Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri readies her experimental creations for a performance at the Ashmolean.

Choir in the wireBy Olivia Gordon

A clockwork ticking, an unearthly whistling, a series of monster snores… The cylinders are singing.

Over each cylinder end, an elastic membrane stretches like a drumskin. A nylon wire runs from each membrane to one of three rotating motors. As the motors turn, the friction generates waves along the wires, which send vibrations running across the membranes. Untitled II, the creation of St John’s College’s sound artist in residence, greets you.

‘They are like voices — it’s as if each of them is its own organism, saying hello… I want the audience to listen to these voices in conversation,’ says Greek artist Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri (right), who performs this Friday, 3 March, at the Ashmolean. You can enjoy a foretaste of the experience at the sound and video links below.

Adjusting an electronic dial, Papalexandri makes the motors turn faster or slower. Pulling the cylinders to make the wires taut by degrees, or pressing the elastic membranes, she creates a ‘choir’. The membranes visibly ‘breathe’ in and out like lungs. Touching them, you can feel the vibrations. Watching this stripped-down physics experiment, you are attuned to the pure sound of science, of energy and motion. And there is an eerie sense of a machine coming to life.

Papalexandri arrived this term as successor to Denmark’s Jacob Kirkegaard, whose work explored the tunings of the inner ear. Their residencies arose from an initiative three years ago by Jason Stanyek, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at St John’s College and an experimental composer. ‘It was quite a risk to start such a programme,’ he said. ‘Sound art isn’t exactly on everyone’s radar.’

Choir in the wireUntitled II

Both St John’s and the University have long welcomed artists in residence and, of course, have a strong tradition in music and art. But the music department at Oxford is increasingly broadening its syllabus to include experimental modern sounds. Last year Gascia Ouzounian, a musicologist and violinist whose work focuses on experimental 20th-century traditions, was appointed to a University Lectureship and a Tutorial Fellowship at Lady Margaret Hall. So Professor Stanyek was keen to have a sound artist in residence rather than, say, a musician.

‘Composition is a tried and true subject in most academic music departments; not sound art, though,’ says Professor Stanyek. ‘“Musician” or “composer” in residence would have had a different ring to many members of college, who would have seen engaging with such a person as beyond their capacity — all the usual stuff about music as a highly refined technical language.’ Instead, he wanted college members to ‘feel they could get something out of the residency’.

Choir in the wire

Choir in the wireStanding among her creations (above and right), Papalexandri says sound art is not the same as music but ‘a focus on sound itself’. ‘It could be an abstract sound; it’s not necessarily developed into a musicallanguage.’ As her work demonstrates, sound art can also deal with what we can see, not only what we hear. But she stresses: ‘I don’t have the need to separate music and sound art — I enjoy shifting between the two.’ Indeed she prefers not to try to pin down the relationship between sound art and music in words. ‘When people ask me about it,’ she says, ‘I say: “Can I play for you?”’

Other ‘sound sculptures’ consist of plastic, wooden and cardboard shapes rotated by a motor — when certain shapes randomly collide, clicks and ticks are generated, the wood is infinitesimally eroded so that every turn makes a slightly different tone, and a metal chain starts to ‘dance’ wildly — again, seemingly, mechanical objects seem almost alive. ‘What I like is highlighting a very simple idea — that when two things come into contact, the friction produces sound,’ says Papalexandri. ‘I’m fascinated by the effort to create something very soft.’ She is drawing attention to something we take for granted — energy. ‘It’s like watching a flower,’ she reflects.

She builds her installations with her partner Pe Lang, also an artist, sourcing components from electronics or art shops and ‘whatever we can find in markets’. On her work table are scattered a soldering kit, a roll of silicone, drum heads, batteries and plastic cords.

Papalexandri is based both in Berlin and at Cornell University in the United States, where she is a professor of composition — and in her spare time, also studies mechanics in the physics department. The life of a sound artist is one of constant movement — the couple work in a series of residencies, and perform and exhibit their work all over the world. ‘I’m used to living with no home,’ smiles Papalexandri.

She feels that leading universities like Oxford and Cornell are ready to ‘make some changes’ to the study of music. And Professor Stanyek’s hope that college members would get involved has been fulfilled. Students from different fields of study, who have no previous experience in sound art, have joined with Papalexandri in trying new experiments with sound, such as ‘measuring sound and space’ in college quads. Professor Stanyek hopes the annual sound artist in residence programme will continue for many years to come.

Sample 1

All photographs courtesy of Pe Lang.

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