The Music of Chance

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

One of these days, Norman Andersen's oven is going to plot his gruesome demise. You wouldn't guess its bloodthirsty intentions by studying its appearance, which Andersen fashioned by reassembling the oven from found parts. The appliance sits just outside the local sculptor's kitchen, looking voluptuously plump and complacent, its four square doors shining a cool silver. Circular windows heave up from each door's center like a ship's portholes, coaxing Andersen to peek inside. But deep in the oven's belly, a small light glows a sinister red. It's a warning: The beast within is thinking.

Leave that sleazy E-Z Bake oven and yield to my temptations, one imagines it cooing to its master. We can play Sylvia Plath together: Stick your head in. You're done.

The oven buzzer sounds. (Time's up.) Its doors open slowly, propelled by bicycle chains. Inside, there are no racks for baking arsenic-laced cookies; Andersen has scooped out its innards. Instead, it is filled with instruments: A xylophone hangs in the top right corner, clinking and plunking a music-box tune; below it, a small horn heaves in frightened gasps; organ pipes groan out a foreboding oom-pah-pah waltz; and hand bells in the bottom left-hand corner know precisely for whom they toll. It's like a funeral march calling for Julia Child's hearse.

Perhaps this menacing musical-oven imagery has been exaggerated by the overactive imagination of a journalist who needs a recipe even to cook toast and--owing to long hours of mandatory piano practice at a young age--still hears "Ebony and Ivory" as a morbid taps bugle call. Andersen--the man who birthed the oven monster and christened it "Pipes of Pandemonium"--is more of a skeptic. This ice-blue-eyed, goateed artist is also a scientist, and he cannot bring himself to interpret the oven's tick and crackle as the personified musings of a tiny electric brain.

"I'm too much of a realist to think that way," he insists. "But I do believe that technology has a kind of spirit to it. Everyone knows how [his or her] car has a certain personality. You say things like, 'She likes it when you pump the accelerator this many times, and in the winter you have to have the gauge just so.' Technology has certain demands on nonsense things that you have to do, but whatever these things are, they end up pleasing the machine and making it work. Technology trains us ultimately as much as we do it, even though we like to think we're its master."

But if Andersen's musical sculptures cannot be likened to living beings, perhaps they can be compared to dead ones. Many of the works that Andersen has constructed for the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Southeast Como Neighborhood Gateway project, and the Minneapolis Office of Cultural Affairs are examples of defunct machinery that he has rescued, reassembled, and resurrected from the scrap metal carcasses that line our everyday trash. These pieces embody a troubled double identity, existing somewhere between human and technological worlds. Their controls are reconstructed from an old coffee and soup vending machine, a ballistic missile, a broken musical instrument--the zombies left over from a pre-computer age.

The two-story house where Andersen now lives in east Minneapolis is a virtual cemetery of this ominous junk that, once resurrected, composes its own swan song. In his living room is "Sound Off," a line of long, thin pipes, salvaged from an old church organ, propelled by a simple metronome device that sets them swaying back and forth together, whining a mournful tune like a galley of slaves in a ship. Above his sink is "The Last Supper"--a dinner set consisting of Oldenburgesque cherry-topped spoons, plastic fruit-lined plates with butter knives plunking against them, a spinning wine glass with a marble inside, and a rotating Jell-O mold propped against a serrated knife--which creates a riotous dissonance whenever a visitor rings Andersen's doorbell. Below his stairs is "Time Piece," his onetime MIA installation in which some old glass containers mounted on a rotating spit clink with the sand and lentils that shift around within them like tiny accountants melodically marking each passing moment. An army of empty Mrs. Butterworth's syrup bottles lines a shelf spanning two of the walls in Andersen's living room. These matronly soldiers stand stoically, their glass noggins bisected, eagerly awaiting the next spontaneous concert to fill their empty skulls with song.

Most of these musical sculptures play their various components at random intervals, fueled by simple motors that are programmed to index in random positions and "improvise" their somber cacophonies each time. When a musical composition starts up suddenly and catches you off guard--which they often do--it's enough to make you envision Andersen's creations as guerrilla warriors. They'll set themselves off precisely at the point when they can startle me! you end up thinking. Then they'll join the maple brigade and conspire to rise up against me in revolt! Or maybe I've been reading too much Thomas Pynchon!

And even though Andersen doesn't fear the wrath of his creations, he understands that since these pieces "make their own decisions" about when to play, and can technically "improvise" material with the help of simple (and often erroneously functioning) machines, they have more human characteristics than any streamlined artificial intelligence.

"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.

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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