Tcherepnin and Sullender probe social dynamics with noise

Live music is the great unifier. Whether it’s Madonna singing “music makes the people come together,” or John Cage describing a composition by Lou Harrison (“Listening to it, we become an ocean”), the common denominator of concerts both lowbrow and high is the promise of becoming part of something bigger than yourself.

Composer Sergei Tcherepnin (pictured) collaborated with artist Woody Sullender on what Sullender calls a “structural gesture at looking at music as a verb.” Sullender is best known for his experimental banjo performances, which explore the identity politics of playing the instrument.

Of course, for every mosh pit there’s a back row full of people who aren’t as enamored with the ego-dissolving experience of joining a crowd. Some of us are born active audience members, and some have audience participation thrust upon us. Last week at The Bridge/PAI, I fell into the latter category, when Sergei Tcherepnin handed me a jury-rigged electronic soundbox in the middle of an experimental performance with fellow Brooklyn-based artist Woody Sullender. 

In a press release, Tcherepnin and Sullender described their show—which had its first performance at Solloway Gallery in Brooklyn on November 4 before being brought to town by UVA PhD students Kevin Davis and Chris Peck—as a means of “considering music not only as content but also as social activity,” through constructing “a site for listening, touching, and direct engagement with sonic material. As objects and bodies are reorganized in space, musical and physical structures emerge and disappear.” Heady stuff, and though the duo began its show with no introduction save for a suggestion that we move our chairs from the middle of the room, the “objects,” it soon became clear, were a number of speakers embedded in cardboard boxes, fed by an analogue synthesizer (the Serge Modular Music System, which was developed by Tcherepnin’s father, American composer Serge Tcherepnin). 

The “bodies” reorganizing in space would be ours, as we slowly followed the duo’s lead, arranging the speakers into stacks, opening and closing their cardboard shells to vary the levels of the droning, sonic wind that bellowed from each. When first handed one, I glanced around at my fellow attendees, milling about in the dimmed space of the Bridge, and held it up to my ear like a conch shell, listening to waves of synthesized violins build and crash.

Tcherepnin and Sullender flitted about purposefully, adjusting levels on a laptop, building and balancing box forts, occasionally leaning flattened boxes against stationary attendees. The pair worked almost reverently, stopping every so often to give one of us a nod for holding a box or keeping a stack from falling over. Eventually, a tangible beat rose up from the sonic wind, and we found ourselves standing around a mountain of cardboard boxes that was belting out a techno remix of “Siberian Knights” by Electro 22.

Sullender, when pressed, assured me that he wasn’t very interested in “getting didactic” about an experimental piece in its infancy, but called the performance a “structural gesture at looking at music as a verb.” If Sullender and Tcherepnin’s piece was a single verb, it could be one as schmaltzy and feel-good as “cooperate,” but nonetheless the effect was powerful: abstract art inspiring tactile, human gestures of group synergy. The techno continued when the lights went up, and the piece didn’t technically end until the conversation died, which was undoubtedly a ploy to keep us from feeling the need to applaud. If none of us thought to, it’s because we didn’t feel like an audience.

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