This fall and winter 2022, I have been so grateful to be reminded of how much its possible to learn from our children and our youth when we take the time to listen with them in each moment. Whether you are a parent, a big sister or brother, a mentor, teacher, counselor or invited into a role similar to these, it’s a gift awaiting in which its possible to listen with our bodies in different ways and learn a lot from our youth and our children.
Part One of this reflection takes place during my residency with the exhibition The Whisperers by Tarek Atoui at the FLAG Art Foundation this fall 2022. During this exploration and investigation of listening, I led a sound walk music and math class for 7th and 8th graders from the Ella Baker School and the math class of mathematician Michael Paoli. Thank you to Tarek Atoui for inviting me into collaboration and to Caroline Cassidy and the FLAG Art Foundation for hosting me and for these wonderful photos.
Listening with our physical bodies
Collaborating with amazing Paris-based , Lebanese artist and composer Tarek Atoui, and dear friend, over more than the last decade has always been a deeply rich artistic and community experience for me. From an introduction and initial research into classical Arabic Tarab music and creating contemporary compositions, to drumset explorations and then electronic & acoustic music as precursors to creating instruments for multi-sensory hearing and listening, it is always tied closely to collaboration, community, and exploring perception. During this fall Tarek installed his pieces , The Whisperers, at the FLAG Art Foundation on 25th St in NY.
A description of The Whisperers exhibition can be read and seen here:
“The recipient of the 2022 Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize, Paris-based artist and composer Tarek Atoui will present a reconfigured and expanded version of The Whisperers (recently on view at The Contemporary Austin) that includes two new sculptural components and a roster of collaborators unique to this presentation, including sound artists Jad Atoui, Susie Ibarra, and Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe. Over a two-month span, collaborators will use the exhibition as a site for experimentation and regularly interact with the installation through improvisational activations, community-based workshops, and performances”
“The Whisperers” began during the pandemic as a series of workshops Atoui conducted with his son’s kindergarten class in Paris. “[…]Instead of shifting my practice to the net and making it virtual,” states Atoui, “I started to think, what audiences are still available in the context of lockdown.” Working with four and five-year-old students, the artist found ways to generate collective discoveries through four exploratory questions: How can we amplify spaces by using speakers and microphones immersed in solids, liquids, and gasses? How can we create non-repetitive sounds using objects that rotate or spin? How can we use our bodies to articulate sounds through gestures and performance? How can we translate sounds into sources of motion and energy? “These sessions brought me back to the basics of my practice and made me reconsider elementary things: how I work with speakers, how I work with microphones, with rotation and turntables and records, with sound in air, sound in water, sound in metal, etc.” -FLAG Art Foundation
As an invited artist and collaborator in residence for this fall 2022, I had the time to step into the sonic landscapes of these beautiful sound sculptures and both play and listen to each of them in formats of solid, liquid and gasses, and with materials combining wood, brass, water, bronze, glass, and stone. After spending sometime listening and exploring these whispering sounds, I had heard from FLAG Art Foundation that middle school math teacher from Ella Baker School, Michael Paoli, who was also a listener to my music, had reached to FLAG to ask if it were possible to bring a field trip in and to collaborate with me in a class. I was happy to hear this and we decided that I would create this collaborative workshop with Michael of a soundwalk through Tarek’s work as a special music and math class at The Whisperers for a community workshop.
On Dec 9th on a Tuesday morning Michael brought in a dozen 7th and 8th grade students into the FLAG Art Foundation to meet me for a morning workshop, a soundwalk through the pieces in The Whisperers.
I chose several of Tarek's pieces to walk them through . One titled, Totem, is an exquisite bronze bowl on top of a drum cymbal which is placed on top of stone. Inside the bowl is water with a hydrophone which is connected to a small amplifier.
At first I introduced the concept of a soundwalk through landscapes of objects. I asked them what they thought about listening as a tool and how does it help them? What are the ways that they are able to listen with their bodies and how does it make them feel , what does it make them think about? Michael had them bring charts that were mood meters. So their mood experiences in each of the parts of the soundwalk could be measured as a type of mood which floated on a chart with an x / y axis.
The students listened and responded in many different ways. A couple of them listened through sketching while I was talking. Another student needed to interact with each sentence and have a contradicting sentence enter, engage and provoke dissonance. Other students wanted to expand on the question answer format and ask additional questions. Other students eagerly awaited to be called upon to be the ones to demonstrate listening and playing at the sculpture.
They also had different reactions to sound depending on the materials that were being used. I asked two at a time to stand with me at the Totem. I asked if they were comfortable to place their hands in the water. A third student I passed a small device Tarek named the Piezothing, which had a contact mic and transducer built in. I asked them to play the cymbal with the Piezothing. I began to play the Bronze bowl on the outside and then to play a gong dipped into the water. The students said I can feel it in the water. They were listening with their hands. What does sound feel like when we allow our body to listen to it in different ways? How is sound moving in water as opposed to moving in air? How is it moving through metal – bronze and also stone?
What happens when we allow ourselves to listen with our bodies?
These kids were not inhibited. They had easy access to be able to throw to the side their known notions of listening with our ears, and let their bodies listen to sound through multiple sensory experiences in multiple sounds.
e moved onto a beautiful piece titled Infinite Ballet which had a constant slow revolving cymbal in which a long gold chain that hung from the ceiling slowly rotated around the circle. This was connected to an architectural metal beam that ran from a corner speaker to the Infinite Ballet. This piece was connected to be listened quietly in headphones for one person. I proceeded to play a concert for one , one at a time on the cymbal of the Infinite Ballet.
One by one each student came to receive the performance. It became an uninhibited moment where each student, even the very quiet and shy students would share what they were listening to and describe what it felt, sound and looked like in their head. One student heard whales, one student heard a cello, another student heard birds, another student danced and head bopped nonstop to the rhythms. One student was focused on metal, another student focused on drones, another on vibration. Another student listened while sketching everything at the same time.
Next stop was a sound sculpture titled Home. Intricately found in the water in a stone trough. Above this hung a dropper for water that fell onto a small bronze plate attached to a hydrophone or underwater mic. When water poured onto a precise place of this plate and hydrophone, it triggered ( through a cord of the hydrophone/underwater mic)a subwoofer base. The kids were SO intrigued . This definitely had writing for their mood meter charts and they dripped water after water with Foundation curator Caroline Cassidy, to explore the low end magic it triggered on the other side of the large room.This sound brought laughter. It brought smiles. It brought a motion through the class that made them all move and stir. It brought excitement. It brought wonder.
We moved to the upstairs area of the exhibition into a room which was titled Underwater Birds. This room was much smaller and minimalistic. It had two pieces for sound sculptures, a stone trough with underwater plants growing an underwater speaker and hydrophone with a speaker playing recorded composition into the water. Another trough also titled Home which also connected to a subwoofer for sound. In this room I asked each of the students to sit around with me at either of the two stations. I distributed small percussion instruments and invited them into making musical sounds with their agency of choice in areas and its own limitations of how many sounds.It was incredible to hear how each of the students listened. The really quiet ones grouped with others and played rhythms together. A rambunctious student suddenly quieted down and was full attention in performance when invited to play an instrument next to me. Another student was quiet and fully engaged actively performing music in the water and listening to others around her. When would they start when would they end? Most all the students could make the connection intuitively that it was important to connect with each other and to also have self agency in their creative choices. Both physical and intuitive, the sounds found their way around the students and the students made their choices on how to deliver them.
When we completed our piece in the Underwater Birds room. We smiled and clapped for each other. People were relaxed, comfortable around each other. We thanked each other. I particularly loved that small exhibition room, as the way the sounds, composition, and sculptures are set up , the aesthetics, materials, -- it all made me very nostalgic for the beautiful heart of Beirut that I had experienced before. I was happy to bring the class into this room as part of the sound walk to create music within these sound sculptures.
It was really wonderful to listen , investigate and discuss sound heard with our bodies with these students and to hear and see how they investigated this. Lessons and reminders that connection in our bodies to how sound moves , is received, where it lands , its pockets, its rhythms, its melodies, its dissonance, the uncomfortableness, the awkwardness and the light joy too does not have to be overthought, or received in a known or set way. How we connect to each other in sound is also phenomenon like motion, which allows us to synchronize, as well as pull way , associate and be soloist. It is so important not to lose these innate qualities in our bodies, these ways of listening just because we learn about what listening is or can be, as we grow up. - Susie Ibarra