Bringing the hammer: HCCC’s Soundforge forges metal into artsy music

Posted November 14, 2011 in In The News

Creative inspiration can manifest from the most unexpected of sources. For metalsmith, writer and craft activist Gabriel Craig, it came from the humdrum sound of his everyday physical activity: Forging metal.

Metalsmithing involves tuning into the sound produced while pounding away at the raw material in an effort to gauge progress to the desired result. While an artist-in-residence at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft (HCCC), Craig was consumed with bringing such process into focus for those who may not be familiar with the craft.

And so he became fixated on the precise moment of contact between tool and element.

“Makers are constantly talking about the process of making their work,” Craig explains. “Despite this broad focus on process, the end result is nearly always a formal sculptural object. I am very invested in craft as a living thing — craft as a verb.

“Forging is an act of fabrication but also an act of percussion. From there I elected to seek out a music composer in order to help me breathe life into this project.”

That was Houston-based composer Michael Remson, also the executive director for American Festival for the Arts. The result of their collaboration is Soundforge, an interactive installation on display at HCCC through Jan. 8.

Early on, the duo thought of many designs including a “xylobooth” where participants would enter a semi-closed device.

It took two years for Soundforge to emerge as a collection of large gate-like structures with a nod to antique wrought iron design. Large armatures function as a frame from which bars — tuned to an F pentatonic scale — are suspended.

Remson used Soundforge as a mallet musical instrument to craft a 15-minute soundscape that melded a persistent rhythmical pulse evoked by the physical act of forging with allusions to Balinese Gamelan and the music of minimalist composers — like John Adams, Steve Reich and Phillip Glass. The composition begins simply, develops in complexity and shifts through different tonalities within the five-note scale.

A video of forging encourages passersby to grab one of the several handcrafted mallets arranged on the wall and play Soundforge along with Remson’s opus on loop. In essence, by interacting with the work, the visitor becomes a part of the process which completes the cycle of Soundforge.

“We wanted to create a situation where non musicians would not be intimidated to come in and make a ‘mistake,'”Remson notes. “The composition isn’t meant to occupy center stage. I wanted to write something to encourage people to get involved.”

Playing Soundforge elicits many reactions.

There’s something taboo about touching and playing with an art work, there’s a sense of playfulness and abandon when realizing there isn’t a right nor wrong, and one also reaches a Zen state when tuning into the juxtaposition of Remson’s music with impromptu improvisation.

HCCC curator Anna Walker links engagement in social media with an increasing desire for viewers to be engaged with art at higher levels.

“There’s a trend of artists exploring interactivity,” Walker says. “For this piece, the idea of interactivity took on an educational role to help people bridge the gap between hammering, making music and making the piece.”

It comments on the concept of craft, on the act of crafting an object and the craft of composing a musical score. In many ways, like a Rubik’s cube, it deciphers the many meanings of craft.

“I had professor who said it best: Craft is part of a Venn diagram,” Walker explains. “There’s craft, there’s design and there’s art. Each field has its own unique history but there are ways the three disciplines overlap.

“[At the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft], we loosely define craft when materials like metal wood, glass, fiber and clay are part of the work, while taking into account the history of how the object was made and importance of the act of making.

“These characteristics sets craft apart from art and design, but I would encourage people to keep in mind that there are many ways these fields overlap, like a Venn diagram suggests.”

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