The shock of the new is a difficult thing to renew. This is an era in which continued exploration of outer space is expressly whelming, intellectual incuriosity wins friends and influences people, and thousands of musical instruments lay broken in city schools while hotly heralded iPads are promised and then somehow mislaid. There comes a point at which a return to childlike simplicity is almost violently desirable.
Consider the acoustic laptops of Tore Honoré Bøe.
Since 1990, Norwegian multimedia artist Bøe has headed the international arts consortium Origami. Origami encompasses everything from sound art to mail art and, like origami, is always folding and unfolding into new and surprising forms. For the past few years, his latest iteration of Origami consciousness is a series of music boxes of his own making called “acoustic laptops.” They’re simple wooden boxes with various objects attached within: springs, stones, metal, rubber, string, needles, intimate memorabilia – all amplified by contact mikes (piezos) so that they create various sounds upon physical interaction. They are musical instruments, as Bøe puts it, “with which you can explore a sound-world that usually pass unnoticed and thus connect with unfiltered reality in a pleasurable way.”
There’s a whole new generation of modern music boxes – portable, captivating and constitutionally soothing – percolating just beneath the increasingly tense surface of modern art. The music boxes of Belgian composer Moniek Darge are a jumble of surrealism, stuffed with things like stones and keys that as much diorama as sound panorama. Chinese ambient noise duo FM3’s Buddha Machine, now in its fourth edition, is still going strong with its infinite loops of glistening strings and dying doorbells coming on as poignant as the Doppler effect of jets passing overhead. The late Dutch composer Michel Waisvisz’s 1975 Cracklebox, still commercially available, sports six metal contacts on a little wooden box fingered by the player who manipulates the gargle and scree warbling through the box’s tiny speaker.
Slightly more spectacular is Throbbing Gristle’s Gristleism, a box that vomits out loops culled from TG’s back catalogue like Hamburger Lady, Twenty Jazz Funk Greats and After Cease to Exist. Perhaps the most evolved meditation on the soundbox concept comes from German sound artist Achim Wollscheid, whose $1300 SOUND_BOX is a sleek, made-to-order wooden vessel containing a computer and speaker. The box absorbs ambient sounds via Wollscheid’s “flexible compositional program” hidden within its slender confines. They’re swiftly reconfigured into demure ambient warbles, becoming a unique narrative device approaching the poetic. It’s modern art for modern life.
Bøe spoke recently about that unfiltered reality – again, in a pleasurable way.
David Cotner: How important is quiet to you these days?
Tore Honoré Bøe: I choose to define quiet as emotional equilibrium. As a man and artist of contrast, I live my normal family life in the Canary Islands, where quiet comes more easily than it did when I lived in Norway. In this sense, quiet does not mean low volumes or social passivity – but instead a pure sense of being present and attached.
DC: Do small sounds like those produced by the laptops necessitate a level of quiet?
THB: Yes. I’d say it is the canvas of barely noticeable acoustic events – and the framing of the more potent, calligraphic ones.
DC: What sort of education outreach do you do with the laptops?
THB: For the first few years, I only used the laptops for my live concerts and composition in private. As the links to the “digital lingo” started becoming more obvious, I got hooked on terms like shareware, pure data, open source, et cetera. So the workshops started, and now I have had participants of almost all ages and backgrounds. They are invited to make a laptop and “download” their sound objects linked via their ideas and fantasies.
DC: What’s the most common reaction to the iFolk laptops when people play with them?
THB: I’ve made laptops with nursery-school kids, high school youths, the handicapped, musicians and non-musicians. Their reactions, when they discover the sound world that usually passes unnoticed, are surprisingly similar. I have had them exhibited in galleries where people can play them, and after my concerts, I always invite the audience to come try them.
DC: Have you used them as a way to connect with your own children?
THB: I don’t need a “personal computer” to connect with my children, but they are clearly aware of them, and that I am “the guy with the boxes.” That said, we are always picking up “sounds” in the street, and they let their friends play them. There’s a childlike wonder in that they trigger something fundamental that makes us want to learn and explore.
DC: How does one actually find one of them?
THB: You can make one yourself; specifications are easy. I am working on a new how-to-do-it page these days. The box can be made by anyone, anywhere – or you can order one from me, as I produce new ones all the time.
DC: What are the various kinds of inspiration behind the construction of each laptop, and what are the mechanics operating behind them?
THB: There are three “production lines”: The “iFolks,” which are more neutral and focused on sound. There are the more “personal computers” which, in addition to being instruments, also are uniquely designed visually; I use elements from art history and objects with deeper ritual significance, often of sentimental value. Lastly, there are the “eyePads,” which are simpler wooden plates that I use in workshops for children. What they all have in common is that they are simple sound boxes in which a contact microphone has been placed directly on the wood so the whole laptop becomes a microphone. There are no technicalities; no password needed. They shorten the distance between reality and fantasy, performer and audience, public and private space, technology and philosophy.
DC: What the most unique way you’ve seen the laptops being used?
THB: A workshop participant poured water over her cardboard box and walked it like a dog.
DC: What was the need you saw in the world that these creations satisfy?
THB: That, by picking up trash in the street, you can make gold. It’s a reconnection to reality and an antidote to the passivity of mass consumerism / mass individualism.
David Cotner is writer for LA Weekly and the LA Times and an experimental music archivist.