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Richard Chartier composes with silence. But after the news he got on Oct. 1, he had a hell of a time keeping quiet: The minimalist composer had been chosen for inclusion in the 2002 Whitney Biennial Exhibition.
“I got a call from the director of the Whitney,” says Chartier over drinks in a noisy Clarendon bar. “But, of course, there was the stipulation that I couldn’t say anything for the next two months. I asked, ‘Can I call
Chartier had to resort to heavy-handed hints to friends about “big news” in his future, an experience he likens to hiding a pregnancy. “I had to sign an agreement of nondisclosure,” he says. “It was very trying.”
The Biennial, which will feature the work of 113 artists and collaborative teams, will run from March 7 to May 26, 2002, in and near New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Three excerpts from Chartier’s composition Series will be presented at headphone listening stations in a quiet roomor as quiet as the foot traffic through the mother of all modern-art showcases will allow.
Chartier, who lives and works in Arlington, gained the attention of Debra Singer, the Whitney’s associate curator of contemporary art, who had the job of selecting performance and sound artists for the upcoming exhibition. Although sound had been a component of the Biennial in previous years, 2002 marks the first time in which sound art is a separate category.
Chartier, 30, creates very high- or very low-frequency electronic sounds that are often difficult to perceive consciously. While listening to the Series CD, released on Chartier’s LINE label in 2000, I frequently removed my headphones to check their wiresor to determine if what I was hearing was actually coming from the Dulles flight path or from my 20-year-old refrigerator. I hesitantly admit to Chartier that, while playing Series, I heardwell, possibly, nothing?
“In Series, there are definite periods of silence between sounds,” Chartier explains patiently. (My notes indicate a faint “twizz,” rather like a cat’s snore, five-and-a-half minutes in.) The silences and their subtle interruptions, he says, create a pattern: “A lot of times, when you’re listening to repetitive patterns, you’ll start to hear different patterns within them. It’s the same pattern, but you perceive it differently as you expect the repetition of the sound.”
Nothing so profound happened to me, I confess, but I was aware of, and fascinated by, the experience of listening so actively. Chartier says that my reaction isn’t unusual: “I’ve gotten a lot of e-mails from people who say that [my work] concentrates their attention.” (For a less minimalist sonic experience, Chartier suggests a visit to Adams Morgan’s Blue Room, where he hosts and DJs the electronic-music and video program Filler on Sunday nights.)
Chartier creates and mixes his sounds on a computer and puts the resultant compositions on CD. “The sounds never enter the analog world,” he says. “Because of the technology, I’ve been able to use silence as a compositional tool.” His silences are particularly pure; he notes that even John Cage, in recordings of his seminal 4’33”, had tape hiss as a component of his minutes of silence.
As an artist who has alternated between audio and visual media, Chartier is conscious of, and indebted to, his own synesthesia. He says that he “sees” his sound work, as wave patterns on his level monitors and as kin of the paintings of Agnes Martin and the sculpture of Donald Judd. “With a painting, most often one adds medium. With sound, I’m taking away layers of the mediuma process of reduction,” Chartier says. “Even with one of my more minimalist visual works, I would add more medium to efface details, but that’s still an additive process.”
Ask Chartier about the software and other materials that he uses to makeor removesound, and he pleads the right to remain silent. “I want to see the rabbit come out of the hat,” he says. “I don’t want to see the person pushing the rabbit out of the hole in the hat.” —Pamela Murray Winters