A Conversation with Bill and Mary Buchen

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire - April 1996

Since 1972, Bill and Mary Buchen have collaborated to integrate interaction with the visual arts in a multi-disciplinary form they define as Sonic Architecture.

They have designed interactive installations for museums, galleries, and public sites throughout the US. Large-scale public works include: Sound Parks and Science Playgrounds, Aeolian (wind) Harps and designs for urban and natural environments. Their pursuits center on the study of environmental phenomena examined through its applications to science, architecture, ecology, and diverse world cultures.

Most recently they were selected for the Arizona Science Center and a for the Raleigh N.C Greenways. May 15 they will be included in Sense of Space, a group show at the Katoinah Art Museum.

The Buchen's project, Temple of the Ear, will focus on an installation of bells from Cambodia, Nepal, Burma and India and will feature a duet performance on Steve Gorm Bamboo flute w/ Bill Buchen on Tablas and percussion.

Judy Malloy

Welcome Bill and Mary!

Anna and I are delighted to have you here.

Bill and Mary just returned from India where, among other things they produced Sound Vessel, A performance/installation on the Ganges River in Varanasi, India.

Sound vessel was a rowboat equipped with a windharp, underwater microphone and contact mikes on the oarlocks that carried passenger as well as a family of musicians who sang North Indian Dhrupad songs while floating along the river. More information and photographs are on the Sonic Architecture home page under new projects.

Bill and Mary, it would also be great to hear more details about the planning and implementation of Sound Vessel. How did the passengers react? Your work is community oriented. (or so it has always seemed to me) How did working in India differ from working in New York?

Bill and Mary Buchen

Sound Vessel at Sound Sattra
The festival was called Sound sattra or feeding of the soul with sound. It was organized by Peter Pannke GER, Andres Bosshard SWZ, and Sam Aulinger AUS nd us USA. Varanasi has a strong word of mouth/poster pipeline in the academic community so we got 150 people attending on 24 hours notice.

The city is very congested with bicycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, cars & cows so the river is a natural way to travel.

We figured out the maximum baggage allowance on KLM and took 6 collapsing fiberglass fishing poles and battery powered amplifiers and mixers. The wind harp was built to our design by our friend Charlie Bremer. The other artists mentioned did installations on the roof of the hotel where we were staying..

Our installation came after a 3 day dhrupad mela where the finest Dhrupad musicians come to play from 9 at night till 3:00 am or more. The last night of our festival and the night before the festival was shivaratri where shivites make a course of 5 holy sites throughout the night chanting gods grace and beauty.... Ram Ram...Jai Sri Ram....the next morning everyone bathes in the Ganges and that was the day of our Sound Vessel Installation at Sound Sattra. I sat at the front of the rowed boat and did a live mix of the wind harp oarlocks and hydrophone. At sunset, the Mallicks having performed the night before at the Dhrupad mela, joined us on the boat and sang old composition in 14 b

Later the next day we missed our train and rode in a second class sleeper sleeping on the floor without seats, It was like a dream. We can't wait to go back again.

Valerie Gardiner

Hello Bill and Mary,
I like the phrase "sound sattra" (I just copied it into my diary.)

Did you document the work somehow? The way you describe it, it seems like spontaneity and immediacy was such a part of it.

Would you say more about the work that you'll be showing at the Katonah Museum? I live near there, so I'll go see it.

Judy Malloy

It sounds truly wonderful - something that makes me long to be in that place - floating down the Ganges, listening... So, I'll echo Val's excellent question. What is the closest I can come to experiencing this?

Bill and Mary Buchen

Our sound installation 'Temple of the Ear' will open at the Katonah Art Museum on May 12 as part of a group show called Sensations...it's about the senses. The exhibition will be up through October. We will make a procession of tapered poles with windbells as you enter the museum grounds and other structures with bells in the sculpture garden.

At the opening on May 12 at 2:00 pm, Bill Buchen and Steve Gorn will play duets on bamboo flutes, tablas, and hand drums as part of the exhibition. We have video footage of Sound Vessel and performance by the Mallicks but its not edited yet. What we do have is a 24 minute edited video called Sounds like India it can be ordered through our homepage under videos and publications. Sounds like India will be part of the Sound Culture Festival in SF and may be viewed at the Sound Culture Listening Room at the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery through April 13th.

Judy Malloy

Thanks, Bill and Mary. Your work sounds as if it integrates visual and sonic elements remarkably well. Is this something you consider?

Also I have been wondering about your backgrounds. What led you to collaboratively evolve sonic architecture?

Timothy Collins

I'm wagging my tail here; copying text and URL's to show Reiko and our sound class. Welcome Mary and Bill, I've followed your work for some time. It's a treat to have you here interactive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anna Couey

Hi Bill & Mary...it's great to see you here! I'm about to head off to your web site; so feel free to skip over this question if it's answered there: was your audience for Sound Vessel other festival goers, or the general public?

Bill Buchen

Sonic Architecture / Sound and the Visual Arts. Harry Partch was a tremendous influence. The thought of a person creating their own music and instruments was very influential. We went to the Met about 10 times before realizing they had anything but a instrument collection, and at the Museum of Natural History, the hall of Man in Africa was the greatest sculpture collection. with their incredible exhibition of harps and xylophones we were enraptured their form and sound. Great Architectural / Sculptural / Sonic forms always created a resonance with our spirits. Light Waves and Sound Waves synergized and they coalesced into Sonic Architecture.

Mary Buchen

Since I am not a musician but a visual artist, I was especially interested in concepts of involving others like myself in playing music without formal training...I was also interested in creating works activated by environmental forces and tuning into soundscapes as music.

Valerie Gardiner

Please don't answer this question if it is too personal...

When I read about your work on the Ganges, I wondered if there was a religious or devotional aspect to what you were doing. The people around you were acting within an ancient spiritual tradition. Were you part of it or observers? Visitors or co-celebrants? Anthropologists?

When you did the sound sattra did your own souls get fed? Did you talk with the other people about their souls?

Judy Malloy

And I also had a personal question. I'm interested in collaboration - in how you began to work together, in how that process works. Or, if you prefer how the collaborative process informs your work.

Bill and Mary Buchen

Indian sages say the world would break asunder if all the overtones were audible at once. For us all music that touches our spirits is devotional, below are to quotes that relate to these thoughts. Vibrations as a rule have length as well as breadth, and they may last the least fraction of a moment or the greater part of the age of the universe. They make different forms, figures and colors as they shoot forth, one vibration creating another; thus myriads arise out of one. In this way there are circles under circles and circles over circles, all of which form the universe. Every vibration after its manifestation becomes merged again in its original source. The reach of vibrations is according to the fineness of the plane of their starting-point...

The aspect of movement or vibrations which appeals to our hearing is what we call audible and what we term sound. The aspect which appeals to our sight we call light, we call it color, and we call it visible. In point of fact, all that is visible, all that is audible - what is it in its origin? It is motion, it is movement, it is vibration, it is one and the same thing.

Therefore, even in that which is audible, in that which is called sound, those who can see trace color, and to those who can hear, even the sound of the color is audible. p.40 Sufi Hazrat Inayat Kahn from the Mysticism of Sound and Music

Judy Malloy

I've always (slight change of subject) been interested in your work with playgrounds. Are you still designing playgrounds with sonic elements?

Bill and Mary Buchen

We are currently working on a Sound Playground called PS 244 Sound Carnival. Its on our home page including several drawings. In addition were helping several architectural firms incorporate our sonic architecture designs into the play areas of several renovated community centers in Brooklyn. We don't like to limit our vision, so we also like to design Science Playgrounds. We think this aspect of our work is political in its intent to inspire creativity in humans, making them creators rather than consumers.

Judy Malloy

>making them creators rather than consumers
Can you talk a little more about this and about the ways in which you consider your work political?

Bill and Mary Buchen

We make artworks that can be used to aid the participant in creating music, discover perceptions about science and the investigate world around them.

This might lead a person towards the direction of making music that's personal to them, instead of buying a product that a company feels has the right beats per minute, or a multinational feels is trendy this year.

Thanks for the opportunity to be part of the Artswire dialogue, it was a good chance for us to exchange ideas and reflect upon our work. See you on the net.

Transcript of A Conversation with BILL and MARY BUCHEN, Item 83, Interactive Art Conference, Arts Wire.
Posted to the Web with participants' permission.


Conversations with Artists