Elisabeth Schwind
From Singing Flames to Ringing Furniture

Sound-art's recognition as a legitimate independent genre in the art world has coincided with proliferation of electronic and digital technology. Andreas Oldörp's position is remarkable, therefore, in that his works are based on naturally generated sounds. The Hamburg sound-artist attaches
a good deal of importance to the fact that he does not work with synthetic or prefabricated sounds - whether the work is inside or outside, in an industrial ruin, a church, a villa, a museum or in a valley at the foot of the Sauerland hills. Some of the sound sources employed by Oldörp utilise techniques that have been known to organ makers for hundreds of years. He further develops these techniques by liberating the organ pipes from their conventional surroundings thereby setting them in entirely new associations.
Although Oldörp also started with synthetic sounds and sine tones, he soon moved on. Sine tones are the audible manifestation of the 'pure' tone theory and lack any harmonic spectrum. They are created using special generators. The minimalists of the sixties and seventies were especially attracted to the sine tone's neutral properties and its quality of being purged of any artistic intent.
It was precisely this directionless neutrality which lent itself to the subjective perception of new space. It was at a time when music was positioned somewhere between objective physical experiment and subjective self-awareness. It was also the era of the discovery of slowness:
"Today, I'm astonished by our composure. We loved pure tones and we listened to them, for a long time, whatever happened", wrote David Behrman in reference to the Seventies. This calm and the apparent infinite supply of time were defining characteristics of early minimalism. In view of our ever faster and ever louder world, a place of refuge as an artistic concept is still highly relevant. This is definitely the case for Andreas Oldörp: "I spend an inordinate amount of time listening to sounds - with no particular intention. I used to have a studio in an air-raid shelter; there was no daylight and no sense of time. Sometimes I didn't come out until four o'clock in the morning, and
I hadn't noticed how late it was. One slides into an entirely different perception of time."

During the early minimalist years, no one followed the idea of an hour, day, week, or even infinitely-long piece of music more consequently than La Monte Young. This is characterised
by his famous "Composition Number 7", which is comprised of nothing more than a pure fifth chord under which the instructions are noted: "to be held for a long time". Having defined the quintessence of his compositional work in a concept, he set about turning it into reality by constructing the so called "Dream Houses", together with his wife, the light-artist Marian Zazeela: Young installed various pure tone intervals, which resonated for weeks, months or even years. Zazeela provided the light corresponding to the respective frequencies of the sine tones. La Monte Young explains: "I'm especially trying to explore the effects of these intervals so that I can develop an idea of what it is like to live with them and sleep with them. [...] With their help we can induce a meditative, bodiless state. We also started to sing to the intervals." La Monte Young und Marian Zazeela used the term "time installations" instead of "sound installations" to describe their environments; or more precisely as: "time installations measured by continuous sound and light frequencies." Andreas Oldörp's first work was also based on an analogy between light and sound-waves, which are both measured in hertz.

Oldörp started where La Monte Young had left off. During his Fine Art studies in Hamburg, Oldörp repeatedly staged live performances together with Henning Christiansen, who was professor of multimedia at the time, in which he discovered his affinity to sound. One of his early performances was the attempt to transmit light waves in audible frequencies. When the power number is left out of the hertz rate for the colours: red, yellow and blue, for instance, the results will read: 42, 56 or 63Hz which represent frequencies within the audible range. Oldörp created these frequencies with the aid of a sine generator and combined them with mounds of colour pigments during the performance. The relationship between light and sound was - just as in La Monte Young und Marian Zazeela's case - not compelling, but arbitary.

Oldörp was to discover the "missing link" between the two media at a later date, and, in another context - we'll be hearing more about that later.
The first performance was an important step in that direction: "During the construction work for the exhibition, I noticed that the three tones played simultaneously produced a distinct and diversely structured sound-scape. Moreover, moving around the space, I discovered pockets of virtual silence and then others with a very dense sound or strong interference. That's how I discovered the spatial structure of sound. I explored this phenomenon with sine tones for a while, but the quality of the tones was not good enough - in the end, they are just simple waves and technical quantities."

Instead of that, Oldörp started to look for naturally generated sound material that could continuously penetrate any given space, like the sine tones. In one experiment, Oldörp used masking tape to stick the keys of an organ down and then walked through the church. The switch to organ pipes was settled.

Oldörp's sound constructions are usually characterised by a veritably genteel restraint. This applies to the acoustic as well as the optical manifestation. The artist treats the architecture with utmost sensitivity, echoing existing lines with his filigree pipe structures and accentuating available forms and atmospheres with a reduced sculpture, which is tuned to the surrounding space. Oldörp does not necessarily arrange his organ pipes together in one place, as would be the case in an organ, but often sets them atop a glass or copper tube system which can occupy the entire length, breadth and height of the room. Thus, the organ pipes are scattered around the room so that they can weave a heterogeneous field of sound in accord with the inherent characteristics of the surrounding space. A three dimensional web of sound is created by the multitude of diverse frequencies being reflected from the walls and ceilings. The diversity of these patterns can only be experienced by moving around the space. Thus, the listener actively takes part in the musical creation process. Oldörp sees his own role as to provide the sound installation for the room: "... but my work fulfils its purpose first when the listener provides the temporal framework." He calls this form of organisation a "democratisation of musical material" as opposed to the "authoritarian structure" of conventional music, which imposes its own temporal structure on the listener.

John Cage had already elevated the listener to an essential component of composition with the maxim: "Music happens in the ear". He demonstrated this consequently with his silence piece 4'33". It is comprised of silence or more precisely, of the surrounding noises that occur during the concert. It seems as if Cage, who declared all sound and noise to be musical material, has initiated a movement of intensive listening that has led into the sound-installation genre. Obviously, few artists go to such radically self-dethroning lengths as John Cage did. For the likes of Morton Feldman, Cage had already gone too far: "I simply cannot imagine a kid turning a transistor radio on underneath my nose and me saying, oh! The environment!"

The retreat of the artistic subject, however, has played a major role until today - and certainly applies to Andreas Oldörp's work: "I simply do not have the hubris to believe that my personal history could be interesting enough to inspire others". Furthermore, he already treated the aesthetic approaches propagating unsublimated publication of the private sphere with utmost suspicion during his fine art studies. Oldörp's works, however, do indeed bear a personal stamp, an unmistakable signature, which would seem to be a contradiction. So, where does the quest for neutrality end? "It is easiest for me to describe it with an image: My brother has a beautiful garden. Benches and chairs are located in certain positions around the site. As a whole then, we can say that an arrangement has been placed within the bounds of a planned setting. Obviously the seating arrangement is my brother's personal choice, but the person who now takes advantage of this arrangement, i.e. someone observing the garden from the vantage point of one of the chairs, does not somehow assume my brother's identity and see what he sees, but rather uses the position as a starting point for his own experience. It is a similar situation with the sound-architecture I work with. I go into a room like a seismograph and try to register the vibrations and content. I then try to create an accord between the room, its perceptible history, its function, the sounds that I add to it and the arrangement of the visible sound sources. As soon as the work is finished, I step back and surrender it to those who want to walk around inside it".

Oldörp's work is akin to that of an organ builder, who must be able to employ wood, metal, mechanics and electrics as well as the sensitive sound material, to create a unique instrument of sufficient quality. It is no secret that there are many famous organ builders. "But", according to Oldörp, "the actual event is the concert given by the organist." In Oldörp's installations the visitor realises his own "concert" with every step he takes through the room.

Apart from the audience, there are many other unpredictable factors that can actively influence Oldörp's works, including wind and weather. The artist often tunes the pipes with so little air that they are constantly on the verge of not sounding at all and are, therefore, subject to outside influences. Thus, it is possible for a gush of wind to intervene, momentarily silence the tone, or reduce it to its harmonics. This is especially true of the exterior works. Oldörp also calculates the creative principle of chance into his other works. He has developed instruments that are fuelled by steam: Water in glass flasks is brought to the boil, the resulting steam escapes via a T-joint through two tubes. An organ pipe sits atop the respective tubes and is activated by the steam. However, some of the steam in the tubes condenses and flows back into the flask, temporarily sealing off the oncoming steam until it has built up enough pressure to break through again. The escaping steam obviously takes the path of least resistance, which means that it alternates between the two pipes depending on the amount of counter-pressure it encounters. These sudden alternating bursts of steam pressure cause the organ pipes to "speak", thus creating an animated chirping dialogue. Oldörp is responsible for the fact that they can chirp - but the content of the conversation is left to chance.

An important aspect of Oldörp's works is that they have no narrative structure - whether chirps or continuous sounds. These chance-driven sound sequences, therefore, serve his purpose well. "Most of what entertains you is communicative, but not always informative. Even background music has a dramaturgic structure. However, because background music is not supposed to be listened to, its content is usually very simple. My work goes in the opposite direction: It doesn't supply even more signals, more announcements and more obtrusiveness from outside. Instead, its purpose is to create spaces that give you reasons to stay."

One could think of Erik Satie, who once posed the provocative question: "What do you prefer: music or sausages?" He was also outspoken against the sort of music which is diluted to accompany beer drinking or the trying on of a pair of trousers: "There is a pervading habit of playing music on occasions when no music is called for. They play waltzes, operatic fantasies or other incongruous pieces." Satie's answer to this deplorable custom was to create a "Musique d'Ameublement", which he ironically described thus: "We want to introduce a music that fulfils 'practical' needs. The 'Musique d'Ameublement' produces vibrations, it has no other function; it fulfils this role like a light radiating warmth and comfort. Those who have never heard the 'Musique d'Ameublement' have never experienced happiness. Your slumber will be disturbed unless you listen to a bit of 'Musique d'Ameublement' before going to sleep." In an ironically literal interpretation of Satie's words, Oldörp has begun to develop "Möbelmusik" works. A resonating locker and a little bedside table studded with organ pipes are among the "Klangmöbeln" (sound furniture). The reference to Satie, however, is only one aspect of these objects. Oldörp's intention is to precipitate free associations, through visual or acoustic stimuli - and through the fact that the objects have been stripped of their original function and have been set in an alien environment. The locker and the bedside table are simple objects taken from daily life and they bear the scars of attrition. At first, they appear to be familiar. Other impressions and sensations are invoked, however, by the soft and sometimes brittle sounds emanating from the objects. This friction opens up a space for association, which the visitor is called upon to fill.

It fits into Oldörp's credo of using natural sounds that the basic elements, air, water and fire are employed to fuel his instruments: using air for the organ and water for the steam driven objects. It becomes spectacular, however, when the third element, fire, is brought into play: in the 'Singenden Flammen' (singing flames). For his rare performances, for instance, which are usually supported by a cellist, Oldörp has developed a transportable instrument, which could be described as a "hydrogen organ" - a filigree construction with several glass tubes of varying lengths. A small flame burns in each of these tubes and part of the performance ritual is to make these flames audible. The burner is fuelled by hydrogen. Oldörp successively ignites the flames and covers each one of them with a glass tube. The flame causes the trapped column of air to resonate, thus creating a tone. This is repeated until all the flames are "singing". In this manner, a platform of sound is constructed with which the cellist can interact.

It is theoretically easy to grasp how the singing flames function. In practice, however, a good deal of experimentation was necessary before Oldörp could encourage the first flame to sing. He was inspired by the so-called pyrophone, a fire organ constructed by the Frenchman FrŽdŽric Kastner in 1874 by exploiting the singing flame theory. One of the instruments still exists today but is no longer playable. One of the reasons for this is the fact that the gas mixture used to fuel the instrument in those days - which was standard city gas - was highly poisonous and is, therefore, no longer produced. Through studying Kastner's writings and the background of his technical progress, Oldörp managed to recycle the principle of the singing flames. Following Kastner's example, he started out by experimenting with hydrogen. He soon discovered that hydrogen produces an intensive sound, but generates very little light. In 1988, however, Oldörp was preparing an installation for a lightless underground air-raid shelter. With this in mind, he experimented with other gas mixtures and gases with a higher carbon content - until he finally managed to make the flames sing and glow in November 1988. Today, Oldörp works with diverse gases such as hydrogen, propane, butane and methane. Every gas has its unique sound and light properties, which can be applied according to the requirements.

Like Oldörp's organ-pipe works, the singing flames produce one continuous tone that then interacts with the acoustic space, and with any other tones being produced, creating the fundaments of an acoustic architecture. What makes the singing flames special, however, is the fact that they produce light and sound at the same time. It seems reasonable to claim that one could find the "missing link" between music and fine art in the "Singenden Flammen": they produce both light and sound at the same time, from the same source, fuelled by gas. The "Singenden Flammen" epitomise the unification of diverse media in one work: a "Gesamtkunstwerk". This is an endeavour that characterises many of Oldörp's installations and one that lends Oldörp a unique and privileged position in the world of contemporary sound-art, where unifying "Gesamtkunstwerk" works are few and far between.