Two of the best things about my residency at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens were, having access to the place after hours and the organ over so many months, and hanging out with Ken Whiting — “El Socio” — who knows everything there is to know about how organs work.
by Gustavo Matamoros
I use sound and the act of listening as tools of discovery, as ways to learn about the world around me.
When selected for a residency at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in 2005, I was taken for a tour of the grounds to identify an ideal spot for the commissioned work. The last place we visited after the outside gardens was the Villa’s living room which housed the parlor organ. I was thrilled to learn that the instrument was in fact a player organ and that Vizcaya owned a collection of 87 rolls, 25 of which were in good enough condition to be played.
Then I learned that one of Mr. Deering’s concerns about investing in such an expensive instrument had been being able to hear it through the house. Back in 1917, when the organ was installed, the inner courtyard was actually a patio that was open to the sky above. Today, it is covered by a translucent pyramidal glass ceiling that helps conservators with issues of temperature and humidity control.
Without the aid of electronic amplification I could not imagine how the organ could have filled the entire house with sound, even through the arched window openings added by the architect atop the doors to the hallways for this purpose. And so, I found a good reason to make a piece.
After a three-day-organ-tuning-session with Ken Whiting, I began my research. I made audio recordings from within the living room of the historical organ music contained in the collection’s mechanical paper rolls. As the organ played these rolls from a chamber adjacent to the mansion’s living room, I tried to pay attention to the way its sound spilled into other areas of the house, including the Courtyard.
With the organ perfectly tuned to A-440, the sound could be heard shyly across the courtyard but not with meaningful intensity. I thought this may be due to the fact that the organ tunings did not correspond neatly to the resonances inherent in the home’s architecture.
The frequency test I ran at Vizcaya’s Villa corroborated this a few weeks later. It yielded 182 tones, none of which actually coincided with the standard organ tuning at A=440, except for one pipe, A2 (110Hz).
If the organ was to be heard significantly across the house, the organ would need to be retuned to coincide with specific resonances in the desired spaces. If retuned, the existing rolls would sound out-of-tune to most people. New music would have to be commissioned for these unusual tunings that could then be heard clearly and effortlessly around the house.
Rather than detuning the organ I decided it would be more practical to create a sound installation that demonstrated this hypothesis and connected the organ and the architecture sonically. The sound installation Organic Pipes helped me achieve it.
The sound signature of any architectural space, its resonant features, are often unique and normally “hidden” to our ears until a sound activates the space. These resonant features correspond to groups of potential tones. To learn which frequencies were present at Vizcaya, I used Helium-filled balloons and a wireless microphone connected to a speaker system to create feedback.
The the frequencies of the feedback expressed, audibly, the specific frequencies inherent in the architecture. After recording each organ pipe, I matched the recorded tones to the feedback sounds. This process allowed me to create a sonic portrait of Vizcaya’s Courtyard — a composition that is determined wholly by the architecture.
I call this sound installation ORGANIC PIPES for Russell Frehling — from whom I learned the trick of finding resonances in architectural spaces.
— 2006, GM
NOTES ABOUT THE RESIDENCY
My experiments at Vizcaya centered around the notion of discovery of what already exists in it. Especially its organ – an instrument built in the 1910’s capable of playing music mechanically from paper rolls; an instrument i knew nothing about.
Five pieces resulted from experiments with the organ:
1. DIGITAL ORGANIZER, a set of video controller quotations from the actual organ rolls organized for live performance;
2. OF THE 87 ORGAN ROLLS, a text compilation of phrases and sentences quoted from different sources, each containing the sound of the word, organ, as it is found and used in the English language;
3. SIGHT ORGAN, an ethereal video meditation composed of images Luis Olazabal captured inside Vizcaya’s organ chamber;
4. HEADED FOR GANYMIDE, a 10-minute internet-based downloadable piece constructed with elements of some of the other pieces; and
5. ORGANIC PIPES, a sound installation and the piece I really want to talk about
I see all these works intimately related to one another and all having unique ties to Vizcaya. In fact, Organic Pipes can only be experienced as intended when experienced in the courtyard. It can really be transplanted elsewhere.
ORGANIC PIPES – DESCRIPTION
ORGANIC PIPES was created in response to the acoustical signature of the inner courtyard at Vizcaya. That is to say that the harmonic structure of the work (if we think in musical terms) is determined by the architecture. But, to make this architectural features audible, carefully tuned sounds must be played into the room. I chose the sounds of the organ, but not in their full spectrum. By digitally removing aspects of the pipe sounds which wouldn’t match the frequencies in the space I created shadow sounds: a ghost of the organ for the courtyard. Five channels of sound delivered these organ shadows to the room creating a sonic portrait of the space.
ORGANIC PIPES ANECDOTE
When selected for the residency, i was asked to tour Vizcaya in search for an ideal site for a commissioned work. One of the last places we visited after a wonderful tour of the outside gardens was the parlor organ room. I was thrilled to learn that it was in fact a player organ and that Vizcaya owned a collection of 87 rolls, 25 of which were in good enough condition to be played. Then I learned that one of Deering’s concerns about investing in such an expensive instrument had been being able to hear it through the house. Back in 1917, when the organ was installed, the inner courtyard was actually a patio that was open to the sky above. Today, it is covered by a translucent pyramidal glass ceiling that helps with issues of temperature and humidity control.
Without the aid of electronic amplification I could not imagine how the organ could fill the entire house with sound, even through the arched window openings added by the architect atop the doors to the hallways for this purpose. My idea was to re-tune the organ to the resonances in the architecture of every room in the house. This would mean that most of the music in the rolls (if not all) would have to be replaced by music specially composed for the new tunings. Organic Pipes would help illustrate that.
SITE VISIT: September 2005
MARCH – NOVEMBER 2006:
• resonant frequency measurements – courtyard
• tuning of the organ and audio recording of organ tones for installation
• audio and controller VHS recording of playable organ rolls* for performance
• mastering of audio recordings for Vizcaya CD
• digital tuning and processing of organ tones to match resonant frequencies present in the courtyard
• production of composition and dvd 5.1 mastering
• installation of Organic Pipes
• documentary audio recording
NOVEMBER 15, 2006 – FEBRUARY 15, 2007
• lecture to docents
• performance | lecture | opening | installation exhibit
• Art Basel event | interactive organ installation
• compact disc release of music from the organ rolls
works produced during the residency
residency: April 2006 — February 1, 2007
performance: November 15, 2006
Organic Pipes installation: November 16, 2006 — February 1, 2007
SIGHT ORGAN: more photos by Luis Olazabal: BlueJazzPhoto.com
program: PDF – ORGAN: Performance in Four Parts | November 15, 2006 | 7PM
score: PDF – OF THE 87 ORGAN ROLLS
media release: LINK
SIGHT ORGAN video — published on WPBT:
AURAL ART, Miami New Times (JPG)
A SYMPHONY OF TONAL HUES, Miami Herald (JPG)