The Resonant Sculpture Project is a site-specific series of performances based on acoustic interactions between the improvisations of musician Avram Fefer and the large-scale sculptures of Richard Serra.
Resonant Sculpture Project
Artist Statement by Avram Fefer:
After many productive years as a saxophonist, improviser, and bandleader, I recently initiated a project that mixes performance art, music, and sculpture in surprisingly potent combinations. The Resonant Sculpture Project is a long-term series of solo musical interactions with large-scale sculpture --- in particular, the iconic work of Richard Serra.
Serra’s works are celebrated for their powerful effects on the body, disorienting visitors with their immensity and form, while enticing them into the vast sculptural space where they become part of the work itself. A key feature of jazz improvisation is its immediacy: its sense of here and now. By combining improvisation, exploration, and interaction – between the performer, the audience, the sculpture, and the space – the Resonant Sculpture Project creates an experiential structure-in-the-making that becomes a platform for the meeting of two disparate art forms.
We provide intimate, site-specific performances that immerse the audience in a visual, spatial, and musical journey. The sculpture becomes inspiration, setting, and instrument, interfacing with my saxophone to create original sounds and unexpected acoustic effects in a beautiful and unique experiential environment.
Results of this interdisciplinary work thus far have been fascinating and produced moments of great meaning. I am looking forward to upcoming events to delve deeper into Serra's work, to expose the project to wider audiences, and to further document these unique interactions.
Read about the RSP in ArtNews:
I am grateful to Mr. Serra and his assistants, who have allowed my work to go forward.
Origin and Background
The Resonant Sculpture Project began in 2012 with "preliminary research events" in Bridgehampton, NY, at Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park, and at upstate New York’s Storm King. After honing both the performing and filming aspects of the project, we began to invite audiences to experience the work live and online. Over the last two years, we have produced remarkable events with Serra's pieces at Gagosian Gallery in New York (2014 and 2016), Gagosian Gallery in London (2015), and at Princeton Art Museum (2015).
Originally the aim of this project was rather modest: using my extensive experience as an improviser and drawing on my sense of inspiration when discovering a work of art, I would create spontaneous compositions to highlight the artist’s sense of creativity and inspiration in making it, while sharing moments of artistic discovery and musical exploration with the audience.
Since then, the concept has grown in breadth and depth, presenting both challenges and opportunities. What began as a straightforward approach to solo performance has evolved into a powerful examination of deep listening practices, acoustic interaction, physical awareness of space and sculptural form, musical improvisation, audience participation, and audio-video techniques. The result is a more complex and nuanced understanding of the relationship between music, sculpture, and audience.
Observations and Insights
The first event took place outdoors at sunset with no preparation or preconception on my part. It was a successful event for everyone involved and I was surprised at the intensity of what transpired during the interaction. The music gave new life to the sculptures, the sculptures gave the musical improvisations inspiration and context.
Even more exciting, this initial performance revealed that I could produce sometimes subtle, sometimes quite dramatic, acoustic effects by playing my instrument in direct proximity of the sculptures. The materials, shape, and size of the sculptures were made all the more evident by the sound waves created by my playing, and the diversity of surface against which I played highlighted the subtleties of the music--- a wonderfully reciprocal, and often unpredictable, process which has become one of the focal points of the project.
The saxophone is perfectly (perhaps uniquely) suited to this type of acoustic interaction due to how it manifests the properties of wave projection, refraction, and reflection. The tone it produces has a heft and directionality that evinces the various sonic effects of the sculpture, while the ability to vary articulations or sustain notes makes the acoustic interactions more detectable to the human ear. It also has a wide timbral and dynamic range --- from the gentleness of sub-tones to the raucousness of multi-phonics --- that is very useful in eliciting a variety of effects in this particular setting.
Another intriguing aspect of the Resonant Sculpture Project is the juxtaposition of the solid and the invisible. You will notice that Serra’s sculptures seem to edify the music, whereas the music traces the sculptures' more ethereal aspects. This symbiosis -- of the transitory and the permanent – is at the heart of what takes place during an RSP event. When the music stops, it is gone forever, dissipating in the air around us, leaving no trace; whereas, moving one of Serra’s immense pieces even an inch requires rigorous planning, several pieces of heavy machinery, and many hours of manual labor. This creates a wonderful dynamic between the two art forms, resulting in an impressive exchange of energy over the course of the performance; one in which the playfulness and mobility of the music is clearly evident and the power and permanence of the sculpture is left in stark relief at the event's conclusion.
Playing with Serra’s Wake in Seattle, I also realized that some of his sculptures were particularly well suited to my approach; that, on a macro level, the entire sculpture's shape as a whole was a very effective conduit of the sound waves I was producing. This observation was later re-affirmed during my performances with his pieces Inside Out, Hedgehog and Fox, and Backdoor Pipeline. All of these monumental pieces utilize forms through which the sound could literally go in one end and out the other. From this perspective, one might say that Richard Serra is actually designing the world's largest wind instruments, or at least, wind instrument amplifiers.
Process and Performance
During a Resonant Sculpture Project performance, I am free to follow my artistic instincts in any way I choose. My challenge, as a musician, is to create compelling improvisations while moving through, eliciting sound from, and reacting to, the sculpture. I am looking for musical cohesion within a spontaneous, investigative, and dynamic environment. Improvising a good piece of music is already difficult. Doing it while navigating through and investigating Serra's work and being followed by a film crew is no easy task.
I sonically explore the sculptures, moving inside / outside, nearer / further as I “play” the sculptures. The heavy steel plates reflect and resonate. The space between them creates sympathetic harmonics. The sounds reverberate. I listen closely and try to balance my desire for musical expression and coherence with my curiosity in experimenting with the acoustics. All the while, the audience is there, immersed in the sculptural space, sharing the musical journey, and affecting both my sonic and physical paths.
The invited audience has a variety of experiential approaches available to themselves. They can sit and observe from outside the sculpture or from within. They can walk through the sculpture with me or without me. And depending on the venue, they may even even be allowed to touch or listen directly to the sculpture itself as I play. In the course of an entire performance, individuals have time to try each of these, and in fact are encouraged to do so, since each approach offers a distinct audio-visual-spatial perspective.
Some members of the audience may be a bit camera-shy at first, but as the show proceeds and I musically explore the external and internal twists and turns of the sculpture, many of them are drawn into joining me, resulting in new and unexpected ways of experiencing the space. This interactive engagement completes the circle of the entire performance and creates a profound connection between performer, sculpture, and audience, allowing us to share a unique moment of artistic immersion.
Every RSP event is a singular event that can not be replicated. Each event is site-specific and involves awareness and improvisation from both myself and the audience. It is revelatory in the sense that each of Serra’s sculptures comes with a distinct form and set of acoustic implications that demand our attention . My own task is charged with inspiration, challenge and excitement --- in varying degrees. The more proximate the audience, the more they share my perspective. In some cases, I have not encountered the piece prior to the performance, which raises the stakes even higher.
To me, music and sculpture are two very different, but equally powerful, means of occupying and beautifying physical space. I am grateful to have found a way to use my own work to highlight the previously unexplored relationships between them, while emphasizing and perhaps enhancing the impact of each.
The Resonant Sculpture Project represents a new and exciting path for me, a path that I intend to follow with an array of Richard Serra’s highly original and evocative pieces. I look forward to bringing the beauty of this collaborative work to diverse settings and peoples around the globe, and hopefully changing the way we experience sound and space and the relationship between them.
Producer: Chris Spearpoint // Consultant: Lorenza Astengo Fefer
Directors of Photography: Conor McBride, William Hohauser