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Sound artist Richard Chartier to perform at the Hirshhorn tonight

richard chartierRichard Chartier performs "Transparency" at the Hirshhorn tonight. (Evelina Domnitch)

By Chris Richards

Richard Chartier -- the Washington-based, world renowned sound and installation artist -- will premiere a new piece called "Transparency" at the Hirshhorn tonight. It utilizes the frequencies a 600-plus tuning-forked instrument called the Grand Tonometer -- the creation of 19th century European physicist Rudolf Koenig. Chartier discovered this fantastic machine on a basement tour of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and has since been awarded a Smithsonian Institution Artist Research Fellowship to compose a piece using the Tonometer's "perfect frequencies." We spoke with Chartier about how his recent work compares to the minimalism that first brought him to our attention in 2002.

I know a lot of people first came into contact with your work when you presented "series" in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Can you give us a crash course in what you've been up to since then?

Wow. It's been many years!

Well, take us back to 2002, then. Did you notice a change in the response to your work after the Biennial?

Well, I travel in these two different worlds where it's music versus art. The work is on CD so it's available to the public and you can get it on eMusic and iTunes and all that. So I think being selected for the Whitney Biennial and having my work displayed within that context -- it made people, perhaps, think of it differently... With "Series," a lot of it is very imperceptible compared to the standard listening experience and it's actually the most minimal work I've ever done. Having that in [the Biennial], I thought, 'Oh God! No one is going to hear it, find it, experience it.' Because it was so different from everything else in the Biennial, that year... But several of the major reviews actually listed me and said they had listened to the piece and thought it was fascinating, or whatever. People did get it. Maybe because it was so different from the other work.

Your work has grown more interesting to me since then because we've entered the iPod era where our culture has been inundated with sound. Your work has been an interesting counterpoint to that. Some of the sounds you work with are barely audible. Has your work changed in response to earbud culture?

I've always been interested in minimalism -- visual or sonic. And I've noticed that, as well. Everyone always has a cell phone attached to their heads, or headphones, or earbuds. Even if they're not on, they're still there. It's like we're constantly ready to accept sound. But what I've always wondered is, 'Are people actually listening? Or does it become background?' ... My work is pretty demanding. I don't listen to it all day long, I couldn't do that... But I think the general idea of listening isn't about focus anymore. It's about just absorbing stuff. Even if you're not hearing it or getting it.

But since "Series," it's definitely changed. It's become more active, comparatively... A lot of pieces have taken on longer structures. More drone-like pieces. Not as much silence. I'm still exploring the aspect of space between sounds, but I can't go back to remaking "Series" over and over and over again... More recently, I did a piece that just came out on an Australian label called Room 40... I did some field recordings and that was actually kind of a response to how ultra-minimal and ultra-digital "Series" was... Everything was inside the computer, so there's a sense of coldness to that work that's different from the other work.

(Chartier discovers the Grand Tonometer and more, after the jump)

Where did you do these field recordings?

Oh, wherever I would go. It had to be something I found interesting. In D.C., I recorded the Sackler at the end of the day -- it's underground and there's just an interesting resonance to it. The Hirshhorn fountain, the gravel they have on the Mall. There are a lot of interesting textures [there]. But it could be in Tokyo, at a shrine, someplace quiet. Anywhere where I found good material... It's kind of a precursor to the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship -- getting back into the natural world of sound, I guess.

And how did you win the Fellowship?

My friend Linn Meyers, who is a visual artist... We did this project at the University of Maryland where she draws on the walls and I was making sounds that actually came out of the surface, vibrated the surface... She had a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a SARF, in 2009. She was doing things on time and there are collections of time pieces and clocks at the National Museum of American history.

[Chartier explains how curator Steven Turner showed him and Meyers the Museum's vast collection of curiosities, including the National Bean Collection.]

And there were musical instruments by Rudolf Koenig... The instruments he made were to visualize, or show, how sound works. This is, like, the 1870s. At that time, the scientific community really had no interest in sound. Acoustics, that was considered physics. But sound itself was still considered a particle -- which is weird, when you think about it. So a lot of what he was doing was proving that sound was a wave and not a particle.

So these are instruments for scientific demonstration. And they would have these things called sound seances where you would come to the atelier of the instrument-maker and there would be a studio where they made them... And another space next to it for the sound seances. And then, after the sound seance, you'd walk through the gift shop where you could buy one of these things and take it home. And of course, it was for the very, very wealthy. It was a very white-gloves and top-hat kind of thing. Oh, how delightful! We must have one for our sitting room.

So then [Turner] gets to this one huge metal case and opens it. And I'm like, 'Oh my god, what is that?' He's like, 'This is the Grand Tonometer!' There are 660 -- i think it was originally 670 -- tuning forks. They're over four octaves, all handmade, meticulously crafted down to perfect frequencies. I thought, 'I have to do something with this.'

So how does it work? You strike the tuning forks yourself?

Yes, you strike them individually. And I recorded every single one of them.

How big is it?

Almost four feet wide and about four feet tall. I did a whole blog about it that has videos and sound files.

Very cool. So, I understand that you recorded these tuning forks and you've created a piece out of them called "Transparency." How long is the piece?

It's going to be 50 to 60 minutes.

And this is your first performance in Washington since 2006. How come?

There just haven't been opportunities in D.C. As a local artist people sometimes forget about you. And I've been traveling a lot to perform. But with the economic downturn, the first thing that gets cut is the arts and that's been happening everywhere. There have only been two performances this year.

Well, speaking of Washington, this is something I always wonder about artists like you who achieve global success: What keeps you in Washington?

Family. My partner. It's a very livable city. It's very easy to get anywhere from here, as far as flying. It's very international. A lot of people I know come through here. It's easy access New York.. and I have a really good base of friends and people I work with, here. And it's quiet.

By Chris Richards  | October 7, 2010; 1:43 PM ET
Categories:  Chris Richards  
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