If you peer into the glass windows connecting the Rubenstein Arts Center to the outside world, you might notice an arrangement of six armchairs, each connected to its own pair of headphones and microphones, facing outward into an otherwise open space. The stripped-back presentation of the Ruby’s newest installation might seem underwhelming at first, but there is more to this room than meets the eye. The real magnitude of this unique aesthetic experience becomes clear only when you step inside and start to listen.
“Here to Hear // Hear to Here” is an interactive audio installation in the Ruby’s Murthy Agora. When participants take a seat and put on their headphones, they are instructed to match the specific pitch played in their ears. Once they sing on key, the sound of their voice triggers music to play. Every interaction with the installation results in a new, spontaneous organization of music, which creates an ephemeral audio experience. “
“Here to Hear // Hear to Here” is an individual experience for participants, but observers hear a very different version of the music. Instead of hearing the musical cues inside the headphones, they only witness the droning pitches of the six participants which sync in and out of harmony. The contrast between the music inside and outside of the headphones is a central aspect of the project’s artistic vision: The installation asks us to consider the relationship between music and location.
Composer Brooks Frederickson created this unique sound experiment as part of the Ruby’s art project program. The installation is additionally supported by the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts. Frederickson composed the music played inside the headphones, which features digitally manipulated versions of music from the new Grammy-winning music choir The Crossing, supported by electronic percussion.
“For a while, it seemed like I had a clear trajectory in composing minimal and post-minimal music,” Frederickson, a Ph.D. student in music composition, said. “But when I came down here, I didn’t have a bunch of eyes on me all the time. The Duke composition department became an incubator space for me — I tried things out and started broadening my practice.”
This experimentation has led Frederickson to create works that are performative rather than musical and generative rather than strictly notated. His compositions have gradually become more intentional in lowering the barrier of making music for non-musicians. One of the many reasons Frederickson created this installation is to give people of all musical backgrounds the opportunity to make music.
“The older people get, the more they feel like they cannot make music because they lack the training or they don’t have the right background or skill,” Frederickson said. “All you need to do is match pitch, which most people can do.”
When I put on the headphones myself, I found that my mind cleared of all other thoughts as I solely focused on producing my own sound. At the beginning of my session, my voice was drowned out by the voices I heard in my headphones. Sometimes I was unable to sing a tone loud enough for the microphone to pick up, and the track would start looping. Rather than let this setback discourage me, it encouraged me to sing louder in order to hear my voice. I find that simply starting and stopping sound can become its own form of music. Playing around with the features of the installation gave me some agency in the flow of the music. When I became an active part of the music, it changed the way I listened for the better.
“A lot of the time, music is left in the background, just like the colors of the lights in a room,” Frederickson said. “People often don’t pay that much attention to the listening experience. But with this, you have to be engaged. You cannot be passive because you have to work to hear it.”
Frederickson does not intend to release the music recorded by The Crossing nor the music created spontaneously by those who participate in the installation to the public, so the only way to listen to it is to actually be present in the space. Restricting access to the music allows it to become inherently personal to the people in the room.
I found the auditory experience of the installation almost meditative. As a Duke student dealing with stress on a day-to-day basis, music that I actively listen to can refresh my mental state. It unplugs me from the Duke environment. Frederickson similarly enjoys making meditative art because it compels him to be in his own relaxed frame of mind. He admitted that sometimes creation can induce anxiety, as a myriad of artistic choices can make composing stressful. “Here to Hear // Hear to Hear” is different in that simply holding a note removes that sort of pressure.
“I think it’s going to be interesting how different people react to it,” Frederickson says. “I hope a wide variety of people come. People who have extensive musical experience, no musical experience, and experience in other artistic disciplines, come try it out! Take a break for a little while.”
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“Here to Hear // Hear to Here” is on view from Jan. 14 to Feb. 16 at the Rubenstein Arts Center in The Murthy Agora (Studio 129). There will be an opening reception for the installation Jan. 16 at 6 p.m. at the Ruby, where members of the general public can witness it for the first time. Frederickson will also be giving an artist talk for Ruby Friday about his work and creative process Jan. 24 at 12 p.m.