Camille Norment’s Venice Installation Channels the Fear and Ecstasy of Sound
Several years ago, installation and sound artist Camille Norment returned to a composition she had listened to often in the ’90s: “Fratres” by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. This time, as she played the score on iTunes, she heard something completely different—an experience she would later describe as something of an “epiphany.”
To Norment’s ear, the song’s high-pitched tones sounded like “a sine wave, but wavering like playing the rim of a wine glass with a finger.” Finding new fodder for her exploration into the psychological effects of sound, she began researching different ways to play glass. This a-ha moment led her to the glass armonica, a curious and historically charged instrument that, in addition to becoming the inspiration for a “new chapter” in her artistic process, is soon to be the centerpiece of Norment’s installation, Rapture, in the Norwegian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale.
A delicate and relatively obscure instrument, the glass armonica was invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761 and was played by Mozart and Marie Antoinette; it emits an ethereal, somewhat shrill tone that has been associated throughout history with the divine and the ecstatic. In the late 18th century, it was used by German physicians to “mesmerize” patients into a state of hypnosis, but its capacity as a healing device was quickly overshadowed by fear, and the instrument was banned in Germany—its supernatural sounds were thought to induce madness or, in the case of women, sexual arousal.
For Rapture, the artist has composed new music for the age-old armonica, which includes a performance on the instrument and a new chorus of 12 voices that corresponds to its high-frequency notes. Throughout the Biennale’s six-month run, the artist has also invited collaborators to participate in a series of performances that mirror the themes of the installation, subjects Norment has been interrogating for most of her career: the history of sound; its capacity to create dissonant, uncanny spaces; and the relationship between music and the body.
The glass armonica is a natural fit for Norment, whose work has spanned the disciplines of dance, painting, and installation; as a composer and musician she tours as a solo artist and with her ensemble, the Camille Norment Trio. In concert halls and museums alike, Norment unearths outmoded or forgotten materials and reanimates them. “Sound, by its nature,” she has said, “permeates borders—even invisible ones. Throughout history, fear has been associated with the paradoxical effects music has on the body and mind.”
In recent years, Norment has used oil drums in Rhythm Wars–Crazy Army (2012) to conjure long, low, deep tones, and in Dead Room (2000) createdan installation hinged on bass tones too low for the human ear to register. For Triplight (2008), installed at The Museum of Modern Art in the 2013 exhibition “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” she placed lights inside of a 1955 Shure microphone—the same mic model used by greats like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong—to cast a ribcage-like projection on a wall. A recent album with her ensemble, Toll (2011), was performed exclusively on instruments (including the glass armonica and the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle) that had throughout history been feared, or banned.
Though the artist was born in Silver Springs, Maryland, she has lived in Oslo for over a decade. As she told an interviewer several years ago, while she and her family planned to move to Norway from New York City only temporarily, “We found an irresistible situation in Oslo and stayed…I have a great affinity for the music scene here, and am thrilled to be part of it. I’ve been following a few Norwegian recording sound artists since the ’90s.”
This is the first year Norway has single-handedly curated the Nordic Pavilion, which was originally built by the Norwegian Pritzker Prize–winning architect Sverre Fehn to represent Sweden, Finland, and Norway. Designed to capture what Fehn described as “shadowless Nordic light,” the structure’s striated roof and floor-to-ceiling windows interact with the waters and shadows of Venice, refracting them to reflect the essence of Scandinavia’s topography. Norment’s installation, and her practice at large, specializes in the creation of immersive and jarring experiences, a tendency that parallels the intentions of the pavilion’s architecture; in an artist’s statement connected to her Biennale installation, she noted, “Sound, like experience, is fleeting but it leaves traces in the mind and in the body.”
Nordic Pavilion, May 9—Nov 22, 56th, Giardini