Chris Brown, professor of music at Mills, presented his piece entitled VAV with fellow professor John Bischoff and their computer network ensemble, The Hub, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Thursday, Oct. 23.
The pre-recorded piece was presented through the existing seven speakers suspended from the ceiling, and an additional five speakers on the ground surrounding the audience. The audience was seated in chairs and benches arranged in different directions as to provide a unique experience from each angle. With special attention placed on movement, Brown intended for the piece to be meditative. Brown encouraged the audience to close their eyes and listen to the ways in which sound moved around the room.
The presentation and discussion was held in the museum’s Yud Gallery, as part of the “Aleph Bet Sound Project” managed by musician Jon Zorn, which functions as an exploration of the Hebrew alphabet through acoustics. Vav is the sixth letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Although Brown is not very familiar with the Hebrew alphabet, he thought this letter as best expressive of his piece.
Brown’s ensemble, The Hub, uses a computer network system in which synthesized sounds are connected and affect one another.
Brown describes the process as a collaborative effort, where a computer program is designed for a specific musical piece, and members of the group make their own version of the piece, and eventually come together to make it work. Brown admitted this process was very difficult, but it is a “magical moment” when the group hits the intended sound.
“It’s a little bit like driving with six drivers,” explained Brown. “You steer your instrument in this direction, but it might take awhile for it to get there.”
In other words, each person in the ensemble is involved in the musical direction, which creates a spontaneous flow of sound. “It should start acting as an organism on its own,” said Brown.
Brown described the progression of sounds as a circular motion, having “a continuum scale of noise and pure tone.”
Mills professor of music and member of The Hub, John Bischoff, was pleased with the outcome of the group’s effort.
“It made me realize how important the difference is between noise and pure-tone sounds,” he said.
Bischoff noticed specific things about the piece that he had not detected listening at home.
“I felt like I could hear all of the details better because of spatialization,” Bischoff said.
VAV explored the very unique architecture of the Yud Gallery at the Jewish Contemporary Museum, which boasts a 65-foot ceiling with several angular intersections and diamond shaped skylights.
“I walked into the space at a fairly early stage, so I saw the shape of it and I thought, I wanted to make a piece to explore it. And it had to be through movement,” Brown said.
The intention was to use speakers on the ground to create a movement of sound throughout the vertical and horizontal space, which was not as available with the museum’s existing speakers on their own.
“I thought it was a beautiful use of space,” said musician Laetitia Sonami. “It allows a luxury to hear things with spatial distribution.”
Brown noted the space was not intended for sound. “I could see that this is a very complex acoustic,” he said.
However, Brown was pleased with the overall effect, after hearing it for the first time with surround-sound speakers on the floor.
“I’m actually surprised at how good it sounds,” he said.
Brown began working on conceptualizing the piece over winter break last year, and began composing the structure last February.
The group worked intermittently over the following months, recording began in early May, and the piece was completed by the end of May.
The 35-minute piece ended with long, low tones fading to silence. After great applause from the audience, Brown sighed with clear satisfaction at the accomplishment.