‘In the Garden of Sonic Delights’ Enchants at the Caramoor Center in Katonah

This week is the last chance to experience the sound art exhibit installed throughout the lush gardens of the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts featuring mesmerizing works by Laurie Anderson, Bob Bielecki, Stephan Moore, Betsey Biggs and others.

Photos: Vitor Teixeira

The Pianohouse

‘The Pianohouse’ by Trimpin

The theremin, one of the very first electronic instruments (unique among instruments in that is played by waving ones hands near it, but never actually touching it) was invented by a young Russian physicist named Léon Theremin in 1920. After touring Europe, demonstrating his invention to packed houses, Theremin came to the United States, where he patented his invention in 1928. A year later, Theremin met Walter and Lucie Rosen, founders of what is now the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, in Katonah, New York at a party in New York City. Walter, a successful banker, musician, and art collector, and his wife Lucie, who was interested in everything avant-garde in the arts, were so taken his instrument, they offered Theremin the use of one of their five brownstones on West 54th Street, as his studio and residence. Lucie soon became Theremin’s pupil and then an accomplished theremin player, touring throughout the US, sometimes accompanied by her husband on piano.

Today Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, an hours drive or train ride northeast of New York City, is primarily known for its classical, opera and jazz concerts that grew out of the intimate concerts the Rosen’s began hosting at their estate in 1946, but it is this rich history that inspired curator and sound artist Stephan Moore as he worked for more than six years to bring In the Garden of Sonic Delights, a large-scale sound art exhibition of sixteen new works to fruition.

'Cantenary' by Eli Kezzler

‘Cantenary’ by Eli Kezzler

Open since this summer, and through November 2, the exhibition is installed throughout the beautifully sprawling grounds of the Caramoor Center (several pieces installed within the Rosen House are currently closed owing to conflicts with scheduled concerts) as well as at partner sites within Westchester county. Each work is newly commissioned and specific to a site of the artist’s choosing. Most, but not all, of the works are electronic based. While a few are invisible, most are sculptural with both visual and auditory components. Wandering around the property this past crisp fall weekend, map in hand, felt a bit like an art treasure hunt.

One of the works, Coronium 3500 (Lucie’s Halo),  by Scott Smallwood makes reference to the legacy of Lucie Rosen, its title referring to the 3500 Hz ‘halo’ of sound it produces and the way Lucie was once described while performing as having “a wide halo around her delicate and ethereal face.” Installed in a small grassy clearing around a large tree stump are two concentric rings of twelve posts stuck into the ground. On top of each is a small solar powered sound-making device. The level of sunlight affects the sound generated, and on the bright day I visited, each one was chirping wildly. Each making a different sound, through all reminiscent of sounds of the natural surroundings–birds, crickets, frogs, etc, it was interesting to note how the piece heightened my awareness of the ambients sounds; a plane flying overhead, a real bird chirping nearby.

'Diacousticon' by Stephan Moore

‘Diacousticon’ by Stephan Moore

Betsy Biggs, inspired by the site’s gorgeous, manicured Sunken Garden, contributes a piece of the same name, which is at once charming and wonderfully transformative. At the two entrances to the walled garden are small stands housing headphones and small electronic devices on strings, with a written invitation to put a device around one’s neck and connect it to a set of headphones before wandering around the Sunken Garden. The devices are special receivers, utilizing the same technology as most hearing aids, that amplify an inaudible soundtrack the artists has installed throughout the garden. The soundtrack changes depending on where the listener is in the garden–in most places it sounds like a conversation underwater, in the center, it becomes symphonic. In this way, the piece is played by the viewer, and it seemed to transform my sense of reality somewhat– an aural intoxicant, adding a new dimension to my perception.

In a small grove of cedars nearby, Annea Lockwood and Bob Bielecki have installed Wild Energy, consisting of hidden speakers playing sounds previously only heard by the scientists that recorded them, as they naturally all fall above or below our hearing range. The artists have made these inaudible, primordial sounds– solar oscillations, volcanic tremors, earthquakes, trees, etc., audible by slowing them down or speeding them up (by as much as 42,000 times), revealing to the listener the hidden sounds of the universe which normally elude us. A hammock has been installed, inviting listeners to lie and relax while listening to the 50 minute loop.

In a small pond just outside the Sunken Garden is We Fall Like Light by Laurie Anderson and Bob Bielicki. Although the work seems unimpressive at first, just two small sprays of water forming little arcs across the fountain, one’s perception of the piece is miraculously altered by holding a pair of black glasses found next to the fountain in front of one’s eyes. Suddenly, the streams of water appear not as straight arcs, but coiling corkscrews. The glasses are attached by cord to some kind of electronic apparatus hidden under a rock. It’s clear the piece is toying with our perception (freezing a sine wave in mid-air), but like a good magic trick it doesn’t reveal its secrets. If one pays very careful attention, one will notice that after the glasses emit a bright blink of light, the sprays of water, still coiling, appear to flow backwards, seemingly further defying the laws of physics.

In the Garden of Sonic Delights runs through Nov. 2 at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, 149 Girdle Ridge Road, Katonah. Open Thursday – Sunday 10:00am – 3:00pm.  Tickets: $10, children free.  Information: caramoor.org or (914) 232-5035.