The Music of Chance

Norman Andersen creates dissonant sculptures that perform spontaneously and think independently. But what if they revolt against their master?

"Electronics tries to be very perfect, and that's something that makes electronics very cold and impersonal," he notes. "It's one reason why I despise computers and computer art. But mechanics are sort of sloppy and primitive, and that makes for a much more soulful quality."


ndersen--a thin, fortysomething man with very precise speech and movements--is so invested in his machines that one can almost picture him as the living embodiment of one. As he moves between his creations, he appears like a system of parts, a learn-to-draw figure whose basic geometrical shapes are exposed as each circle and square moves together in mechanical uniformity.

Bang a gong: Norman Andersen with "Clamorama"
Michael Dvorak
Bang a gong: Norman Andersen with "Clamorama"

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Andersen had an early fascination with machinery that was fostered by his father, who used to build his own hi-fi systems. Young Andersen would use the leftover parts to create ad hoc radio systems with supernatural whizzes and whistlings, which were--according to the neighborhood kids--capable of communicating with Martians. As a grade-schooler, he, along with his friend, set up sophisticated electric systems to propel Halloween "spook houses," in which working cars would drive through guillotines, snapping giant lobster claws, fluorescent spiders, and scary sounds composed on tape loop. One Halloween when he was 12 years old and had outgrown trick-or-treating, he even devised a fake computer out of a giant piece of silver cardboard and blinking Christmas lights to help him steal other kids' candy. But now, after moving to Minneapolis to go to art school and sticking around for the plethora of surplus stores, Andersen is training his musical sculptures as he would raise his offspring: to be just as mischievous as he was.

"Once I create these things, it's like having a kid," he explains. "I sort of hope I can give it some guidance, but it's really on its own to do what it wants."

The unpredictable din in "Clamorama"--a quintet of musical conglomerations that play with genuine randomness--acts almost like a sociological study of rambunctious child behavior. As Andersen flicks off the red "resting light" inside "Clamorama" (could this be the same red light that fuels the oven's inner demons?), ukuleles, a gong, drums, bass piano strings, organ pipes, a tambourine, an accordion, and even a horn blast like a dying duck all vie for the listener's attention at intermittent times. The motors are running over the top of the bizarre melodies, and none of the instruments are improvising to consciously play off one another's sounds. They are simply espousing their own selfish musical interludes. Andersen calls this "the anti-jazz."

"A lot of people are distracted by the motor sounds, but to me, that's the reality of the music: It's being played by machines. Even in human performance, when you're right there up front at a concert, you can hear the musicians breathing, and the squeaking of the violinists' bows and the creaking chairs. All of these little sounds are not really an intentional part of the music, but they're part of the truth of performance."

The inessential part of the performance doesn't always resonate well in conventional ears. One can imagine that when more conservative music fans first listened to Sonic Youth's avant-garde (read: largely unlistenable) album Goodbye Twentieth Century, or Ornette Coleman's wavering pitches and chordal mayhem, they were initially frustrated by the lack of euphonious melodies. But these musicians always had very specific intentions and structures planned for their compositions, even during their improvisational jam sessions.

Andersen's music, contrary to that of most avant-garde or jazz musicians, disrupts any notion of control. His house is currently cluttered with ramshackle bits and pieces of found objects that he has collected for future sculptures he'll make with the funds he recently received from the Bush Foundation. They litter his hardwood floor like the severed limbs of forgotten mechanical trash, and they will most likely be converted into musical devices that are every bit as spontaneous as "Clamorama." Even after years of hearing the "Pandemonium" oven buzzer go off in the middle of the night, or having the organ pipes in "Sound Off" sway too far to one side, he still likes to be surprised.

"It drives most people crazy not to be able to control things," Andersen says. "I've had people in exhibitions just grab onto a part right in front of me if they want to hear it play. They think they should know how to force something to work, but it's so foreign to them that they end up pulling the hammers [on the piano strings] until they break right off." Then he smiles sinisterly, sensing that generating a chaotic environment is a form of control in itself: It is a means of making people uneasy. And what better way to create an atmosphere where they will pay close attention to his sculptures' cacophonous music than by putting his listeners on edge?

"My wife teases me that I enjoy making these things because I like to jerk people around," the innocuous sculptor chuckles.

The house, straining with the mute tension of potential music, acknowledges Andersen's joke silently. The Mrs. Butterworth's containers make no sign of disrupting their poker faces. But somewhere, that devilish oven is probably laughing along.

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