The sounds are spectral. They drift into the cavernous courtyard of Vizcaya as though borne aloft by lumbering ghosts. Each note is a product of the South Miami Avenue estate's 1917 organ, but some sound like deep, rumbling gongs, others like delicate, trilling flutes.
Organic Pipes is a sound installation by local artist Gustavo Matamoros, who bears a vague resemblance to a bearded Dennis Hopper, but with a kindly twinkle instead of a malicious glint in his eyes. Matamoros describes himself as an artist who has "built a close relationship with sound," and his works as "sound gardening projects." In approaching his residency at Vizcaya as the inaugural artist in the museum's Contemporary Arts Project, with a grant from the Danielson Foundation (the museum declined to give the amount), he says he wanted to do "something that would capture the spirit" of the place.
He didn't say spirits, but to hear the tones wafting through the Italianate estate which was designed to look centuries old in 1914 you might think they were the product of phantom ancestors of James Deering, the tractor magnate who built Vizcaya. The science behind the sounds is no less fantastic: Matamoros sent wireless microphones attached to helium balloons into the upper reaches of the courtyard to determine which frequencies would resonate best. "The original intent seemed to be to hear the organ throughout the house," Matamoros says. So he maximized the possibilities by finding the tones that would bounce around the room the longest, turning the space "into a giant organ chamber."
Through February 15. Vizcaya, 3251 S Miami Ave, Miami; 305-250-9133, www.vizcayamuseum.org. Admission costs $12. Artist talks take place December 9 every half-hour between 9:30 a.m. and noon. Free with admission.
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The artist then isolated close to 300 frequencies of organ sound. They play, one note at a time, on five separate tapes that vary in length in order to create random combinations. Each tape is broadcast from its own speaker. Although the notes emanate from distinct places and can have differing starting and ending points, they intertwine to form harmonies some consonant, some dissonant that are unique and, important to Matamoros, beyond anyone's control.
"The installation has no preference" for what sounds are produced, he says. "I don't want to control anything. As human beings, we are too obsessed with controlling things. I think that's what listening is all about." The idea that a piece of written music can be played to much the same effect by a piano or a guitar is not something that interests Matamoros. To him, "A violin is a violin, a bird is a bird."
As he speaks, those organ notes continue to hover, everywhere and nowhere at once. They warble like mockingbirds. They bellow as if someone were blowing into an empty beer bottle. The tones transcend the instrument that made them.
Above all, they make you listen.