Canons in Entropy
4-channel site-specific audio installation
The first canon of J.S. Bach’s Musikalisches Opfer is known as a “crab” canon: two voices play the famous theme and its elaboration simultaneously, one moving forward from beginning to end, the other backwards, running in reverse. They meet in the middle, exchange direction, and return to their original starting points, at which they repeat the process ad infinitum. The work is thus a Möbius Strip, possessing a moment of initiation, but no clear beginning or ending; it is a music that nullifies the arrow of time, presenting the past, present, and future simultaneously at each moment.
Canons in Entropy, commissioned by Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest and the SONICBernheim Series, is a site-specific 4-channel audio installation that uses the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester’s recording of Bach’s crab canon as its source material, both sonically and conceptually. Just as Bach constructs the work by layering the music upon itself, I proliferate this layering in an accretive process: after I present the original recording as Bach had composed it, I splice the recording in half at the midpoint and layer the two halves atop each other. I then splice it in thirds and do the same, then in fourths, fifths, and so forth, a total of 231 times. The music undergoes entropy, as its conventionally “musical” qualities — melodies, rhythms, harmonies, instrumental attacks, etc. — are eroded to a liquefied, homogenized stasis. Over the course of 11 minutes, what began as an awe-inspiring example of human sonic construction begins to bear more resemblance sound as it’s found “in the wild”: the roar of wind, the hum of insects, the enveloping din of a flock of birds. Just as Bach inverts the music in his canon’s center for it to return, symmetrically, to its starting point, so do I begin to reconstitute Canons in Entropy from its molten endpoint back to the original recording so that the cycle can perpetuate endlessly.
At Bernheim Forest, the speakers that played back the work were placed between four Norwegian fir trees along a wooden path between the parking lot and the Visitors Center. As the sounds rotated across the four speakers in various circular patterns, listeners could experience the piece from multiple vantage points and proximities. Though the stereo mix on this page presents a version of the piece from a fixed distance, listeners’ constant movements and shifts in perspective with regard to the sound sources — from close to far, centered to angled — are integral to the work’s sonic experience and its integration in Bernheim Forest’s environment.
Special thanks to Aaron Rosenblum, Sara Soltau, Andrea Jane, and Claude Stephens for their organizational, technical, financial, and moral support, and for their innumerable contributions to sustaining adventurous art in the Louisville, KY region.