Curators Hays Holladay, Cynthia Connolly, and Ryan Holladay
Curators Hays Holladay, Cynthia Connolly, and Ryan Holladay

In musical notation, a fermata is a symbol used to indicate when a note or rest should be sustained. It’s usually used over rest notes to indicate a grand pause. That’s not the imagery that most curators try to summon with summer exhibits.

But “Fermata,” an ambitious new exhibit on view through August 10 at Artisphere, aims to sustain your attention. The show presents a series of audio pieces by nearly 30 artists via a massive wall covered in more than 80 speakers. Influential sound artists like Alvin Lucier, electronic music pioneers like Ryuichi Sakamoto (of Yellow Music Orchestra), hometown heroes like Ian MacKaye and Don Zientara, and contemporary, adventurous producers like up-and-comer Forest Swords and Beauty Pill (the D.C.-based band helmed by Chad Clark) stretch the exhibition’s scope as wide as its impressive physical presence. The geographic space between the composers alone spans across the globe—to Japan, America, England, and New Zealand. Artisphere offers large, cozy beanbags and couches to sit on while enjoying the pieces, softening the potentially intimidating wide-open gallery space.

“Fermata” will unfold over the course of the summer in three multipiece, multiweek movements, each a little more than an hour long. Visual arts critic Kriston Capps and music critic Ryan Little visited Artisphere for a preview of 10 consecutive pieces over the course of about 90 minutes. Here, they sound off on the auditory and visual elements of the installation.

Capps: One of my first impressions from “Fermata” took shape before the music started playing. The format for the space is unlike other visual-art venues where I’ve seen new music. In a word, it’s comfortable. I’ll give you a comparison: Several years back, I attended a performance of a Richard Chartier recording at G Fine Art. At that gallery, listeners sat in straight-backed chairs, the way they might sit to hear a lecture. That seemed fitting to me for the music: listeners’ butts in chairs on a grid, no one talking or moving. Sometimes, with new-music installations, it almost seems like the listeners shouldn’t be in the room at all—no one talking or moving or even breathing.

But at Artisphere, the curators set out ginormous beanbag chairs—more like beanbag chaise lounges, actually. The installation was inviting. It welcomes in all these slouching things we all do yet all complain about at concerts. I read my phone for a while. Maybe it’s just the fact that the artist’s not present in the room, but it seems like a space where no one would snap at you for checking your phone. Thank you, Ryan, for not snapping at me for checking my phone.

Did you get that sense? Do you think that comfort and ease is a quality that curators Ryan and Hays Holladay and Cynthia Connolly are cultivating in this exhibit?

Little: Definitely. The couches and beanbag chairs make an otherwise intimidating space far more approachable. That’s particularly important in an exhibition that occupies such an unusual space in the art world, figuratively speaking—sound installations aren’t exactly new, but featuring so many atypical works in one installation could quickly becoming tiring or overwhelming without creature comforts. Simply because of their infrequency, I’d guess sound installations are unfamiliar to most gallery patrons; a gentle-handed welcome goes a long way.

That element of invitation, of offering an access point that doesn’t require a deep knowledge of art history, was very present in the content as well. That’s not to say it was all easily digestible. Some of the pieces—like the nature-focused “Buoyant” by Annea Lockwood—were as playful as a 1960s sound collage, works like Chartier’s subtly detailed “Recurrence (Fermata Variation)” were as serious as the most high-minded musique concrète, and a few were really pleasantly melodic. I particularly enjoyed the cinematic swells of “Mélodrames Télégraphiés (In B Major 7th)” by Brian McBride of Stars of the Lid; it used four of the 14 channels in a way that felt like overlapping towers of cautiously hopeful strings, sweeping sounds illuminating a weathered landscape like a lighthouse after a terrible storm.

Perhaps most importantly, I was rarely bored. Even the more subtle, discordant pieces generally kept my attention, though I should note that Chartier’s work seriously irritated my chronic tinnitus. I got the impression that anyone with a sense of adventure or curiosity (and a working set of ears) should be able to appreciate the installation on some level. And, if nothing else, having so many speakers on a wall is a novel sight.

When you checked your phone, was it because you were losing interest? Or were you comfortably immersed in the installation?

Capps: I check my phone because I am its slave. But I appreciate that this show admits the possibility that an immersive experience isn’t necessarily a lonely or minimal one. Maybe a lot of weird-music fans and artists will disagree that this approach is the right one, but it’s something that distinguishes this exhibit from a concert or a listening party. “Fermata” has different social politics than the white cube or the Kennedy Center.

It’s not ideally suited to checking Instagram; that seems like a wasted opportunity. I could see myself sitting down with some weird or difficult literature to look for a kind of synaesthetic experience. Many people, maybe most people, put on music in the background while they read. I could see bringing a certain kind of book (maybe David Markson or Harry Mathews) to read, where the book is the background activity while I’m focusing on the music.

Some of the field recordings bored me. That’s a genre that might be too journalistic for my tastes, although I could listen to the Jez riley French piece, these insane recordings from contact mics on teleferica (aerial cable car) wires, for hours. For some of those works, I think I might enjoy it better paired with another activity. I could listen very closely to even a tedious field recording if I were also playing chess. I appreciate that Artisphere has decided quite clearly to create a permissive atmosphere around the show. I appreciate a politics of art that invests a lot of authority in the viewer or reader or listener.

You mentioned the speakers. This was one part that didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t see the relation of all the speakers—there were, what, 80? some working, some not?—to the rest of the show. How do you feel about them?

Little: It’s funny; I think the Jez riley French piece was the only one that felt too long to me. It was an amazing find—insects organically creating King Tubby–style dub by running into wires—but I lost interest after five or six minutes.

It’s hard for me to imagine the piece without the speakers—I mean, essentially, they are the piece. The artists were asked to adapt or create works that would utilize this particular, peculiar sound system. There were 44 working speakers, almost as many nonworking ones, and up to 14 separate channels (where stereo is two channels, left and right, “Fermata” offered the artists a rare chance to spread out their work into as many as 14 distinct channels: 12 through the speakers mounted to the wall, and two through the subwoofers on either side).

Even apart from the multichannel nature of the works, each speaker contributes something different to the room’s sound: It offers its own resonant frequencies, its own subtle tonal characteristics, forming a unique sonic palette when taken together. The room itself is a bit cavernous, but sitting directly in front of the speaker wall feels like a pretty direct shot of audio. Maybe I was just hyperfocused on the sounds, but I didn’t notice any particularly distracting echoes or reverberations from the actual space.

My theory about the nonworking speakers, by the way, is that once the 44 working ones were properly set up, the wall would’ve seemed a bit sparse in the wide-open space. The nonworking ones fill in the gaps and maintain the aesthetic of a literal wall of speakers.

Capps: As sculptural objects, the speakers don’t work for me. There are not enough of them to dominate the space. I appreciate that function is a constraint. And, you know, another approach might’ve been to just go with function, to install as many speakers as the works required—something a bit more straight and formal. As it is, the sculpture wall looks to me like a half-measure. It reminds me a little of that old commercial for Maxell tapes—the guy, sitting in the recliner, listening to Wagner, being blown away by the physical force of the sound.

Little: Maybe that’s why I appreciated it—I love that Maxell commercial! I’m also fascinated by how the vessel shapes the content and sets up the context. With this exhibition in particular, a wall of speakers makes quite clear what the focus is. It’s not some discrete element of a broader piece, and it’s not simply an audible extension of a visual piece: Sound itself is the art. Whether you’re envisioning the specific Tower Bridge’s Machine Room that powers the London Sound Survey’s recording or simply contemplating the abstract, manipulated vocalizations in Forest Swords’ “Gathering,” the art on display is the sound itself, and the speakers testify to that.

Learn more about the making of “Fermata” and listen to samples here.