Alex Braden likes noise. He recalls spending a month recording dissonant sounds around his mother-in-law’s home: clanging pipes, the slosh of a full bathtub and wind chimes. But the 30-year-old sound artist didn’t stop there. He proceeded to add piano, guitar and drum riffs, blending the cacophony to create the 12-minute piece, “Househusband.” It would become part of a multimedia art piece, but more about that later.
Househusband (two-minute excerpt) from Alex Braden on Vimeo.
Recently Braden was awarded a VisArts Studio Fellowship, the first of its kind for the Rockville gallery, with Braden receiving a $500 stipend and the opportunity to explore his ideas for six months and then create an installation at VisArts’ Gibbs Street Gallery in January 2018.
When choosing Braden for the award, jurist Tim Doud, a visual artist and associate professor at American University, was intrigued by Braden’s “playfulness,” noting that the artist is “smart and thinks about his materials. In his work, ‘No Flats, No Sharps’ (at D.C.’s Transformer gallery, 2016), he used cassette tapes and created a construction that was meant to fail.”
Doud saw the piece as a [sound] riff on Janet Cardiff’s work, in which the Canadian sound artist constructed a circle of speakers around an audience who listened to 40 vocalists, creating a “powerful experience,” he explained. Asked to comment about this comparison, Braden quipped from his D.C. residence, “I’ve stolen most of my ideas from her.”
Juror Leslie Holt, co-director of Red Dirt Studio in Mt. Rainer, Maryland, was impressed by Braden’s “range of ideas from [recording] intimate conversations with his wife to the killing of Freddie Gray to motion-activated sound and light.” She cited Braden’s “spirit of experimentation and careful attention to both the technical aspects of sound and the methods and vessels through which it is relayed: phone booth, steel container and a bucket.”
With sound and music technology becoming increasingly more sophisticated as well as more affordable, audio installations are becoming part of many artists’ repertoires. Often, sound artists collaborate with video, visual and performance artists to create a multimedia experience in galleries and public spaces.
ZeroZero Collective- Axon Xylophone Bridge 2014 Ballston Bid from Yassine El Mansouri on Vimeo.
Braden worked with ZeroZero Collective to create the sound and light installation, “Axon Xylophone Bridge” in 2014 at the Ballston Metro. As pedestrians crossed the bridge to the Metro station, their motion activated the sound and lights, creating an interactive experience.
This art form may seem modern, but the use of sound as an artistic device is not new, Doud said. In the early 20th century, Dadaists—like Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray—were exploring the “newest sound and music technology.”
This never-ending need to keep abreast of the newest inventions concerns Braden. He hopes advances in Bluetooth technology and Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) won’t pass him by.
But then again, Braden isn’t simply interested in using the newest sound equipment; his studio is filled with old analog TVs, record players, pay phones and piles of cassette tape players. “I open them up and see what is inside. The magnets and all the moving parts can be pleasing. They are kinetic, tangible and frozen in time,” he said. Unlike the newest technology, he finds comfort in that they will “never change. I am interested in combining antiques and high tech in my little installations.”
While working through his multiple ideas, Braden formulates strong opinions. “I’m over using white walls, video monitors and black headphones. I want to push it, whether it is successful or unsuccessful,” he said.
He realizes engaging visitors for any length of time can be a challenge, noting that it is estimated that “viewers look at a two-dimensional art piece for 25 to 30 seconds. Our culture’s attention span is waning and cellphones aren’t helping.”
Doud was pleased to hear that this emerging artist questions his own and other artists’ methods and ideas. “This is important for young artists,” he said, but cautions all artists to keep in mind that some of the most powerful art is quiet and may require a time commitment–despite the fact that this narrows the artist’s audience, which should not necessarily be considered a negative when creating art.
Waste from Alex Braden on Vimeo.
Persuading people to sit and listen was not an issue when Braden worked on the exhibition, “Fermata: A Celebration of Sound” in 2014 at the now-defunct Artisphere in Arlington, Virginia. Co-curators brothers Ryan and Hays Holladay and Cynthia Connolly worked with visual artist John Henry Blatter to stack and wire together 120 vintage speakers, creating a 60-foot wide by 30-foot tall sound wall. Braden’s 12-minute sound composition, “Househusband,” was played in coordination with three other artists.
Engaging people seated on comfy bean bag chairs and sofas scattered around the space was no problem–except that the artists wanted these loungers to get up so that others, who were standing pressed up against the walls, could sit and enjoy the experience. Braden wants to believe the music and visual experience kept people rooted, but he conceded it might have been the 100-degree outside temperature that kept them unwilling to give up their spots in the air-conditioned gallery.
Collaboration is becoming the name of the game with some artists creating the complex sound technology, while others work on video, taking on the task of visually interest. Getting the visuals right is important for Braden, who worries he will “create something cheesy. I work with my wife [Amy Hughes Braden], a painter and performance artist, to help me whittle down my ideas.”
Braden came to sound art through music. He started playing classical piano at age 4 and by his teens, he was giving beginning and intermediate piano lessons. Growing up in Michigan and Rhode Island, the homeschooled artist recalled a strict fundamentalist religious upbringing that made him “self-disciplined and self-driven” and gave him “plenty of fodder” for his artwork. He started out as a music major at George Mason University, but after taking a graphic art class and deciding he “wasn’t so bad at it,” he switched to art.
Professor Thomas Stanley’s history of hip-hop course inspired Braden to consider studying the interplay of sound and music. “I wanted to use sound without the construct of meter, harmony and melody,” he explained. Stanley called the artist “a careful thinker and decisive creator.”
Encouraged by his professor, the sound artist was off and running.
VisArts is located at 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. Gallery hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, noon to 8 p.m. Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. Call 301-315-8200 or visit www.visartscenter.org.