The Washington Post

‘Fermata’ at Artisphere

Artisphere’s Terrace Gallery has been transformed into a listening room for the exhibition “Fermata,” a showcase of contemporary sound art. (Artisphere)

If you’ve ever walked down the corridor of the multiplex and stopped momentarily to listen outside the door of a screening in progress, you’ll have a sense of what it’s like to experience “Fermata.”

Much of the exhibition — a sampler of contemporary sound art organized by Artisphere and delivered via a bank of 44 speakers mounted on the wall of the Terrace Gallery — evokes a game of guesswork. It’s as if you’re trying to determine what unseen images accompany the thuds, pings, plops, booms and whistles emanating from a screening you don’t have a ticket to.

This is particularly true with “Teleferica,” a 12-minute piece by artist Jez riley French. Recorded with microphones attached to the wires of an unused Italian cable-car system, the oddly mesmerizing composition includes the strangest sounds: not just the metallic vibrations of the wire, which evoke, at times, a giant, otherworldly harp, but also greatly amplified crashes and scratches created by bugs and tree branches bumping into or brushing up against the cable.

But it also could be the trailer for the new “Transformers” movie.

The title “Fermata” refers to the musical notation indicating that a note is to be held longer than normal. The exhibition will be presented in four programs, or movements, through the summer. The first section, which features French’s work along with eight other sonic servings, runs through May 25. A second program will be presented May 28 to June 22, followed by a third June 25 to July 20. A final “coda,” presented in conjunction with Transformer Gallery’s mentorship program for emerging local artists, will close the show July 23 to Aug. 10.

Taking in “Fermata” is nothing like visiting your typical art show. At roughly 100 minutes, Movement 1 — which I listened to twice, flopping on one of several super-comfy beanbag chairs — runs about as long as your typical feature film.

One unintended side effect of that feat of endurance is that you develop a hypersensitivity to noise pollution. As I left Artisphere, the sound of Rosslyn traffic, which I hadn’t noticed on the way there, was suddenly deafening.

Only a couple of the pieces in “Fermata’s” Movement 1 resemble traditional music. Brian McBride’s “Melodrames Telegraphies,” for example, is adapted from the composer’s fragile, emotive score for the 2010 nature documentary “Vanishing of the Bees.” And “Glass,” by electronic musician Mike Silver, who performs under the stage name CFCF, sounds like a toe-tapping outtake from one of the three Philip Glass-scored “Qaatsi” films.

Much of the current program utilizes acoustic collage, combining, say, spoken word with the sounds of nature. Salomè Voegelin and David Mullin’s haunting “Drafts” mixes text — taken from a series of found letters read by an actor — with the sound of crashing waves. Other works involve remixing documentary-style field recordings into evocative pastiches, as Annea Lockwood’s “Buoyant” does with recordings she collected from various aquatic sites.

Richard Chartier’s minimalist “Recurrence (Fermata Variation)” stands out in that it features no voice, melody or found sound. Nevertheless, Chartier’s composition, which is characterized by a coolly calculated collection of seemingly machine-made buzzes and hums, possesses a powerful sense of drama.

Sound is capable of producing deep emotion, and music is just one way of doing that. Although there’s no single mood to the show’s opening movement, the selected works evoke a diversity of feelings — from dread to excitement to relaxation to curiosity to wonder. According to “Fermata’s” lead curator, Ryan Holladay, who organized the show with his brother Hays Holladay and Cynthia Connolly, each movement is designed to showcase the full breadth and depth of sound — not as entertainment, but as an art form.

As with much contemporary art, it’s not a passive experience. You may close your eyes, sit back and chill. But as you’re listening, you’re also looking at a movie that’s unfolding — not in front of your eyes, but between your ears.

The Story Behind the Work

A printed program that accompanies “Fermata” describes one of the artists — identified only as Scarfolk Council — as shrouded in mystery. And there’s certainly an eerie sensibility to the show’s featured work by him/her/it. “In the Playground With the Music Room Window Open, May 13, 1975” presents the sounds of children playing against the backdrop of a jangly, discordant keyboard. “MO” also features a sad, echoey piano score, accompanied by what sounds like a steady downpour.

In fact, the identity of the artist is no great secret. British graphic designer and screenwriter Richard Littler is the man behind Scarfolk Council, a darkly comic blog Littler created about a fictional town in northwestern England that is trapped in a twisted version of the 1970s. Littler’s work as the “mayor” of Scarfolk involves releasing invented artifacts from the town’s archives.

Like the rest of “Fermata,” Littler’s sonic compositions are strongly cinematic, calling up mental images that, while they may vary from listener to listener, mix the creepy with the comedic.

— Michael O’Sullivan

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.



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