Mark Cetilia, PhD Student, Department of Music
On Saturday, February 4, Zimoun, the Swiss sound artist, came to Brown University’s List Art Center to give a performance in conjunction with the exhibition Nostalgia Machines at the David Winton Bell Gallery. Most readers will be familiar with Zimoun through his installations, which involve simple systems that exhibit incredible complexity through minute variations between multiple, seemingly identical, physical objects. These installations most commonly include prepared industrial-grade DC motors (of which Zimoun swept up a hefty stock when a Swiss manufacturer went out of business) in conjunction with other materials such as cotton balls, steel wire, and cardboard boxes. However, Zimoun also has a long history with experimental music-making. In 2003, Zimoun and graphic designer Marc Beekhuis founded Leeraum, a label and “networking hub” for artists who “explore forms and structures based on reductive principles and careful yet radical use of materials.” Since then, Leeraum has released recordings by artists such as Dale Lloyd, Richard Garet, Kenneth Kirschner, Mise en Scene, and numerous works by Zimoun himself. It is not often that one gets a chance to see Zimoun perform in the States, so I was very curious to experience his work first-hand.
His performance at the List Art Center was comprised of two pieces. The first featured a handful of DC motors, each of which was connected to a thin steel wire hosting a ping pong ball, and its speed varied using a custom control surface. The DC motor assemblies were mounted atop a single cardboard box, and as the motors rotated, the ping pong balls struck the box, which acted as a resonant chamber. The resulting sounds were then amplified via a number of contact microphones and then sent to a small mixing board, giving Zimoun the ability to change the equalization parameters for each microphone and adjust the overall contour of the piece. As in his installation work, the simplicity of the system allowed for complex results ranging from complex rhythmic patterns to dense textural material. His presence on stage was not performative; instead, he acted as a guide through the potential sound worlds created by his mechanical devices. Earlier in the day, Zimoun gave an informal talk about his work; during the talk, he spoke in depth about his documentation process, which involves a number of camera angles and microphones combined with careful equalization, mixing and editing. In a way, this piece served as real-time documentation of a miniature sound installation, allowing the audience entry from different vantage points which slowly shifted over time.
The second piece was a quadraphonic recording presented in complete darkness, and seemed to be comprised of manipulated recordings taken from his installation works. Though we had all been forewarned, the sudden darkness at the beginning of the performance took everyone somewhat off-guard. As the piece began, sounds of machinery in the distance mixed with the rustling and fumbling about of audience members as they gradually adjusted to their new environment. Eventually, everyone settled into the darkness and a new phase began, in which all in attendance were given over completely to listening. By stripping away the visual information, and thus the ability of the audience to see the “source” of the sounds they were experiencing, more intent focus was given to the sounds themselves. As in the first performance of the evening, this piece was not built on a recognizable narrative structure or compositional arc, but instead seemed to be centered around creating an environment for the audience to inhabit, a world where tiny machines roam the earth freely without need for light or human intervention.