Thessia Machado’s Handmade Instruments Turn Ambience into Music

The sound artist plays us her latest creation before it makes its live debut this month in New York.

Given light, space, electricity, and a stack of discarded electronics, Thessia Machado will make music. For more than a decade, the sound artist has been building her own instruments with found and modified parts—old speakers, circuit boards, fax machines—intent on broadening the dimensions of sound and sound-making. Unlike traditional instruments, Machado’s creations and installations generate sounds triggered by atmospheric factors such as light, movement, and electromagnetic waves. They harness and marshal the ambience, audibly expressing their environments. “These sounds that [were] not there, are now there,” she says. And sound, she adds, is “basically air that’s organized.”

Machado debuts her latest handmade instrument at the “Precarious Sounds//Sounding Sanctuary” conference, a two-day festival on critical approaches to sound, organized by the NYU Music Department on Feb. 16. Dubbed “Ruby” (2017), the setup consists of a baby monitor, an effects pedal, and several telephone coils. Photocells attached to the monitor react to the screen’s light levels, while a freely dangling coil captures electromagnetic frequencies in the air—an homage, she says, to Steve Reich’s “Pendulum Music” (1968). The aural outcome is a series of drones and static that she further manipulates with the effects pedal to generate glitchy, pulsating tapestries of experimental noise.

Unlike the majority of her pieces, which spontaneously generate sounds from graphic scores (projected, animated light cast onto coils and circuits) she creates for the ambience, “Ruby” is intended to be played. In improvised performances, Machado can adjust the position and brightness of its baby monitor or rearrange its coils, while the instrument itself responds to conditions specific to its site. “The beauty of improvisation is that openness,” she says. “In different spaces, the EMF [electromagnetic field] is different and sometimes ‘Ruby’ even picks up radio signals, so it depends on how the environment is.” These considerations of site and space are key, so that “everything, if not site-specific, is site-adaptable.”

Machado’s sensitivity to environment has also been demonstrated in installations such as “Perimeter” (2006), which yielded pure tones from the sound of a brush moving around the edges of a room, and “[[[roomtone]]] ]]” (2013), which she describes as an “architectural jukebox,” involving mechanical devices that activate and amplify the aural features of a space. Within these projects also lies her growing ingenuity in synthesizing sound.

Trained as a visual artist in her native Brazil and at Hunter College in New York, Machado created her first rudimentary sound device at a circuit-building workshop at the Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center in 2006, with help from Nicolas Collins’s seminal book Handmade Electronic Music. She’s since developed her projects based on her interests (in EMFs, physical processes like tension or friction) and with whatever pieces of equipment she can source and tinker with in her Brooklyn studio. “Rec/Play” (2013), created during a residency at Homesession Studios in Barcelona, was built with a deconstructed cassette tape deck; “Photosonic Field” (2016), exhibited at The Drawing Center in New York, featured greeting card sound modules; and “Telix” (2017), installed at SomoS Art House in Berlin, made music out of a fax machine.

For Machado, working with analog technology allows for a certain amount of transparency. “I know what each component is doing, so I can visually troubleshoot, as opposed to software instruments or anything on a computer,” she says. This tactile approach is further reflected in the stark presentation of her instruments. “I like components to be apparent and part of the visual thing. I like things to be exposed, so you can trace the logic of the piece.”

Part of building her own instruments like “Ruby,” ultimately involves learning how to play them. While doing so, Machado has had to shed conventional notions of music-making (say, strumming an acoustic guitar to compose melodies) in order to “approach music from a purely sound aspect,” she says. Looking back at the earlier “Perimeter,” she recalls it as an “interaction with sound on this very basic, physical level”—a material engagement with the presence of sound. “That’s essential in the way I work,” she says, “in that I think of sound as a medium, as a sculptural medium.”

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