Play the Collections!
What would Museum objects sound like if they were turned into music? This is the question Vicky Clarke and David Birchall, collectively known as Noise Orchestra, explored as artists in residence at the National Media Museum.
From 11 September – 1 November 2015 Noise Orchestra: Play the Collections brought an experimental sound laboratory inspired by 1920s Russian avant-garde artists to the National Museum as part of the Light Fantastic: Adventures in the Science of Light exhibition.
In the laboratory Noise Orchestra created graphical scores based on shapes and patterns found in iconic objects from the Museum’s National Collections of Photography, Television and Cinematography, then played these paper scores using turntables and beams of light to create sounds that were unique to each object using photosensitive theremins.
Over the course of the seven-week residency, which received Grants for the Arts National Lottery funding from Arts Council England, these sounds were built into a unique electronic symphony, culminating in a spectacular live light and sound show on Saturday 31 October where Noise Orchestra performed ‘play the collections’ before an audience. The residency is part of the UNESCO Year of Light 2015.
Visitors were able to see Noise Orchestra exhibition and visit them at work in the gallery every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and were also able to make and play their own paper shapes inspired by drawing from the collections.
The project draws on pioneering work by Russian sound artists Arseny Avraamov, Evgeny Sholpo and Nikolai Voinov, who were experimenting with ‘graphical sounds’ nearly a century ago. Noise Orchestra were inspired by the book Sound in Z written by Andrey Smirnov, Professor of the Theremin Centre at Moscow State Conservatory, which charts the history of early experiments in Russian electronic music.
We visited Professor Smirnov in Moscow as part of our research, recording sounds from the city that featured in the final show and were able to see numerous noise instruments and objects related to early Russian electronica.
Vicky: “The chance to visit Moscow to see Avraamov’s original graphical scores from the 1920s and play the noise machines was thrilling, we will be sampling these sonic fragments and weaving them into our soundscapes and visuals during the residency.”
David: “Getting to see and understand how amazing pieces of Soviet era technology like the ANS synth functioned was great. The metro, trams and buses all run off electricity in Moscow so we made some amazing recordings of the hidden world of electromagnetism.”
Graphical Sound: How does is it work?
Working with the collections
Graphical Scores + Museum Objects: It was a priviledge to work with the collections at the Media Museum, a treasure trove of vintage projectors, cameras and curios, the objects we selected were based on historical interest but crucially by identifying interesting shapes, forms and patterns that we wanted to explore sonically. Over the weeks, these objects and photographs were drawn, manipulated and laser cut into beautiful paper stencils that would be performed with the circuits. We particularly liked the Russian Photosniper camera and the Crystal skull of ‘Arthur C Clarkes’ Mysterious world’. You can see the process of turning these shapes into scores here
Recording from Objects: We were interested in recording the sounds of the mechanical clicks and whirrs of the archive objects in the collections from 1970s Olympus Cameras to 1920s Williamsburg projectors We worked with Curator Toni Booth to stereo record these objects and used the samples would form part of our final performance, meaning you could hear the inside of the objects.
“It was certainly interesting for me, it’s considering and dealing with collections objects in a way I’ve never done so before, and great fun” Toni Booth, Curator, National Media Museum
To create our orchestra we developed a series of eight oscillator circuits each producing a unique sound, this was key to producing an interesting tonal range of frequencies to interact with the objects. We used arduino technology, mozzi sketches and also developed our own noise machines.
Audiences were invited to chat to us in our experimentation lab in the gallery or attend one of the workshops we ran for families and schools.
We created a series of short animations and visual content throughout the residency, featuring the objects and images in the Museum, imagery from our Moscow trip and high contrast black and white footage on After Effects. The large projection screen proved a good testing ground for experimenting with moving image and the oscillators. We were inspired by the early abstract films of Hans Richter, You can watch our animations here and our blog post.