Richard Chartier: Transparency (Performance)

Richard Chartier's work is always distinguished by originality and imagination (his 2004 Chessmachine collaboration with Ivan Pavlov remains one of my favourites), and Transparency (Performance) is no different in that regard. In this case the Line overseer was awarded in 2010 a Smithsonian Institution Artist Research Fellowship with the express purpose of exploring the National Museum of American History's collection of 19th-century acoustic apparatus for scientific demonstration. So what did Chartier choose to study? The Grand Tonometer, an apparatus consisting of 692 tuning forks that German physicist Rudolf Koenig created in the 1870s (a photographic detail of the instrument is shown on the cover of the CD package). With pitches spanning four octaves, the instrument offered irresistible appeal to someone as sound-sensitive as Chartier, and during the Fellowship period he subsequently recorded every one of the tuning forks, plus other materials (including metal and wooden resonators and wood organ pipes) and their tonal interactions.

The resultant work, Transparency, which Chartier premiered in a live performance on October 7, 2010 at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, shows Koenig and Chartier to be kindred spirits despite the temporal gap separating them. The tuning fork tones thread their way seamlessly into the overall design of the piece, with the tones forming extended cross-currents that resound alongside a stream of textural details (rustlings, static, hiss, whirrs, electrical hum) and myriad sound fragments. The work opens with the bright, resonant ping of a tuning fork, followed by further strikes of varying volume and pitch, as well as other treated sounds. Truncated trumpet-like stutter and tuning fork accents appear against a soft background flutter, making the piece sound more like the onstage improvisation of an electroacoustic trio than the work of a single individual. The tuning fork tones are given ample space to breathe and as a result we typically hear one struck and then fade away before another takes its place. Chartier scatters tiny fragments of fairy dust across the tones, until two-thirds of the way along it mutates into a rather becalmed, industrial-styled hum that's suggestive of a machine engine or film projector quietly operating.

As the hour-long piece unfolds, it shows itself to be quintessential Chartier in its delicacy and precision. Hewing to generally restrained volume levels, it's not quite microsound but hardly a work of extreme volume either. With the sound design constantly undergoing subtle transformation, it's not quite minimal either, yet at the same time the sound palette always locates itself on the understated side of things. No fool he, the ever-resourceful Chartier is issuing Transparency (Performance) as the first in what is planned to be a series of works based on recordings made during the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship period.

May 2011