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Observations on Aspect 281 and Site/Sound: Revealing the Rail Park

Urbanist philosopher Henri Lefebvre used the term rythmanalysis to name his method of analyzing the rhythms of urban spaces by their everyday social use. Railroads as a collection of sites perform their own rythmanalysis – the tempo of their rhythms a direct read-out of speed and distance in the circulation of social and industrial materials.

In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer created the first piece of Musique Concrete, “Étude aux chemins de fer,” by recording, mixing and manipulating the sounds of trains. At exactly this time, the postwar urban deindustrialization was accelerating the processes that would strip Philadelphia of its identity as “workshop of the world” and consign large areas of the city to a decades-long, more or less gentle (and quiet), decay.

The sounds of trains in Philadelphia’s sonic landscapes had been disappearing for some decades already – partially in line with the move away from anthracite coal as the lifeblood of industry.

To celebrate the transformation of quiescent industrial space into public green space for recreation and contemplation, the Site/Sound festival’s three artist teams create site-informed audio-visual installations.

Installation artist Carolyn Healy and sound/video artist John Philips, whose long-term collaboration has reliably produced thought provoking and expertly executed environmental artworks, presented Aspect 281, a multimedia work inspired by the oversized role of the railroad in Philadelphia’s industrial development and visual and sonic character. In perhaps a nod to Pierre Schaeffer, and re-activating the disappeared sonic landscape, a “quadraphonic sound composition composed primarily of railroad sounds” accompanies video projections of historic train footage and railroad signal visualizations.

Philips and Healy consider themselves “site-specific artists.” As Philips describes it, they research their locations historically but also strive to “react to all the facets – weather, smell, audio resonance, light.” They have stated that they liked that the location chosen for Aspect 281 had an anonymous quality. The site contained old signal lights overgrown by vegetation, which become the starting point for the development of the piece. Healy’s contribution to the work involved monumental steel objects suggesting locomotive smoke stacks that billowed smoke on electric command.

Philips’ sound score was composed over several months and based on the manipulation of train sounds. For me, this brought to mind the long history of railroad sounds as a favored source for Musique Concrete, beginning with the original composition of this tradition.

Philips’ video was similarly based on manipulation of footage of old trains and signaling technology, and was begun in residency at the appropriately named Signal Culture – a media art residency program in upstate New York.

Erik Ruin and Rosie Langabeer touched on the hidden connections between locomotion and media technologies by using the Victorian zoopraxiscope as the “point of departure” for their collaborative work, Soon/Now/Gone. As the name suggests, this device was first designed to examine the motion of animals – another kind of rythmanalysis of sorts. Like other chronophotographic devices of the time, the zoopraxiscope created the illusion of fluid motion through stroboscopic persistence of vision – the intersection of flickering light with the human perceptual apparatus – that remains the basis for motion picture technology to this day. Unlike the sound world of the original zoopraxiscope – the sound of its own metered circulation like a railroad in miniature – Ruin and Langabeer have collaborated with an array of additional musicians and sound artists, activating soundtracks to be mixed by the audience participants themselves.

Nadia Hironaka, Matthew Suib and Eugene Lew created new social rhythms for post-industrial space each evening from dusk to midnight through large-scale video projections of episodic short films and live music in an installation referencing Japanese dry landscape gardens. The intention was to afford the opportunity for “intimate commemorative gatherings that celebrate compassion, creativity, and community as essential components of human life.”

Increasingly, artists are being called upon to commemorate the transformation of obsolete industrial space into social space through acts of public art-making. Philadelphia’s rich culture of public art has in recent years been shepherded by one of the Site/Sound festival’s presenting organizations, Mural Arts Philadelphia. Performance theorist Arthur Sabatini has pointed out the large number of Philadelphia murals that represent, reference or celebrate music-making and sound. Sabatini nominates these murals Philadelphia’s “Musico-Sonic-Optical Unconscious,” related to a tendency of the city’s “will to synesthesia” often mediated by new technologies. Consider for example the Philadelphia orchestra’s 1926 performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade interpreted in colored light by the Clavilux, a kind of “color organ” instrument whose six projectors shone through rotating painted glass discs, like a multichannel psychedelic zoopraxiscope.

The synesthetic aspect of this celebration of post-industrial space-making was amped-up by the fact that the Site/Sound festival’s curator, Gene Coleman, is himself a composer who works in the visual media of video. To further activate the festivals sites, Coleman curated additional musical performances and collaborations. As an example of the depth of thought and engagement put into these collaborations, consider the first group of performances associated with Phillips and Healy’s Aspect 281 installation. Coleman engaged Temple Universities Adam Vidiksis, an active composer, performer, and music technologist, to work with the ensemble he coaches at Temple – Boyer Electroacoustic Ensemble Project (BEEP). Vidiksis explained the working process: “Using many of the source materials Healy and Phillips shared as part of the early stages of their creative process in making the work, students from BEEP created three unique collaborative electronic compositions for performance at the site ranging from 20 to 40 minutes in length.”

Discussions with and between the students about many of the issues surrounding the transformation of the American landscape by the railroads informed their creative process. Vidiksis summed up the engagement of his students with the Site/Sound festivals’ Aspect 281 installation this way:

“Not only did it give them a public opportunity to present their creativity, it also gave them space to carefully consider the effects of the introduction of steam engine technology to the world of the 19th-century. That they are in the midst of a rapid technological change in communications, and that they are using many of those same tools (e.g. laptops, mobile devices, etc.) to make the music for this piece, was not lost on them. We frequently discuss the effects of emerging technology on our society, culture, and music in BEEP, but we rarely spend so long a period concentrating on the effects of one particular historical technology on the culture of the past.”

On the same evening that the students of BEEP shared the results of their collaborative explorations, cellist/composers Thomas Kraines and Kinan Abou-Afach presented recent work. Both composers are also excellent improvisers and Abou-Afach is a virtuoso of the oud, a lute-type stringed instrument. The first piece of their set was a composition for two cellos that Kraines wrote with Abou-Afach in mind. In this piece, entitled Slapdash, both cellos are tuned differently from normal and from each other. As Kraines put it, “thus while it is a duo for two cellos, the cellos are not identical, opening up a lot of compositional possibilities.” The piece also had several sections of improvisation for each musician. The raucous driving, rhythmic quality of much of the piece appropriately brought to mind a runaway train. In the second piece, a phenomenal improvisation for cello and oud, the musicians likewise tried to evoke a “railroad theme.” The last piece, a composition by Abou-Afach, seemed in dialog with Kraines’ earlier two-cello compositions. Also allowing room for improvisation in sections, Abou-Afach’s writing focused more on the lyrical qualities of the cello with long flowing melodies.

These performances were only the first of several over the time of Aspect 281’s installation. The other featured artworks had similar programming over these evenings as well. The model of using each artwork as not just an end in itself, but as a platform for deep collaborative exploration from a variety of additional artists, gave one the sense that Site/Sound has the potential to be a vital addition to the cultural landscape in Philadelphia above and beyond its role in this first iteration of bringing welcome attention to the exciting rail park revitalization.

Observations on Aspect 281 and Site/Sound: Revealing the Rail Park