Maybe the best part of La La Land was the opening scene, in which traffic-ensnared drivers turned freeway gridlock inside out by jumping out of their vehicles and spontaneously creating a full-on song-and-dance routine. Thus we caught a glimpse of a far-fetched but great idea, with cars and their enslaved occupants seen as a cooperative, connected community and not just the usual hissing pit of snakes.
A more avant-garde variation of this idea will be brought to real life in the performance of Ryoji Ikeda's A [for 100 cars], an outdoor drone symphony "played" on 100 car stereos and presented as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival's October events in L.A.
The Japan-born Ikeda (who avoids being photographed) is an audiovisual artist with a formidable rep as the inspired mind behind installations, site-specific exhibits and events that explore, as his bio puts it, "the essential characteristics of sound itself." He has produced installations, books and DVDs with avant-audio heavyweights such as German musician Carsten Nicolai and Japanese art collective Dumb Type. Ikeda’s mathematical aesthetics are the focus in many of his more recent projects, including works that explore particle physics and the reality of nature through immersive, large-scale sensory experiences.
Ikeda likes to think big. He’ll now present “the world’s largest synth orchestra” with A [for 100 cars], a site-specific project for a particularly appropriate site, L.A. being the car lunacy capital of the known universe. It’s a work of art, he says, that is in essence by, for and about the people of Los Angeles.
“I wouldn’t say this is my piece. It’s everybody’s piece. I just designed a frame and then it really depends on the participants. The drivers are the performers. Of course they are not trained as musicians, but I want to engage with the local people to make it happen. And I also love cars," he adds with a laugh. "It’s cool to do something with these really crazy cars.”
The 100-cars project extrapolates off Ikeda’s long-running series investigating the frequencies of note A — it's now standardized at 440 Hertz but has varied slightly across history and cultures. The performance by the drivers will be guided by Ikeda’s scored instructions, which will determine the timing and duration of sonorities emitted from each car by a small control box containing a sine-wave oscillator wired through the cars’ sound systems. The drivers also can adjust volume and other parameters of the sound waves’ frequency range. Many of the event's participants are members of L.A.’s burgeoning automotive dB-cultist subculture — who will, Ikeda says, be given free rein (within bounds of reason) to express the full majesty of their rides’ customized, bowel-distressingly loud systems.
It's a curious phenomenon that most music, even classical stuff, just plain sounds better the louder it’s blasted. Ikeda’s car symphony shall be very loud indeed –– somehow, don’t the times seem to call for it? –– but as massive sonic volume can be a risky thing, Ikeda had to very carefully calculate the effects, physiological and psychological, on the audience and on the driver/players themselves.
“Most cars can play like 160 decibels of sound, and after 160 the impulse of the sound wave can break the front glass of the car,” he says. “I never push the car drivers to play their sound systems too loud. That would be crazy.”
To ensure the drivers' safety, Ikeda and his team recently conducted pre-performance tests in Cologne, Germany, “and it’s really physical –– when I sat in the driver’s seat, my glasses were shaking,” he says. “Of course my concerts are always very physical and your eyeball is always shaking, but this time, the long-haired girls’ hair was standing on end. It was insane. This is an extreme experience.”
Perhaps best described as an immersive soundscape, A [for 100 cars] is an experience whose creator only reluctantly calls it a composition, or even a musical event.
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“It’s really just pure tone. It’s not harmonized, because it’s only note A. I don’t want to make music, just a vibration and resonation and interference and oscillation, as when you put one sound ripple, then two ripples, and the third or fourth; when you put 100, it’s very, very complex, and it’s more like a feeling. So it’s very much a physical phenomenon I want to show the people.”
If L.A. is a place currently in need of an extreme shock to its system, Ikeda's car symphony definitely qualifies. Needless to say, earplugs are highly recommended.
“Sometimes you have to push some boundaries, to do something really strong,” Ikeda says. “And if I do something with 100 cars, and you like it or you don’t like it, I don’t care –– you never forget this experience.”
Ryoji Ikeda's A [for 100 cars] takes place Sunday, Oct. 15, at 131 S. Olive St. in downtown Los Angeles. Doors at 3 p.m., performance at 5:30 p.m. Space is limited, so RSVP via Win.gs/CarSymphony (admission is free) and plan to arrive early to view the cars before the start of the performance.