Sound Bits | Performing Arts Sidebar | Chicago Reader
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MASS

at Synergy Gallery, through February 2

Walking into Synergy Gallery, you could almost run into the strands of brass wire Bill Close has installed. They're so thin they don't catch the eye at first, but then the rows of wire stretching from the floor to the stairway banisters pop into sight like an optical illusion. Lying on the floor by the wires are cheap cotton work gloves rubbed with rosin; when you don a glove and run your hand along the wires, they make a whistle or a shriek or just a ghostly tinny sound.

The stage is covered with instruments made from the same materials. Two sculptures about 15 feet long and 10 feet high with wire strung along their spines vaguely resemble harps on their backs. At the front of the stage a metal cylinder six feet tall and a foot across standing on end is encircled by vertical strands of piano wire like jail bars; a piano hammer attached to the base of the sculpture is poised to strike each string. At the back of the stage is a drone: a fanciful wooden and wire sculpture that, when one of three cranks is turned, creates a droning sound at one of three different pitches. Drums, accordions, zithers, partly filled wineglasses, and heavy metal pots also litter the stage; one of the drums, with plastic plumbing pipe as a body and an animal skin as a head, is a yard in diameter and mounted at eye level on a wheeled platform. This strange menagerie of instruments, created by Close and Bill Wallace and played by MASS (Music and Sonic Sculptures), suggests that the music will be strange as well.

And it is. Wallace plays the jail-bars wire sculpture by plucking the strings, bowing them with a violin bow, and just smacking them with the bow. Close plays a bagpipe using only the drone pipes at first, then the melody pipe, and later disassembling the bagpipe to play the pipes individually. Tatiana Sanchez doesn't really play the accordion but strikes the keys just for the clicking sound they make. Jacqueline Westhead and Whayne Braswell play drums, pluck zithers, and strike the wineglasses with chopsticks. Both Westhead and Sanchez move well, suggesting dancing as they play the large wire sculptures.

The sounds MASS coaxes from the sculptures are surprisingly varied, though basically they boil down to a single-note drone. In Chrysalis Frieze one performer holds the wires of a large sculpture while another plays them, together producing a simple melody. In Black Bird in the Storm, the performers play a repeating rhythmic pattern on the large sculptures that, together with the rhythmic pattern of the drums, gives the piece some of the meditative quality of new-age music, though this music is much more restless and storm-tossed. New Tunings is more meditative and droning than Black Bird in the Storm, while Tension is dissonant and bleak. Spinning a Yarn moves from instrument to instrument, sometimes just noodling and sometimes making music with emotional bite. The sound seems to come both from world music and from experimental Western music.

The performers are clearly still experimenting with the sounds the wire sculptures can produce. And it's very hard to tell whether they're just beginning a fruitful exploration or scraping the last music out of a limited instrument. The musical sensibility emerging is still tentative, which makes predictions difficult. But my companion called it "the music you hear when you've left one level of existence, and you're falling and haven't hit ground yet. It's wonderful to hear a sound on the outside that matches so perfectly the sound I hear inside."

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