As someone weaned on the traditional concert experience—watching one or more people make music in real time and, most importantly, onstage—experimental music events have required a shift in my expectations. When people create sound live, they often do so without much movement, or even an acknowledgment that anyone else is listening. As a listener, it makes more sense to just shut my eyes and concentrate.
That’s what makes Variform, the new gallery on Northwest Broadway, such an exciting new addition to Portland’s experimental music landscape. Run by C.M. and Patricia Wolf, the space is engineered simply for listening to long-form sound art. Sometimes it’s music, and sometimes it’s just an enveloping array of drones and tones.
“This imagined idea that people have to perform live seems really, really odd, especially with experimental music where the studio is really an instrument,” C.M. Wolf explains. “In many ways, just having the recorded sound is how it should be presented.”
The former social worker and musician has gone to great pains to ensure that the pieces Variform features are treated with remarkable care. Using digital tools, Wolf has mapped the frequency nodes of the gallery and set audio acoustic paneling on the wall to make sure the sounds are free from interference. The space also utilizes speakers shaped like half-circles that send sound out horizontally rather than vertically, which would muddy the waves as they bounce around the room.
That attention to detail is especially important when it comes to the work Variform is currently exhibiting. Created as part of artist Ben Glas’ thesis defense, (Music) For A Time and Space uses sine tones (think those long beeps used for hearing tests), sending a variety through a room. As the sounds blend together, rhythms and overtones start to appear, changing and evolving as you move through the space.
While Glas is a local, Variform strives to spotlight sound artists from other countries—especially creators like Japan’s Aki Tsuyuko, who instantly connected with the intention of the gallery, sight unseen.
“She was really, really grateful because she prefers recording,” says C.M. Wolf. “She doesn’t have a big enough draw to make touring financially feasible, so to have her work heard in another part of the world, she has an absolute enthusiasm for it.”