High pitched and gently pulsing, the sound came more from between the ears than outside of them. The effect was part of an aural experiment by artist Sergei Tcherepnin demonstrating ‘difference tones’. The small audience listened to his composition while being directed to cup their hands around their ears, intensifying the sound distortion created. Difference tones are emitted by the cochlea of your ear when confronted with two sounds of a certain range, a physiological distortion creating a third tone. The effect is strangely delicate but jarring.
The phenomena of listening and its subjective effects are at the centre of Tcherepnin’s practice, as seen in his exhibition ‘Body Bound Notations’ at Overduin & Co. The gallery’s front room held the opening performance described above, and was largely empty except for a corner grouping of thin brass sheets. Each one was slightly curved so as to balance on its side amongst a tangle of audio cables. The sheets were also fitted with sound transducers: small speakers that convert an audio signal into a vibration. Sound is morphed and warped when played through objects – affected by their weight, shape and density. Tcherepnin bowed and flexed the metal to create subtle shifts. The audience was allowed to join in, as he handed out the sheets to be further contorted. The changes in sound were so slight they seemed almost to be training your ear, testing its acuity.
Tcherepnin’s work revolves around the artist’s interest in psychoacoustics – the psychological and corporeal responses attributed to sound. He looks at these subjective experiences of listening in physical and social terms, digging into the ontological nature of sound as pure form or as something linguistically prescribed. Tcherepnin approaches this in a nuanced way, quite possibly as a result of his family’s rich musical history. (He is a fourth-generation composer.) Many of the sounds in the exhibition were created with the Serge Modular Synthesizer, which was invented by his uncle Serge Tcherepnin.
The second space was crowded with 14 double-sided fabric panels that hung on wooden structures resembling school chalkboards. Each of these was painted with symbols and adorned with metal forms. The metal shapes were small twisted panels or long, tongue-like rolls hanging off the fabric. Each was fitted with a sound transducer connected to an iPod on the floor, providing every panel with its own soundtrack. There were playful relationships between some of the compositions and the painted symbols, which resembled musical notes that had escaped their scores and bounced off. Also in the room were small wooden chairs placed in pairs, each with a transducer under the seat. Here, the sound pieces were transformed into a physical shaking that you could feel throughout your body, making for a strange silent duet as two people sat together. Some of the fabric panels did not have a soundtrack; the metal was just a sculptural element off-setting the jack-in-the-box cause-and-effect relationship that the term ‘interactive art’ often inspires. The most direct intention of the exhibition was to inspire viewers to listen more slowly, internally. Tcherepnin’s sound pieces are precariously ephemeral: live compositions that also use pre-recorded sound, but which reach their final form only when transmitted through the human body.
First published in Issue 172