1. Sight+Sound
  2. A New Dimension
  3. Sound Experiments
  4. A Student Laboratory
  5. The Turrell Skyspace at Rice University premieres a new feature
  6. Untitled Chapter
  7. Untitled Chapter
Rice Magazine | Rice University

Sight and Sound

story JOHN NOVA LOMAX photos TOMMY LAVERGNE

Sight and Sound
story JOHN NOVA LOMAX photos TOMMY LAVERGNE

Architecture is frozen music, and music is liquid architecture, or so said the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It’s hard not to see the truth in those analogies at artist James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace. 

Its 72-foot-square white roof seems to float above a grassy hill that calls to mind a low-slung Mayan temple. Inside the berm, a cozy room lined with pink granite benches invites visitors to ponder the heavens through an opening, or aperture, in the ceiling. The whole effect is best experienced in the morning or evening twilight. That’s when an LED-light sequence created by Turrell projects colorful hues onto the ceiling, dragging the sky to earth. The goal, in Turrell’s own words, is “to create an experience of wordless thought.” 

And now, on occasion, an experience of sound. Thanks to Turrell, Shepherd School Dean Robert Yekovich and Kurt Stallmann, associate professor of composition and theory, Turrell’s 73rd Skyspace is the first of his structures to feature a fully integrated sound system.

On a gray and blustery November morning, Stallmann and I roamed the Skyspace, which since opening in June 2012 has drawn more than 100,000 visitors. When asked if he ever thought he would be so lucky as to have a James Turrell Skyspace at his students’ disposal when he came to Rice from Harvard’s faculty 12 years ago, “Never!” he exclaimed, even before the whole question was out of my mouth. 

Thanks to a sort of valley effect created by Turrell’s bowl-shaped construction, it was a little hard to hear Stallmann over the roar of traffic on South Main and in the Texas Medical Center and the burbling of a fountain a hundred yards away. However, neither sound was audible outside the confines of “Twilight Epiphany.” 

The ambient roar Stallmann and I were talking over is conducted by the structure’s ceiling, which sometimes acts as a listening device for conversations outside the structure, Stallmann said. “Because of [the Skyspace’s] overhang, it conducts sound as much from the outside in as it does from the inside out. What’s amazing about that fountain is that it affects the sound in here. You can’t hear it during the day, but at night the noise floor drops down because there’s less traffic, and suddenly you can hear it very clearly. Actually, you can feel it. It’s amazing.”

A New Dimension

The idea to combine music with the typical features of a Turrell Skyspace was discussed initially by Turrell and Yekovich over dinner in 2008. Amid discussions about where to site the new Skyspace, the dean threw out an idea. How would Turrell feel about the idea of music played in the space as a kind of interesting link to the Shepherd School of Music? Yekovich was thinking about acoustic music initially, but knowing of Turrell’s interest in John Cage and other composers of electronic music, the idea evolved. 

Soon enough, he and Stallmann began discussing ways to go about wiring the Skyspace for sound. “We thought it would be crazy for us to have a space like this and then have to hang speakers [during events],” Stallmann said. “Aesthetically, it would destroy what Turrell was trying to create.”   

As a result, Yekovich convened a series of conversations with Turrell, benefactor Suzanne Deal Booth ’77, and Raymond Brochstein ’55, chair of the Rice Art Committee. Together, they came up with a vision around how audio could be integrated into the Skyspace design. Then the dean worked closely with acousticians, the design team and the artist to realize this vision. 

Today, a total of 12 speakers and two subwoofers are tucked away inside the walls and under the built-in benches inside the Skyspace, invisible to all. While other Skyspaces have served as venues for live musicians, this is the first to serve as something like a canvas for the sound paintings of the students and faculty at the Shepherd School — an organic, electromagnetic extension of their creativity. 

“As an artwork, the Skyspace itself is firmly rooted in the present — in terms of its visual design and use of technology — while also borrowing from ancient human traditions,” Stallmann said. “Think of the mounds of earth surrounding the structure and the activity of looking to the heavens for inspiration and solace.”

Shepherd School doctoral student and composer Shane Monds sees it as both futuristic and deeply rooted in the past: “The idea of making artwork that interacts with the sun, that is an idea that is as old as time.” 

Stallmann believes that while the Shepherd School “does an exceptional job of preserving Western cultural traditions of music through live performance and study,” just as vital to a music school are “studies in the present and near future of music.” 

“A music composition department offers a music school something similar to what a research and development department offers to a corporation,” he said. 

Sound Experiments

As the early years of musical programming within “Twilight Epiphany” have shown, the space is a study in paradox, capable of eliciting memorable performances from artists who compose specifically for the space or those who simply wing it. 

In 2013, through an Arts Initiatives Fund grant from Rice, Stallmann curated a series of events that served as something like range-finders for the Skyspace. 

First, he collaborated with John Sparagana, Rice’s Grace Christian Vietti Chair in Visual Arts and professor and chair of the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts, to bring the German multireedist and visual artist Peter Brötzmann to campus. Brötzmann performed live with light sequences (without the space’s sound system) before ushering the audience to a campus gallery opening of his visual artworks.  

Brötzmann’s performance was improvisational and extremely responsive to the surrounding environment, in contrast to performances within the Shepherd School itself, where “everything about the sound is controlled,” Stallmann said. “But out there, you are just part of the Houston soundscape. ... There was this great moment when Brötzmann was out there playing and this dog started barking and for a minute there it was like they were having this little conversation.” 

Brötzmann took the Skyspace’s outside-in effect and ran with it. It called to Stallmann’s mind another such example from the fall 2013 season, when the Shepherd School hosted the Symposium on Architecture, Acoustics and Music. 

“One of our guests, the acoustician Alban Bassuet, made a presentation using the Turrell Skyspace sound system that included an ambisonic [sonically three-dimensional] recording of children playing in a French schoolyard. Bassuet was demonstrating how, with this type of recording, he could create an aural illusion of sounds coming from outside the space, beyond the perimeter of the walls surrounding us.”

Just then, Dean Yekovich entered the Skyspace, having missed Bassuet’s description beforehand. “When the recording started to play, the dean turned to me and asked, ‘Do you think we should go out and ask the kids to keep their voices down?’ I can’t think of better proof of concept.” 

Stallmann also collaborated with David Dove from Houston-based Nameless Sound to bring the composer/guitarist Michael Pisaro, long a Turrell devotee, to campus. Pisaro came to Houston months before his performance to study the Skyspace. His work, composed for the occasion, was broadcast through the sound system. 

“Basically this whole past year has been a series of explorations on how to use the space and how to control the space,” Stallmann said. He would like to see the Skyspace epitomize the creative arts at Rice. Creativity is, in essence, the act of bringing something into being that did not exist before, a process facilitated by the Skyspace. 

The Rice grant made possible six events in the Skyspace, drawing hundreds of audience members and bringing together music, architecture, visual art, Rice public art, nonprofit presenting organizations in Houston, and visiting artists from both coasts of the United States and from Asia.

“Sustained work of this kind can turn this vision of the Skyspace as a hub of creative activity into a reality,” Stallmann hopes.

A Student Laboratory

Stallmann and I adjourned to an indoor mock-up of the Skyspace sound system inside REMLABS (Rice Electroacoustic Music Labs) with all the speakers arranged just as they were outside, albeit with none of the bones of Turrell’s structure. It’s there that Stallmann and electroacoustic specialist Chapman Welch teach students how to compose for the space. For the Shepherd School students, “Twilight Epiphany” has become something akin to their church and their proving ground all rolled into one. 

REMLABS | Rice Electroacoustic Music Labs

REMLABS | Rice Electroacoustic Music Labs

Left to right: Shane Monds, doctoral student and composer; Chapman Welch, electroacoustic music specialist; and Kurt Stallmann, associate professor of composition and theory, in the Rice Electroacoustic Music Labs, better known as REMLABS. Shepherd School of Music students use REMLABS to compose music for James Turrell’s “Twilight Epiphany” Skyspace. 

In addition to composing works for performance inside, many of them serve as docents for the six-evenings-a-week celebrations of nightfall in the Skyspace. “That’s so gratifying,” said Emily Stein, assistant director of Rice Public Art and the manager of the Skyspace, “because they know the Skyspace inside and out. They have composed works of art for this work of art.” 

The students have seen their compositions performed within the Skyspace. And outside, too, notably in the case of percussionist and doctoral student Brandon Bell ’05, who took advantage of the space’s outside-in acoustics to stage a performance of John Luther Adams’ “Inuksuit” with some 40 percussionists positioned all over the field and inside the space.

Monds said the existence of “Twilight Epiphany” helped him cement his decision to enroll in the Shepherd School. “I am a big fan of James Turrell’s work and there’s the Skyspace, directly linked with an electronic music studio. For composers to get to write for the space is a really great opportunity.”

His composition “Air Carved by Light” — in Stallmann’s words, “a fusion of light and sound that uses a computer to analyze light values that determine the harmonies heard through the sound system” — has been performed twice with the possibility of a third performance upcoming in the spring. 

“I was hoping to mimic Turrell in that he has these long, seemingly unchanging, things that actually are changing,” Monds said. “At some point you are noticing that your perceptions are changing. Some of it is being brought on by the artist, and over time it becomes more and more apparent. So that is what I was trying to do with sound, a perceptual feeling of sound, instead of light.”

Sound and light, the past and the future, sunrise and sunset: society has come to think of these concepts as opposite or unrelated. The Skyspace brings on a sort of synesthesia, drawing forth what is eternal and true about all these things. 

“Architecture has always been acoustic,” said Monds. “This just makes more of a direct connection between architecture and acoustics, but they are always intertwined.”

Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne
Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne
Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne
Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne
Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne
Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne
Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne
Look for future events with sound at SkySpace: music.rice.edu/calendar/index.shtml photos by Tommy LaVergne