If the cult of astrology is to be believed, our personality traits are largely determined by the positions that the nine planets were in at the moment of our birth. Artist Katie Grinnan recently found a way to bring this conceit to life through sculpture and musical performance: she created nine unique musical instruments that represent the positions of the nine planets at the moment of her birth. She then held performances in which each instrument was played by a friend whose birth sign corresponded with the position of that planet; so, for example, since Grinnan has Venus in Libra, the Venus instrument is played by her Libra friend and fellow artist Alice Könitz. Grinnan herself plays the instrument representing Earth.
It is worth noting that the way in which this project, called the Astrology Orchestra, was conceived and executed shows the exhaustive and systematic attention to detail that is the unmistakable imprint of a Virgo -- Grinnan's sign. Standard astrological birth charts show how all the planets look from the precise place of a person's birth on planet Earth; Grinnan had to do some serious internet digging to find diagrams from the other planets' points of view at the time of her birth. The representative instruments she created look like big African drums, but have lute strings crisscrossing their flat surfaces, into which the diagrams have been intricately carved. The performers pluck the strings, which represent the aspects crossing each planet and are tuned to reflect the frequency of each planet's spin. Yes, it's a bit complicated.
Grinnan planned a total of three performances for the Astrology Orchestra. The first one took place in June at Mount Wilson Observatory, right underneath the Hale 60-inch telescope, as part of the KNOWLEDGES arts festival. The second took place on the beach in July as part of the Hammer Museum's Venice Beach Biennial. The third and final performance took place this past Saturday at the Integratron, an acoustically perfect building in Joshua Tree that is built entirely out of shaped wood, without the use of nails.
Each of these special sites has given a particular flavor to the performance, whether it's the historic scientific references of Mount Wilson or the hippie chaos of public noise and interaction at Venice Beach. The Integratron, built in 1954 by a visionary engineer and UFO enthusiast named George Van Tassel who claimed to have received special instructions from visitors from Venus, was arguably the most special site of all; it sits over a geomagnetic vortex and its perfect shape is supposed to channel frequencies that rejuvenate cell tissue.
Pricey sound baths held at the site tout physical and spiritual healing, but Grinnan's orchestra gave three brief performances for free to capacity crowds of art enthusiasts. The rules devised by Grinnan for the performance are intricate. The diagram on the surface of each instrument is a pie chart representing the 12 houses of the zodiac; the lute strings may or may not cross a particular pie slice, depending on the aspects for that planet. The musicians always begin at the first house, Aries, and can only pluck each string in the house once, although the order is entirely up to them; if there are no strings in that house they do nothing. A metronome is set in motion with a bell rigged to chime on every tenth beat; when the bell chimes, everyone moves on to the next house. This continues until the metronome stops beating of its own accord.
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I'm not sure if I felt any healing energies during Saturday's final performance, which took place after dusk. But I did get a sense, amid the music's spacey atonalities, of the magic of complex belief systems being rendered into one tangible form (the instruments) and then released into the atmosphere via another (the sound). The players were essentially "playing" Grinnan's birth chart, but they were also being maneuvered around the system themselves like chess pieces with roles to play. As Grinnan herself reflected during a phone interview, there is a reciprocity between "you shaping the environment, and the environment shaping you." It's also worth noting that the shape and material of the Integratron mirrored those of the instruments, whose bases were also made out of bent wood; was this coincidence, or destiny?
I asked Grinnan if she really believed in astrology. "Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't -- I believe it when it's accurate!" she laughed. "It's always been a part of my life -- my mom used to read my horoscopes to me when I was little, and I'm a big fan now of Susan Miller's Astrology Zone. But I like having a looser relationship to it. I think what the Astrology Orchestra performances show, in fact, is how fluid the personality is and how perception shapes subjectivity."
Katie Grinnan's Astrology Orchestra performances were organized by the arts organization LAND (Los Angeles Nomadic Division). LAND will also mount an exhibition in January that will include the instruments, the chart diagram drawings, video of the performances, and a book about Grinnan's research for the project.