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Is It Music? 

SSU gallery fuses visual, aural art in latest installation

click to enlarge BLURT SSU's new exhibit, with the above work by Christopher Janney, coincides with the opening of the Green Music Center.
  • BLURT SSU's new exhibit, with the above work by Christopher Janney, coincides with the opening of the Green Music Center.

In 1952, John Cage wrote "4'33"," a famous piece of music first performed on solo piano involving no actual playing of the instrument whatsoever. At its premiere, the four minutes and 33 seconds of utter silence of "4'33"" baffled, inspired and generally twisted the minds of both artists and musicians alike. Was it music? Was it conceptual? Was it even art?

These questions are the foundation for a new installation in Sonoma State University's Art Gallery, "Sound, Image Object: The Intersection of Art and Music," opening Sept. 13.

"It is not about the art making sound or making music," explains gallery director Michael Schwager of the exhibit. Rather, it's about combining visual observation with aural perception, and vice-versa. "The show's going to be things that are interesting and engaging to look at that might hint at sound and music, and others that are going to be really obvious," says Schwager.

Three pieces from female artist Jack Ox feature snippets of Bruckner's Symphony no. 8 printed over views of St. Florian's Church on large pieces of Mylar, combining a visual aesthetic of architecture that evokes a similar feeling as the music. This obvious combination of senses is contrasted with pieces like Tom Marioni's Musical Instrument That Cannot Be Played. It's not an instrument. It's a simple 3-D sculpture, about knee-high, made of a few plain, black blocks of different sizes. The title, however, puts the idea of music in the viewer's mind and changes the experience dramatically.

There are audible pieces, like Paul Kos' I Saw the Light, featuring a Johnny Cash recording of the same name accompanying several puns on the theme. But for the most part, the majority of the pieces don't make sound, they simply evoke it.

"There've been these theories over the years about how there are equivalents of sound and music [in visual art]," says Schwager. Such art might capture the feeling of synesthesia, a condition in which senses are experienced in unusual ways, like seeing sounds as color or tasting words. Christopher Janney's Sound Is an Invisible Color aims to recreate this. The visually striking tubes seem to flow out of a pulsing button, which, when pressed, emits strange, ambient sounds.

It's no coincidence that the exhibit opens the same month as SSU's Green Music Center; Schwager wisely piggybacked on the buzz. "I thought, why not do a show about music, because there's going to be so much attention given, rightfully so, to the Green Music Center."

The main hall at the GMC is so acoustically brilliant, it has been touted as an instrument in its own right. So while it's on display just across campus, why not perform the John Cage piece Score Without Parts using the hall as the instrument? It's not so preposterous, considering Cage's print is comprised not of dots on a staff, but drawings by Henry David Thoreau, with fully notated instructions on how they are to be played. Would it be music?

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