Sound and Vision


My art involves a synthesis of experimental music and sculpture, and is often collaborative. As part of my creative research I have been learning to play and to build traditional and folk musical instruments specific to my interest in the mechanics of sound propagation. From this research, I invent, then build, experimental musical instruments as sculptures to be used in performance in order to play with the voicing of meaning. My sound sculptures explore the poetic potential of the decay of language through acts of translation, challenge the authority of language for making meaning, and invite participants to play within compositional strategies by giving voice to these sculptures. In the Poemophone series I am hybridizing the mbira (from Zimbabwe) and the manual typewriter to juxtapose two distinct systems of composing: tuning systems and alphabets. Each Poemophone 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. The instruments I am building are to sound the thing described; playing language as a physical force.


Tracey Cockrell City/Drift (2014) Live performance on Poemophone: Optima in downtown Portland, Maine, Photo: Mariah Bergeron

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. Moving to circumscribe the whole embodies the richness of the sculptural experience. Exploring relationships between language and landscape, and the origins of language, I took Poemophone: Optima (2005) to a residency at the Hewnoaks Artist Colony in Lovell, Maine to compose and record in direct response to a remote place rich with a history of fiction and non-fiction writers whose work touches on the significance of place and self-location. There I used a canoe as a conveyance to traverse Lake Kezar and to amplify my compositions. Hiking each night, I made nocturnal field recordings of the loons and owls in the region. By day, I canoed the lake, studying the tree-line and the shore-line for use as a visual score.


Tracey Cockrell, Poemophone: Optima performed on site at Kezar Lake (2015), Sculpture


With the Poemophone series (2010) I have also been engaging writers, musicians, and artists to compose and perform with me by formulating tuning systems that relate to the aesthetic characteristics I identify with each of my collaborators. I am fascinated by how each individual collaborator responds to the instrument that I have tuned to his or her voice. 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. It is in this context that I ask you to consider the verb DRIFT.

DRIFT: To spontaneously navigate with controlled loss of control.

To drive (a car, a hammer, a point…) with deft and decisive force of will. In collaboration with others the implications of gradual, glacial or aimless movement give way to the more tactical skid or proficient effort to attain alignment given by the original 14th century Middle English use of the word, akin to Old English drīfan, meaning drove, herd, act of driving.

DRIFT racing is a technique of driving that is to follow the curves and sharp turns of the roadway by turning the rear tires into a slip angle different than that of the front tires. The practice of drifting, although requiring considerable driving skills, provides no advantage in terms of lap time; this is because at the very moment when the drive wheels loose grip is lacking in traction the drift begins. This is not a driving style in the classical sense. Drifting is a spectacular exhibition of technique judged according to the speed, angle, showmanship and line taken. Invented in the 70s by motorcycling legend Kunimitsu Takahashi, this style is practiced today as a secret, unlicensed car racing subculture. Drift racers continue to remind us that ultimately the speed of the straight away is not that interesting, but rather the precarious challenge of how to occupy an ambiguous space is much more impressive.

A DRIFT punch, perhaps misleading in name, is a tapered metal tool used with a hammer to align the upper and lower parts of a rivet. The specificity of such a tool, expertly used for realignment, implies that such slippage may be considered a failure. However, slippage might occur between precise and imprecise moments, between the intuition and the intellect, between productive and nonproductive expenditures of time, or more potently between layers of meaning.

Guy Debord’s psycho-geographic principle of the Derive offers a translation of DRIFT as ‘deviation from a defined course’. The Derive provides instructions for resistance to structure and order, instead prioritizing the contrast of a passive approach to navigating by following chance occurrences. An excellent example of nonlinear research methodology, the Derive frames the gap between the precise and the imprecise.

For me, improvising, collaborating and experimenting with compositional strategies with musicians, writers, and other artists can be likened to the navigation of narrow switchbacks, hairpin curves, and sudden unmarked sharp turns in the road, requiring rapid adjustments. Hearing how each of my collaborators compose with a Poemophone provides me a disorienting and sometimes ecstatic struggle with cognitive dissonance. Key to these improvisations is to accommodate multiple and simultaneous changes and to slip with confidence in our ability to adjust to one another. Embedded with disruptions, this kind of disciplined collaboration can include sudden obstacles that challenge everyone’s skill sets. Our proposition is that the ambiguities of risk become welcome territory.

Poemophone: Model 5, Sculpture (2010)
Still image of live performance, Newly Tonal Consonants, (2011)
composed by Ethan Rose, performed by Ethan Rose, Tracey Cockrell, Lauri Twitchell, Peter Suchecki, M.C. Boyes, Tim Cooper, and Jorn Ake.

Photo: Heather Zinger

Song Cycle: us them, (2017) composed and performed by Jimmy Ghaphery

Photo: Jimmy Ghaphery