Evy Jokhova: Staccato

It also informs her choice of materials and the decision to work across many media and platforms, thus Jokhova is a multi-disciplinary artist engaging with dialogue and relationships between social anthropology, architecture, philosophy and art. She was recently awarded one of the Royal British Society of Sculptors’s coveted Bursary Awards and was shortlisted for the RBSpublic art award, First @108, Public Art Prize 2017.

Architecture as frozen music – music as liquid architecture

by Evy Jokhova

My site-specific solo exhibition ‘Staccato’ presented by Marcelle Joseph Projects, in the Chapel at the House of St Barnabas is part of a long-term project ‘The Shape of Ritual’ that commenced just over a year ago, exploring the relationship between sound, architecture and the body. The main aim of my research project is to transcribe three selected ceremonial buildings into music, using the article ‘Architecture Becomes Music’ by Charles Jencks – as a springboard. This discusses the interplay between music and Pythagorean mathematical principles as a theoretical premise for harmony in music and architecture. The ‘architectural music’ then informs a number of site-specific sculptural works, performances and participatory events in the Chapel.

Walter Pater proposed that ‘all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ and Charles Jencks suggests that this is driven by an understanding that in abstract music, form and content, and thus sound and sense – are integrated. He suggests that this is a condition, which modernism and modernist art strives towards, by exploring the possibilities of fusing form and content, on the basis of architecture and its influence on the human individual. ‘The Shape of Ritual’ aims to examine the idea of architecture as ‘frozen music’ with its attributes of rhythm, proportion and harmony. Academics in these fields often refer to the notion that music and architecture are generated by the same underlying code and have a cosmic connection. This concept was translated by Pythagoras into mathematics and geometry, and became the basis for the Ancient Greek preoccupation with proportion, which they believed revealed supreme beauty and ‘the music of the heavenly spheres’.

Greek temples were conceived around music and performance, where the ground plan and forms of the stone were intended to reflect sounds. Here, geometrical ratios fused music with ceremonial architecture, with their columns and intercolumniations creating steady beats of solid/void that mimicked staccato composition. Staccato composition is defined as a form of musical articulation which is determined in modern notation by notes of a shortened duration, played separately from others and followed by silence. This is demonstrated by the columns and pillars of a Greek temple or the tall stained glass windows of a Gothic church which convey an acute understating of sound and form through contrasting dark/light and loud/quiet accents. I am fascinated by these connections, and thus my project is inspired by the mathematics and science behind art, music and architecture. This directly informs the aesthetic of my work, which follows the ratios and algorithms used to construct both sound compositions and buildings. These processes that govern and underpin the project are as important as its final outcome. Indeed, the project is experimental in its nature, with the overall work taking the form of a series of interdisciplinary investigations that set out to gain a wider understanding of the topic.

The three buildings I selected for transcription into music represent the genres of Classical, Gothic and Modernist architecture. They are the Baptistery in Florence, which will be transcribed during a residency at Villa Lena, Italy in September 2017, the chapel at the House of St Barnabas, London and the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Vienna. The aim is to explore all three buildings and observe how they are reliant on symmetry, mathematical proportions and musical harmony in their construction. It will no doubt be informative and revealing, for example, to compare the chapel at the House of St Barnabas, a Gothic Revival chapel constructed according to the principles of Gothic ceremonial architecture, with the Church of the Most Holy Trinity – a Brutalist church composed of one hundred and fifty-two irregularly stacked cement slabs. The Church of the Most Holy Trinity was designed by the Austrian sculptor Fritz Wotruba and is widely known as the Wotruba Church. Fritz Wotruba was an artist, not an architect, and the building was designed on the premise of a plaster model and was conceived without any consideration for traditional architectural principles. Completed in 1976, the Wotruba Church was the result of a nine-year collaboration between Fritz Wotruba and architect, Fritz Mayr. In a sense it is an enlarged non-symmetrical abstract sculpture that allows the audience to enter into an art form that would otherwise be viewed only from the outside and on a smaller scale.

In 2016, I was awarded a three-month artist residency with studio das weisse haus, Vienna, to transcribe the Wotruba Church into music. I carried out regular visits to the church and researched its construction process through archival material held at the Wotruba Estate in the 21er Haus. It was a unique opportunity for me to become immersed in direct source material and gain an intimate insight into the artist’s thought processes. To reflect my physical experience of the building and its architectural plans and models, my process was one of rigorous systemization – re-presenting it as a linear sequence that could be interpreted for musical notation. This visual score was handed over to musician, James Metcalfe, who created a twenty-one-minute musical composition from it. In 2017, I will be returning to Vienna as a Curator-in-Residence at the Belvedere Museum to complete the next stage of the project, which involves working with dancer/choreographers, who will interpret the music into a contemporary dance for two people. For ‘Staccato’ the music was not to be interpreted into dance, instead three modernist sculptures, designed to alter the acoustics of the Chapel, were installed into the space.

The Chapel at House of St Barnabas was built between 1862-64 by Joseph Clarke, a Fellow at the Royal Institute of British Architects and a British Gothic Revival architect. The chapel was designed with reference to the style of the Anglo-Catholic revival and includes stylistic details from medieval Gothic architecture, making it an ideal comparison with the Brutalist Wotruba Church. Gothic churches were conceived in alignment with ‘sacred geometry’, a principle where shapes and proportion are closely linked to musical notation, and these come into play especially when music is being performed. The exterior and interior of the Chapel is compact, with one central apse and four identically sized side apses. This creates a distinctive repetition, punctuated by hollows, indents, voids and solids in the form of stone walls and eight pillars. The colours within the interior are predominantly reds, pinks, yellows and blues, some present in the architecture of the building, some in the stained-glass windows. Some of which are echoed in the sculptures that I made for the space. 

The musical score for ‘Staccato’ was composed in the same manner as the one for the Wotruba Church, by first making drawings that systematized the architecture of the Chapel and these would become the basis for the visual score by musician James Metcalfe. The transcription of the Chapel is surprisingly more like music than a soundscape, as the repetitions within the building create a clear rhythm and a beat. In order to make the transcription I walked around the building, starting from the exterior on Manette Street, then the interior and lastly the outside view from the garden at the House of St Barnabas. I split the Chapel into twelve sections: two exterior sections on Manette Street, the corridor, the five apses, with the central apse being seen from the front and back: organ and altar, the corridor leading to the courtyard, and a further two exterior sections as seen from garden. These floor plans were given colour codes, which served as a linear map for the score, and included a ground floor plan, a view from above, and a sketch of the patterns occurring within the chapel’s layout.

Referring to the floor plan drawing as a sequential guide, I then drew an architectural elevation of the Chapel starting from the exterior, moving into the interior and completing with the exterior on the opposite side. This elevation was then slightly simplified and abstracted into colour-coded shapes, retaining the intrinsic relationship between the shapes of the architectural details in the chapel. Here, the tall windows are translated into elongated black shapes, the pillars became beige rectangles, domed roofs became green triangular shapes and mouldings became blue shapes. Again the colour choices in the drawing were used for coding reasons, to make a clear visual score for the musician. This score for the Chapel consists of nine colours, with each colour representing an architectural feature. The musician, James Metcalfe, was asked to assign a tone or instrument to each colour. Depending on the size of the shape, the sound became either a note or a chord and the positioning of the shapes on the drawing also determined whether they were high or low notes. The visual score was set a length of nine minutes, which was the time it took me to very slowly walk around the Chapel. The sound plays in the score when the shapes appear on the drawing, thus creating a dialogue between the notes, which directly reflects the equivalent architectural dialogue. To form the sound piece we used a mixture of live-recorded instruments and synthesizers, and the music is played back in the Chapel through an array of speakers installed in the central and side apses.

I have worked in collaboration with musicians before, but it has only been in creating soundtracks for my film work, whereas the ‘Staccato’ and ‘The Shape of Ritual’ project as a whole marks the first time I have worked with sound as a separate art form. Indeed, the element of sound and this process of translation are at the very core of the project. It has been a challenging, complex and multi-faceted project to embark on as I have no formal background in music, but have always been intrigued by sound, especially how and why it effects our perception and experience. Working with musicians and sound engineers has opened up new territories and given me much to learn. This work is therefore both an investigation and a meditation on the subject. The three new site-specific sculptural works that accompany the music in ‘Staccato’ seek to further examine the relationship between sound, image and form, using the architecture of the chapel and its specific acoustics.

Each of the three sculptures, Ceiling Panels (main image & figs.1&9), Concertina Pillar(figs.4&10) and Cube Pillar, are constructed on a modular premise. They come apart entirely into a set of components, which can be assembled and re-assembled in alternate ways. My use of materials was dictated by both function and association, sound insulation foam and rock wool for their acoustic purposes, wood for its use in building and sound studio construction, as well as musical instrument manufacture and wheels from transportation cases for sound equipment. I chose mirrored surfaces and Perspex to allude to historical associations with reflective surfaces such as glass, ornaments and ceremonial halls and I worked with plaster for weight and balance. Cube Pillar and Concertina Pillar can be assembled and de-assembled from their modular kit into the full sculpture by just one person, adhering to a certain DIY ethic. 

Erecting Ceiling Panels, however, demanded a team of people, because it is suspended from a beam that is an integral part of the roof structure of the Chapel. The beam is 10 metres off the ground and the sculpture, which is 4.5metres in length, hovers at 3.5 metres above the ground. The skeleton construction of Ceiling Panels also de-assembles into a flat pack kit, and the panels within it attach onto the dowels that run through each row. The sculpture is double-ended, meaning it exists suspended from the ceiling in a ‘V’ shape, but can also be shown inversed as a floor-based triangular form piece on wheels.

With Ceiling Panels weight was a critical factor in its conception, as the piece was suspended using a timber cradle from the Chapel beam. Working in a listed building meant that we could not drill, so the cradle was hooked over the beam and padded with foam in vulnerable areas of contact. Despite its size, the sculpture is surprisingly lightweight as the panels are all made out of cardboard and insulation foam to minimize the overall mass of the work. All of the panels are constructed with a layer of sound insulation foam and pivoted at different angles to affect the sound waves differently. It is important for me that this piece is modular and interchangeable, and extra panels can be added or removed as a way of experimenting to see how this affects the sound in the space. It is not possible here in the Chapel due to the height of the suspended work, but when exhibited in the future – Ceiling Panels can be turned the other way around to become a free standing sculpture. 

This modular aspect is key to my practice in general. Most works are planned as kits comprised of both unique elements and certain repeating forms, like the cube and triangle, which can be stacked, assembled and presented in a variety of manners. This is both practical and conceptual. In my project, modular structures and repetition of form also chimes well with the predominant aesthetic of the Wotruba Church. Indeed the visual motif of the cube as a building block permeates much of my drawings, sculptures, installations and films.

Cube Pillar and Concertina Pillar are both freestanding sculptures on wheels and conceptually they echo the pillars within the Chapel, as well as recognizable elements of religious architecture such as the ribs of Gothic church and cathedral domes in Concertina Pillar. They also have a totemic nature, in particular Cube Pillar, which references totems and stacked cairns. Whilst the structural aspects of the sculptures were initially planned and meticulously worked out through a series of drawings, their material elements were formulated through a series of conversations I had with a composer, Oliver Smith. Oliver explained the nature of wavelengths and frequencies to me, how they behaved in space, and that different shaped rooms had varying acoustics. He described how it is possible to alter the acoustic properties of a room through acoustic insulation material such as foam, rockwool and rubber, thus my motivation behind the three sculptures presented in ‘Staccato’ is that they are functional and designed to alter the acoustics of the space. The concept of functional sculpture is something I have been exploring in my practice for just over a year and I am interested in the interface between art and the usable object. 

Therefore the sculptures in ‘Staccato’ both absorb sound and reflect light, hence the alternating mirror and sound insulation foam panels present in both Ceiling Panels and Concertina Pillar. Here, when the foam absorbs sound and the mirror reflects light/image – they disrupt and change the space both audibly and visually. In my preparatory sketches a basic colour code was used: pink for sound insulation foam, yellow for mirror. Within Cube Pillar I play with the concept of solid/void where the bottom cube is solid, covered in sound insulation foam and stuffed with rockwool to absorb lower frequencies whereas the next two cubes are outlines in painted timber. The fourth cube is Perspex with a roll of insulation foam, which due to its thickness absorbs some of the high and mid-frequency sounds waves in the space, seemingly decorative – but actually functional. 

I am now curious to see how these works would look and function in different spaces – in a white cube context or domestic interior. Would their aesthetic and functional ability to alter the acoustic properties of spaces become more or less apparent or indeed relevant? I anticipate my practice going forward will see more experiments of this nature and investigation into sound in space.

We visited the House of St. Barnabas and experiences ‘Staccato’

Entering the Chapel, one’s senses are immediately awakened, entranced not only by the shimmering effects of the three sculptures, but by James Metcalfe’s densely woven, sonorous score. The music is a resonant journey of harmony, contrast and juxtaposition, reflecting Jokhova’s unpredictable combination of materials in the sculptures themselves. Passages of synthesis are often disrupted either by a strident, deep base or a series of quivering high-pitched notes from a Rhodes piano, and tonal reverie slowly evolves into rich, soaring sequences. The visitor searches for the music’s source, which radiates from the altar, subconsciously drawing one towards it in an act of obvious symbolism. 

Towering above the visitor, Ceiling Panels is suspended from a beam in front of the altar, its position alludes to the traditional placing of the crucifix in a High Church context. Fanning out in two sections from its base, the work invites inspection from both sides, which yields differing spatial configurations. As dialogue between the music, the Chapel’s architecture and her sculpture is one of Jokhova’s key concerns , Ceiling Panels is like a musical instrument in itself; the wooden frame seems to acts like a basic template onto which the artist has manipulated space and sound by the varying positions and angles of the mirrored panels. Thus both sides are defined by the artist’s skilful command of spatial flow, creating a series of rhythmic voids to suggest the spaces between the musical notes in the score, which express the architecture. The central front section of the work is anchored by two flat, black, painted panels edged with pastel colours, which Jokhova later echoes in Cube Pillar. Although the panels disrupt this spatial flow and rhythm, their pictorial suggestion of depth conveys an impression of the infinite, and engages with the deep base of the music. In Ceiling Panels, Jokhova also subdivides the empty panel sections to isolate and frame the architecture, incorporating the chapel into her work. Here, as the visitor walks forward, areas such as the starry sky of the apse sometimes come into play with the mirrored surfaces – to dazzling and illusory effect. However, it is an illusion of volume that pervades the mirrored surfaces, as they appear creased and buckled, creating shimmering reflections, which warp and distort the architecture. Yet walking underneath, the visitor soon realises that the panels are flat card and the spell is broken.

Before walking up the nave, in a side chapel immediately on the right, is the commanding form of Concertina Pillar, which feels boxed in by a partition wall. Indeed this accentuates the dominating presence of the form, which shrinks and subjugates the semi-circular space, almost discouraging entry. Similarly, although on wheels, the sculpture rebuffs any suggestion of movement. The work consists of a series of undulating mirrors, alternating with black sound insulation foam panels, where the stark overhead lighting throws the oscillating surfaces into sharp relief. Thus the surface waves almost seem alive, appearing to ripple and vibrate as they absorb the immersive music. Recalling the reflections in Ceiling Panel, the curved mirrors jar the senses, as the visitor endeavours to decipher the distorted images of the chapel, including Cube Pillar opposite. The mirrors create a disorientating sense of continual transformation, as the Chapel’s pillars collapse, their features contorted and mutating – as form and architecture appear to disintegrate. Here, a dichotomy emerges; although Ceiling Panels demonstrates Jokhova’s taut control of space to create a visual equivalent of the score, the artist again seems to relish a lack of control, as she dissolves and subverts the very architecture her work seeks to translate.

There is also a sense of enigma, as the panels are punctuated by slithers of ultraviolet light, so that a diffuse blue colour subtly emanates from the base, suggesting a mysterious interior. This atmospheric light chimes well with Jokhova’s ideas of the cosmic, sacred reading of the architectural space. Yet the distinctive shape and combination of mirrors and ultraviolet also give the work a slightly futuristic appearance, almost like the base of a rocket!

When the visitor reaches the altar, Cube Pillaris on the immediate left. In this sculpture, Jokhova gives the ultraviolet light a glowing intensity by placing it directly beneath the base and just above the floor. Therefore despite it sturdy wheels, the work seems to float and hover over the red encaustic tiled floor. The side chapel is bathed in this luminous blue light, accentuating the curved seat with its mottled, peeling surface and creating an evocative, ethereal atmosphere. In Cube Pillar, the modular cubes are stacked at angles creating a complex, dynamic form, where solid and void come into play, with its allusions to the artist’s engagement with sacred geometry. Although each segment triggers a dialogue of colour, shape and materials such as the soft pastels with acid green Perspex, the unifying element is the natural wooden pole and the distinctive series of wide connecting holes. Again Jokhova experiments with visual trickery, as one segment features a transparent wifi screen at times rendered opaque by the ultraviolet light , or a projected sequence of shapes that animates the musical score. Thus from the front of the work, the pole disappears, the link is disrupted and cohesion fragmented. Similarly, from a distance this cube’s black and white frame seems to pierce through the polystyrene, yet actually stops just front of it – again heightening the sense of illusion. Jokhova also subverts the function of the foam by encasing it in a green cube and playfully tying it up with a bow.

A fascinating mediation on the Chapel’s architecture, Jokhova surprises at every turn. Her gesamkunstwerk is characterized by a mastery of illusion and complex spatial explorations which express her poetic fusion of sound and form.

Main image: Evy Jokhova, ‘Staccato’ 2017, Ceiling Panels, installation view (photo: Jan Krejci)

‘Staccato’, presented by Marcelle Joseph Projects, The Chapel at the House of St. Barnabas, 1, Greek Street, London W1, 9 November 2016 – 4 January 2017

Aurora Corio