Laetitia Sonami

at Randolph Street Gallery, October 13 and 14

The human hand is a powerfully expressive instrument. Consider the lover’s hands, gently caressing, firmly clasping, warmly pressing. Consider the aggressor’s hands, bundling up in bony, gnarled rage, communicating anger more directly than words ever could. Perhaps the hand’s emotional transparency in part explains its centrality in the production of traditional music: the hand we use to offer up our hearts also conveys great passion in concerti and sonatas. It transforms the elemental major triad produced by a simple, resonating column of air into the bluesy 12-note chromatic run of a clarinet. Hands can not only increase the number of notes available to a musician but color and shape those notes, giving the violin its vibrato, the guitar its gush, and the piano its pianissimo.

But with electronic music, which can be programmed and sampled, the hands can become nearly irrelevant. A musician friend of mine composes entire scores solely by typing commands into a computer (you don’t need hands to type–a pencil in the mouth will do). To “perform” the piece he presses a button, which he could do just as well with his nose. Perhaps electronic music often feels passionless because even the most sophisticated circuitry is no match for five fingers.

Laetitia Sonami, the French-born, San Francisco-based performance musician, pulls electronic music back from the brink of technological sterility and literally reshapes it with her highly expressive hands. Sonami appeared as part of Randolph Street Gallery and Experimental Sound Studio’s “Sounds Good to Me” series (which concludes this weekend with Chicago installation musician Bill Close). Sonami’s instrument is an elbow-length Lycra glove of her own design with several dozen sensors embedded in it: transducers, ultrasound detectors, an accelerometer, even a mercury switch. Each responds to movement, pressure, or both with electronic signals that travel through wires running along her arm–exposed like colorful raw nerves–to a black box strapped on her back, through a long cable, and finally to several synthesizers programmed to produce a vast array of sonic events.

Through a flick of her thumb every so often, Sonami changes her preprogrammed electronic template, or acoustical palette, so that a particular gesture–curling the right index finger, for example–will produce entirely different sounds (imagine a piano’s 88 keys rearranging themselves 30 times over the course of 20 minutes, and you’ll get some sense of how difficult an instrument Sonami’s glove must be to master). Certain other movements–rotating her hand, for example, or moving it away from her body–will bend a note, increase its volume, trigger any number of acoustic embellishments. Put simply, she can create a symphony with a wave of her hand.

Which is precisely what she does in performance. With steely concentration, she seems to conduct the very air, extracting from it a rich, ethereal soundscape that feels more discovered than composed. Combining musical tones, sampled instruments, rumblings, twitters, hisses, voices, and even animal noises, Sonami molds sound the way a master sculptor shapes clay, building expressive monuments in fleeting temporality. Her complicated, at times humorous, always haunting compositions seem to tower above her even as she holds them in her two small hands.

“What Happened II” is an intentionally fragmented piece centered around a story by Melody Sumner Carnahan, which Sonami recites into a microphone. In it a woman goes through a series of outlandishly melodramatic relationships seemingly at the speed of light–the speed at which electronic signals travel from Sonami’s fingertips to her synthesizers. As the story goes on and various hand gestures throw interference through the wires, Sonami’s voice begins to decompose. Gradually she moves away from the microphone into a pool of red light, a kind of ghostly pond from which her magic hands pull delicate, seemingly distant tones, most of which appear to scamper away almost as soon as she takes hold of them (occasionally she gestures as though she were literally throwing a sound across the room). Later two programmed voices list the items in several incomplete sets of china–fragments of once-valued collections. The missing pieces, we can only assume, broke into shards long ago. The overall effect is one of deep melancholy, of longing for wholeness.

Sonami’s technologically mediated performances cleverly parallel the human inability to experience life except through the mediation of memory–life is by definition a fragment. As she says at the end of the piece, portraying an elderly woman who systematically categorizes “the number and quality” of all her pleasant reminiscences, “I’m certain my memory of these things is better than anything I could experience today.” To live an “authentic” moment becomes an impossibility.

“…And She Keeps Coming Back for More,” her most recent piece, relies on a purely musical narrative, beginning with evanescent, high-pitched ripples and then plunging into long, sonorous waves that create a feeling of great expanse. At the center of that expanse stands Sonami, encumbered with wires, tethered to her computer equipment, focusing entirely on her hair-trigger body-instrument. Her rigid, self-imposed confinement–she can’t travel more than a few feet, she can’t make a sudden movement without setting off an avalanche of sound–adds a poignancy that would be entirely missed in a recording. For even as she stands nearly rooted to the spot she discovers great emotional freedom, her arms widening gracefully as if to embrace her music, then cascading down to scoop up the next phrase. She looks as though she were on the verge of taking flight.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jeff Callen.