Music in Stone
SCULPTOR JONATHAN SHOR CONSTRUCTS A LITHOPHONE
Before the god Prometheus bequeathed fire to humankindin fact, before humankind was a glint in the eye of the cosmosthe earth, at a temperature of more than six thousand degrees centigrade, was a sphere of molten rock. Over eons, the earth cooled and began to solidify. Out of this conflagration, gravity and pressure created veins of the hard, dense rock we call granite.
The composition of granite is what interests Jonathan Shor. As granite’s name hints, it is a coarse-grained, crystalline rock, a direct link to the earth’s beginning, and a challenge for any sculptor seeking the shape and music within.
This summer, Shor teamed up with Guggenheim Fellow, Perry Cook PhD, Professor of Computer Science (and jointly appointed in music) at Princeton University, to create something ancient and newa riff on the white picket fence, only this time demonstrating the mysteries of sound released from granite.
Walking through Quark Park, a garden celebrating art and science, you can’t miss the serpentine pillars undulating toward the sculpture of hippocampi representing the research of neuroscientist, Tracey Shors. Nor can you ignore the stone’s primal heartbeat emanating from hidden speakers.
Surely, you’ll notice the delighted faces of children and adults as they drag metal “sticks” along the granite pickets, creating music of their own.
Recently, I sat down with Shor amidst a number of sculptures he was preparing for an upcoming show to discuss his collaboration with Cook in the creation of Quark Park.
WRR: How did you become a sculptor?
I’d been a stonemason for a number of years and had apprenticed in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Then, I worked on my own for four or five years. Along the way I did a few projects where we manipulated the shape of the stone, and that excited me.
By chance, I received a commission to carve a sphere and it became clear that I enjoyed altering the shape of stone, making something different from its original incarnation. Since then, I’ve not looked back.
WRR: You’ve said that stone talks to you. What do you mean?
I have learned through carving stone how to manipulate it so that it generally allows me to get it where I want it to be. But occasionally, the stone will jump right out and make a completely different suggestion. And I’m always open to those things.
WRR: Can you describe the process?
Often I’ll go into a piece of stone with an idea of what I’d like to see in the end; perhaps I’ll make a few sketches. When I start working, either through my fault or fault lines in the stone itself, a crack will appear here or there, and something new will present itself.
Occasionally, I’ll say to myself, “Oh it would have been nice if this had worked more the way I originally planned.” But the stone makes suggestions, mainly in the way it’ll cleave differently than I originally intended, or because the work will take many days, many weeks, sometimes longer than I expected. I’ll set the stone aside if I’m struggling with it. And while I’m working on something else, patterns and solutions will present themselves, and then I’ll recognize exactly what the stone was waiting for.
WRR: How did you meet Quark Park’s Creator, Peter Soderman?
I was already familiar with Pete and Kevin Wilkes’s previous project, Writer’s Block, which blew me away with its scope and vision. The idea of comparing writers with architects and artists was completely original.
What amazed me was not only the quality of the work and materials, but the fact that everyone involved knew it was temporary. No one held back because they were thinking, “Well in two months it’s gonna be taken apart.” They went all out.
And that was what was most exciting to me about Writers Block. I mean I loved each piece. But the fact that people would put everything into something that was going to disappear not long after they were finished says something about art itself.
When a mutual friend suggested I visit Pete, I did, and we hit it off.
WRR: Can you talk a little bit about the Lithophone and your work with the scientist Perry Cook?
I’m not sure how they decided to pair me up with Perry, but it was a happy coincidence because we discovered that he lives across the street from me, which made the planning very simple.
Perry’s area of expertise is psychoacoustics and music synthesis. And I thought, well, how do I make a piece that not only fits into the unusual shape of an outdoor space like Quark Park, but also, how do I make something that creates a dynamic sound, something that people can actually get involved with?
I came up with a few different ideas. Perry and I were excited by them all, but they were dangerous. Each one involved huge pieces of stone moving and grinding and hitting into each other. And we saw limbs and fingers getting squished.
So, I went back to the drawing board, so to speak, and I remembered something I’d always enjoyed as a child, and that was holding a stick and dragging itt-t-t-t-tap-tap-tapalong a picket fence. And then it was obvious: a fence made of granite. I didn’t want just one thing here, or one thing there, I wanted to fill the entire space.
WRR: Can you talk about the process of building the Lithophone?
The stones, roughly two feet by six feet long, are from a bridge in Perth Amboy that was taken apart and rebuilt using concrete. We took three stones and split them into seventeen posts.
I used a rotary hammer, a drill that pounds at the same time that it’s drilling, which I liken to punching perforations on a piece of paper to use as a guide. And then I drilled a line of holes on the stones where I wanted them to crack. Into each of these holes I packed thin pieces of steel and a wedge called pins and feathers. I took a hammer and carefully tapped the steel to the holes until it was packed tight. Then I let it soak, and the stress on the granite caused it to start cracking. The sound is like porcelain cracking or sand grinding.
I drilled over three hundred holes, and went through about twelve drill bits. I had a big black and blue bruise on my hip from holding the drill. It was really actually pretty brutal. When I look at these stones, there’s not a whole lot of shaping. I carved out a recess to simulate what would happen if the stone had been rubbed or slightly used for a thousand years. That’s another thing I’m interested in, how things get worn very slowly over time, like a stone step that’s got a hollow right in front of the door from people treading over it.
But, man was it rough. It was a wrestling match with most of those stones.
WRR: How did you and Perry work together?
He came to the studio and recorded the entire process: the drilling, putting the wedges and shims in, the hammer blows, driving the shims into the stone, and finally the actual sound of the stone cracking, the crystals bursting within.
He took all of those sounds and turned them into a piece of music, a composition that plays throughout the installation.
WRR: Visitors are able to run aluminum sticks over the Lithophone and create their own counterpoint to the composition. How is that possible?
Each granite picket has got a little contact microphone. It looks like a little piece of sheet metal about the size of a quarter at the bottom, and then I built canopies to protect them from the rain, and from people touching them because they are somewhat fragile.
Wires run down through the grass and landscaping and off to a box hidden behind a row of corn. In that box there are amplifiers that can raise the volume and sound equipment that adds reverberation, gives it a slight delay, and other effects. And that gets wired through the speakers and broadcasts as you play.
WRR: What would you do if you came upon a Lithophone for the first time?
Yeah, well I wondered, will people realize what to do with it? And I thought, should we have some kind of instructions? And that just seemed to get in the way of the aesthetic.
Luckily, people are figuring it out. They’re saying, “Oh, now I’m going to grab one of these poles and smack the stone with it.”
The kids are liking it, too. I’d like to see people running up one end and running down the other, and really just kind of zipping back and forth and filling the space with sound. People are a little more timid. So far I’ve noticed they’re kind of just making a tap here and there. But I think after the Lithophone’s been there for a time, they’ll get more rambunctious.
WRR: Given that a project like Quark Park is temporary, do you think it could happen elsewhere?
Well, I think it would be great to see projects like this in other places. I think it would be great for any community or any institution that hosted it. The first time you install it, it’s really laborious. And then eventually you get a little better at it and you refine things. But there’s no reason why it has to be temporary. It could be installed permanently or sections of it, portions of it. And it could be changing too.
WRR: Just for fun, what is a quark?
That’s a good question, isn’t it? A quark is a portion of a subatomic particle. I heard a recent poll that said Americans know more about the television show The Simpsons, than the President’s Cabinet. In other words, they can name more members of the Simpson family than members of the Cabinet.
So, it’s good that you ask that question.
For more information about Jonathan Shor, go to www.jonathanshor.com.
Celebrating the mysteries of science and art, Quark Park is a collaboration of Princeton-area visionaries, scientists, artists, and architects including Templeton-prize winner, Freeman Dyson. Over the coming months, Wild River Review will be running a series of interviews with many of the players in this one-of-a-kind sculpture garden...