Zimoun and Jim Haynes at Swissnex

In mid-January, I had the opportunity to see a performance by Swiss artist and instrument-maker Zimoun and local artist Jim Haynes at Swissnex here in San Francisco.

Swissnex is tucked away on quiet block in a “neutral zone” between the FInancial District, Chinatown and North Beach (an area I enjoy passing through on some of my long walks). The space is very minimal and stark white, with bits of the structural architecture and industrial quality of the building present. Within this space, a large array of music-making machinery was set up. One one side was Zimoun’s very minimal instrumentation, and on the other the chaotic array of gear and elements that would make up Haynes’ performance.

Zimoun’s instrument was incredibly simple, a series of cardboard boxes on top of which were mounted ping-pong balls on motorized arms. The boxes served as resonant chambers for the excitation of the ping-ping balls.

[Click to enlarge.]

The performance unfolded as simply as the instrument itself. First, one of the five units began to vibrate, producing a low rumbling sound. Gradually the other ball+motor+box elements entered the mix, producing an odd harmony of machine noises. Out of this combination, I heard a higher-pitched metallic sound. I am not sure if this came directly from the machinery of the instrument, or was an acoustic artifact from the interaction of the different sounds. That is one of the interesting things about having such a minimal concept behind a piece, it allows one to focus on the output and explore minute details that would often be lost in a more complex performance. The piece continued as continuous sound, without much in the way of change or development, for about twenty minutes. The combination of the sound and visual environment allowed for a few minutes of peaceful detachment and I was able to experience it purely as signal and image processing without social context.

Jim Haynes’ performance was a sharp contrast to Zimoun, both aurally and visually. His table was covered with a diverse array of audio devices and lab equipment.

[Click to enlarge.]

At first, I took the metal column and rings to be a custom-made theremin of sorts before realizing that it was the rings and tower familiar from countless science classes.

After an initial burst of loud noise and feedback (which reassuringly let us all know that “yes, this thing is on”), the sound unfolded as an exploration of traditional elements, notably fire, air and earth. He opened with fire, specifically from the flame of a lit candle. He latter added sand, which poured from a bottle he placed on the metallic rings so that the sand could gradually fall out onto a contact microphone. While Zimoun’s performance invited detachment, Haynes’ required close attention. Many of the sounds that emerged seem closely related to the elemental sources: from the fire a series of crackling sounds and wind sounds from the excited air, and from the sand a sea of granular noises that could at times seem like liquid. But there were other sounds as well, the sound of ambient radio static, something akin to vinyl noise, a high-pitched shaking sound, and metallic rattling. Whether these were directly from the fire and sand or from the BOSS Dr. Sample and associated effects boxes is unclear.

This performance was in many ways a preview for Zimoun’s exhibition at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) which opened a few days later. That exhibition is still ongoing and will close on on February 22nd. Follow the link for more details.