David Skidmore couldn’t even begin to count the number of instruments he’s played. As a member of Grammy Award favorites Third Coast Percussion (most recently nominated for Perspectives, released earlier this year), Skidmore could plausibly play instruments from all six habitable continents for any given performance—plus the odd metal scrap, surgical tube, or squeaky toy.
“I like to say that a percussion instrument is anything you ask a percussionist to play and they say yes,” he jokes.
But on November 15, at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, even Skidmore clocked a first. Before an invite-only audience of professors, students, and staff, he played an instrument for the first time in decades. The last person reported to have used it was its dedicatee, the iconoclastic composer La Monte Young.
The unique object—a freestanding aluminum ball inside a narrow, open-face aluminum box, wired with contact microphones—was created for Young in 1966 by Walter De Maria, a conceptual artist and minimalist who became a leading exponent of the land art movement. (His Lightning Field, erected in 1977 in Catron County, New Mexico, remains one of its most prominent exemplars.) De Maria made nine editions of the Instrument for La Monte Young; in the intervening years, most have become fêted works in his catalog, exclusively displayed as artworks. The edition Skidmore plays is currently on display as part of the Smart’s “Monochrome Multitudes” exhibition, on loan from a private collection.
“As these instruments are moving into museums or private collections, people are treating them as sculptures, which means nobody wants them to be touched, let alone played by a musician who is not an art handler,” says “Monochrome Multitudes” co-curator Christine Mehring, a professor at the University of Chicago’s art history and visual arts department. “I felt this was probably going to be one of the last opportunities to create a recording, for perpetuity, of what this instrument actually sounded like.” (Visitors to the exhibition can listen to Skidmore’s performance in its entirety.)
The instrument was a clear fit with the exhibition’s focus on 20th- and 21st-century works engaging with monochrome literally, materially, and conceptually. And Mehring, who describes herself as a “huge Third Coast Percussion nerd-fan,” knew she wanted to have a member of the celebrated quartet involved in any recording.
An accomplished percussionist and composer himself, De Maria was deeply embedded in the same 1960s musical avant-garde that produced Third Coast’s core repertoire. He dedicated an early sculpture to John Cage and performed with Young on multiple occasions, often alongside fellow minimalist Terry Riley. Later, De Maria played drums in The Druds, Andy Warhol’s short-lived band, and The Primitives, Lou Reed and John Cale’s precursor to the Velvet Underground.
De Maria’s Instrument for La Monte Young is one of a series of works he created in the 1960s and 70s with moveable balls. He first began toying with the concept with Boxes for Meaningless Work (1961), which directs audiences to interact with an assemblage of balls and boxes while remaining “aware that what you are doing is meaningless.” But the Instrument shares most of its DNA with De Maria’s subsequent aluminum works: the triptych Channel Series: Triangle, Circle, Square (1972) and a controversial series he designed in evocative shapes: in a crucifix, in a Star of David, in a swastika.
“There’s a moment in 60s sculpture when industrial metals—copper, aluminum, stainless steel—become an important minimalist vocabulary, which is monochrome, as well,” Mehring says.
By all accounts, including the composer’s own, Young didn’t commission Instrument for La Monte Young, despite its name: De Maria simply dropped it off at Young’s loft one day. (Young, now 87, did not respond to pre-performance queries from the Smart nor the Reader.) The fact that Young had no input in its design at least partly explains why it didn’t interest him much.
“Although it looked very beautiful as a work of visual art, I found it very difficult to make it sound worthwhile,” Young said, recounting the experience after De Maria’s death in 2013. “It was nowhere near up to the level of the kind of sound I was interested in . . . Therefore, I never performed it in public.”
It’s practically a given that no recording exists of Young playing Instrument. The composer has a limited number of authorized non-bootlegged, commercial releases of his music. However, Young experimented with it enough to develop a preferred performance technique: “I never allowed the ball to strike the ends of the instrument. This made a sound that was very static yet at times mesmerizing, like the wind.”
Skidmore heeded Young’s directive for his Smart Museum performance, nearly 60 years later. That said, it’s much harder than Young made it sound for the ball to avoid making contact with the sides of the Instrument. In fact, it’s just about impossible, says Skidmore and Mehring. Skidmore decided to embrace those moments of impact as part of the performance, albeit unintentional ones.
“There’s really only one way to play it, and only two sounds: the sound of [the ball] rolling back and forth, which is the desired sound, and the sound of it knocking against the sides, which is the less desired sound,” Skidmore says.
True to the theme of “Monochrome Multitudes,” Instrument for La Monte Young wasn’t designed for acoustic variation. It has no differences in density along its length that would create a variation in pitch as the ball rolls, for example, and a felt layer on its underside acts as a buffer between the Instrument and whatever surface it’s set on. (Skidmore performed it standing, propped on a table; photos show Young playing cross-legged on the floor of his loft.)
Therefore, the instrument sounds largely as you’d expect: like a heavy metal ball rolling along a dense, smooth surface, punctuated by muted clacks akin to the sound of a giant Newton’s cradle. When the ball rolls slowly, Young’s wind comparison is pretty spot on. When it picks up speed, the sound intensifies and hardens, like the sound of planing wood.
The logistical parameters of the Smart’s performance and recording precluded exploring those limited sonic materials on a monumental, Youngian scale. So, to vary his 20-minute improvisation, Skidmore turned to electronics—always part of his practice but which became a full-blown “obsession” during the pandemic shutdown. When Third Coast’s gig calendar was swept blank, Skidmore busied himself collecting analog synthesizers and learning the finer points of music production. With the help of an arts technology specialist at the University of Chicago, Skidmore was able to boost the signal from the Instrument’s internal microphone system—left intact since its creation—with a pre-amp, then connect it to a Synthstrom Audible Deluge, an all-in-one synthesizer, sampler, and sequencer.
“If Christine had reached out to me three years ago, I might have said, ‘You know, I’ll try it, but the performance will be short,’” Skidmore says. “As soon as she reached out to me, though, I knew that there would be this incredibly harmonically rich sound produced at a very quiet dynamic level that I could bring to life through electronics.”
Donning rubber gloves, Skidmore began his performance at the Smart by showcasing the Instrument’s naked, unprocessed sound, rolling the ball at varying speeds and lengths. He then began to loop the live audio in three layers, applying low-pass filters to each one by one. In other words, highlighting discrete frequencies within the recorded noises. Eventually, he stopped rocking the ball back and forth to shift to manipulate the sound further with reverb and delay. The output transitioned from retro boops and perky, woodblock-like pops to a lusher, teeming soundscape, some of the processed tones now sounding like the cries of frogs.
Skidmore ended the performance as he began: The electronics fell away, gradually at first, then all at once. All that was left was the subtle, unassuming sound of this most misunderstood of instruments.
“After walking through the exhibit, it finally clicked for me. You’ve only got one sound, but there’s a whole world that lives inside that one sound,” Skidmore says. “There are infinite possibilities as to how an artist will react when they have just one color in their palate.”
Through 1/8/23: Tue-Sun 10 AM-5 PM, Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood, 773-702-0200, smartmuseum.uchicago.edu. Free admission.
Reba Cafarelli is managing director for Third Coast Percussion, working primarily in booking, marketing, and day-to-day operations. The ensemble is incorporated as a nonprofit, and it has a board of directors and three full-time employees in addition to its four members. In May 2022 Third Coast Percussion plans to release its next album, which will…
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