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Christopher DeLaurenti: Helping people to listen

{{youtube:medium:left|Pc_b_FZ4ykA, A look at "Thrill: A Love Song," Christopher DeLaurenti's sound exhibition as featured at William & Mary's Andrews Gallery}}


As you step through the black curtains, your eyes fill with red light and your ears alert to soulful voices that approach from before, behind, beside you. Did you just step into a private performance at a jazz club? A memory of love and longing? A still-beating heart?

Each person who experiences “Thrill: A Love Song,” a new sound installation at the Andrews Gallery at William & Mary, has a different answer. What matters to the installation’s creator, music lecturer and sound designer Christopher DeLaurenti, is not the interpretation, but that the experience causes people to listen.

“My goal, the root of everything I do, is to point people toward listening,” he said. “All of the material objects that I work with are about listening. They are about helping people to listen. I think the ears are undervalued, and the ears can tell us a lot.”

A sound installation is an exhibit space created specifically for listening, where all of the sights and sounds connect, said DeLaurenti.

“Part of the goal of the art is to connect the sound with objects, with the person being inside the space,” he said. “You can think of an orchestra concert as an installation in which most of the people aren’t actually paying attention to what they see.”

DeLaurenti, whose sound work has been featured across the world, came up with the idea for this piece while working as a music writer in Seattle a few years ago. He convinced four of his favorite singers in the city -- Josephine Howell, Kelley Johnson, Dawn Clement and Greta Matassato – to record an a capella version of “You’re My Thrill,” a “torch song” from the 1940s.

The four singers came to the studio one at a time, where DeLaurenti, with the help of sound engineer Doug Haire, recorded several takes of the song. Once those recordings were completed, DeLaurenti arranged the tracks into a single, unique piece with bits of lyrics from different parts of the song sometimes overlapping, sometimes playing solo among plenty of silent pauses.

“My recording was a way for me to kind of create this extended performance where it’s not just one singer, but four singers that are all singing together with each other, through each other and against each other,” he said.

Within the exhibit space at Andrews Hall, the track plays from four speakers in each of the room’s corners. A single table and chair sit near the center of the room, facing a wall with a curtained door. A piece of art featuring a microphone lays haphazardly on the step to that door, and a microphone cord is snaked across the floor nearby. The entire space is bathed in red light, in subtly varied shades.

“There are several reasons for red,” said DeLaurenti. “Red is the classic color that we see, when we see performers on stage. Red is the color of romance, and red is known to quicken the pulse and the heartbeat.”

The different gradients of red – from dark to near-pink -- are also meant to create different feels in the room, he said.

“And of course, what better color to accompany a torch song than red?”

Everything in the room -- from the sound to the objects to the red light -- was put in place carefully by DeLaurenti.

“My hope is that whoever comes inside connects the sound to the objects to the light and even to the dimensions of the space,” he said. “Quite a few of the walls are blank and for good reason. Part of it is that the sound should help fill that in. The visual objects are a clue.”

Since the installation’s opening on Jan. 17, DeLaurenti has been “astounded” by the range of experiences that people have reported back to him.

“What surprises me most is when people have stayed a long time,” he said. “That’s a great compliment, and that’s really meaningful. And I get envious because they might be hearing something that I have not heard.

“As an artist, once you send your work out into the world, in many ways it ceases to be yours, and people will tell you more about your own work than you actually know. There’s one of the dicta of performance art: I didn’t know what it was going to mean until I did it. Installations for me often function in the same way. It’s a way of posing a question between the viewer and myself and trying to somehow elucidate an answer, an insight, a feeling.”

The installation is part of DeLaurenti’s mission to get his students to think about sound as part of their foundations in art education.

“The ear moves faster than the eye, and the ear can see around corners,” he said. “The ear can see, if you will, great distances -- much further than the eye. And the ear can receive messages in a way that the eyes cannot. So, the fact that hearing and listening is so seldom taught as a part of foundations doesn’t make sense. We’re missing a quarter of the ballgame.”

DeLaurenti has a simple lesson for all those who want to learn how to listen better:

“Go to any space. It doesn’t matter where it is, where you are. Don’t speak. Don’t move. Listen and quietly count to yourself. Just touch your finger with your other hand or press a finger against your leg or your other arm. Count how many sounds you hear. That’s it. That will get it started.”

The “Thrill: A Love Song” installation runs through Jan. 31.