By Adeline Sire
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — You enter through waves of ethereal choral sound in an open space known as the Chapel, inhabited by tall speakers standing around islands of flat, round floor cushions. A few benches in the room are equipped with headphones and you’re invited to immerse yourself in choral music — semi-improvised on a central tone of D — and to sing or hum along as you please. Welcome to the “Vocal Vibrations” sound installation, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology MediaLab creation led by composer-inventor Tod Machover and architect-designer Neri Oxman.
The installation is located in the art, science, and design center called Le Laboratoire, which was just inaugurated in Cambridge’s “innovation district,” near MIT. This is the American relative of the original Laboratoire that was founded in Paris in 2007 by inventor and Harvard professor David Edwards. The space includes a café where visitors can discover the inventions of avant-garde artists, designers, chefs, and even master-perfumers, and its gallery hosts the “Vocal Vibrations” exhibit through March 22.
According to the exhibit’s website, “Vocal Vibrations” is “a voice and body installation that explores the relationship between human physiology and auditory and externally stimulated vibrations.” Machover elaborated: “What I really wanted was to make a vocal experience that everybody could participate in,” he said, “which would allow you to be conscious of everything about your voice, the sound of it, but also the feel of it, to lead to a new kind of meditation.”
So the music he sketched for it had to be fluid. “I tried to compose a piece that was neither boring nor too stimulating,” he said. “I wanted a piece that would take you somewhere but not grab you by the collar, something that would be gentle, with no beginning or end, but always changing, kind of like ocean waves.”
The exhibition, which first opened in Paris last spring, also displays Oxman’s stunning chaise, more whimsical sculpture than chair, with a curvy design that playfully evokes a stretched out tongue, or even the shape of a human ear. The outer shell is made out of smooth blond wood which curls into a hood at the top, meant to form a chamber around the participant’s head. The orange-red coral lining is composed of materials varying in opacity and hue, resembling large, jewel-like taste buds. Described as having “different pre-set mechanical combinations relating to pressure points and forming a sensorial landscape,” the Gemini chaise was not a participatory item, however. Visitors were only allowed to try the curious objet with their eyes.
With regard to the Vocal Vibrations soundtrack, Machover said he picked D because it’s a note most people are comfortable reaching in their own range without strain, and also because D tends to resonate in the natural world. “So if you were a conductor standing in front of an orchestra and sang loudly “aaahhhh” (he sang a D), almost every instrument in the orchestra would vibrate without any of the players playing,” he said. “String instruments vibrate very naturally around D, most of them have a D string, and even the percussion, like the timpani, all the drums, would rumble if you sang a D.”
Sit on one of the benches with headphones on and your visit becomes an immersive experience. You will hear the voices of the Boston-based choir Blue Heron, known especially for its renditions of Renaissance polyphony. Machover led them into this experiment by recording them as they hummed, sang out fully and softly, or uttered onomatopoeia. Soprano Sara Heaton also recorded solos for the mix. Machover recorded rich chords, some 12-notes thick, and layered them later. “This is like a library of material that I wrote out, recorded, and that I could take into my studio and mix and match,” he said.
Blue Heron music director Scott Metcalfe noted that for this experiment, the singers were asked to use so-called “just” intonation instead of equal temperament, meaning they had to tune to pure intervals — smaller major thirds and larger fifths, for example, than in equal temperament tuning. “You couldn’t generate that kind of sound by going to a piano or a keyboard that’s in equal temperament,” Metcalfe said. “That’s an aspect of what we do that is very applicable to new music, especially this work of Tod’s, as it is to 16th-century music.”
Past the Chapel space, a circular tunnel shaped by white translucent drapes leads you to a round chamber called the Cocoon. There, visitors can sit on a wide reclining leather chair, wear a tiny microphone, and hold an ostrich-egg-like electronic device made out of white ceramic. It’s a MediaLab invention called the oRb. The device allows people to feel the vibrations of their own speaking or singing voice. “The idea is that every change you make with your voice is reflected in the oRb,” Machover said.
Sitting in the chair, one hears through the headphones a six-minute music piece, radically different in intensity from what is heard in the Chapel. Machover referred to it as a roller-coaster ride: “It starts gently with a D, always a D, but the sound changes much more intensely, it fills up the whole spectrum, from low to high, and is also designed in the headphones to give you a massage inside your head.”
With oRb in hands and headphones on, I went for the sensory experience in this womb-like enclosure and felt the power of the sonic “roller-coaster,” plunging into fast waves of sound. The music of Cocoon took many dynamic and harmonic turns, fluctuations which — to my ears, at least — evoked chant, Thomas Tallis’ motets, the feverish choral opening of Bach’s St. John Passion, and György Ligeti’s vocal piece Lux Aeterna. Altogether an enthralling sequence.
Let’s not forget another powerful layer in this carefully assembled musical edifice. Holding the foundation of Machover’s opus, and sustaining the strongest and lowest D you have ever heard, is an ensemble of Tuvan throat singers. That’s the fruit of a collaboration with Buddhist monk Tenzin Priyadarshi, who is the director of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and an adviser on this project. Machover said the Tuvan singers’ deep voices added texture to the piece.
“These Tuvan singers could sing that low D that almost nobody can, and also bring out various harmonics over it,” he said. On opening night, in fact, after Blue Heron sang with Sara Heaton, they did a small improvisation with the Tuvan singers attending the reception, a moment Metcalfe said was particularly intense. “That technique of throat singing is so beautiful and amazing,” he said, “and with all of us standing in a circle in a magical kind of space, it was a wonderful moment.”
Even if you can’t sing those sub-low Ds the Tuvan singers are known for, you may want to hear the meeting of all these sounds and discover the power of your own voice in this new exhibit.
[For additional information, go to http://www.bowers-wilkins.com/Society_of_Sound/Society_of_Sound/TodMachover, where there is a five-minute video by Machover on the project and its creators.]
Adeline Sire is an arts journalist, radio producer, and musician, living in Cambridge, Mass. @AdelineSire