Winter 2007 Fellow
Glass artists rarely conform to the popular stereotype of the anti-social, semi-psychopathic, temperamental genius laboring alone in a freezing garret. Aside from the fact that a hot shop is, well, hot; glass artists as a lot tend to be both simultaneously warmly collaborative and intensely competitive. They loudly cheer one another’s successes and work like hell to be the best.
Whatever the technique, making things with glass usually goes more smoothly if more than one person is involved, but even given the social nature of working with glass, Elaine Miles is unusual. A commitment to human interaction, collaboration, and the value of every individual’s creative potential has been a consistent aspect of her work in glass, in performance, and other fields. Miles was a Ph.D. candidate at Monash University in Melbourne, AU when she completed a Winter, 2007 residency at the Creative Glass Center of America. At CGCA, she continued her work of making both relatively traditional and experimental musical instruments of glass. Though she is not a professional musician, she works collaboratively with musicians in making and selecting objects for performance events which because they are also visual installations involve lighting. Performances are often videotaped.
Miles’ work is process based. It incorporates people in other disciplines and extends from making the glass to placing it in a suitable visually pleasing environment. Various percussive instruments are utilized by professional musicians in performances which integrate sound, movement, light, and shadow. Often the experience is augmented with delayed playback or previously recorded elements using the same environment.
The environment’s function as an expression of sound extends beyond the largely improvised professional performance. Following this, the audience is invited into the performance environment to explore sounds with any of the various glass instruments. Although people are initially cautious about playing or even touching the glass, “after a performance,” Miles says, “they race in there and go.” Interestingly, she says that in spite of the public’s enthusiasm, not one object has been damaged during such an interactive event.
Welcoming the audience into the environment is a key element for Miles. Her acknowledgment of the creativity of ordinary people was the centerpiece of a 2005-2006 undertaking in which Miles, originally from a farm background in Australia, worked with the members of the Country Woman’s Association on “The Country Woman’s Project” an exhibition of crocheted objects and other fiber arts. The goal was to draw attention to the often overlooked art work and creative potential of ordinary people. In the photograph at the top of this essay, Miles wears a sweater appliquéd with a hand-crocheted doily that she purchased at a thrift shop. “I believe that we leave something of ourselves in objects and that they leave something in us,” she says.
The well-known new music percussionist/composer Eugene Ughetti is currently collaborating with Miles in “The Glass Percussion Project.” Lighting by Richard Vabre is crucial to the visual aspect part of the collaboration as the sound technology of Myles Mumford is part of the auditory experience.
Ughetti and Miles, without the assistance of the other members of the group, recently performed at PS1: “Roulette” which was broadcast and will be available on PS1’s video archives (on the internet). All the instruments for this particular performance were made at WheatonArts. They included marimbas, bowls that rock and make sounds, gongs, and udu drums.
Gongs are a visually gorgeous feature of Miles’ “immersive installations.” For a performance, Miles has hung as many as three hundred from the ceiling. The rondels of clear glass can be played in a variety of ways. They are decorated: engraved or pressed into molds, so they cast intriguing kinetic shadows. In terms of sound, gongs can be wired with contact mics and bowed as well as tapped. Miles also mics ordinary panes of window glass to produce melodic effects.
Miles sets up the environment and may offer a number of topics too, Ughetti. Before the event, he familiarizes himself with the installation and new instruments and chooses the topics and instruments he wants to use. Sometimes he also records a layer of sound which becomes part of the live performance.
Miles is more engaged by the distinctive timbre of sound than by a melodic line. She enjoys the “little rhythmic patterns” that are conjured up. She has an insider’s understanding of music, having played five instruments herself, but she doesn’t perform in public. She does admit to experimenting with the instruments “when no one’s watching.”
As for the public performances, “The musicians are acting out a whole new vocabulary of sound.” When she works with glass on this project, she says “I’m working intuitively and I love that element of surprise” which she experiences when a performer explores and exploits the possibilities she has created.
On a deep level, Miles is intrigued by the use of sound as an aid to meditation. She believes that Eastern music and the resonances of instruments like hers have a more bodily, physical impact than typical Western music. One unique instrument she made is a hand cast in glass. Although it has been broken and glued back together, each finger and part of the hand sound a different note.