Len Lye Composing Motion (The Sound of Tangible Motion Sculpture)

[Atoll; 2006]

Rating: 3/5

Styles: filmmaker, kinetic sculpture, high art, percussive
Others: Alvin Lucier, Joe Jones, Luigi Russolo, Harry Partch

A bird's eyesight is incredible and far superior to that of a human. The color in their feathers is far more complicated than we can detect and is complimentary to an infrared color spectrum that they view the world in (try putting that bird under a black light, dude). They can see specific prey from several miles away, and they manage to fly around the world every year, stopping at the same exact locations. Most of us would love to see the world like that (at least for a day or two), and occasionally an experience with a piece of art or music comes close to producing this disembodied/super-human sensation. Len Lye falls in a canon with composers like Charlemagne Palestine, Alvin Lucier, and Harry Partch, who have all made practices out of showing their audience new and far-reaching sonorities within sound.

Lye was born in New Zealand but moved to London, then New York to further his practice of filmmaking and to immerse himself in the exploding art scene. In the 1960s, he made an artistic jump into a world of kinetic (sound) sculptures. His filmmaking already had an experimental, direct-to-film approach to it. His unique and painstakingly difficult process for making what was essentially primitive animation put him more in line with an engineer than an artist. He referred to his filmmaking process as "composing motion," and knowing that makes his crossover to kinetic sculpture seem like a natural extension of what he was already doing. His sculptures followed in the tradition of the Cubists, who captured motion in their paintings, and by the Italian Futurists, who had already combined music with visual art decades earlier. He also cited being a child and listening to the different sounds while kicking a tin can in the street as a foundation for his work.

As though he took a clattering can from the street and brought it into the context of an art space, Lye's sculptures do indeed capture the sound of motion. Monolithic sheets of steel coupled with motors, wires, and metal balls stand more than 14 feet high and look like they could be converted into shelving units sold at IKEA. (Thank you IKEA for inadvertently teaching us about modernism all over again.) Like a singing saw or a sustained wash of a cymbal, every aural element has a strong visual component responsible for it. We can't see the air circulating inside a clarinet, but we can see a large metal pendulum, vigorously shaking after smashing into an equally vibrating sheet of steel. As his objects move, their sounds change radically, and within the slightest vibration, Lye has exposed an ocean of overtones and psycho-acoustic oddities. Notes bend and warble like the aural equivalent of sea sickness, and it's not hard to imagine the massive apparatuses that the sounds are reflecting.

In addition to their being humbling sculptures and providing sonic stimuli, Lye believes that his creations are representational. In the piece "Flip and Two Twisters," two 18-foot strips of steel represent sperm wiggling inside a hanging metal hoop, a.k.a. vulva. The sounds that emanate are written and deliberately plotted out like any traditional piece of music, and the fact that he thought of these pieces not only as kinetic sculptures but also pieces of music should help this recording stand on its own. The sounds on this disc are indeed fascinating and remarkably recorded to catch every nuance of these resonating objects. The action taking place in each sculpture is clearly audible and described very well in the liner notes, but the lack of actual visual accompaniment leaves this music somewhat empty. This is no fault of Lye's art or the recording itself, nor is it a unique problem amongst CDs that document sound installations. Seeing something well over twice the height of an average human, shaking and vibrating in the air would indeed generate much stronger reaction conceptually, aesthetically, and physically. For those interested in the artists as inventors and as historical documentation, this is a crucial archive from a fascinating artist. As music for the sake of music, it unfortunately sounds like the art book from an incredible exhibit that you didn't get to go to.

1. Blade
2. Universe
3. Roundhead
4. Trilogy
5. Big Blade
6. Grass
7. Storm
8. Stormking
9. Fountain
10. Roundhead #2
11. Witch Dance (components)
12. Bell Wand (components)
13. Sea Serpent
14. Blade #2

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