Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts, a sprawling country estate, is known for its outdoor classical and opera offerings—befitting the quiet Westchester town in which it’s located. Though Katonah, NY is just over an hour’s drive from the city, the 90-acre estate transports visitors to another world and time. The grounds are filled with towering trees and open lawns prime for picnicking, and the performance venues are one-of-a-kind: from the Venetian Theater that seats 1,700 to the Music Room filled with Renaissance furniture, Gothic tapestries and probably a ghost or two.
This summer, Caramoor will expand its traditional program and appeal to a broader demographic by hosting “In the Garden of Sonic Delights” (a nod to Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”). There, newly commissioned sound artworks from the likes of Laurie Anderson to Francisco López will live among the nooks and crannies of the gardens.
“We’ve been sort of talking about this project since 2008—a long time ago,” curator and contributor Stephan Moore tells CH. “They wanted to find a way to bring a new audience here and bring people out to the gardens to see these beautiful spots.” Moore (who’s worked with Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Animal Collective) brought together a diverse roster of fellow sound artists who add validity to the field of sound art—a medium still marginalized by the contemporary art world. “We got everybody out here in the summer of 2013; artists picked their sites and they had all year to build their piece.” The result is a collection of new works that you’ll most likely never be able to experience outside of Caramoor in the future, due to their site-specific nature.
For example, Moore chose the Sense Circle fountain at Caramoor for his piece “Diacousticon.” Robotic slide whistles installed around the fountain are programmed to self-tune and match the pitches picked up through microphones, whether it’s an airplane flying overhead or a murmured conversation. The mysterious allure of sustained musical breaths is interrupted by the mechanic whirring of the whistles in constant adjustment, which, if you closed your eyes, could be mistaken for a security camera turning its head. Upon closer inspection, the whistles have been carefully positioned at an all-too-familiar angle.
Moore describes that feeling as “security cameras, guns, gas masks, all kinds of ominous, military references that come up visually. [Especially] after NSA spy revelations and after Edward Snowden, I think we all think of cameras, microphones, etc. from a different level—not so innocent anymore.”
He has set up a situation that leaves people feeling not defensive and outraged, but surprisingly ambivalent. “On the one hand, it’s flutes, it’s pretty! On the other hand, it looks like a weapon that’s shooting someone,” chuckles Moore. And the view of the bucolic garden from the fountain, lush with plants and greenery, promises there’s absolutely nothing to be concerned about—even if “Diacousticon” is a listening device that is learning about its surroundings.
The crowd favorite at Caramoor is no doubt Trimpin’s The Pianohouse, which is exactly what it sounds like: a house made from six upright pianos. Ring the doorbell and it plays itself—though instead of traditional piano notes, music is created from hammers beating, strings being plucked and banged, even a saw slicing through the roof. This technological feat also has two partners: nature and time. “The whole idea is every time it gets rained on, it changes and disintegrates and will slowly stop working,” says Moore. “Gradually everything is falling out of tune; he sees it as a continuum of the piece’s life.” What The Pianohouse sang last weekend will sound completely different in November, after the weather takes its toll.
Patience is rewarded here at Caramoor; the longer listeners sit and linger, the more a piece reveals itself and warms up to the curious. This is especially true of Suzanne Thorpe’s two-speaker set-up in the Spanish Courtyard, called “Listening Is As Listening Does.” The artwork simulates the principles of echolocation—used by bats and dolphins to navigate—and interacts with sounds it “hears” in real-time. Scott Smallwood’s “Coronium 3500 (Lucie’s Halo)” is another piece that changes throughout the day, as the sound-making devices (each with different sensitivities) are dependent upon the sun to come alive.
At Caramoor, cicadas and birds and squeals from children share the same stage as beeps and growls and ambient loops; whether sound art or nature stands as the leading player is entirely for the listener to decide. Hours whizz by as there’s plenty to see and hear, and because each piece invites you to sit down and stay a while.
Caramoor itself is especially sweet for first-time visitors though; part of the magic is getting lost and not knowing where the next sound artwork hides. For once, Google Maps can’t provide the answer.
“In the Garden of Sonic Delights” is on view until 2 November 2014 from Thursday to Sunday (10AM-3PM) —we recommend packing along a picnic. One-day tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students and free for children; Caramoor is located at 149 Girdle Ridge Road, Katonah, NY 10536. Be sure to check out the rest of the exhibition which extends to five partner organizations throughout Westchester county.
Images by Nara Shin