Listen to a Poemophone Cacophony

Tracey Cockrell is an interdisciplinary artist who synthesizes sculpture, experimental music, and linguistic theory. Since 1998 she has been working on multiple collaborative projects, engaging with other artists, writers, and musicians to compose with invented musical instruments. Her sound art has been featured in radio broadcasts on KBOO and KPFA through alternative programs such as ‘A Different Nature’ and ‘Discreet Music’ and heard in live performances at the 14th and 15th Annual Music for People and Thingamajigs Festivals in San Francisco, and the 2012 CoCA Annual in Seattle. In 2010, she mounted a collaborative exhibit, POEMOPHONE: a cacophonous​ collaboration and reading series at WorkSound in Portland, bringing national and international collaborators to compose and perform on her sculptural instruments. Most notably her sculptures and installations have exhibited at Boston Center for the Arts, Institute for Contemporary Art in Portland, Maine, Oakland Arts Council, the San Francisco Arts Commission, and WorkSound in Portland, Oregon. Reviews of her work can be found in Sculpture Magazine, ArtNewEngland, the Boston Sunday Globe, WGBH tv’s ‘Greater Boston Arts,’ and Maine Public Radio’s ‘Maine Things Considered.’ Artist residencies include Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Oregon College of Art and Craft, Hewnoaks Artist Colony, Leland Iron Works as well as a Music USA Meet the Composer Grant for her experiments in sound and a Grant for travel research for study in India specific to the making of the sarangi.

She is a former Professor and Academic Dean at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. Leading to her appointment as Dean in 2015, she served as Foundation Chair, Associate Academic Dean, Interim Academic Dean, and Founding Chair of the Low-Residency MFA in Visual Studies at the college. Prior to this, she taught at the Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine, where she served as Chairperson of the Sculpture Department and became deeply involved in collaborative teaching and student-centered learning. Her non-profit experience includes working as Manager of the “Crops of the World” garden and part of the Growing Learning Communities team in the Education Department of the University of California Botanical Garden, and as Program Director at Peralta Hacienda Historic Park in Oakland, California where she helped launch an outreach program responding to neighborhood input, the historical importance of the site, and research into models of community building to develop a living history program bringing together culture, history, the arts, and community.


Artist Tracey Cockrell formulated each Poemophone´s tuning system for specific collaborators-musicians, writers, visual artists-so that each sculpture has an individual voice. Each voice is derived from `Outlaw´ tuning systems, meaning that intervals between tones are irregular. Applied to a typewriter keyboard, each letter of the alphabet has a musical tone. Any combination of letters played on the instrument generates an audible musical phrase rather than written transcription. Text played on a Poemophone results in an act of translation, an interpretation. Because each instrument in the series has its own unique tuning system a text composed on one will sound differently when played on another.

My interest is in how the poetics of making meaning is grounded in the look and sound of these instruments.  I am hybridizing these forms (mbira/typewriter) to juxtapose two distinct systems of composing – tuning systems and alphabets – in order to play with the voicing of meaning. The instruments I am building are to sound the thing described; playing language as a physical force.


Our live collaborative performances will emphasize an interweaving of sound, visual art, music & text. As a group we will engage in collective brainstorming to explore compositional strategies at the intersection of linguistics, literature, experimental music, & sculpture. The intersection of media is often seen in film. Rarely do artists from a variety of genres have their work culminate in sound. This project brings an unusual opportunity to me & my collaborators & to our audiences.

While the essential subject of this project questions acts of translation, the larger content of the work is intended to shift with the interpretations of my collaborators. In the months leading up to July & during our stay together in Portland we will use collaborative work-time to collectively brainstorm, challenging the form of presentation & potential content of this project.


Artist’s Statement

In a way we can describe thoughts as rhythmic pulsations, and the way that we think is to leap from one rhythmic pulsation to another to create images, ideas. To approach a concept, as one would a form, from differing points of view, is a kind of sculptural thinking, a dance, which navigates from one distinct vantage point to another. Circumscribing the whole embodies the richness of the sculptural experience. Time, memory, & corporeality are inherent in this complex of sensations.

My creative practice involves a synthesis of research, sculpture, & experimental music, & is often collaborative. Most recently I have been researching & learning to play traditional & folk musical instruments from India specific to my interest in the mechanics of sound propagation. From this I design & build experimental musical instruments as sculptures to be used in performance. With these experimental instruments I engage writers, musicians, and artists to compose & perform with me.

My current research into the craft of musical instrument making is focused on stringed instruments using sympathetic resonance. This research is to inform the look, sound, & performative aspects of a series of experimental musical instruments/sculptures.

It is through this creative work that I am considering the origins of languages(s). My sound sculptures explore the poetic potential of the decay of language through acts of translation, challenge the authority of language for making meaning & invite participants to play within compositional strategies by giving voice to these sculptures. Through this work I am synthesizing my interests in experimental music, interactive sculpture, & feminist linguistic theory.

Current research:

In order to better understand sympathetic resonance I have taken up the study of how to play the sarangi, one of the oldest & most important bowed instruments of North Indian music. The classical instrument has 35 steel sympathetic strings, which resonate with three bowed gut strings, giving it a uniquely haunting sound. The sarangi is used as an accompaniment to vocal & tabla solo recitals as well as being itself a solo instrument.

The term Sarangi is widely believed to mean “a hundred colors” indicating its adaptability to a wide range of musical styles, its flexible tunability, & its ability to produce a large palette of tonal color & emotional nuance. According to some musicians, the word Sarangi is a combination of two Persian words ‘seh’(three) & ‘rangi’ (colored). Another school of thought believes that Sarangi is Hindi for ‘of a hundred colors’ or “the voice of hundred colors”. The music produced by the sarangi is believed to resemble the human voice.


Leave a Reply