Lukas De Clerck - Airbag/14 Holes
bb15, Linz. 18.5.21 - 20.5.21
A monolithic droning alveolial recorder pump THING, that was actually a situation. PLUS, things I didn't know about the dreaded recorder flute that made it way more amenable.
I experienced this work in three parts, which seems fitting as it was a musical work of art. I think it was perhaps the ideal way to get the most out of it. I will therefore describe the exhibition in the three parts I experienced, so you can ‘be there’ without having to:
“Yeahp”, is what I said to Lukas after I came out of his exhibition the first time, in one of my deeper voices.
He had the feeling I was being a bit critical.
I wasn’t. I thought I had understood it, and was summarising.
It was actually more that I hadn’t fully gotten a hold of the situation he had set-up.
Indeed, I hadn’t read it as a situation at all. Rather as a big, funny, semi monumental, semi silly THING to look at while it does its thing. A big pumping, chugging sculptural THING that drones and drones and drones. You know, like one giant image that moves and makes noise but is there to be ‘observed’. It wasn’t playing a tune or anything more time based. It was just doing its do, and if humanity had been wiped out in that instant but somehow left the power on, it would have continued to do so forever.
To be more precise, I was looking at a big, colourful, inflated pump machine covered in cone-like protuberances that emit air in a ‘fun’ way. Machines like this are used to blow up bouncy castles in Belgium, apparently. Lukas had packed it into his car and driven it all the way to Linz, where he set it up in the main chamber of bb15.
Rather than attaching a bouncy castle to the protuberances, Lukas attached a large number of recorders via around 40 metres of clear plastic tubing that he connected to said protuberances. He used the handy hooks around the top of the bb15 space to hang the pipes in the air above his ‘fun machine’ using fishing wire. The ends of the tubes, some of which were connected via more than one air source, were directed to different groups of recorders, which reminded me of little branching lung interiors / alveolial clusters.
Lukas brought some of the recorders with him and gathered the rest during his residency at bb15. They were taped to the tubing, and some of their holes were blocked off. I couldn't hear all of the recorders droning against the backdrop of the pump motor, which was quite loud, so to get a feel for the whole sound, I had to walk around the giant, sculptural chunk of THING to listen in at different alveoli in turn.
Despite its size, it looked a bit fragile so I didn’t touch it. I didn’t want to break it.
This was my mistake. Actually it was really stable, which I learned when I went back in the second time with a friend:
You could squeeze the holes shut, connect parts of the pipes together, fiddle with the recorders themselves to play tunes and even punch the THING, slam yourself into it and shove it. That was the situation. The THING was a giant, droning instrument of sorts, just waiting to be messed with.
Once ‘given permission’, we had fun. After a while of messing around we started to understand it better, to feel like we had discovered quite a lot of its tricks. You could make rhythms, change the pitch of parts of it and even get little grooves going. But at that point, after about twenty minutes, we were also a bit fatigued. I think that’s a fairly natural state when you encounter some new instrument that requires an amount of exploration to comprehend. Because of the overall volume, it was difficult to discuss tactics inside the space, so after a time we left again. In an ideal world, I can imagine us doing that and then going in again to have a more considered second ‘go’ at it. As it was, we didn't.
On a minor chord, the drone of the engine itself was quite loud and made it fairly hard to focus on where the noise changes were coming from, which made being musical more difficult. The pipes were also quite convoluted and twisty, which compounded this problem. I found that the best way to hear the musical changes I was making was to first locate where each pipe led to. Then I could focus my ears in the right part of the soundscape. Because of these difficulties, I wasn’t sure in the end if the THING was really an instrument, or whether it wasn’t more of an intentionally confounding object that was only ever supposed to be chaotic and droney and give you the idea that you could play it.
It wasn’t without its charms, adjusting the drones. But I didn’t really have the feeling that I was standing in the presence of something analogous to a guitar or a xylophone or something - neither of which you can bounce off or crawl under, granted. It was more like being in the presence of a weird mutant - part instrument, part toy, part vibrating collective fun unit.
Back to major to finish part 2 - you could direct the air at your hair to produce that classic rock-star-in-the-wind vibe!
Where the whole thing came truimphantly together as a work of art by an artist with a specific overall oeuvre was when De Clerck stepped up to give his performance at 1800.
For this event, more people turned up to watch. This was interesting to observe, because I am certain I detected the same ‘Yeahp” from some of the new arrivals. Like me earlier , they thought they had comprehended the piece in its entirety as a monumental ‘object d’Art’, rather than as the situation it actually was. Without the artist actively saying, “You can play it, you know”, this aspect was not immediately apparent. Admittedly, this info was pretty much in the text, which just goes to show how useful those things are.
At 1800, Lukas pulled the plug on the THING. It deflated magnificently, setting up expectations that it was going to do something new for the performance. Instead, De Clerck himeslf pulled out a big baritone recorder and set about redefining my expectations of that dreaded instrument of school concert hell.
Using circular breathing, De Clerck established weird rhythms, melodies and tonal drones that worked through some kind of internal logic to create a calm, dynamic, spak-atto musical space of composition and contemplation that I enjoyed very much. As if an aboriginal shaman from the future had entered the school concert hall and, rather than torturing the assembled parents, had decided to hypnotise them. There was no out of place shrieking, because within this context, the shrieking made sense.
I simply had no idea that such things were possible using a recorder.
This made me wonder if I hadn’t missed the entire point of the giant THING too. At some point De Clerck told me that in an upcoming project he will work with a composer and a group of around 14 children to create a performance for Airbag/14 Holes. Having experienced an extended idea of what is possible with a recorder when De Clerck is around, I am forced to consider that such a thing might be possible and potentially wondrous (Though I think it would help if he found a way to muffle the motor somewhat). That’s apparently happening later this year in Eupen and Brussels...
The baritone recorder magic lasted around eight minutes. After a short, respectful pause De Clerck then whipped out a pair of reeded pipes, popped them in the right and left sides of his mouth and gave a two handed performance on them using the same technique of permanent breath release, much like the giant, deflated THING on the floor, but with much nicer tones and almost actual melodies. Suddenly, it was if the THING was him, or another part of him. One that simply liked drones and droning music. This was my revelation, that somehow De Clerck was the drone THING, and that it was actually pretty fun. Or it was like he had killed the Goliath and was now piping his David-like victory over the beast, proving that people beat THING.
Preferring the sound of this second instrument, I found some of these tunes to be really excellent. If you are curious, you can find similar versions of them on his website, here.
And that’s it. When he finished, we clapped, went outside and drank some beer. An interesting afternoon / evening.
I suppose that for me this experience cemented that I don’t particularly care for sound art without the application of composition. If it just drones, I don’t really know what to do with it. I just want it to stop or go away, or at least, as it turns out, to let me play with it. But if it tunes, then it tells me a story - and I like stories.