Campus Life

Collaboration of sight and sound brings together fine arts faculty from different disciplines

University of Lethbridge Art faculty member Annie Martin found a renewed passion for history and music through a fortuitous collaboration with Dr. Janet Youngdahl of the University of Lethbridge Department of Music. The result of years of research and creative collaboration came together in adoration, open at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) until April 23.

Inspired by the Carnegie Library space at SAAG, Martin was developing a proposal for an installation exhibition when a chance conversation at a convocation tea brought together Martin and Youngdahl who realized their areas of research weren’t so different. Martin, whose creative practice has a focus on sound and installation work, was already envisioning a sound installation in the Carnegie Library when she ran into Youngdahl.

“Living in Lethbridge I’ve had the luxury of years to think about what was meaningful to me about that space,” says Martin. “I was inspired by the idea of the library, as a site of archive, and text, and reading. But I couldn’t find a vector in. I’d been working with sound for a number of years so I felt strongly that it needed to be a sound installation.”

Martin’s early ideas included an empty space painted with sound.

“I explored the idea of sound as colour, almost like a textile, woven strands of colour. I hoped to make this ethereal sound installation with tones. It had to be musical tones because they have a strong sense of colour.”

Starting as a very abstract idea, Martin knew intuitively that the sounds needed to be vocal in order to create an inhabitation of the space.

“Voice, even if it’s a recording suggests the presence of a subject, a being, a person,” continues Martin.

It was in searching for the right vocal tones that Martin and Youngdahl’s worlds collided. Martin mentioned her proposal, and Youngdahl, who studied the work of Saint Hildegard of Bingen and her compositions of sacred music, began enthusiastically asking questions. Martin had already explored the idea of vocal chants and deliberately randomized sounds as part of the SAAG exhibition so the ideas quickly meshed. Youngdahl went from being a passive participant by providing her voice, to an active partner in contributing to the overall project.

Martin and Youngdahl pared down the work of Hildegard of Bingen to one chant, “Ode to Divine Wisdom.” Youngdahl recorded the chant in the Faculty of Fine Arts’ Studio One recording facility in September 2016 as well as recording the most important notes and tones from the chant to create extended, single held notes for Martin to work with in her deconstructive compositional practice.

Distributed over four channels, the recordings provide the presence of four ‘voices’ coming from four corners of the room.

“Sound feels like it is coming from all over the space,” explains Martin. “The movement of tones and voices over the space create patterns in a non-musical way, asking questions about the relationship of tone and repetition. Voices going back and forth, a kind of call and response between the four channels.”

Although originally envisioned in an empty space, Martin soon realized the space wasn’t going to be empty – people will be there. She thought of painting high gloss colour panels that allow the viewer to see their own reflection.

“Like looking into a pool of water. You see yourself, not in a clear way, but enough to be aware of your own presence in the space.”

Eventually images were asking to be present as well.

“There has to be a visual presence which pairs with Hildegard’s message of imagery – but still abstract. Not in a representational or illustrative way.”

Martin wanted visitors to have something visual to reflect on while they listened to the sound installation. She created a series of 12 painted panels that reference diverse traditions of sacred art and link back to Hildegard’s life and music.

While the exhibition is open, the hour long recording repeats in a loop. In March 2017, the recordings were turned off for a special performance by Youngdahl and her vocal ensemble “Sweet Breath” at a lecture recital, “Singing in the Sacred Space.”

“A point that Janet and I really connected on was that vocalization can be a form of prayer in itself,” continues Martin. “I was interested in the idea of ‘opening.’ The idea that there is something kind of radical about opening, whether that’s opening the heart, opening your mouth, opening oneself, that is an invitation to experience something that is outside of the ordinary sense of functional purpose. This is where the spiritual experience resides. In this desire to open.”

Art and music connect people – through artistic collaborations such as this, and by connecting the artist or performer to the audience.

“I said to Janet that I am in such awe of this practice you have, and she said, ‘There’s no separation between the singer and the person who’s listening. By listening, you are participating in the singing.’ If one is singing, all are singing. There’s an interconnectedness of people through music.”

Martin speaks highly of her time working with Youngdahl, and the new inspiration it brought her.

“I’m hoping really sincerely that we can find a way to collaborate some more in the future. I feel like I’m just getting started.”

Don’t miss your chance to take in adoration at SAAG, open until Sunday April 23.