Building, crowd resonate to Tacoma strings show

by Douglas McLennon, The News Tribune, Monday, September 13, 1993

It began quitely, a thin, uncertain whine that threatened to crawl up inside your teeth and resonated in your fillings. As first one, than another performer crawled out onto the floor and began to stroke the long steel strings stretched the length of a football field across the floor, the moan grew in intensity. Nothing distinctly on pitch, mind you, but the buzz mounted, as if a hive were revving up ready to swarm.

About 10 minutes in Dutch artist Paul Panhuysen's sound installation piece that for one night converted the long-abandoned Tacoma Municipal Dock into the world's largest musical instrument, it felt like the building was about to break away from its foundation and float out to sea. Such was the groaning and creaking.

It didn't, of course. The giant wooden building, so big you could probably hide a fleet of 747's inside, stayed moored to the ground as the day's last light faded through the upper windows and darkness set in.

Panhuysen's "sound installation" at the dock consisted of stringing thousands of feet of piano wire about waist level between 20 large pillars. The wires were stretched tight over wooden bridges on steel barrels place strategically to provide some way of tuning them to various pitches. The building itself, essentially a giant wooden box resting on a concrete foundation, picked up the vibrations of the strings, producing in its timbers a series of sympathetic hums.

It was eerie. It was gentle.

It was meditative. It was urban.

It was an event. Who would have thought so many Tacomans would turn out to hear someone play a building? Thinking perhaps a hundred or so would show, organizers at Newsense Intermedium, the Tacoma organization devoted to presenting new artwork, scheduled one performance. At 6 p.m., an hour before the advertised start, crowds were already lining up to get in; half an hour later the place was full to capacity. A second performance was hastily announced for 8 p.m. An estimated 400 caught the first; almost 500 waited for the second. And almost no one left during the performances' 45-minute durations.

Visually, the project was a big hit. In the dying twilight, the inside of the musty warehouse, largely unused since 1941, has a pale blue cast, making the people, timbers and pillars appear as half-ghosts. Panhuysen, trained as a visual artist, constructs his projects with the visual uppermost in mind.

The 24 performers, all local volunteers who learned what to do in one rehearsal last week, provided a kind of mimed slow-motion dance as they made their ways along the length of the stings stroking the wires. It was simple, individual contemplative choreography.

The audience, kept to the outer rim of the "instrument" by a rope barrier, wandered up and back the length of the building, contemplating th4 sound, stopping every now and then to rest a head against one or another of the giant structural posts. Besides holding up the building, these posts for a night acted as giant tuning pegs, and if you put your ear to them, you heard the building humming to itself.

Then, one by one, the performers, on cue from Panhuysen, left the floor, and the sound diminished-one long uninterrupted diminuendo-until only the original whine was left.

The work has no score, no set of notes telling the performers what to play when. the vibrations from the strings tuned in and out at random, setting up in a building chorus an ephemeral chant. Some of the sounds produced were so low or high that couldn't be heard by human ears, though they could be felt in the building's wooden skin. At the end, when the "music" stopped and the people trooped quietly out into the night, the darkness took over and the building shivered once again into silence.