Voice Choices

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot


Artist and composer Celeste Boursier-Mougenot has an immense talent for producing music from unexpected sources. In past installations, harmonicas attached to the ends of vacuum cleaners created a kind of low-tech organ and, in another, sparrows alighted on the strings of amplified guitars. Here, the source is more familiar, or so it seems. In the center of the room, an automated grand piano continuously plays what might be a spare elegy by Gyorgy Kurtag –– single notes separated by silence, occasional atonal chords. But they’re actually produced on the fly; a sophisticated algorithm receives text routinely typed by the gallery’s employees on their computers and translates characters into sequences of pitches, as well as instructions for tempo and dynamics. When someone hits the spacebar, for example, the piano plays a chord from several preceding notes.

As you listen, what at first seems delightful –– office work transformed into musical expression –– begins to unsettle. The mood, after all, is somber: Boursier-Mougenot’s program is not translating the dashed-off text (most of it probably mundane) into waltzes. And, unlike the artist’s other work, there’s no visible process here, no charming interaction. This is machine-to-machine communication, and that black robotic piano—surrounded by a number of black-on-black silkscreens bearing patterns of video interference (i.e., art a machine might love)—sits there as a cold, imposing presence, especially with its closed lid and covered keys. The experience is thoroughly engaging, if dissociative, but human appreciation seems almost beside the point here. The audience, you’ll notice, gets only three chairs.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 10 a.m. Starts: April 9. Continues through April 25, 2009

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