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Interview with artist Ezra Masch

A new installation is coming to The Ringling in August, 2018 that combines light, sound, and performance.

It isn't the first time that these mediums have gone on display in the Museum of art. In 2011 The Ringling embraced the light with the creation of the James Turrell skyspace, Joseph’s Coat. Using space, color and light as his medium, Turrell is referred to as a sculptor of light and visitors can now experience the artist’s fascination with this revelation of light in what has become a gathering place for quiet contemplation. In a gallery adjacent to the skyspace an exhibition on the Art of Our Time featuring contemporary art from the museum’s permanent collection is on display where a sound sculpture by the Swiss artist Zimoun is featured exploring the graceful, mechanized works of structural simplicity, while manipulating the use of sound.

This summer, just across the Museum of Art courtyard, light and sound come into play once again in a more boisterous way with a special installation by the artist Ezra Masch. VOLUMES harnesses the speed of light to reveal the volume of sound and space. Opening on Sunday, August 12, 2018 this immersive audio and visual installation project will feature a three- dimensional grid of LED lights that will fill the interior of the Ringling’s Monda gallery with an iridescent glow.

Contact microphones will be wired from a basic drum set to custom mixers that will divide the audio into multiple ranges of volume. Dimensions of height, length, and width will then be used to map coordinates of tone and amplitude within the grid of lights. Essentially Masch has created a symbiotic relationship between light and sound, one cannot see the piece unless they can hear it and vice versa. With over fifty percussionists scheduled to play VOLUMES, these musicians will be able to experiment with the visual patterns and forms generated in the lights as they perform. Volume and pitch will determine the number of lights that flicker, so each drummer will have to play the light as much as they play the physical drum set.

Although both light and sound are perceived through different sensory receptors, VOLUMES intertwines light, sound, and space in such a way that they become inseparable to anyone who experiences it. Consequently it combines auditory and visual signals so precisely that the audience will eventually begin to see sound. Only the drummer can control the intensity of what the audience experiences by what he or she decides to play. The musician is in control and the space is essentially sculpted live before you by the percussionist. 

Seeking to cultivate a new way of understanding and translating the volume of sound to the volume of space Masch has become a sculptor of both light and sound by creating a piece that lies somewhere in between an entirely new instrument and a visual art sculpture. Masch blends elements of sound, light, performance, and engineering into a unique sensory experience that reimagines the traditional notions of stationary sculpture and time based performance art.

Interview with the artist Ezra Masch and  and video of VOLUMES

Ezra Masch Big Bang Still

Ezra Masch is an interdisciplinary artist currently based in New York City. He holds an MFA in Studio Arts from the University of Texas, as well as a BFA in sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design. He currently teaches at Moore College of Art and Design and is a member of the Tiger Strikes Astroid gallery.

The Ringling: Tell us a bit about this project.

Ezra Masch: It’s an ongoing audio-visual installation and performance project that uses live sound from a drum set to activate lights in an immersive 3-dimensional grid. Measurements of tone and amplitude correspond to the interior dimensions of the gallery, translating the volume of sound to the volume of space. It’s site-specific. The architecture becomes an extension of the instrument, enabling drummers to explore a connection between sound, light, and volumetric space.

R: What is your particular background? What was the inspiration/influence for this particular project?

EM: I’m a musician as well as a visual artist. The inspiration for this project initially grew out of my own personal perception of a connection between sound and light. The experience of interrelated sensory phenomena (synesthesia) has fascinated people for centuries. Isaac Newton wrote about music and the spectrum in the early 1700’s. Composers like Scriabin and Korsakov, who were both synesthetes, developed elaborate systems based on a connection between sound and color. Kandisky was famous for exploring these ideas in his paintings as well. These figures were interested in the perceptual phenomena connecting sound and light, but also in the potential for using that connection to guide the creative process. My inspiration comes from a similar impulse, but I’m doing it in my own way. Because I’m primarily a sculptor, my work is always concerned with space. When I design a 3-dimensional space or object, I try to create an underlying form or structure from which things can grow and develop. I strive to achieve a balance between density and open space. The very same principles apply to writing and performing music. I have thought about these kinds of parallels for a long time, but only recently attempted to bring the art forms together. With this project, I wanted to establish a direct connection between the process of creating music and the process of creating visual art. I chose to do it with a drum set because it’s an instrument that I’m intimately familiar with. It also puts a contemporary spin on an age-old idea.

R: What is integral to your work as an artist?

EM: I work in sculpture, installation, and video, and my projects are often very different from one to the next. But something that ties them all together is the immersive nature of the work. I enjoy creating experiences that completely surround the viewer. Another important aspect is collaboration and participation. For one of my recent pieces, I recruited strangers on the subway and asked them to shoot video using their own cellphones. The footage was then synchronized and arranged to create a 10-channel composite moving image that was 70 feet long on both sides. This upcoming project at The Ringling is going to involve a different kind of participation: drummers will actually be invited to interact with the piece via an open call. I like bringing other people into my work as either participants or collaborators because it adds an element of chance. In this case, the drummers will be contributing creatively to the project. I have no idea what’s going to happen, and that’s one of the things that makes it so exciting.

R: The VOLUMES project really toes the line between performance art and visual art. It is both a time based performance and a fixed sculpture, one cannot experience the sculpture without the performance and vice versa. VOLUMES fuses elements of sound, light, sculpture, and performance into a unique sensory experience. How would you describe this piece?

EM: It’s all of the above. Instrument, Sculpture, Installation, Performance. The piece really defies classification because it’s all of these things at once. Over the years I have had trouble finding a home for the project. It doesn’t fit neatly into a conventional genre (or venue, for that matter). It’s very experimental. I am so thrilled that The Ringling Museum is giving me this opportunity to share the project with a larger audience than ever before.

R: The Swiss artist Zimoun sculpts sounds, James Turrell sculpts light (both artists are featured in the Ringling’s permanent Collection). You seem to sculpt both. What other artists have influenced or impacted your work and style?

EM: Two fantastic artists! Yes, and I would add that both Zimoun and Turrell create immersive time-based installations that have to be experienced in-person. The perceptual phenomena of sound and light are so integral to their work, respectively. Especially with Turrell, the action happens when the viewer becomes aware of their own perceptual process. You have to give yourself over to the experience in order to get something out of it. There’s an aspect of that in my piece as well. But there is also an element of physical interaction/participation that is necessary for experiencing the piece, similar to works by Laurie Anderson, Janet Cardiff, and David Byrne, all of whom I would cite as important influences.

R: What kind of experiences do you hope the musicians playing your piece will have?

EM: I hope that the audio-visual interaction will influence their ideas as they play. The lights are an extension of the instrument, and this system connects the sound of the drums to the dimensions of the gallery space in a very direct way. I hope they will explore that. I hope it will add new dimensions to their playing, both literally and figuratively. You never know exactly how people are going to respond to this situation. Some drummers have described it as inducing a “trance-like state” or even an “out-of-body experience”. While I can’t guarantee that all the drummers will experience altered states of consciousness, I do hope that the experience will alter the way that each drummer thinks about playing music.

R: How has watching different musicians interact with your piece impacted you as an artist and your work?

EM: When I watch a musician interact with the piece, I become a member of the audience. It’s difficult to let go of control at first, because I have worked so hard to design and build and wire everything. At the same time, it’s exciting because I get to see it from a different perspective. I stop obsessing about the technical details, the engineering, the logistics of the performance for a moment and just observe. I watch people breathe new life into the project. For me, that’s the moment when it becomes real. When you put something out into the world, it takes on a life of its own. It becomes much bigger than you are.

R: This is the first time VOLUMES has been installed and presented at an art museum- how does this change your approach to the piece and what do you hope the museum audience will experience? 

EM: The museum setting is going to make it possible for more people to see and interact with the piece. Because the installation will be at The Ringling for a whole month, we now have the opportunity to make the project more accessible to the public through an open call. In addition, there’s going to be a great performance series featuring a special guest every week. This is all being made possible through the resources that the Ringling is bringing to the table. During regular museum hours, I hope that visitors will be able to experience this immersive installation in an intimate setting. And during the special weekly performances, I hope they will experience some of the world’s greatest drummers engaging in an experimental art form that is unlike anything they’ve ever seen or heard.

Ezra Masch Big Bang Still