Profile: Nick Zammuto
July 11, 2008 § Leave a Comment
From his work with his band The Books to his own creations, artist/musician Nick Zammuto pursues the idea that you can see sound. Zammuto’s upcoming installation at the Williams College Museum of Art, “Laser Show: Six Perspectives on a Chaotic Resonator” is the latest incarnation of this pursuit. In it, Zammuto employs six lasers, a screen, a hand-fashioned mirror, a speaker and low frequency soundwaves to create a collaboration that has the lasers put the soundwaves into visual form.
For the piece, Zammuto has mounted six lasers onto the speaker. The sounds from the speaker cause vibrations that move the lasers, which are aimed towards the oddly-shaped mirror that he has create from flexible mirror material that you can get at any auto parts store. Different frequencies cause different types of vibrations — when the beams bounce from the mirror to the screen, it creates patterns to be viewed from the other side.
“It draws pictures in a screen, a rear projection, so when you walk into the gallery you see a screen with fixed laser points and they’re all moving,” said Zammuto. “When you look at these six pictures relative to one another, you can tell that they’re related, they’re looking at the sound from different perspectives.”
Zammuto has found that he can predict pictures, it just takes research and testing to figure out what sounds make what movements — from there, he’s moved onto combining sound in order to get more complicated imagery, as well as create patterns that will change. He then uses audio software to catalog what visual each sound causes in order to create a rhythmic, visual composition.
“If I’m just using sine waves, I can get circles or figure 8s, pretty simple lines, depending on the frequency,” said Zammuto. “If I put another sine wave on top of it, say two octaves or three octaves or two and a half octaves above that, then I can get a second frequency riding on top of the first one, so there’s a flower-shaped thing, that’s the combination of two simple frequencies. I can change the volume over time to create pictures that are either growing or shrinking and I can ramp the frequencies up and down so the pictures change over time.”
Zammuto works largely with low frequency sounds, since those are the ones that create forceful physical vibrations at a lower volume — more power packed in a smaller punch that higher frequencies just don’t have. Think of being in your car as another car pulls up next to you blasting your stereo — if the bass is turned up, it vibrates in your car, but the treble keeps to itself.
“It’s like ripples in the ocean — there’s all this high frequency noise on the surface of the ocean, but that’s not the thing that rocks the boat,” said Zammuto. “The thing that rocks the boat are the really deep waves, the ones that crash on the shore. If you’re sitting on an average size boat, you can feel the lower frequency waves, but you can’t feel just the ripples on the surface.”
Zammuto’s interest lies in the way higher and lower frequencies mingle, with the higher frequencies being the common crowd pleasers that humans process as speech and music, while the lower ones are perceived as more of a physical sensation — like your cell phone when it’s set to vibrate. At high volumes, lower frequency sounds can be utilized as deadly weapons — not that Zammuto wants his art to kill, he keeps the volume quite low and lets the high frequency sound function as the representational noise.
“I’d just like to reveal the spectrum of sound as a continuum, although our brains chop it up in all kinds of ways out of habit that isn’t necessarily a representation of reality,” said Zammuto.
The contraption built for this laser show came to Zammuto in an epiphany this winter, while he was messing around in his home studio in Vermont with various sonics.
“I was trying to figure out how to take that vibration from a speaker — and that’s all it does, recreates vibrations, that’s it, that’s all it does — demystify it to any degree that I could,” said Zammuto. “If you just stare at a speaker, you can’t see what’s going on, it’s happening too fast, I wanted to figure out a way to make that picture larger.”
Zammuto originally attempted to work with a pen attached to the speaker, but began to see how light — particularly laser light — would serve to illustrate the vibratory dance even more clearly and excitingly. Zammuto had previously worked with infrared lasers when he studied chemistry at Williams College and at his former job at the Williams Art Conservation Center and the principle behind his scientific application of the lasers is directly related to his use of it in his art installation. It’s all about the vibrations and a laser’s relationship with them.
“Let’s say you have an oxygen molecule, that bond is oscillating,” said Zammuto. “The difference between those oxygen atoms is changing all the time, like there’s a little spring connected to them. It’s vibrating and really, really fast. The frequency of that vibration happens in the infrared part of the spectrum. Every bond between two atoms of a more complicated molecule, like DNA or protein or something like that, has a very specific frequency that it vibrates at, depending on the other atoms that it’s attached to.”
When a researcher shines the infrared laser on a sample, it records the information in a series of what is called “peaks,” with each peak representing a vibration in a different part of the molecule.
“It creates this forest of peaks that you call a fingerprint, and that fingerprint is completely particular to that molecule,” said Zammuto.
The fingerprints are placed in a library of spectra — not much different from what Zammuto is compiling for his own purposes in this installation. Each fingerprint, however, is directly related to the mirror as a translation tool through which the language of the lasers is formed into visual sentences for the viewer.
“Because the mirror is oddly shaped it represents this molecular, idiosyncratic, connected kind of thing that will respond in a very particular kind of way to different kinds of vibrations,” said Zammuto, “and then there are multitudes of ways to translate that into the real world, either in terms of the graph or, in this case, sweeping through the frequencies and seeing how the behavior changes over time. It does relate directly to my experiences in chemistry.”
Zammuto had originally pursued a chemistry career, attending Williams College, but a diagnosis of Hodgkins disease and the subsequent treatment — which gave him off time to putter and think — and a crisis of faith about his chosen profession conspired to reveal a way to apply the lessons of chemistry to the wonders of art.
“One day my chemistry professor took me aside and said, ‘You should have been born in the 18th-century, because then you could’ve really done the experiments that would have satisfied you,’” said Zammuto. “There were still these great, unknown things where you could really think outside the box and go for. Well, I can do that in art.”
This fall, Zammuto will return to Williams College as a teacher — of art. He’ll be tackling a multi-disciplinary class on the history and technique of sampling, from sound and music to video and text, what Zammuto describes as “a rich history of sampling broadly defined as recontextualization.”
“I think that is because otherwise the world is just noise,” said Zammuto. “We’re faced with so much information now it’s just at the point, it’s almost in crisis — it’s at the point where people are checking their Crackberries every 37 seconds. Unless we as a culture have an outlet for reconciling all of this disparate information, to some degree within our own spiritual development, it’s just going to get unbearable. I think sampling is really a response to that, a basic survival mode.”
Making sense of sound, taming the cacophony, these are endeavors that Zammuto applies to his band with Paul de Jong, as well as his art work. He has also been working on film editing lately, another way of cataloging chaos. But Zammuto doesn’t want his work to be academic — quite the contrary. His contraptions and ideas and music, as a nexus of sound and visual with a dash of scientific method, are all fun endeavors for him and he hopes others look at them the same. In fact, he insists on it.
“I had to fight for the title ‘Laser Show,’ because they thought it was too much of a throwback to the ’80s,” said Zammuto. “I was like, ‘No, you’ve got to leave laser show in there because it’ll get the kids in!”