Interview | Gryphon Rue on Calder Stories

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Calder Stories at the Centro Botín, Spain, is a major exhibition spanning five decades of Alexander Calder’s career, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and organised in collaboration with the Calder Foundation, New York.

The exhibition, which considers little-known works within Calder’s oeuvre, includes a custom-finished series of ‘object ballets’ on screen and headphone. These can be described as ‘notations’ which Calder made for ballets from abstract objects.

Gryphon Rue, sound experimentalist and great-grandson of Alexander Calder, selected and produced the audio for the exhibition using composed works and pieces of sound-art. I asked him some questions about his choices and process.


At what stage did you come into the project? Were the animatics were already produced?

I entered at an early stage, joining an investigation into the provenance and meaning of the ballet notations. I had seen an initial stab at timing the animatics, evaluating the effects of various speeds among many other factors. I was part of the team determining appropriate durations, the crucial basis of the animatics. The music came after, and, as we shaved a few seconds off here and there, I edited the music accordingly.

What triggers did you use to source the sounds? Did you have original documentation of what sounds might be wanted. How much were you trying to realise your great-grandfather’s idea, what you knew of it, and how much were you following your own instincts and preferences as a musician/sound artist?

From the beginning, there were a number of questions. Should the music come from the 1930s and 1940s, the period when Calder composed the motions of the ballets? Should it draw from composers Calder felt closest to, such as Edgard Varèse and Pierre Boulez, or mirror other projects such as Work in Progress (1968), for which Calder chose electronic and tape music? The amount of information for each notation varied greatly—we worked with unfinished material.

Alexander Calder. Untitled (maquette for 1939 New York World’s Fair), 1938
Sheet metal, wood, wire, string, and paint
14 3/4 x 9 3/4 x 9 3/4 in.
Calder Foundation, New York
© 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / VEGAP, Santander

In some cases, there are single drawings, with notes that apparently refer to theatre design, and others with no timing or written indications, remaining open questions. In the mid-1930s there was a proposed collaboration with the composer Harrison Kerr that never materialized, and some of these drawings are probably related. The ballet notations often indicate proportional timing; “1-100” is the scale, and numbers on vectors indicate where a particular object is supposed to be at a given moment, e.g. “65” on the vector of a red sphere corresponds to whatever duration is set for the ballet. (If the ballet lasts for 100 seconds, the sphere appears in that spot at 65 seconds).

Ultimately, I chose music that vivifies the animatics, also to honour the multivalence of Calder’s relationship with sound art, noise in sculpture, and experimental music. I wanted to challenge typical narratives about Calder and music. He had a pretty well documented love of samba, jazz, and swing era music, and collected loads of 78 rpm records from around the world. The selection for the animatics is eclectic, but generally comprised of post-war and contemporary electroacoustic and electronic music. 

Do the choices you have made reflect your general interest in sound artists or were they tracks you selected and put together for this particular project without relating to your usual work?

They are particular to this project, but I resonate strongly with all of it. I’m skeptical about the connotations of “sound artist” because the label tends to exclude composers of recorded music intended for private consumption. Perhaps we can extend its meaning, but it can be confining and often dry. Even Haroon Mirza, who creates installations for museum and gallery settings, I call an “object composer.”

Alexander Calder. Guava, 1955
Sheet metal, rod, wire, and paint
71 1/4 x 146 1/2 x 46 1/2 in.
© 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / VEGAP, Santander. Photo: Tom Powel Imaging

Is this the first time you’ve worked selecting archival material by sound-makers or do you often work with historical pieces?

I’ve had several opportunities, and if I’m fortunate enough with freedom and access, I’m fond of using archival material to undermine calcified narratives. For the animatics I selected music that had oblique relationships to Calder’s work, by a mix of living and dead composers who come from quite different places, in every sense. Nothing was kept that didn’t enliven the visuals. Every once in awhile the Calder Foundation produces a micro-festival exploring a theme in Calder’s practice, with multimedia art in a non-hierarchical design. This was an opportunity to do a similar sleight of hand. Nearly all of my projects require historical research, even if the outcome isn’t about telling a story underpinned by historical events. 

Do you have a theory of sound art and its relationship to visual material? How does this relate to your great-grandfather’s ideas? Do you feel a connection between your work and his, and if so, did this deepen over the course of this project?

Calder would be thrilled by the music for these ballets. He considered noise, or sound, to be equal to colour, material, and form, for the purpose of “varying” a work of art, adding “disparity” to a composition. In fact, Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere (1932/1933), the first hanging mobile, is a real-time chance-based composition with repurposed objects. My group Rue Bainbridge performs audiovisual improvisation; we work with electroacoustic music and light drawings. I follow Michel Chion’s ideas about sound and image, but recently I’ve been interested in Henry Bryant’s philosophy of live performance syncopated against silent visual media, the rhythms of silence.

Sphere Pierced by Cylinders, 1939.
Wire and paint
83 x 34 x 43 in.
Calder Foundation, New York. Photo Courtesy of Calder Foundation, New York / Art Resource, New York.
Photo: Tom Powel Imaging. ©2019 Calder Foundation, New York / VEGAP, Santander

I notice you have selected several tracks by Moondog. Is he an artist that you admire and why? 

Moondog is one of the best interpreters and icons of New York City. We need a statue on 6th avenue! Calder’s Ballet In Four Parts called for music by a single composer, as it depicts four linked sequences. This animatic ended up being unique for this reason. I experimented with works by several composers, and the different pieces by Moondog have the right combination of variety and sonic identity.  

I love the David Tudor track you selected, ‘Pulsers’ from ‘Three Works for Live Electronics’. As someone who plays a lot of vintage electronics, I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear that piece.

Yes! “Pulsers” is so simple in a way, some speed adjustments by Tudor on a coughing analogue oscillator. Later in the piece Toshi Ichiyanagi plays some Hendrixy wah-violin. Psychedelic!

How much do you feel that Cage’s ideas of indeterminacy are at play with these musical selections and how much do you feel that these ideas relate to your great-grandfather’s work?

Cage’s ideas are not at play in the selections. Remarkably, Calder anticipated Cage’s first forays in indeterminacy in the late 1940’s with Small Sphere and Heavy Sphere. Works of Calder (1949/1950) is a beautiful film by Herbert Matter featuring music by Cage for prepared piano; this is the most important overlap between the two artists.

Alexander Calder. Rouge triomphant, 1963
Sheet metal, rod, wire, and paint
110 x 230 x 180 in.
© 2019 Calder Foundation, New York / VEGAP, Santander

In the process of your research did you encounter any new pieces and/or composers that have made a deep impact on you and feel may have an influence on your future work?

I was familiar with most of the works aside from a couple Moondog deep cuts (Invocation and Perpetual Motion). In terms of my own practice, I’m indebted to the microtonal work of Folk Rabe and Phill Niblock, and the fusion of Roberto Musci.

What projects have you got coming up in your own output?

Rue Bainbridge was just awarded the Shigeko Kubota Foundation’s inaugural Video Art Prize, which is helping us grow our site-specific performance style into a compact touring show. We’re playing at the Hepworth Wakefield for the Yorkshire Sculpture Park Festival in late July. I’m finishing a solo album of singing saw drone and “off-planet” music. Hopefully that comes out soon on Soap Library. Also, I edited / composed a book called Strange Attractor coming out this fall (co-published by Inventory Press and Ballroom Marfa).

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Calder Stories is on at the Centro Botín in Santander, Spain, from 29 June – 3 Nov 2019. For more information, visit the Centro Botín website

Interview by Jude Cowan Montague.


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