Great art is a universal language. Musical and visual art forms in particular have been historically praised for their ability to communicate messages across linguistic, social, and cultural lines. This is partly because visual and musical art are able to invoke certain emotions in their viewers without the use of verbal language. If such art forms are able to transcend linguistic boundaries in conveying their messages, is it also possible to translate these messages across varying art mediums? Just as one would translate a sentence written in Spanish into French, is it possible to translate a drawing into music?
French sound artist Sébastien Roux has attempted to answer this question. Roux works with translation principles by using pre-existing visual, musical, and literary artworks as the basis for his new ‘radiophonic’ or electro-acoustic works. Roux was first inspired to work with the process of translation in 2010 after experiencing Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings in New York. LeWitt’s wall drawings were not physically created by him, but by a team of craftspeople who executed a series of his instructions. The simplicity of their geometric shapes as well as the manner in which these pieces were made impressed Roux. In them he saw an inherent musicality, and consequently he sought a system of translation to make LeWitt’s wall drawings listenable. His artistic process today involves translating visual and literary art forms, which he ‘listens’ to, into music.
Friday night, one of Roux’s concerts titled Inevitable Music was presented as part of the Pre-AKOUSMA arts festival at the Eastern Bloc Gallery. Since his pieces are meant to be listened to collectively, Roux invited the audience to get comfortable on several large leather couches while facing a line of eight industry-sized speakers. The concert presented a series of sound pieces based on LeWitt’s drawings and their instructions. There was no visual component. Aside from when Roux timidly slunk to the front of the room to press the play button on his laptop, we did not see much of the artist.
Roux imitated LeWitt’s style of presenting his art pieces alongside their instructions by having a pre-recorded voice introduce the title of each sound piece, along with a concise explanation of how each sound component was made and used. Roux presented a series of 13 short works that lasted from ten seconds to ten minutes. His first piece was titled “Inevitable Music Numéro 1” and consisted of several sound components including “quatre kilohertz descendent” or four descending kilohertz. This piece was reminiscent of sounds one would hear while at an airport landing terminal, and evoked the feeling of having water stuck in one’s ear while clenching your jaw in an effort to pop it. “Inevitable Music Numéro 2” sounded like moaning teakettles and “Inevitable Music Numéro 9,” superimposed on “Inevitable Music Numéro 10,” sounded like a Jedi light-saber fight scene played backwards.
Given that images of everything from teakettles to light sabers lit up my imagination, Roux seemed to be successful in making me ‘see’ through my ears. However, my mind’s eye interpreted the sounds differently than that of my friend’s sitting beside me. Roux’s electro-acoustic pieces were extremely evocative and they painted a different picture for each viewer.