Monday, July 19, 2010


Musique Povera - Sue Cramer

the genesis of all musical
instruments begins with
a poverty of means and materials.
things that already exist within the environment
bones, holes in the earth, animal skins, rocks,
cooking, farming and hunting implements, sinew, seeds,
teeth, branches.
Dylan Martorell 28 June 2010

The objects displayed here by artist and electro-acoustic
musician Dylan Martorell have a dual life in music and
in art; they are hand-built musical instruments, but
also sculptures. Piecing them together from all manner
of scavenged materials—like seedpods, branches and
stones, wooden boxes and brightly coloured tins,
second-hand drums, music-box motors and parts of
guitars—Martorell creates an inventive array of sculptural
collage. But during performances by Martorell and his
fellow musicians in the first month of the exhibition these
sculptures wil become the means to make music and
experiment with sound. ‘I like to make things that have
more than one function he says’1 .

Together, these instruments and music give expressionto Martorell’s ‘Musique Povera’, a method and creative principle he applies to his work both as an artist and musician.2 Simple items drawn from the environment are recycled and resourcefully put to new use in ways that patch together a broad range of cultural influences, many of them garnered from Martorell’s travels abroad, particularly to Morocco and South-East Asia. A palm frond serves as the neck of a box-guitar giving a tropical twist to the blues and jug-band tradition of making guitars out of cigar-boxes. A cardboard postal tube becomes a readymade soundboard for a Dan Bau, a single-stringed instrument native to Vietnam. A snaredrum borrowed from the contemporary drum-kit of jazz and rock music is joined to the neck and head of a traditional ruan, the Chinese equivalent of a lute,to create a new hybrid version that can be played both as a percussion or stringed instrument. The hard, emptied-out skins of gourd fruits act as sound resonators for an assortment of other string, percussion and wind instruments that are newly invented by Martorell but which echo the uses made of gourds by African and Asian musicians.

Several sculptures are quite unlike any familiar instruments.
An old wooden crutch forms part of a makeshift
structure used to create tension for strings that are
played by plucking or made to vibrate by sliding a
solid object along them. A small electronic synthesizer
is activated when the beak of a toy plastic parrot hits
a succession of metal tabs. Tent-poles are joined to
make a new kind of eccentrically multi-pronged wind
instrument to be played by several players at once.
A so-called ‘brush-guitar’, made through the quirky
assembling of a straw brush, aerosol can, trumpet-mute
and a handsaw which serves as a bridge for sitar strings,
bears little resemblance to guitars as we know them.
The work is more a whimsical nod to the way instrument
types can be inventively re-interpreted and improvised
reflecting Martorell’s interest in ‘musical diaspora and the
ways in which musical ideas and instruments develop
within different environments’.

Martorell’s curious ensemble of sound-making objects
makes a striking sculptural environment in Heide’s
Project Gallery, resembling the types of display one
might see in an ethnographic museum. Indeed, in
developing this style of installation, Martorell was directly
inspired by his visit in 2009 to the Museum of Ethnology
in Hanoi, Vietnam where he saw exhibits of traditional
hand-made instruments, totemic objects and other
kinds of artefacts.3 Several of Martorell’s instruments
are housed in conventional museum display cases or
hang on walls. Others sit on a range of unconventional
supports: a wooden table, a speaker box and drums
of various sizes brought from the artist’s studio. The
display cases also contain some of the ordinary objects
Martorell uses to make sounds in his performances or
when recording music: a cup, spray can, broken glass,
golf balls, tapioca seeds, small electronic parts and a
cluster of painted rocks he collected from railway tracks,
items that can be variously banged, dropped, poured
and rolled to release their sonic potential. These simple
objects and actions are perhaps the purest expression
of Musique Povera’s ‘poverty of means and materials’

While Martorell’s concept has been shaped by his
experiences working collaboratively with artists and
musicians in Asia, Musique Povera, as the name implies,
also derives from two important touchstones from
mid-twentieth century Europe: the French school
of Musique Concrète and the Italian art movement
Arte Povera. The lyrical use that Arte Povera artists
made of humble or so-called ‘poor’ materials, including
those drawn from nature, is similar to Martorell’s use
of such things. With Musique Concrète, he shares an
interest in non-musical sounds, the ambient noises
of the ‘real’ world, and the aural possibilities that come
from using everyday objects as instruments.

In the 1950s the pioneers of Musique Concrète used
magnetic tape, at that time a new invention, to record
and manipulate everyday noises for the purpose of
creating music. Martorell now uses digital media to
similar ends. The sounds of nature and the urban world
like the songs of frogs at night, or noises from a building
site are digitally recorded, then looped and layered to
create a musical composition.4 In other ways, Martorell’s
instruments respond to nature and the environment.
In the absence of any fixed or pre-determined tuning
system, Martorell establishes their musical key from what
he terms ‘acoustic eco-systems’,5 that is, the auditory
conditions of the place where they are to be played; thus
he might align their pitch with the hum of a heater or
air-conditioner, or the clatter of a tram outside. Seedpods,
stones, glass pieces, or even an animal’s tooth are used
as elemental tuning devices; when manipulated they
can tighten or slacken strings, or when placed on a
drum-skin can vary its timbre.

Nature’s centrality to the ethos of Musique Povera
is beautifully expressed in sculptures using natural
materials, like the Sarang Box Harp (2009). The harp’s
strings are drawn taut between sections of a small
branch while its tuning pegs resemble white buds, as
if the harp’s music is nature’s blossom. In a different
way, Martorell’s pencil drawings on plywood also
picture nature as a source for music. The drawings’
intricate geometric designs derive from the growth
patterns of plants, but the drawings also serve as music
compositions for instrument or voice. Notations up the
sides specify the pitch of notes to be played or sung and
numbers along the bottom indicate the required duration
of the notes. When these music scores are performed,
their linear, criss-crossing structures translate as layered
glissandos of sound.
Some works invoke the very first instruments of ancient
times. The crude bamboo and nylon string bows that
feature in the drum-based works Monochord Tom Harp
(2010) and Pentatonic Bass Drum Harp (2010) recall
the earliest musical bows but also the hunter or archer’s
bow from which the musical type developed. Pentatonic
Bass Drum Harp (2010) is Martorell’s adaptation of a
Ugandan ground harp, a primitive stringed instrument
distinguished by its ingenious use of a hole in the
ground as a resonator for sounds made by playing
a string bow above ground.6 In his version, Martorell
replaces the hole in the ground with a tom drum; it
serves the same purpose of amplifying sound, but
provides greater portability. By invoking ‘the genesis
of all musical instruments’, as Martorell says, these
strange and evocative works go to the heart of ‘Musique
Povera’, connecting with instrument builders since the
earliest times who, like him, have used simple materials
borrowed from the environment to invent new ways of
making music.
Sue Cramer, Curator
Essay originally published by Heide Museum of Modern Art for the exhibition “Dylan Martorell, Musique Povera”, 31 July -14 November 2010
1 Unless otherwise stated, quotes from the artist are from
conversations with the author during June–July 2010.
2 See the artist’s blogspot for images of his works and other
source material informing his concept of Musique Povera
at: 21 June 2010.
3 Martorell has posted his photographs of the
exhibits he saw at Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology
Saturday 12 December 2009.
4 Martorell’s field recordings can be found
and martorell
5 Notes from the artist in an email 7 July 2010.
6 For further information on the Ugandan ground harp and the
origins of the musical bow see
21 June 2010

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