With his “Cloud Harp”, Nicolas Reeves explores clouds by making music. He spoke with Makery at Garden the Sky Water conference in Paris, before he returns to France in September for the 500th anniversary of the Chambord castle.
Nicolas Reeves, artist and researcher from Montreal, captivated the audience with his lecture on Cloud Harp at Maison de Métallos in Paris on June 15 (read our report). Sounds composed with clouds are both haunting and enchanting, and it takes a laboratory to hear them make music.
You mentioned that musicians and architects are among the first to spot or to incorporate cosmological changes into their work. Why is this the case?
Nicolas Reeves: They are not necessarily the first, but they do it almost systematically. It can be traced to ancient Greece, where you have a new cosmological model, the new figures of the cosmos. They basically create new systems of order and organization, and it is rather easy to observe that these systems got incorporated into music and architecture. They are also incorporated into other forms of art, but for several reasons, music and architecture are particularly reactive to that. The connection between architecture and music is absolutely intimate, at least it has been for 25 centuries. No one knows exactly why, but a lot of architects have been saying that architecture is like frozen music, and musicians and architects share a certain number of common words and terms. Maybe because they create the world, when you listen to music, the world changes around you—in strange ways, but it does change the world.
Architects do change the world, they change the reality of the world where everyone lives. It has been said that architecture is to space what music is to time. Because architects arrange, distribute and organize masses in spaces, and spaces in masses. And they work on the transition between both. Musicians arrange, distribute and organize sounds and silences, and they work in transition between both.
So, in both cases you can have a very similar organization, but one is dedicated to time, the other one to space. It’s really a very approximate statement, because architecture is also a matter of time. Architecture has an intimate relationship with time, and music has an intimate relationship with space. It’s a very good illustration of the relationship between both. They both have a cosmological connection.
You work with four different profiles in your laboratory. Is there a reason why art, science and technology work so well together?
Well, we do art in universities. The reason why they work so well together is that they belong to the same world. They talk about the same world; they act on the same words. It’s a good thing that they work together. If one tries to work alone, it doesn’t speak of the world. We have in Canada, for about 30 years, I would say, this concept of research-creation, which is starting to be considered alongside pure research and applied research as a valid field for producing knowledge. The three of them—art, science, technology—are different by their frame of reference. Where pure research tries to describe “how the world is”, and applied research tries to act on the world, research-creation is concerned about meaning, sense and signification, which is the field of art, basically.
And it’s a really new field, much more recent than the two other ones. Still trying to define itself, stabilize itself, but it’s completely cross-disciplinary, which is why it incorporates scientific knowledge, artistic knowledge, technological knowledge in a very natural way.
Was this also the case with the harp? You mentioned the historical background, with the development of the aeolian harp. Where and when did the clouds come in?
I talked about it very briefly in the lecture, when I found out that Feigenbaum had demonstrated that clouds were organized objects, with a very new kind of organization, which is basically the theories of chaos and fractal objects that originate from Mandelbrot and Feigenbaum. Then I said, “Okay, now I can try to create objects that are based on cloud geometries,” but the first thing I did was to create objects, architectons, small architectural sculptures. Instead of being based on the golden ratio or a kind of Corbusier’s modular, they were based on the proportions and the geometry of the cloud. Then I thought that architecture and music are so closely related, and when I presented these objects, I said I will make a musical background, with a music written from the geometry of the cloud. I did that by hand, that was a very tedious and very boring work. The music was boring, absolutely uninteresting, but it was coming from a cloud.
Then, thanks to my physicist friends, I learned that I could read the cloud directly with the laser system. So, I could write this manually, I can read the cloud directly. So I would have the architecture from the cloud and the music from the cloud. That was the origin of the cloud harp. It was born from the idea of architecture and music, that the world order comes from the clouds that could distribute masses in space, and sounds and silences.
Clouds as raw material then. But clouds were already making music by themselves, we just didn’t have the instruments to hear them?
Like any element of the world, the notion of harmony in the world is very old. In ancient Greece there was an old notion of the harmony of the spheres, which is not valid anymore in scientific terms. But that was the cosmological model that prevailed for 25 centuries, from Greek antiquity up till the end of the Renaissance, with the birth of modern science. It ruled everything, the pregnancy phases with women, the laws, the economy, everything! The idea was that if you can have a new ‘self’, if you can balance the different agents that are in yourself with the same harmony as in the harmony of the planets, and the music, and the architecture, then you will live a harmonious life. But these influences are conflicting. Harmony is not a peaceful concept. Harmony results from a fight of opposite forces, but the forces are still there.
That was very important for all the cosmological models till the end of the Renaissance, which was the birth of modern science. There were extremely violent attacks against the harmony of the sphere, sheer superstition, and the rest. So it lost all possibility to describe or to provide a valid universe, but contemporary science still calls for musical models in several aspects. It’s astonishing actually to see how some of the most important theories today were born from musical analogies—for example, three Kepler laws on planetary motion and De Broglie, who found the distance between the atomic nucleus and electronic orbit. Also, the last, not yet proven theory, the string theory. Even if the harmony of the spheres is not valid, music is still very present.
The Cloud Harp on the roof of the Quebec University in Montreal (UQAM), 2009:
Was there any special place in the world where you thought “Aha, this sound is different”? Is the sound of a harp sound different in Montreal than in Pittsburgh, for example? Does each place have a specific sound?
This is not an easy question. If the harp worked like a thermometer, in other words translating the clouds formally and directly, then we could definitely hear the difference clearly, because the clouds in Pittsburgh, Moscow or Hamburg are not the same. The fact is that every place composes a cloud symphony and atmosphere. And since we compose it, we compose from the ambience, the sphere, our impressions, our emotions, so they are very different. Mainly because of the composers, but also because of the clouds.
Is there any place in the world that you would like to place the harp but haven’t yet?
Sure, plenty. Places with a lot of clouds. I would like to go in any kind of tropical country in the summer because the cloudscapes are fabulous in this area. A real cloud architecture, all of these colors… I would like to present it in Brazil. I have been there for other installations. But also in the UK, definitely. It’s the country of clouds. In the autumn in London, from September to December. The total sunlight time was 20 minutes, for four months. At least I have an instrument. Thanks to it, people would appreciate the clouds. We presented it in Lyon, in the south, but not completely in the south of France. We had sunny and cloudy days, and it was close to a big park, the famous Parc de la Tête d’Or. At the moment when the clouds were coming, people were gathering around the harp. When the clouds were leaving, people also left. It gives you something to do, during the bad weather the harp will be singing.
What were the reactions to your cloud harp?
Most reactions were really fine. People really liked the instrument, some of them were coming to sleep close to the instrument, they came with sleeping bags when we were in North Quebec. We had a few bad reactions, but it’s just the order of things in arts. People can love it or not love it. Some people would just not believe that it could work. Sheer ignorance! There was this journalist in Quebec who could not believe it was working. He thought I had a tape recorder in the harp. And there is a laser pointing toward the sky, rather powerful. At some point he saw the laser machine and he was going to look inside the machine, so I grabbed him saying “Hey, don’t look at that, you’ll go blind!” And he said, “Ah, that’s where you hide your tape recorder!” So, I said, “Look into it, and tomorrow we’ll be doing the headlines in all the newspapers, because you will end up blind.” That’s not the way I want to do it. (laughs)
This was in North Quebec, a natural site. Usually the harp is placed in an urban area. Was this a conscious decision?
No. I play where people invite me. In North Quebec it was in an urban park, it was beautiful! Plenty of trees around, the best situation. But in the north of France when we were in Fresnoy, where there’s a very famous school for arts and media and the park was beautiful, there were no trees. The important thing is to get trees, it has to be surrounded by trees, that’s the most beautiful thing.
Will that be the case for your next project in France?
The installation will not be the harp, it will be in the Chambord castle. The architecture of the castle will be translated directly into sound harmony. Something we did previously in a gothic cathedral in the south of France. Now we are doing it in Chambord, which is a much more difficult architecture and difficult to transpose.
Are the clouds becoming less interesting for you now that you know so much about them?
You can always learn things. Being a professor and a researcher means being driven first by curiosity and exploration. There is always something. Even in the most ordinary things.