Exhibit explores the boundaries of sound

Most art museums come with a caveat: You can look, but you can’t touch. This is certainly not the case at Sound Maze, an interactive exhibit currently housed at the USC Fisher Museum of Art.

Sound Maze features unique instruments designed and built by Paul Dresher, a composer, performer and artist. Since his high school days, Dresher has been interested in finding ways to push the boundaries of sound, and he realized that inventing new instruments provided the perfect blend of imagination and hands-on experience.

“I’ve always been curious about either new ways to make old sounds or new ways to make new sounds,” Dresher said. “I also enjoy working with my hands. It’s satisfying for me to improvise in the shop when I’m building. I try things out — I discover the materials that will make interesting sounds.”

Though he has played his instruments in concert settings before, Dresher had never displayed them in a museum. In collaboration with USC Visions and Voices, Dresher installed them at the Fisher Museum, providing his instruments with a new dimension as artistic objects, not just as musical objects.

“This is a very unique opportunity for me. I’m a performing artist primarily — I do my work in concert halls and theaters,” Dresher said. “Here was the very first time we’ve presented these instruments in a museum context. Maybe the audience will come to it with a different expectation, looking at it more like art than as a musical instrument.”

Dresher hoped that his work would re-instill a sense of wonder and exploration into the world of music, which he views as all too often lacking an element of joy or vivacity.

“We don’t say ‘work at music,’ we say ‘play music,’” Dresher said. “Music should have a sense of play. And that’s one of the things that invented musical instruments can do. It’s hard work, but the sense of fun and play should never be lost.”

Selma Holo, the director of Fisher Museum and a professor of art history, agreed with Dresher’s sentiments. The museum-goers, many of whom were young children, took full advantage of the rare opportunity to interact with the exhibit and find their own sounds. The space was filled with a cacophony of discordant notes as they delighted in experimenting with the exotic-looking instruments.

“It’s so original, so crazy, so interactive and so much fun,” Holo said. “It’s very thrilling to see everybody playing around. Museums should be playgrounds.”

Holo also admired the way Dresher’s work existed in the middle ground between musical instruments and sound sculptures, straddling a line that often became blurred.

“It helps us break down boundaries in our thinking,” Holo said. “In life, there are a lot of fine lines between things but we’re used to defining them very strictly, so I think it’s important for students and faculty to be able to say this partakes in different characteristics.”

For Mya Worrell, an undecided freshman, the instrument installations, with their roughly-hewn wood, unprotected wiring and mechanical innards exposed to the world, appeared rugged but sturdy.

“There’s a very do-it-yourself aspect to them,” Worrell said. “They’re made of wood. You can see their construction and how they were put together.”

Worrell, who is currently taking a class on sound studies, marveled at the connection between sound and physical entities, how one could emanate from the other and how sound itself could be perceived to take up space.

“Thinking of sound as not just something that you hear but as a three dimensional force that happens through space and time and objects really informs the way I look at sound right now,” Worrell said. “It’s definitely not something you think about, of sound as a physical presence that is in most of our day-to-day lives.”