MONOLITH.

An ever changing audiovisual performance made by Vincent Rang, Shoal & Helena Basilova.

MONOLITH, a hybrid between an installation and performance, magnifies the fascinating world of growing crystals.

Inspired by the book Mechanism of Life by the French doctor Stéphane Leduc, MONOLITH shows the synthetical growth of a chemical garden. It uses chemical reactions of iron salts in a solution of sodium silicate to create ever evolving landscapes, accompanied by a live musical score made by Helena Basilova and Kenny Kneefel. But how do you translate chemical reactions into sound and composition? How do you keep the balance in making an installation and performing an audiovisual work? And above all, what are the biggest inspirations behind this project? Within this interview we will go deeper into these questions and get into conversation with visual artist Vincent Rang, electronic musician Kenny Kneefel (Shoal) and composer/pianist Helena Basilova.

MONOLITH live performed at MACA

Introduction

Vincent Rang is an experimental visual artist who explores themes such as scale, perception of time, growth and symbiosis. Rang is often fascinated by natural patterns, created for example by wind, water, and crystals.

Helena Basilova is a composer and pianist who tries to connect the traditional world of classical music with modern compositions and technology. Rooted in a deep concept of traditions and interpretations, she works with composers and artists to create audiovisual projects.

Kenny Kneefel is an electronic musician and DJ from Utrecht under the name of Shoal. He explores the connection between body and mind, using hypnotic rhythms, field recordings and drone-sounds. Recently he released the Konstrukt 016 EP. For this release, Kenny used live compositions from MONOLITH to make the tracks Mo-I, Mo-III and Mo-IV. The cover of this EP is inspired by MONOLITH, and is made by Hendrik Simons.

Shoal — Mo-III: A track based on the live performance of MONOLITH

How did you end up collaborating with each other?

Vincent: The collaboration between Helena and I began with another project, during the pandemic. Helena had asked me to create visuals for her take on Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories. We had a good connection, and remember showing Helena some of the experiments I had made in the studio with the iron salts. After a while, Helena came back to me with a wonderfully dark and ominous composition which kept me up at night (of excitement), and I remember the project being born that night, at least in my mind. The building of a totem-like installation, coming together with Helena’s grandiose sounds. A few weeks later, whilst working on the funding proposals for the project, Kenny and I met and asked him to do a sonic interpretation of Monolith. For the installation aspect, we needed to create a music and light loop. For this, Helena and Kenny worked together to create the bespoke soundtrack.

The Monolith, using the aquarium to grow crystals

Another important part of the team was Jord Beets, who designed and built the Monolith. The installation was built with functionality being the most important thing and by keeping things very minimal. Every part of the installation has a purpose. We decided to use stripped down style of raw materials such as metal and concrete as a way to create a contrast with the organic, alien-like landscapes being generated in this machine.

Kenny Kneefel (Shoal)

What is the process behind making this Performance?

Vincent: I am interested in time and how the experience of time can be altered. When I started experimenting with these chemical reactions, I was fascinated by their tempo. We can feel the growth, but we can barely perceive it. Drawing a parallel to a larger scale felt like all the change happening all around us, at all times, ever so slowly. Like the forming of mountains, or the crushing together of landmasses, these changes happen over such long time spans that they are beyond our grasp.

I am interested in this contrast between the micro and the macro, and tried to work on an audio visual show where the tempo of these iron salt growth is essentially what guided the creative process from the start.

The longer the iron salts have been in the solution, the slower they grow. This is why it felt like the right thing to open the installation with a live performance. A ritual of sorts, opening the process of growth. Then, it can be showcased as an installation, where the growth keeps going, but at a slower rate than the growth in the first hour, and where you can see an echo of sorts of the structures of a past.

Close-up of a growing chrystal

Scale is another theme in this installation. The scale of the installation in relation to the projection of it. The installation and its scale was dictated mostly by the actual size of the chemical reactions. From those micro chemical reactions, to the macro projection of those same chemical reactions onto a large screen is what creates an interesting contrast, and which alludes to this idea that the same forces apply whether they happen on a microscopic level or at a macro level.
Finally, interactivity between sound and light was a final element which we are constantly fine tuning and implementing. By connecting the music input directly into the computer controlling the projections into the aquarium, the musicians can essentially ‘play’ the monolith instrument. It gives them a more playful and experimental approach to making the music, as they have direct influence and feedback on the screen. This also helps bringing together the two elements of sound and visual.

MONOLITH live performed at MACA

How do you translate growing material into sound and composition?

Kenny: In the period when Vincent showed me his first test with the iron salts, I was in my final bachelor’s year of Music and Technology at the University of Arts in Utrecht. I was busy finding the right topic to write my bachelor’s thesis. The topic eventually became ‘texture in sound’, and Monolith became one of the research cases. The search for the definition of texture in sound led me to the research of Dennis Smalley called Spectromorphology.

The Monolith project motivated me to dive deeper into the definition of texture in sound.

In a nutshell, Spectromorphology is jargon and a classification system as a tool to analyze and describe listening experiences. It is a two-part term that refers to the interaction between the sound spectrum (spectro-) and the way it forms over time (-morphology). Although Spectromorphology is not intended to be used as a composition tool, it gives you an objective and detailed understanding of how sound behaves over time, in space, and the relationships between them.

From a compositional point of view, the system Smalley created can be perceived and used in various creative ways as a starting point for creating music. This way, I chose to apply Spectromorphology to the dramaturgy of the visuals, after which the music was filled in later in this framework. Therefore a visual event leads to a musical gesture. I chose certain synths and effects because of their ability to roam freely while improvising and sonically mimicking the visuals.

Shoal — Mo-IV: A track based on the live performance of MONOLITH

Helena: For me the most important factors for translating materials into sound is tempo and texture. Tempo was important in order to find connection between the growth of the crystals and the development in music.

I wanted to let tempo and texture ‘grow’ together, extremely slow, so that change becomes invisible

The texture element was more an intuitive process to simulate the texture of the visual element into sound. Denseness in sound and eventually a rising sensation were both inspiring to create. One of the sounds I make on the synth has a very earth-like sound, as if it comes from within our planet, bubbly, mumbling, water, air, as if predicting something very grand to happen to all of us. Like a volcano before its eruption.

How do you explore the musical boundaries between an electronic-music producer and a classical pianist?

Helena: There are projects where I combine my work as a pianist and work as music-producer. Yet in this installation the ‘classical pianist’ part is not present and I only worked with electronic sound. It is sometimes easier for me to create, leaving out the sound of the piano, which has so much reference and history attached that it sometimes can block a creative proces. Solely working with soundscapes for this project made me feel very free. Because of the installation and one-way growth of the crystals the direction and form of the music was very clear, which created a frame-work to work with.
Later when combining my ideas with Kenny’s it was interesting to see a new world of sounds being created. It made my vision of the whole become more lighter at times and made room for brighter colours. As we are working on the music now, we search to make the sounds more reactive and interactive with the visuals so that more room for improvisation is being created.

What are the biggest inspirations behind making MONOLITH?

Vincent: After having developed a live show around inks in water, I was keen to explore something different. Something slower, seeking the limit of how slow I can make something before it gets boring. And that’s when I stumbled upon these experiments.
The inspiration for this project is really a process of experimentation and research, and observing these natural movements. I began experimenting and working with these materials in 2019, so it took a few years before all the pieces came together, but that’s often by design. I really believe these works come to life in a much better state when they are not forced out, but allowed to grow organically until it feels right and the dots connect. I usually sit on experiments and images for quite a while before anything happens with them.

During the pandemic years, I had filmed a lot of these reactions, and was developing a kind of natural narrative with these iron salts. That’s when I started doing research on these iron salt reactions, and stumbled upon Stephane Leduc’s research. In it, he proposed quite a paradigm shift in the world of science based on these synthetic life-like growth, essentially rejecting the general assumption shared amongst many natural philosophers of the existence of a vital force, a life-specific vitalis responsible for the organisation and complexification of the embryo.

Stephane Leduc’s experiments with chemical gardens

Leduc’s theory was questioning the very nature of life, as he put so simply;
“Since we cannot distinguish the line between life and the rest of nature’s phenomena, we should conclude that this line does not exist, which satisfies the law of continuity between all phenomena.”
Leduc used these growths as a way to illustrate his point, to show that life was guided by physical forces rather than any kind of vital force or “life force”. This research was a really interesting take on something I was experimenting with for so long, and really shifted my perception of it.

Stephane Leduc’s experiments with chemical gardens

What is the meaning behind MONOLITH?

Vincent: I have various motivations for making the work, as explained in previous answers. As for the meaning of the work, I like to leave that up to the viewer. I am not necessarily looking to express an idea or give across an emotion. I prefer to create a space in which people can find their own interpretation. This might be a personal reaction to having worked in advertising where there often can’t be room for interpretation and where its main purpose is to be understood immediately, and to change someone’s behaviour or attitude.

One of my core beliefs is the importance of independent thought and imagination. This audio visual work leaves the viewer with much room to interpret, think and reflect.

This might be disconcerting for some, but I believe it can also be a good moment to exercise your own imagination, or a moment to reflect, something I believe is very needed in a world where we’re constantly told what to think at every moment of the day.
Furthermore, I think it’s important to create moments in which we’re not constantly bombarded by pings and bleeps and bloops. A moment of deep, conscious listening, where we are not just following what we are told to do by our phone, an advertisement or a sign on the street. It’s a place of independent thought.

MONOLITH will be performed during FIBER x The Rest Is Noise at het Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam on Friday 6th of January 2023. You can find more info here.

Edited by Maarten De Bruijn

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FIBER

Amsterdam based platform and festival for audiovisual art, digital culture and electronic music. Upcoming events: FIBER Festival 2022, mid-May