Hear In There
sound installation project puts twist on ‘Ode to Joy’
Davy Sumner’s young musical career knows no boundaries. Although Sumner, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire this past May with a degree in music composition, has been busy organizing and orchestrating his Arco Sessions as well as playing drums and percussion in numerous local bands, he’s still managed to create an innovative sound installation project called Symphony on the Brain. The concept is just as cool as the name suggests.
The melody from “Ode to Joy” is easily recognizable; even if the title escapes you, you’ve heard it in television commercials, slapstick comedy montages, or as the main motif in the final movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Sumner knew that this melody was familiar to most people, but postulated that many musicians couldn’t readily play it from memory. To test his hypothesis, he asked 12 musicians to individually play “Ode to Joy” on the spot – without any preparation time – while he recorded them. Mistakes were permissible and even encouraged; Sumner just wanted them to get through the melody. He gave the musicians time to rehearse the melody before recording them a second time, and then asked them to play it a third and final time in whatever key signature or style they desired.
This is where the project gets interesting: After collecting all the recordings from the various musicians, Sumner set about chopping them up into smaller samples, which were interspersed with performers asking him questions while the melody was being recorded. He then fed the recordings from each musician through one of 12 speakers set up in a building at Banbury Place. “It’s huge, probably about the size of a basketball court,” Sumner says about the location for his sound installation. “Each speaker is positioned to face directly down, so the listener can stand underneath it or off to the side in order to experience the project cohesively.” Any number of speakers could be playing at any given time; two speakers emitting sound could change to eight in a split second, all to create what Sumner describes as a “dovetail effect.”
The most interesting part about Symphony on the Brain is that many musicians played the melody from “Ode to Joy” in different keys, providing Sumner with some great harmonic opportunities. “I’ve diagramed what key each person played in and used those to arrange this in a certain way where there are some people playing in the same key right next to each other and some that are definitely not,” Sumner says. Each musician is not confined to just one speaker; a flute may come through a particular speaker, but after a few minutes it moves on, increasing the number of sonic possibilities Sumner can create through this experience. “You’ll never really hear the same thing unless you stay in there for 13 hours or so,” Sumner says. “I hope people will stay for 20 minutes to an hour and just walk around; observe how it sounds from different areas and how it changes based on their position in the room.”
Sound installations are a relatively new idea for the Eau Claire area, but Symphony on the Brain is likely the first of many from Sumner. “I hope to challenge people’s perspective of a piece they’re familiar with, as well as introduce them to the concept of a sound installation,” he says.
Sumner ran a successful Kickstarter project and raised more than $1,000 to help cover the costs of the speakers, rental space and other costs, making this a truly community-built effort.
Symphony on the Brain will be installed at 331 Putnam St. in Eau Claire (on the Banbury property) and will run for four dates: Oct. 10 from 7:30 to 10:30pm, Oct. 11 from 6 to 10pm, Oct. 12 from 11am to 3pm and from 6 to 10pm, and Oct. 13 from 4 to 8pm.