Christian Marclay’s “Ensemble” at the ICA


I recently had the pleasure of seeing and hearing the sound installation “Ensemble” curated by Christian Marclay. Here’s the rundown from the ICA:

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) is pleased to present “Ensemble,” a group exhibition of works that make sound, guest curated by artist and musician Christian Marclay. Marclay has been selected as the inaugural curator of the Katherine Stein Sachs CW’69 and Keith L. Sachs W’67 Guest Curator Program, a new initiative designed to bring outside points of view to ICA. Marclay is a leading figure in the worlds of performance, visual art and experimental music.

Likening his approach to that of a composer, Marclay has chosen a variety of sculpture and installations based on their sound quality and compatibility to sonically inhabit the same large first floor gallery. Visitors are invited to interact with some of the works, others are triggered by motion detectors, or set on timers. The installation will create an ambient sound environment, intermittently producing a wide range of sounds, from the very quiet notes of a music box to the loud ringing of a bronze bell. They have been selected so that they can share the same resonant space and interact like the various instruments of a musical ensemble. It will include iconic works by artists such as Harry Bertoia, Yoko Ono, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, as well as new works by the current generation.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect based on the description, these kinds of things can take a myriad of shapes, but what was in my mind wound up being fairly close in nature to what i experienced at the show. This is a very dynamic sound landscape. Almost unrelenting at times. During some of the denser moments it’s almost claustrophobic due to the resonance of the space. As the descritpion says, pieces range from very quiet to very loud. While this was sometimes interesting, I found the louder pieces to be almost oppressive at times and they were in general the least thought out, volume seeming to be a concept in and of itself. While there is certainly something to be said on both sides of this arguement, I felt that the quiet pieces were so much more powerful and so much more enjoyable that the loud ones, and unfortunately kept getting drowned out.

This however did not hamper my enjoyment very much at all, and there were moments when it was quiet enough to hear all of the small stuff, which for the most part was a real treat. My absolute favorite of all the exhibits, was also one of the simplest. A pool, filled with dishes and bowls that was being “stirred” constantly by a compressor.


The resultant sound is as delicate and wonderfully aimless as windchimes, but with an almost gamelan-like sound. I could have sat and listened to this for hours. In fact, part of my wants to build a replica of it for my house. Smaller of course.

Other pieces of notice were; a tongue drum table which was shaped like and acoustic guitar body and had 5 seperately tuned sets of tonuges (I want this for my dining room… in my dreams), a set of three metronomes, set to different timings (mini Steve Reich), and a system of dangling bits of china, agitated by spinning record players.


Aside from some overly loud sounds (why a siren?) and some pieces that were either broken or too hard to figure out to keep interest, it was a really wonderful show. It was great just to be in a gallery full of clamor afterall, considering most art shows sonically have the same quality as funerals. It was exciting and envigorating to be so immersed in such an experience of sound, and to just walk around and hear the “mix” of sounds shift as you went.

The show runs through december (more details on the ICA site) so if you are near philly you should certainly go. If you are not and you can’t, you are in luck, as I recorded a walkthrough of the space for you to hear. I have to appologize for the sound quality as there is some hiss in the background… I was having problems with my MD that day. For the most part all of the talking has been cut out, so it is basically a theater of sound for you to sink in to. I like the recording very much, I hope you will too.

– Ensemble

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9 Responses to “Christian Marclay’s “Ensemble” at the ICA”

  1. startlingmoniker Says:

    Awesome. I’m so jealous! Wish I could go too!!! Thanks for recording it for those of us not in Philly… I think the pool is a great idea. With as many dishes as I do, I should have thought of this. Guess I better stop using plastic, eh?

  2. howsthatsound Says:

    No problem man, I thought it was so cool having smething like this going on in my area, that I just had to record it. I hope you enjoyed it!

    Yeah, the dish thing… so perfectly simple! It sounded amazing too. I’m totally serious about building a small one in my house too, though it will probably never happen. Anyone who has seen my basement knows where ideas like this go to die hahaha.

  3. fact Says:

    Guess who just brightened up my day? πŸ™‚ Thanks a lot!

  4. howsthatsound Says:

    My pleasure! Glad you are enjoying it.

  5. Fari Bradley Says:

    Good point about most exhibitions sounding like funerals. Why was there a siren? Possibly he was catering for the moment when the crowd chatting drowned all else, but what a horrible and obvious sound to choose! There are too many pieces and performances that rely on volums to make a an impression (Norbert Mossler at the LMC’s Festival of Experimental Music last week, for example). If the piece is really good it will be just as good at 3/4 of the volume. With so many louder sound pieces, the artist moves towards destroying the very sense with which we appreciate them.

  6. howsthatsound Says:

    I agree completely. It made me wonder why Marclay would include pieces that ham-fisted, alongside others that were quite sublime (if not ingenius). I can only speculate, but i’m guessing something either didn’t quite go as planned, or he’s got a frustrating sense of humor. πŸ™‚

  7. Liveblogging! Commentary for “ITDE” 1/19/07 « Startling Moniker Says:

    […] Kenneth Gaburo — Fat Mille’s Lament Kenneth Gaburo — The Wasting of Lucrecetzia Christian Marclay/E.T. — A walkthrough recording of C.M.’s “Ensemble” Sabrina Siegel — Ring […]

  8. Lawrence Says:

    Thanks very much for this – a very beautiful recording also. I must say I kinda like the much louder sounds – siren etc., it makes for a nice juxtaposition from the more peaceful sounds of other apparatus.

    Reminds me actually of a very beautiful piece by a friend of a friend, Benedict Mason – see here – he has written a series of 8 pieces (of which this is the most recent) called ‘Music for European Concert Halls’ which are more like ‘concert installations with musicians’ than conventional music. But he has a great sense of humour too, I can imagine him doing something similar with sirens.

    Thanks again.


  9. Rosemary Hall Says:

    Hi, neat blog, just wondering what spam blocker software you have on your site for comments since I get so many spammers on my site.

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