MATRIX 258 Takes Audiences Beyond Just Listening
By Lou Fancher
We are not all of one mind, nor do we have one type of hearing, the work of electro-acoustic composer Tarek Atoui declares. He has come to his ideas after years of working on instruments and music for deaf audiences.
The Paris-based Atoui will be visiting for a series of concerts on Nov. 5 and 7 that are the culmination of a year-spanning project called MATRIX 258, presented by the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA). The MATRIX program offers an experimental framework for artists and the local community in which to test, challenge, and even disrupt traditional practices in visual art, music, dance, and the dialogue held about them.
As part of the MATRIX 258 project, Atoui visited in March to co-teach an instrument-making seminar, introducing work he has been doing with deaf communities since 2009, and performed at Meyer Sound’s Pearson Theater. The November concerts will showcase two new instruments played by Atoui and his guest performers. The concerts are being held at Mills College and UC Berkeley’s Hearst Memorial Mining Building as BAM/PFA’s new building in downtown Berkeley doesn’t open until Jan. 31, 2016.
If a great symphony, opera, chorale or other musical work can cause a person to feel ecstasy, anxiety, rage, or a range of other emotions, Atoui’s music can cause a listener to literally feel sound. The sonic vibrations enter the body not just through the ears, but through the feet, eyes, body, and even the subconscious, says the Lebanese-born artist.
“The shows are based on two instruments, Zero Point Nine and SuperPac,” says Atoui. “The first concert is vibrational and physical, collectively. The second is more intimate and individual.” Navigating between the shared and personal experiences, he says, is part of the project’s purpose and excitement. “The more I work with this project, the more I’m certain hearing is subject to interpretation. So it’s hard to talk about the concrete impact it will have on the audience.”
The Zero Point Nine instrument’s name is a riff on standard and surround sound stereo systems consisting of various configurations of speakers and subwoofers, which range from 2.1 (two channels, one subwoofer emitting subsonic sound) to 12.1 (12 channels, one subwoofer). Atoui, Greg Niemeyer, Perrin Meyer, Jeff Lubow, and Mitchell Karchemsky fashioned the zero stereo system with nine subwoofers (thus, 0.9 or “zero point nine”).
Arranged in clusters of three and emitting frequencies from zero to 125 hertz, the speakers are topped with wooden platforms. Performers stand on the platforms, their gestures captured by a software program that reads and translates movements into “unheard” subsonic music that the audience will literally feel. A series of pieces 8-15 minutes long comprise the roughly one-hour concert.
SuperPac also produces tactile sound, this time sourced through “subpacs” that audience members attach to their bodies. “It’s a percussive instrument that has virtuosity,” Atoui says. “There’s a learning curve to play it, just like any instrument. What I find interesting is that the sonorities are silent.” Instead of having the wide frequency range of a typical drum kit, the limited, deep frequencies of SuperPac provide an unique challenge: How can interesting timbres that the audience can “hear” result without audible sound?
Tracing Atoui’s history in reverse to Un-Drum, a project born in response to a beating and torture he suffered during the 2006 war on Lebanon—he permanently lost partial hearing in his left ear—serves as explanation for his fascination with sound and hearing-impaired audiences. In 2012 and 2013, collaborations with deaf students at Al Amal school in Sharjah (United Emirates) led to students becoming increasingly sensitive to electronic music. For Atoui, the experience heightened his awareness about sound and perception and their relationship. “I learned anew how interdependent our senses are. Sound isn’t just entering through the ears. It’s visual, sensory. At very low frequencies, it enters the subconscious, maybe like the sounds a baby hears in a mother’s womb.”
Curator Apsara DiQuinzio says MATRIX 528 is directed toward everyone, not simply the deaf or hearing-impaired communities. Unable to entirely describe the audible component in a concert with largely experimental, never-heard-before instrumentation, she says the music heard in rehearsals is “low and rumbly” but can be stretched and “monumentally amplified.” Looking to other projects completed by Atoui, his music encompasses everything from eerie, singular bells to thunderous swarms of percussive rhythms to electronic extensions of ethnic, folk, jazz, and heavy metal music to sounds that seem to come from nature—a bird’s call, rustling leaves, wind, rainfall, water in motion.
American Sign Language translators will be at the concerts and at a panel discussion with Atoui, Niemeyer, Meyer, and Lubow that DiQuinzio is moderating prior to the concert on Nov. 7. “This is an investigation and inquiry. The instruments have never existed before,” she says. “We, as a university, are a kind of research laboratory. If these instruments can now be performed on and played, we’ve definitely done something novel. It may lead to new forms of music.”
Diquinzio says that since the MATRIX Program’s inception in 1978, a commitment to national and international artists has not superseded the organization’s interest in local artists and dedication to fostering dynamic conversations in the Bay Area. She came to BAM/PFA in fall of 2012 and says the future impact of innovative work like Atoui’s is the most difficult to explain or forecast, but often leads to the greatest revelations. Atoui says working with diverse composers in genres ranging from monophonic, heavy metal to polyphonic, free jazz, African, and contemporary music has unearthed nuances. Unsure of how the audience will be configured until he sees the performance spaces and hears—and feels—the way the instruments sound, he says his primary goal is to ensure that visibility, touch and the act of hearing coalesce.