architecture, our bodies and our voices.

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