The audience lies across the floor. Students raise their hands and from the subwoofers new vibrations shake the Hearst Mining Building. This is not your average concert. This is “Submerge,” a composition by BCNM undergraduate Andrew Frankel, performed as part of sound artist Tarek Atoui’s BAM/PFA Matrix program at UC Berkeley.
While Andrew was born into a musical family, he did not grow up playing with electronic instruments and computer programs. Rather, he began your traditional piano lessons — at three. And when learning piano failed and he was forced to find a new instrument, he moved forward with violin. Five violin teachers later (the last one quit), Andrew realized that he loved music, but hated the way it was taught. So he coached himself not only on the piano, but a variety of stringed instruments, and even briefly formed a family band, The Slaughterhouse Five. It was only later at Cal that Andrew began playing with sound editing software and found a new passion for pushing the boundaries of sound to create full-body experiences.
This interest in decomposing and recomposing sound led Frankel to form the “Right Brained Music” decal. Andrew taught music theory through chord structure and performance techniques to a group of students with a range of musical backgrounds. In an effort to de-familiarize students with music so they could truly improvise, he encouraged the class to use unconventional instruments like the human body, or to use conventional instruments in new ways, culminating in an improvised performance.
So when Andrew met BCNM director Greg Niemeyer at a BCNM conference and found out that Greg was teaching a course with sound artist Tarek Atoui, he knew he had to be involved. Andrew was inspired by Atoui’s work with deaf musicians and wanted to contribute to the performance at Cal.
Andrew collaborated on “Submerge,” which utilizes hand motion sensors attached to large subwoofers that turn hand motions from musicians into low frequency sounds. The project involved both the close coordination among the musicians in the space and the careful calibration of the instruments themselves to the acoustics of the building. The piece uses graphic notation, such as geometric shapes and color patterns, to suggest certain hand motions and coordination. Graphic notation is a time agnostic format which allows interpreters to adjust the performance to the right timing for the audience and mood. “Submerge” was difficult piece to rehearse, as the instrument was still being developed during the rehearsal phase — Andrew played the didgeridoo during preparation to simulate the performance soundscape!
“Submerge” was part of a larger performance set led by Atoui which challenged conventional notions of audition and audience interaction. Audience member had to ‘listen’ to vibrations through their body and were part of manipulating sound output with interactive sound-making devices. “Submerge” and other pieces involved breaking down sound and musical performance for both the hearing and non-hearing through vibration.
Frankel hopes to take this boundary-pushing approach into his future work and credits BCNM through the undergraduate certificate program with giving him access to software, equipment, and guidance that allowed him to overcome the technical challenges in his performance. Frankel hopes to find more opportunities to re-introduce people to sound, music, and musicality in the future.