The following was written as part of a writer-in-residency for the Fusebox performance festival in Austin.
Maria Chávez embraces the sounds of decay and chance
By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Writer-in-residence
Maria Chávez remembers the first sound she heard: the mechanical squawk of a wind-up chicken toy. She was three years old and since her birth in Lima, Peru, her family worried that she might be deaf or developmentally delayed.
When Chávez’s family moved to Austin, a doctor diagnosed the problem. The toddler had fluid in her ears. And the doctor, who had toys in his office for his young patients, drained Chávez’s ears.
Although the now Brooklyn-based artist doesn’t remember what it was like to not be able to hear, she has never forgotten the screech of that chicken toy.
“The sound was awful and it frightened me,” Chávez says. “I still have a much more intense relationship to sound and to hearing than most people do,”
Chávez’s artistic practice with sound incorporates live performances as a turntablist as well as installation projects. She brings both to Fusebox.
“String Room” is an immersive installation at Co-Lab Projects’ Demo Gallery. Chávez uses more than 200 lengths of 12-gauge piano wire, each length stretched taut and bolted into the floor and then extended upwards, bolted into the 17-foot ceiling or into one of the concrete supports.
Chávez conceived of “String Room” as an enormous instrument of sorts: Visitors will be able to pluck the piano wire or use one of the guitar picks. If many are there, the space could becomes a brilliant noise. A solo visitor might create herself a minimalist soundscape.
A co-presentation of Fusebox and Co-Lab Projects “String Room” will remain on exhibit through May 6.
Taking a pause in the midst of installing, Chávez marvels that the dozens of bolt holes drilled for “String Room” are micro-demolitions within the soon-to-be-demolished downtown building.
“I love that this piece is a part of the deterioration of this building,” she says.
Coincidence and the unexpected, time and its decaying effects — these are the themes that unite Chávez’s installations and turntable work.
She selects records not for the music they hold but for their surfaces, opting for vinyl that’s most deteriorated by time and damaged by happenstance. Ditto her turntables which are typically outdated and in need of various repairs. And she’ll sometimes stack broken and deteriorating records on top of one another to see what kinds of sounds they produce.
“My practice is about the organic process. I value the deterioration that comes from time — it makes for interesting sound possibilities.”
Her live performances are entirely improvised. Chance is Chávez’s vital creative instrument.
“I never have a structure of what I’m going to do beforehand,” she says. “I’ll bring a bag full of records and just choose one. Sometimes I’ve asked others to bring me records.”
Using a single turntable, Chávez coaxes out sounds — the scratches, the pops, the ghostly scrapes commingling with shadowy snatches of the record’s original music to create haunting, beautiful aural landscapes.
As a teenage in Houston in the late 1990s, Chávez started carving a career for herself as a DJ. But she butted heads with DJ protocol and prescribed styles. Once she played a set entirely composed of just the end of records.
“The club threw me out,” she says with a laugh.
Soon after that episode, Chávez won an internship at the Pauline Oliveros Foundation. The ground-breaking experimental musician, Oliveros codified the theory of Deep Listening, a method that leads artists to practice a mindful listening the sounds in their environments in order to create unexpected compositions.
Lacking any ability to play an instrument, Chávez arrived at the Oliveros Foundation with her turntable. “I started making sounds I never heard before and never knew I could. And I’ve never looked back.”
Last year, as part of the Marfa Myths festival, Chávez created a site -specific live sound and sculpture installation that celebrated the West Texas wind. Chávez’s piece was sited in The Block, a complex of buildings, enclosed by an adobe wall, located in downtown Marfa that Donald Judd used as his residence and the site of some of his first large-scale installations.
“Every room, every space has its own unique sound that becomes a part of the performance,” says Chávez.
“Same with the audience, the people who are in the space. They’re are a part of any performance — they are a part of what creates the sound.”