A french horn, balanced like so atop an equalizer, is all that sound artist William Robert needs to summon a sonic environment into being — and on July 9 he’s bidding you welcome to his private world above Asbury’s Art Block.
Asbury Park, as if you needed to be told, is one crazy “All You Can Ear” buffet; a sonic smorgasbord spreading for miles beyond the dozens of musical styles that jockey for attention on any given night of the summer.
From where we sit, we can tune in on everything from the top-ticket action on the Stone Pony SummerStage, to the joyful cacophony of Sunday services in a neighborhood packed with houses of worship. A bit of backyard basketball, and a front-porch fracas in which someone’s family business becomes everybody’s business. The passing of (beach banner) planes, (commuter) trains and (customized) automobiles. The near-constant dopplering of sirens and the Scott Joplin/ Neapolitan folktune electronica from scores of competing ice cream trucks. The creaks and groans of the 19th century house we live in, and the buzz-whine-clank of construction and renovation here in the 21st. All of it intermingling, recombining, shifting in pitch and volume with a caprice of the breeze and an atmospheric bounce off a convenient ocean or lake.
Look closely while you’re listening and you might just spot a man who has little interest in being spotted, or even noticed in any overt way. A man holding up a small handheld recording device, seeking to capture music from things that aren’t generally regarded as generators of music — things like half-finished buildings, or wind-blasted “empty” spaces.
His name is William Robert — although that doesn’t sound like it’d be anybody’s real name — and he’s an artist; a crafter of collages, a manipulator of “repurposed” materials and a painter in strokes that are alternately brash and bashful. If you’re looking for examples of his art in local galleries, public structures or even the walls of his own apartment, you won’t be seeing it anytime soon — the work of this experimental composer and sound artist is invisible by nature, although that will hardly stop him from inviting you up to his place to “see his etchings” on the evening of Saturday, July 9.
Where’s the art? For that matter, where’s the wine and cheese? The art is in the air at William Robert’s home studio space, as FRENCH HORN 2011 brings maximum mood to a minimalist setting.
A relatively recent arrival in Asbury himself, Robert has for the past year or so inhabited what could be thought of as an “artist’s loft” at 717 Cookman Avenue, right on the justly celebrated Arts Bloc — and right above Parlor Gallery, the edgy but ever-inviting artspace that hosted his 2009 installation Times Square, a “three dimensional sound environment” assembled from field recordings of Manhattan in the months after 9/11.
Keyed, perhaps inadvertently, to the city’s year-long “Where Music Lives” promotion — and presented concurrent with each of the three opening reception events at Parlor Gallery between June and August — Robert’s piece French Horn 2011 is a work in controlled chaos and “pleasant accidents,” presented for public perusal in the setting of the artist’s own living room.
Walk up the stairs to apartment 2 and you’ll find no overstuffed recliners, bigass flat-screen or drink-ringed coffee tables. Stripped of furniture (at least as prepped for this occasion) and devoid of art or decorative accents on the walls, the space is equipped only with a rug, several pillows, and six portable boxes — from whose twelve speakers emanate the separate components of French Horn, a project that uses the natural resonance of the eponymous brass instrument to “play” the horn in an altogether different way.
In his notes for the installation, Robert describes the work as “the sounds of a French Horn passed through a speaker cabinet feeding back into the French Horn. The different resonant frequencies of the horn are revealed and reinforced by a graphic equalizer.”
Employing a contact microphone (“it allows us to hear things in a way that most of us haven’t done since we first put our ear against our desk in grade school”) and digital processing, Robert squeezes an array of sounds, ranging from tinnitus fever pitches to bucolic pondside hums, from a single horn — all without its ever being touched by human lips. There are interludes within the four-hour piece during which the six boxes sync up in moments of silence — and, as with so much of the best art, where you’re standing in the room has a lot to do with how you’ll experience the artist’s work.
As for the question of why a French Horn and not, say, a bassoon, the artist (proprietor of the Music Place store and studio in Sea Girt, and therefore a man with easy access to things that go toot, whistle, plunk and boom) explains that the horn simply “balanced well atop the equalizer” — and the combination of the instrument’s naturally high frequency range with the post-recording tweaks resulted in some “pleasant accidents…I could not have planned some of these overtones.”
Also in the mix are elements completely outside the artist’s design and control — from the percussive patter of rain on the room’s skylight, to the rude static grumbling of an uncooperative outlet. A series of blue wall lights ring the listening area, and conversation tends unconsciously to align itself after a while with the volume shifts, mood swings and sudden silences of the recorded piece.
All in a day’s work for the artist who’s been “making music since 1986” — and who declares that he “became less musical” when he studied at the venerable Berklee College of Music.
“I started playing with tapes at an early age,” says Robert, who cites drone pioneer La Monte Young and Cabaret Voltaire founder Chris Watson as particular influences. “A teacher exposed me to the mid-century avant garde, and I began to want to do something that wasn’t just a beginning, middle and end.”
“I did something with one guitar, laying on top of an amplifier,” explains the artist, whose electric guitar experiments can be sampled and savored here. “(French Horn) is kind of me revisiting that — using vibration this time instead of an electric hum.”
The “odd whale song” known as French Horn 2011 plays continuously between the hours of 5 and 11pm up at William Robert’s home sound-gallery space on July 9, and again on Saturday, August 6. For a future project, Robert hints at “doing something with all of these field recordings…I have hours of the Esperanza construction.”
“Asbury Park’s just this unique collection of sounds, with this unpredictable wind running through everything,” the artist explains — adding with a laugh, “It’s like Queens, where I lived for a while…all one big, demented, sick cloud.”