Garnet Willis is taking over the south wing of the Gladstone’s second floor lobby this October 1st for the Gladstone’s signature Nuit Blanche exhibition. He’s a musician, an engineer, and a philosopher, as you have to be to reimagine music the way he does! We sat down to with Garnet to talk about his journeys in sound and to get a sneak peek of what he has in store for Nuit Blanche.
What’s the appeal of making giant abstracted instruments?
I love dreaming up and building things. It’s something I’ve always done. Building the work is also very satisfying for me. I enjoy the physicality of working with my hands—especially with wood, which is a beautiful and forgiving material. As the work nears completion, my impatience to hear it and to interact with it in its finished form propels the process to its completion.
How does a sculpture evolve as you’re designing it?
At the conceptual stage, I have to consider how the piece looks, predictions about how audiences will interact with it, as well as the mechanical needs of the work. All this combines to create some exciting design challenges for me!
Can you describe your creative process?
Most works start with a small detail—an object, or an idea, that I store in the back of my mind. Like many pots simmering on the back of the stove, I keep a mental inventory of possibilities relating to this idea or that object, which sort of dangle in my mind waiting for connections to form. At some point, things start to come together, forming a network of ideas.
At this point, I start to actively research and design the work. During this building phase, the project iteratively re-designs itself, often a number of times, with increasing imagination and materiality. At the same time, it is contained by the degree to which my skill set can expand to encompass the work within a given development time frame.
You mentioned that you conducted experiments with tape recorders as a child. At what point did you decide you’d like to link tinkering and music?
My parents and one of my older sisters were into music, and I started piano lessons as a child, sang in choirs, the works. I had a small reel-to-reel tape recorder in the late 1960’s, and I loved to speed it up and play it backwards. One of my favourite activities was to record my voice, play it backwards, learn to speak it backwards, record it spoken backwards, then reverse it again and listen to it front on again. Strangely, this was an exercise I was later assigned as an undergrad studying music. I can still do silly things like sing row row row your boat backward! I also used to use tape to make installations, sometimes all around the room–which I think were probably my first foray into building musical contraptions. Later on I traded a motorcycle for a Hammond organ, an amazing electro-mechanical contraption from the 1940’s. I totally took that apart, analyzed it and put it back together again.
How do the tensions between chance and control, and beauty and structure, play into your work?
John Cage was always poking fun at the majority of what we call “music,” which to his ear, sounded contrived and predictable. One way of making the music structure, or in my case, instrument structure, more vivid, is to set up the work so that it embraces the risk of unexpected outcomes. This gives the work the freedom to breathe into the future—forever formed and reformed through the irrepeatability of sound.
What does your work say about music as a medium?
Over the course of my career, I’ve slowly been moving away from the notion that music is only “the signal of sound in the air” as my works have become increasingly sculptural, both physically (bodies in space), and in terms of sound (mapping of sound morphologies onto space.)
So my priorities, previously rooted in composition with sound as a cornerstone, have shifted. I now favour the physical and its manifestations of form in space, so SOUNDsculpture to become soundSCULPTURE. This evolution away from a popular definition of music, does not, in my mind, mean that it is not music. I think my work expands ideas about music through the unique physicality I give it.
Can you tell us a little about the piece you’ll be showing at the Gladstone for Nuit Blanche?
In the second floor lobby is a large circular platform. Attached to this via tensioned cables are clusters of sound-producing objects, strung together on springs tensioned in space. The public can interact with the installation at any time, by standing on the platform, which tips it under the distribution of weight and changes the diverse plucking sounds that it produces. This vibrant cascade of sound is intended to sonically map the internal architecture and bodies within the space.
So basically a room-sized banjo that anyone can play with their bodyweight?
Garnet, we can’t wait! Check out Fly By Night, the Gladstone’s signature Nuit Blanche one-night only exhibition and party, featuring a giant banjo and a ton of other interactive art upstairs, and a party downstairs to chill out or dance all night.
Read and hear of Garnet’s instruments at his website, here!
See you there!