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Artisphere’s ‘Fermata’ will challenge your preconcieved notions of art and music

Brothers Hays, left, and Ryan Holladay, also known as the experimental electronic duo Bluebrain, co-curated “Fermata” at Artisphere. (Caitlin Teal Price)

Last month, the curators of “Fermata” sent John Henry Blatter on a hunt for home-stereo speakers. The Richmond-based artist visited nearly every Virginia thrift store from Norfolk to Charlottesville and cleaned them out. You can visit 100 of his best-sounding and best-looking finds at Artisphere, where they’re mounted on a wall.

“A fermata is a musical articulation mark that’s placed above a note that’s an invitation to expand that note at the player’s discretion,” says Ryan Holladay, who curated the show with Cynthia Connolly and his brother, Hays Holladay. (The siblings are also known as the experimental electronic duo Bluebrain.) “We are placing a fermata over this idea of sound and asking people to expand what they might think of as art or music.”

Visitors have nothing to look at besides Blatter’s wall of speakers, but there’s plenty to hear: The equipment can handle up to 12 stereo channels (or 14, if you count the two subwoofers on the floor).

The curators enlisted more than two dozen artists to make recordings for the wall, and many of them took full advantage of its complexity. For example, Blatter and collaborator Nathan Tersteeg assigned different monologues to small sets of speakers, creating a cacophony of words. In a more sonorous piece, the Canadian artist known as CFCF assigned sparse melodies to various speakers to create a Philip Glass-like composition.

“I like to think of this as the IMAX equivalent of listening to music,” Holladay says.

What you’ll hear depends on when you visit “Fermata” and how long you stay. The curators have split the submissions into three “movements” and a “coda.” Each movement runs about an hour and a half and will play on a continuous loop for a few weeks of the exhibition.

As part of “Fermata,” Artisphere will host a June 1 record fair that, on first blush, seems unrelated to the main show. Holladay says they both come back to the idea of bringing people together to challenge their beliefs about sound.

“When I was growing up, I remember going to an Arlington record fair and going in with a particular idea of what I wanted to listen to, and having people say, ‘Oh you like that band? You have to listen to this,’ and having my musical mind blown,” he says. “With ‘Fermata,’ I am appealing to my 12-year-old self, whose mom drove him and his brother to a record fair, who walked away a changed person.”

A ‘Fermata’ Mixtape

What does sound-art sound like? A few of “Fermata’s” artists explain their work.

Lucianne Walkowicz
Stars spin like tops, slowing down over time until they finally peter out. To make “Stellar Tathata,” Princeton astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz recorded the rotations of about 50 stars that occupy the same patch of sky and translated them into audible sounds so that young, fast-rotating stars sing high notes, while sluggish old stars hold down the bass. By translating math into music, Walkowicz hopes to give regular folks the experience of interacting directly with scientific data. “What’s exciting about science is … finding patterns in nature, being curious about them and wanting to learn what they mean,” she says.

Don Zientara & Ian MacKaye
Don Zientara and Ian MacKaye, best known for being the producer and front man, respectively, of D.C. punk band Fugazi, collaborated to produce a piece for “Fermata” consisting of three audio tracks. One is a cassette tape-quality interview of MacKaye about his life and music, the second is Zientara telling a story while noodling around on a guitar and the third is a barbershop quartet. The three tracks pan and shift in complicated ways to create aural Dada, Zientara says. “It’s something that is just because it is,” he says. “It doesn’t exist for any particular purpose.”

John Henry Blatter & Nathan Tersteeg
John Henry Blatter, creator of the “Fermata” speaker wall, also collaborated with Richmond-based artist Nathan Tersteeg to record “Platform #12.” The sound collage is reminiscent of what you might hear if you were a mind-reader at a train station — the inner monologues of eight different people as they contemplate what travel means to them. Then, things get uncanny. “As you listen in on people’s stories, you begin to see that they intertwine with each other,” Blatter says.

Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; through Aug. 10, free; 703-875-1100. (Rosslyn)