"Wind Instrument": Shhh! What’s that sound?
August 17, 2018
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They say the city is noisy, distracting, even cacophonic. But what if there were a way to soften harsh urban noises? With Wind Instrument, Étienne Paquette challenged himself to transform the many sounds of our urban environment. Rather than embark on the eternal but impossible quest for silence, he decided to play with the sounds of the city instead.
There’s no missing the enormous interactive installation: it’s 28 feet tall and made out of six colourful steel pipes. You’ll find it outside Saint-Laurent metro station from August 16 to October 8. Come play with the sounds of the city, and make sweet harmonies out of the noise.
We met the multimedia artist, scriptwriter and designer behind Wind Instrument, Étienne Paquette, to find out about his approach to art in general and this piece in particular, created in partnership with the Quartier des Spectacles, the National Film Board of Canada and LA SERRE – arts vivants.
WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR WIND INSTRUMENT?
For the POSSIBLES project, I was invited to create a work touching on an issue with international scope, and that inspires citizen participation in the process of building the city of the future. Those were the basic parameters.
For a long time, noise – in every sense of the word – has fascinated me. I come from a communications background, and normally in that context you want to get rid of noise because it distracts from the message. And yet that blurring of meaning is what interests me. In the city, there’s an auditory saturation effect, a lot of “noise,” and I took the question further by considering composers who inspire me, like John Cage, who reflected on the impossibility of silence, and Steve Reich, who worked with urban soundscapes.
WHAT’S THE ROLE OF WIND IN THIS INSTALLATION?
Ever since I moved to the countryside, in a farming community, I’ve noticed that the wind blows more often. Paradoxically, the wind plays an important role in calming my audible environment. As soon as it starts to blow a little, it’s calmer. That’s what inspired the name Wind Instrument, and the entire artistic approach.
HOW DOES WIND INSTRUMENT WORK?
On the surface, it’s pretty simple: it’s an interactive sculpture that reacts to ambient sounds and noises produced by individual participants, and generates musical harmonies. For example, visitors can trigger sounds by talking, shouting or simply making some noise with the tube provided for that purpose.
But behind the scenes, the system’s architecture is complex: the tubular structure plays sounds produced by music software that analyses the harmonic frequencies and sound levels detected around the installation. The instrument has its own particular sound and chord progressions, but the musical composition is not haphazard: it is produced by a kind of transposition or imprint of audio images analysed within the instrument’s musical spectrum.
IS THERE A LINK BETWEEN WIND INSTRUMENT AND MÉGAPHONE (2013), WHICH WAS ALSO OVERSIZED?
Yes! Generally speaking, I like monumental works. The city is a very large thing, and it provides many forms of stimulation. If you want to attract attention, it’s a good idea to give your installation fairly spectacular dimensions. With Mégaphone, there was the idea of disrupting public space with the participant’s own voice, but with Wind Instrument the idea is to calm the space.
Wind Instrument attracts attention, but the concept, it seems to me, is calming and fantastical. I like that a lot.
IS THERE A SHORTAGE OF HARMONY IN THE CITY?
The sounds of the city are very rich and varied, which is where the idea of inverting the question of silence comes from. Rather than trying to escape noise, we can ask what kinds of sounds we would we like to hear. Wind Instrument is open to interpretation – it is not a criticism of the city, in the usual sense. The installation uses the ordinary sounds of the city as fuel to produce soothing harmonies. It’s art by addition, not subtraction.
THE INSTALLATION KEEPS A RECORD OF SOUND LEVELS. WHY?
Local sound levels are noted by the system, as a form of documentation of sound activity while the installation is running. It is not a scientific effort – we don’t have the tools for that – but our database will still provide some insight into fluctuations in noise intensity. It’s a way to contribute to a public debate through art.
YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THE SEMIOTICS OF SPACES. HOW DOES THAT TIE INTO YOUR ARTISTIC PROCESS FOR THIS WORK?
My concern is the “sensitive” side of our cities, a phenomenon related to both sensation and meaning – the spirit. The concept of the “smart city” is very fashionable right now, but I find it leads too easily to an emphasis on functionality and efficiency rather than a consideration of how we live in the city. Living in a place means having some affection for it, accepting that its condition is going to be a primary concern for us. Sensitivity is not something functional, at least not in an economic sense. Through my works, I try to open up spaces that work as alternatives to those with an economically functional purpose.
August 16 to October 8, 2018
Monday to Wednesday: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Thursday to Sunday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Outside Saint-Laurent metro station