Perfect Sound Forever

Wired For Sound:
The Music of Matt De Gennaro and Alastair Galbraith

Interview by Bill Meyer (April 2000)

Wired For Sound: the Wire Music of Matt De Gennaro and Alastair Galbraith. You might know Alastair Galbraith from the achingly lyrical violin work he's contributed to New Zealand underground artists as disparate as Peter Jefferies and the Bats, or from the scorching free-fall feedback fests that he indulges in as part of A Handful Of Dust, or the otherworldly, lyrical miniatures he crafts for his own solo albums. You probably don't know Matt De Gennaro at all unless he TA-ed a class you took at some Detroit-area University. And you really don't need to know either of them at all to appreciate the resonances that they make by stringing piano wires up in large public places and playing them with their rosined hands because the sounds, not the musicians, are the point. De Gennaro first played wire music during the 1990's as a private indulgence in his attic art studio; a personal friendship with Galbraith blossomed into collaboration when they played a wire music concert in 1998 at the Chip Shop, a music venue that had previously been a fish 'n' chips joint. Their Chip shop rehearsal and concert became their first CD, Wire Music (Corpus Hermeticum). In July 1999, the duo took their music around New Zealand. First De Gennaro gave a brief lecture that positioned their work within the multi-media endeavors of artists like Harry Bertoia. Then they played the wires, sometimes augmented by Galbraith's violin and tape loops.

 This interview was culled from email and typed correspondence that took place in August and September, 1999.


PSF: Matt, you've said that the idea to perform wire music came from an exhibition of visual art. Please explain.

MDG: My partner Cristina and I visited the Cranbrook museum in suburban Detroit to view a graduate exhibition back in 1995. After wandering the galleries and not being overtaken by anything I saw, I wandered alone into a small gallery downstairs where I saw an amazing thing. From a slide projector carousel fragmented white light was projecting up onto a beam which the projector was leaning against. Abstract light and shapes were created by light coming out of the carousel slots rather than out of the projector's lense. So overwhelmed, I ran to get Cristina to show her this fantastic work. She promptly informed me that the light I found so appealing was not the artist's intention. The projector WAS to show slides in the traditional manner but the carousel was broken. I realized that the wonderful accident of light that I found so poetic and totally artful without intentionality could be achieved with sound by installing the wires in different spaces. I also learned around this time that the sound does not come from the wires but the space itself or the objects the wires are attached to. During a performance we send longitudinal vibrations through the wires in order to make a space sing. Not knowing what a place sounds like before an installation creates an accident of sound. I equate this with the accident of light I saw at Cranbrook. I suppose at this time the wires moved from a simple experiment in sound to a performative work.

PSF: Matt, what do you do with yourself besides playing the wires?

MDG: Besides playing with sounds, I occasionally lecture on the history of sound in the plastic arts, usually covering several artists' sound works. I also have amassed a small archive of artists' recordworks that I will someday make public. My educational background is sociology. My work experience is in the behavioral sciences, although sometimes only tangentially. I like to be outside.

PSF: Matt, you once stated that Alastair's sensitivity to playing the wires was unprecedented. How so? Had you played wire music with other people before you did so with him?

MDG: It was Alastair who transported my use of wires from my private life to a public one (I was only sporadically doing private wire performances in the mid-1990's). After a stay on his 1996 tour, he saw my studio in Detroit where I had the wires strung up. We met again in NZ in 1998 and he proposed doing something together, to my surprise. I was pleasantly surprised to see he had tried his own wire experiments after experiencing mine. His sensitivity to playing the wires may be a by-product of his general interest in the physics and mystery of the long wire; why it works, the sound, longitudinal vibrations, harmonics. Although several Detroit artists have accompanied me over the years his participation, which became a full collaboration from the beginning, was unprecedented. As for playing the wires, he simply has a feel for it. He has a passion not only for music but sound - sound as a thing in itself. Although our CD is entitled "Wire Music" it is the physics of sound and its relationship to a space that is our main project.

 I guess I've never really been involved with making music - chord progressions, melodic invention, rhythmic changes. My expression relies on the inherent qualities of the sound medium I am using. I strongly believe that a sound can be so good, interesting, and passionate in itself that the need to compose or harness it is totally unnecessary. I am certainly not against music, though. I honestly am not to aware of any experimental music scene or have ever purchased a copy of Wire magazine, but I wonder if younger artists that simply work with sound, or audio artists, are people who are bored with music or songs? Perhaps they are seeking a purity that exists in the physics of acoustic sound. Just a thought.

PSF: How did the work of Athansius Kircher, John Tyndall, Fluxus inform the conception or execution of Wire Music. Has the work of Alan Lamb, Ellen Fullman, Harry Bertoia, Tony Conrad, or La Monte Young been an influence and if so how?

AG: None from my side. Only this - staying with John, Rob, Matt and Cristina at her father's place in Detroit, and waking to the sound of shunting melodious trains that was really Matt playing the wires.

MDG: It seems logical that the work of Alan Lamb and Ellen Fullman were an influence in some way, but my discovery of their work was subsequent to my first experiments with long wires. The only person on the list who was influential to me was Harry Bertoia. Living in and around Detroit for most of my life, Harry Bertoia's sculpture was easily seen and therefore important to my early work - his sculpture was the first sounding work I encountered that existed outside of the concert hall or clubs. With pieces at the University of Michigan Hospital, Robert Kidd Gallery, Cranbrook Museum of Art, to name only a few, he is not overly obscure in this region - Bertoia lived and taught in Detroit for much of his life. What he showed me with his sounding sculptures, which he produced from the early 1960's until his death in 1978, was that music or sound can be an art form rather than merely a musical form. He liberated music from music. Moreover, his multi-discilpinary sonambient sculptures that sound, move, are visual, sculptural and participatory showed me that these simultaneous elements can enhance the sound.

 John Tyndall was a 19th century English scientist who published a book entitled Sound in 1874. The book is a collection of lectures and experiments he gave on subjects such as the longitudinal vibrations of long wires and rods, singing flames, and fog horns. The book, which exists in several editions to include subsequent sound experiments, was beautifully illustrated. Like Tyndall, Athanasius Kircher had an interest in the physics of sound and its relationship to a space. He is a 17th century philosopher with two books on the subject of sound entitled Universalis Musurgia and Phonurgia Nova. These are also beautifully illustrated in the hermetic renaissance style. These two men are most important to me. As a painter or sculptor studies and experiments with the materials he or she is using, Tyndall and Kircher did the same with the medium of sound. And why is this not art to most people? Who knows, to me it is. Any intense investigation in this life is, for me, art. I learned about long wires through Tyndall and he and Kircher both demonstrated to me that there can be enough emotional and intellectual qualities in acoustic sounds that the need to glue sounds together in the attempt to make music is superfluous. Their experiments that demonstrate how sounds behave in space and the varieties of vibrations also had a direct influence on me.

 Fluxus showed me that anything can be art and anyone can do it.

PSF: Why is Wire Music presented in complete darkness? What effect have you noticed it to have on audiences?

AG: Performing only in darkness wakens every other sense than sight. The fact that the sound comes from all over the building rather than from the wire itself is more obvious when you're blind. You feel inside the sound rather than peripheral to it. What we look like doesn't matter, how we technically achieve the music is incidental, you only get the sound. Audiences are silent, thralled by darkness, less aware of the passage of time. We ourselves lose all "performing" attitude, our invisible faces can contort without being seen. I know mine goes through longing while playing, and that's private and not relevant to the music; also audience members have their own faces hidden, lost their bodies, can be reacting however with the safeth of the privacy of dark.

MDG: We have never actually achieved complete darkness in any of our performances. The performance that produced the material of our CD had a flickering light from a fireplace inside the Chip Shop. Through them all, a silhouette of ourselves was always visible. It was Alastair's idea to perform in darkness. Why? For audiences who are not accustomed to very minimal music or sound, the darkness concentrates one's energies on the sound when the visual elements are muted. I think the choice to perform in darkness has been successful; audience reaction after a performance usually revolves around the sounds we made - or what the sounds reminded the person of (i.e., trees falling down).

PSF: To what extent are wire music performances improvised?

AG: Prior discussion involves deciding whether this is to be a wire/violin piece or a 2 person wire piece, and sometimes whether we will play slowly or quietly for a while. So it's not as off the deep end as, say, Handful of Dust, where really nothing is known by us about what we're about to do. It is important that we improvise with the wires, we both have great respect for this instrument, I feel it makes the music, we are instrumental only.

 Life for me has always been an improvisation, but I used to only present a distillation of it, some summation. Now the living process comes to appeal, my fillings are falling out. We love, we klutz, we act, we improvise, real life we almost always improvise.

MDG: With the wires, I don't perceive what I do as improvisation. When the wires are stroked I am sending longitudinal waves to where the wires are attached. Thus, I am simply activating a space with sound. Since we have never installed more than three wires, our tonal range is always narrow perhaps this precludes composing but I think we both desire spontaneity anyway. I never considered composing with the wires like Ellen Fullman; I just desire making a space resonant, letting it tell the story. Working this way, it's logical I would never tell Alastair what to play on the violin or where to stroke a wire; that is his contribution, and a very important one, too. We do decide before a performance what wire we will play, or if we should start with wires only or violin and wires. Yes, some things are decided in advance.

PSF: How does the sound change from place to place?

MDG: All of the wire performances have used the structural features of the gallery or museum spaces. We have attached wires to walls, window frames and railings. When the wires are taught and stroked with rosined fingers or a piece of leather, we send longitudinal vibrations through the wires to where the wires are attached, creating a natural resonator (unlike a transverse vibration with a bow on a violin string feathered at a right angle). It is not the wires themselves, Tyndall taught me, that make the sound, but the wall, railing or window frames at their end to which its vibrations are communicated. Remembering the broken slide projector at Cranbrook that produced a beautiful light by chance and accident, not knowing what a space will sound like until the wires are installed offers me that chance in sound, through the length of the wires - which determines the pitch - and also the room acoustics.

AG: The sound of the wires is the sound of the building. It's necessary to attach the wires at resonant, preferably hollow points in the building's structure. We found that each of the art galleries in New Zealand sounded different. In Dunedin we installed two wires that were around a hundred feet in length, which gave us the lowest note we've worked with yet. Auckland was the shortest, highest pitched. Arc Cafe in Dunedin was a frighteningly dead instrument, it barely dryly squawked.

PSF: Matt and Alastair, you both indicated that the tour and the way you were received in NZ was a pretty special experience. What made it special? How was the music received?

MDG: Alastair organized the tour so we had several days between each performance. We had a total of seven wire performances from July 6 to July 31. Part of the reasoning was to allow us ample set-up time for each installation. Also, and great for me, it allowed us to see NZ without the strain of making it to the next city the following night - this is something AG was not fond of when he toured the States. Performing in galleries and museums also offered us the opportunity to meet a very diverse audience. Important, too, those spaces allowed us the possibility to really play with a large space, the reason why I believe our recent recordings are superior to our CD. From people's reaction after the performances, I feel the music was well received.

AG: The NZ Gallery tour was so special because we were playing with huge beautiful architectural musical instruments. Two of the galleries were domed church-like square courts with rooms through arches on all four sides - the Robert McDougall Gallery in Christchurch and the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui. The new Dunedin public art gallery is huge. Also we were playing to people who, except for in Dunedin, had no idea what to really expect.

 There is some quite magical feeling of communion turning the lights off and making the building sing, and the audiences seemed to get right into that. Also magical was the whole driving thing, seeing this beautiful country from a fucked up old van, staying bizarre cheap motels and then playing these million dollar galleries, stopping to see Len Lye's awesome kinetic sculpture - "Universe."

PSF: Matt, you've written that wire music has no need for virtuosity. Yet you've both opined that the 1999 recordings are better than the CD. How does it get better, and do you think that this presents some kind of contradiction?

AG: It was Matt that said there was no need for virtuosity and while that is true - we invited our audiences to play the wires at the conclusion of each performance - it certainly take a little practice to coax an even tone. It's similar in technique to rubbing rims of wine glasses. I discover more and more strokes and pinches that call harmonics and squeals each time I play - it's not as though virtuosity would be wasted on this instrument. We now play better than a year ago, and sometimes get it together to record more "professionally," on video camera or DAT rather than cassette deck.

MDG: When I claimed there was no need for virtuosity for playing the wires, that does not preclude the potential for a performer to develop a better feel for playing the wires over time. It does mean, however, that it is possible for a person to approach the wires for the first time and make a beautiful, interesting sound by simply stroking his of her fingers across the wires. This is evident by the incredible number of audience members playing the wires after a performance - we had 20-30 lined up to the wires at several galleries. The basic physics, or why and how is the sound being made, also encouraged the audience to try the wires. I feel the new recordings are better because they were mainly recorded to DAT and video, allowing the subtleties of the sounds to make a presence. Perhaps most important, the buildings or spaces where we performed were acoustically superior to our Chip Shop performance last year. Dunedin Public Art Gallery has an incredible, tall foyer that allowed the sound of our 150-ft. wires to travel beautifully. The Robert McDougall Gallery in Christchurch and the Sarjeant Gallery in Wanganui are both domed offering an amazing acoustic space. And, yes, in regards to our actual performance, I think we may have been more in tune with each other on this tour compared to our CD.

PSF: A lot of drone music goes on for a really long time, but the pieces on your CD are never longer than 10 minutes. A total performance must be 20 minutes or so - why so short?

MDG: I asked Cristina if she thought our CD sounded like drone music. She laughed, I guess I never heard it that way. We did not excerpt any material for the CD. Everything was documented; it can read like a diary with our very first recording being the first piece, and the last track our final recording. The total performance times HAVE averaged twenty minutes throughout the tour. It is difficult to play the wires without stopping for more than 10-15 minutes at a time, they simply lose sensitivity. Moreover, I think we communicate enough in 20 minutes without having to go on for an hour or so. I personally don't like long performances, especially if it's not working for me. 15 to 20 minutes I can handle even I am not too keen on the performance.

PSF: Tell me a bit about the slide show and lecture that preceded each performance.

MDG: The presentation was on six artists whose work exists in the gaps between the musical and visual arts: Jean Dubuffet, Remko Scha, Harry Bertoia, Francois & Bernard Baschet, and Joe Jones. Because their work is difficult to demarcate (not fitting any defined categories), it is often neglected. During the presentation each artist was presented with slides and audio examples - we showed a Bertoia video after the performances for those who were still interested. The presentation was meant to inform, its intention was not to connect to our performance, though I think some people who were not exposed to artists using sound were excited to see what our performance would be like.

PSF: I find the Wire music quite hypnotic. What does it do to you to play it, and does it require a certain state in which to play it?

AG: Totally hypnotic. Again the dark, feeling your way along this tight steel wire, and the walls, floor, ceiling all moaning and yourself invisible, free to let your heart go to town. I think the sound - the scale of playing a room as an instrument instantly puts you in an hypnotic state. Hell, I miss it!

MDG: In private or if it's just Alastair and me playing, I am able to relax and just get into the sound - and it can be amazingly beautiful when you walk along the wire and listen to the sound travel and bounce around the space. It heightens my sense of hearing, even more so when we are in darkness. While performing in front of an audience I am so excited and desperate to make the wire play or sound well that it is often difficult for me to fully enjoy myself for the entire performance. I can and have approached the wires in a variety of states - sad, ecstatic, numb - so I am able to play the wires in any condition and make it work. Oh, I never have played the wires intoxicated, that would be a challenge. I think one would need to have his or dexterity to make the wires sound well.

PSF: Matt, are your current projects?

MDG: I've been working on my artificial viol consort piece for about a year now, and it is still in the conceptual stage. Artificial because I will multi-track a tenor viol creating a consort. The piece in scored for tenor guitar and percussion, too. I have a great passion for renaissance music, especially viol consort music from England by composers such as Tobias Hume, William Lawes and Christopher Tye. There are two components, well three, in consort music that make it so delicious to me. First, the sound of the viol. Derived from the lute, it is essentially a bowed guitar; and the violist may perform chordal passages, unlike the violin, viola and cello, which can only play double stops. There exists a beautiful swelling of sound from the viol that I liken to a long wire. The chordal playing is an important sound to my piece. English consort music is polyphonic. Each viol plays an independent line of music while creating a general sustain - not unlike NY minimalist music from the late 60's - that has a beautiful melancholy feel mostly due to the inherent timbre of the viol. The music stays interesting after subsequent listens due to the amount of sound happening - it's impossible to process everything that is happening in one sitting. The music in melancholic. England was concerned with madness, depression and invasion from its neighbors during the 16th and 17th centuries, an interesting context for creating music. The feeling of the viol and music at that time in general seemed to serve as medicine for the weary. But I must admit my piece doesn't sound too much like renaissance music, I have just borrowed a few devices.

 My other piece that I have recently developed involves helium balloons - balloon music! I have attached 12 small walkmans with speakers to 12 helium balloons that play changing polyphonic music when they move in a space; a shopping mall, gallery, or chapel. A small fan aids the movement of the balloons. It's a tape piece that involves inviting other artists to make sound/music for the balloons. It's a process piece that way. I don't have anything commercially available; Alastair was the impetus for making my private work public.

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