October 9, 2012

Drew Messinger-Michaels, AM ’10

Richard Lerman’s work is largely about the love of sound itself—a fascination with the inimitable soundscapes of places both usual and unusual, and with the machinations necessary to capture, amplify, reproduce, and ritualize the those audible phenomena.

A significant portion of his legacy lies in his handmade piezoelectric microphones, which he uses to capture otherwise undetectable auditory nuances, from the infinitesimal clatter of walking ants and falling raindrops, to the striking upper register of a well-played drinking straw. These microphones “pick up sound not through airwaves but through vibrations,” explains Michelle Puetz, Co-Director of the Experimental Film Club at the Film Studies Center and curator of “Sonic Environments: The Work of Richard Lerman,” a series of interdisciplinary happenings that will help launch the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts. Puetz believes that these microphones unify Lerman’s otherwise quite varied experiments, providing both a technological constant and a philosophical framework.

As the centerpiece of “Sonic Environments,” and of his residency at UChicago, Lerman will fit the structural support beams of the new Logan Center’s north stairwell with his signature microphones, thereby turning the Center itself into an unconventional amplifier and revealing the building’s unique and utterly pervasive—though usually secret and unheard—aural character.

“While touring the New Logan Art Center in June, I noticed that some of the upper floors had a 
space of about three inches between the plate glass of the windows and the structure of the floor.” Lerman explains. “The floor was supported by accessible steel beams. Buildings are incredible producers of sound and steel conducts sound vibrations very well. When persons walk up and down stairs, there are always vibrations.” 

Puetz adds, “The microphones make contact with the structural beams in the stairwell. They’ll pick up sounds of people talking and moving through the space, but also the sounds of the building itself. The structure of the building is a little exposed. You can see the whole neighborhood and the whole surrounding area. So there will be listening stations where you’ll be able to listen to the space that you’re in at the same time that you’re looking out across the cityscape,” seeing the new Logan Center in a sort of establishing shot, and simultaneously, in an extreme close-up.

In addition to the north stairwell installation, “Sonic Environments” will include a series of films and performances with filmic components, one including Lerman’s own instrumental stylings and another enlisting the services of fellow composer Guillermo Gregorio on clarinet, improvisor/synth-builder Brian Labycz on electronics, and scholar/producer Art Lange on piano.
Perhaps most exciting of all, Hyde Park will see its first performance of Lerman’s longstanding piece Travelon Gamelon. Here the performers are not musicians in any traditional sense, but rather people riding bicycles fitted with piezo microphones. As the riders and their bicycles move, they naturally and semi-spontaneously bring the piece into being.

Puetz considers Travelon Gamelon “pretty indicative of lots of Richard Lerman’s work,” not only in its site-specific nature—each individual performer and performance site necessarily lends its own flavor—but also in its fundamental sense of playfulness and populism. Lerman’s proprietary equipment is resolutely, even subversively inexpensive to produce (sometimes costing less than a dollar per unit), and Travelon Gamelon respects amateur participants as performers, complete with the license to embellish and improvise.

“In the country of Indonesia, every village has a gamelon orchestra,” Lerman notes. This became his inspiration, and back in his native United States, Lerman resolved “to get new music out into the street, because very often new music sits in the concert hall.” And why bicycles? “When I was a child, I used to love to fix my bicycle,” Lerman recalls, “so for me it was a feeling of freedom.”

So Lerman’s work belongs to that peculiar artistic space that has retained both its relevance and, even more remarkably, its avant garde status consistently since the 1960s—skirting the edge of its given media, intensely reflective and site-specific, yet inclusive, inviting, immediate, and endlessly accessible.

If you would like to participate the Travelon Gamelan bike performance, please call The Film Studies Center: 773-702-8596.