What is more silent than silence? Crickets. A classic source of comedic relief inserted when a performance goes awry — no laughs or applause from the audience, just the sound of crickets inducing a pang of awkwardness.
Thomson’s work addresses the voids that exist within culture–the gaps, pauses, digressions and mistakes that surround material production, institutional space and everyday life.
In this exhibition Thomson presents a video and audio installation of an orchestral performance recreating the natural sounds made by different species of crickets from around the world. His work combines research and wit to explore our understanding of silence, noise, and music through the sound of crickets.
20th century composer Edgard Varèse once said that noise is simply “any sound one doesn’t like” while music, pleasing to the listener, he explained is “organized sound,” an idea that Thomson refers to often.
Thomson worked with Los Angeles-based composer Michael Webster to transcribe a compilation of field recordings of crickets into a musical score for a 17-person orchestra. The video on view at Artpace “Crickets” (2012) documents the orchestral performance of cricket chirps as imitated by violin, flute, clarinet, and percussion.
The inspiration for Thomson’s project was a French album consisting of field recordings taken of cicadas and crickets titled “Cigales et Grillons“ by Frémeaux & Associés, a French recording company, in 1999. Thomson defines field recordings as audio recordings of any sound, a means of “formalized listening.”
Thomson acquired original field recordings of crickets for his orchestra to mimic from what he refers to as a “Library of Sounds” created by Frémeaux & Associés. As Thomson said, “It’s like a National Geographic of Sounds” that presents unique recordings of animal species from around the world, imitations of dinosaurs, lost languages and historic speeches.
The video also includes original field notes by Frémeaux & Associés identifying facts such as the location of the cricket recordings and date they were captured, from the 1960s to the 90s.
Different species of crickets around the world make different sounds. They are found all over, specifically Thailand, Madagascar, Venezuela, Cameroon, China, Australia and occasionally decide to swarm San Antonio. Also, the sound of a cricket’s chirp varies depending on the temperature outside. Crickets create their sounds in an analogue way—they rub a bumpy vein on their bodies to produce a chirp, similar to the way we hear music when the needle moves across the grooves of a vinyl record.
In China crickets are known as good luck charms, often caged as pets. People keep a small cricket cage in their bedrooms to hold a single cricket, whose consistent chirp lulls them to sleep.
Connecting to this idea, sculptures of cricket cages containing miniature speakers projecting one lonely instrumental insect will accompany the video and be installed throughout Artpace.
Also included in the exhibition is the 25-page composer’s score for “Crickets” (2012). Through these pages Thomson presents silence in a visual way—they are debossed letterpress prints, meaning the music notes were pressed into the paper with no ink, nearly appearing blank unless viewed up close (see photo below).
In 1952 experimental composer John Cage stunned an audience with his work 4’33”—a piano piece composed of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.
Many people attending the initial performance felt duped—eliciting a mix of embarrassment and outrage.
As Thomson put it, Cage offered them “an exercise in listening.”
To Thomson, Cage’s 4’33” is the most important work of art of the 20th century.
“Cage is doing silence as music while I’m doing music as silence. It’s like an answer to Cage’s work,” he said.
It’s impossible for humans to experience complete silence. Even in outer space if you were to encounter it—meaning your helmet is off—you’d be dead. The closest we can come to experiencing complete silence is to enter an anechoic chamber. Yet even in this truly sound proof environment, the simulated silence reveals the sounds of our bodies. We hear the sound of our own blood pumping and suddenly become aware of the white noise we’ve grown immune to throughout our lives. It’s a disorienting experience for most that enter.
Thomson said many people react to his work by recalling their own memories of hearing crickets commenting, “It’s usually a time when they were really listening—they were in the moment.”
If you’re unable to make it to the opening tonight, Artpace is always free and open to the public Wednesday through Sunday, 12-5 p.m. And bring your kids, too — you can’t go wrong with bugs.
Mungo Thomson’s exhibition “Crickets for Solo and Ensemble” will be on view at Artpace through April 27, 2014.
Taylor Browning is an artist and art educator passionate about building community through the arts. She has recently returned to her hometown San Antonio and is thrilled to be working at Artpace as assistant curator of education for teen and university programs. Follow her work at taylorbrowning.com.