Florian Hecker “MIT Project”

Music to Challenge
and Entertain the Senses

Nélida Nassar  01.16.2012

The Goethe Institute in Boston has fostered and been at the forefront of contemporary, experimental music performances in the last few years. In partnership with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the academic institution par excellence that promotes innovation in Art and Technology, the Goethe Institute offers an artist in residency grant.  This year’s laureate selected by both institutions is none other than the German born artist, Florian Hecker.

For the last fifteen years, the visual arts have exploited the experimentation in light
through computers and lighting innovation. The last decade has seen an increasing interest in the art of sound that preoccupies numerous artists yearning to include sound
in their visual expression.

Sonic information is stronger and more irritating than visual modes. How do we deal with what we hear visually? Is the circulation of material in sound different? Most of the local cutting edge performances merging the two disciplines of visual and sound arts
recently occurred at the MIT Bartos Center on the inception of the Art, Culture and Technology Program.

Two tributes commemorating electro-acoustic pioneer Maryanne Amacher featured her work and the music of several American and international artists, such as Jana Winderen and Marina Rosenfeld.

Mr. Hecker, who uses electro-acoustic music amongst his artistic expression, has spent eight fruitful weeks in Cambridge. During his residency he has created a piece of music titled, “Chimerization.” This live performance was presented at the completion of the residency, at MIT Chapel, in front of  a select group of artists, literati, musicians admitted by invitation only. Florian’s piece is a chimera made of hybrid sounds, delightful to the ear yet, at the same time, surprising and somehow unsettling.

In Greek mythology, the chimera was an awesome fire-breathing monster with the head of a lioness, the body of a she-goat, and the tail of a serpent. The chimera is only one of several famous mythological hybrids. While the subject of chimera is minor in literature, it is popular in ancient art, and is featured in many depictions of epic scale. It is also prevalent in pop culture and is often used in television shows and in science.

Thus, the chimera represents the most dangerous challenges that the human imagination can conjure, taking those attributes to develop a new creation that is more difficult
to overcome. The role of such challenges is to use bravery and strength in order to
achieve victory.

Florian Hecker is undoubtedly daring. His primary interest is in sound and music as well as the interplay between acoustics, software development, composing and the different circulation of material in sound. For Chimerization he has set to overcome the obstacles and to simultaneously hybridize many disciplines – philosophy, typography, music, technology, science and more. Hecker acknowledges that ninety percent of his piece relies on independent programming. The MIT Chapel’s live performance was conceived using various softwares, where chimera, consciousness and grades of music merge together.

Selecting philosopher Reza Negarestani’s libretto as the matrix and ground structure for his piece, he translated the animal trilogy that forms the chimera into music by isolating these specific auditory events in their singularity. He engulfed the listener in the sounds of hissing, roaring and bleating by thus stretching the boundaries of their materialization.  Iannis Xanakis is a clear influence on his piece.

The music software he used was developed at MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics, Sensory Communications Group by Jayaganesh Swaminathan. The performance was initially made in an anechoic chamber used for recording and listening experiments. The unusually silent chamber is made of double-box concrete construction where the inner-box is placed on a rubber suspension insulating the room against noise and vibrations
from all surroundings.

The walls and ceiling are covered with absorbing wedges while the floor is steel grid. Four readers, two women and two men – Joan Jonas, Annea Kohler, Javier Anguera and Stephen Prina, ­recited the text. The chamber affected each one of them differently because their respective spatial sense was altered with no reflection of the sound and a non-special orientation that they can hear or relate to.

The typography-translation part, still in its investigational phase, used a system that involves many program stages. Amongst them, Donald Knuth’s Metafont focuses on
the typology and formation of a letter, the space of a particular letter versus a
programmed typeface.

Additional experimentation was done with the Sift Flow program that specializes in image alignment, registration and correspondence and which are central topics in computer vision, image stitching and stereo matching. Albert Bergman’s research on understanding how the brain organizes a jumble of sound into experiences can also be discerned in the piece, with its half-intuitive, half-methodological approach.

Considering the project complexities, Florian had the acumen, foresight and skill to surround himself with a roster of prominent faculty members from different departments at MIT and Harvard.  Deserving of individual mention are: Javier Phipps Anguera, ACT research Fellow; Ute Meta Bauer, ACT Director and Associate Professor; Louis Braide, Henry Ellis Warren Professor of Electric Engineering Health Sciences Technology; Bertrand Delgutte, Professor of Oncology and Largyngology and Health Sciences and Technology, Harvard Medical School; Joan Jonas, ACT Professor; Annea Kohle, Harvard Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology; Stephan Helmreich, Professor, MIT Anthropology; Reza Negarestani, Philosopher; Laurel Pardue of the Media Lab’s Responsive Environments Research Group; Stephen Prina, Professor at Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies; Charlotte Read, Senior Research Scientist, MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics; Meg Rotzel Producer of Artists Residencies and Public Programs MIT. With these partners, Hecker not only gave his project gravitas but legitimacy. He also unveiled a glimpse at today’s experimental art world, the effort it entails and the shared richness inherent to project collaboration.

Following Saturday’s performance, several spectators asked why the listener could not hear distinctly the philosopher Reza Negarestani’s words, as it is the core of the piece and one of its pillars.

Hecker’s trajectory encompasses the scientific, artistic and technological domains, in all their diversity, evolutions and mutations.  In a previous piece, “Speculative Solution,” he created a dramatization of the French philosopher Meillassoux’s concept of “hyperchaos.” Via the multiplicity of interactions thus generated, he gives rise to offset epistemological and aesthetic tensions.

Hecker takes something out of its context, reassembles it by deconstructing then reconstructing it, thus making it more visible in its re-construction. In learning to
hear and detect methodologies, fusing knowledge from different disciplines, Hecker’s
piece leaves us with a cornucopia of mixed metaphors and a yearning to probe and understand more.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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