Written by Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri-
In 2018, Papalexandri received an Ernst von Siemens Grant in support of her 25-minute solo composition for Untitled VII, a sound kinetic sculpture/instrument that she designed and built together with Lang. This commission was part of Rohrwerk Fabrique Sonore, a project by Studio Klangraum in co-production with ZeitRäume/Biennale for New Music and Architecture, and the Institute for Computer Music, Sound Technology ICST in cooperation with Kunstmuseum Basel.
Studio Klanraum invited Papalexandri to collaborate with Swiss-based composers, musicians, stage designers, and architects from the Zurich University of the Arts on this 3-year large-scale project. The point of departure was the construction of Rohrwerk Fabrique Sonore, a 45m-high pavilion predominantly inspired by the shape of a tube and designed as an open-sound environment. The work was premiered and installed in September 2019 at the Kunstmuseum Basel.
Untitled VII is part of Papalexandri’s Untitled series of work and a continuation of Untitled II a motor-driven frictional instrument created in 2010 with Lang, on which Papalexandri performs as a soloist at various festivals and museums.
The Untitled VII configuration features 22 membranes stretched over acrylic tubes of varying sizes and lengths. A nylon string is fastened through a hole at the center of each membrane; the end of the nylon string is loosely secured to a motor-turned, rosined wheel to produce friction. Sound is produced by the action of the rim of the rotating wheel (pulley) rubbing the string as the wheel is turned.
Suspended from its center point, the instrument spins continuously, emitting a circular sound. The instrument was created to pass through the architectural structure’s perforations. Each musical phrase and gesture is determined by the time it takes the instrument to complete a full round, implying that the instrument’s behavior is used to establish melodic and creative parameters. This leads to a periodic purposeful ‘unfolding’ of sound: a procedural sequence of minimal slow-motion movements produces complex and concentrated sustained sounds and textures over time. Untitled VII offers a sonic experience that oscillates between two poles: mechanical precision and natural organic behavior. This one-of-a-kind structure, Papalexandri argues, encourages new composing strategies to emerge as a result of the instrument’s design. The instrument’s autonomy invites the performer to become a listener, questioning and even revoking the performer’s role while also investigating the instrument’s functional capabilities without active human participation.
When playing the instrument, the performer adjusts the tension of the strings. It is also possible to control tempo changes manually by adjusting a micrometer. Several metal clips were clamped onto the nylon strings to dampen, filter, and change the length (pitch). To capture the changing sound from the tubes, two microphones were mounted on the instrument’s body. In December 2020, Untitled VII (video performance, performed by Papalexandri, recorded and filmed by Lang) was presented along with a guest talk at the Sound Instruments and Sonic Cultures conference in Bradford, UK (2020).
As mentioned, the features of resonant surfaces and friction are of special interest to Papalexandri. The organic materials are bound to a process of ageing—the rosin wears off and the nylon line is filing down, shaping, and graining the rosin. Friction, by principle, needs intense contact and movement. All of the flexible materials (membrane, nylon line, rosin) are adaptable and can be stretched and shaped, become loose, wear off, and break.Through the creation of simple but sophisticated, functional instrumental devices, I seek to awaken hidden possibilities and qualities in sonic timbres to generate or trigger new sounds, while keeping an elegant approach to performance. I am pushing the boundaries of what the composing process includes and drastically reinventing and reimagining it.
Untitled VII (2021)
Following the success of Untitled VII, both the project and the festival organizers requested a version of the installation that would be available to the audience for an extended period of time and thus independent of the 45m-high architectural element. Lang and Papalexandri redeveloped the instrument in summer 2021, transforming it from a suspended object into a stand-alone sculpture.
This new configuration naturally led to recomposing the original version of Untitled VII, while keeping the instrument’s design and ergonomic suggestions in mind. Recent exhibitions and performances of this model have taken place at venues such as Zurich’s Wasserkirche, the large patio of the Rolex Learning Center at Lauzanne’s EPFL, as well as Galerie Anhava in Helsinki.
Untitled 7 (2019) https://vimeo.com/674571637
Untitled 7 (2022) https://vimeo.com/660992916
Rohrwerk Fabrique sonore https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8E1B4UaAd-4
Untitled II (2010): https://vimeo.com/57334299
Papalexandri and Lang exhibition at Galerie Anhava: https://galerieanhava.viewingrooms.com/viewing-room/11-pe-lang-marianthi-papalexadri-alexandri/