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Lizzi Bougatsos on Composing Music Inspired by Harry Bertoia Sculptures

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The Gang Gang Dance musician composed the piece at Bertoia’s barn in Pennsylvania

Lizzi Bougatsos of Gang Gang Dance will perform a special composition tonight as part of the Museum of Arts and Design’s (MAD) exhibition of Harry Bertoia’s sound sculptures. (Not only was Bertoia a prolific artist and sculptor, he was also a furniture designer whose best known for the Knoll Diamond chair.)

Titled "Atmosphere for Enjoyment: Harry Bertoia’s Environment for Sound," the exhibit attempts to approximate the experience of hearing the sculptures—collectively known as Sonambient—played in situ, as if at his barn in Pennsylvania.

MAD commissioned Bougatsos and another artist, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, to create new sound and video recordings at the barn. The artists will perform versions of their pieces at the museum using the installation of Sonambient sculptures currently on view in the gallery. Curbed spoke to Bougatsos in anticipation of her performance tonight, which begins at 7 p.m.

What was the composition process like?

It was all rooted in improvisation because we went to the farm and we actually made recordings at the barn with a lot more of the Bertoia Sonambients than are at the museum. The barn was really small, so it had a little bit of a fuller, more intimate feel. There are just fewer sculptures in the museum tonight, so I brought some of my own gear and words and sounds and visuals to add to it.

Is the composition something that can be adapted to the space of the museum or will it also be improvised?

There will be a lot of improvisation. The thing is, you kind of have to work that way with the nature of these sculptures because the sound is really about the energy that you bring to it. It’s kind of moody.

Is there a theme to the composition?

There’s definitely a theme because it’s me interacting with those sculptures. It’s not just the sculptures alone. I guess it’s everything. It’s this frenzy of what’s going on in the world right now. "The Last Hope," which is what I titled the peace, is sort of a plea for a peaceful existence. I think everyone can agree that there’s a really painful anguish and fear that exists right now, with racism and the government, all the way down to controlling GMOs. Everything is basically going to shit so we have to sort of address that. I think a lot of that frenzy, and keeping up with the media, is going to definitely be a part of the performance tonight.

What other instruments are you using?

I decided to focus on my words and my writing and my voice as an instrument. I also brought my Rototoms, which are sort of my staple. The sculptures are in a museum and I can’t actually bang on them in the way that I’d like to, so I needed to bring my Rototoms to bring the aggression somewhere. I’ll have a lot of effects and a few other hand instruments.

How much time did you get to spend at the Sonambient Barn?

I only spent a day at the barn. It was my first time interacting with the sculptures but I felt like I had a pretty direct relationship with the pieces. I knew what I was going to feel—that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t surprised—but I kind of knew what what was in store for me as far as where I was going to go with it.

Did you have to think about the music in a different way or did it come naturally?

It’s sort of natural for me. I am more of a drummer than an electronic artist, so for me the primal relationship was right there in front of me. I didn’t approach it that differently than I would have if I had a keyboard in front of me. I think there’s still elements of percussion and vibration and mood.

Watch a video of Bougatsos rehearsing at Bertoia’s barn below.