For over two decades, Mouse on Mars — Jan St. Werner’s electronic music duo with fellow sonic explorer Andi Toma — showcased a brainy experimental sensibility that was also lighthearted and playful. The German group, which began in 1993, quickly attracted a worldwide following.
Now, St. Werner, a visiting lecturer at MIT this term, is teaching a fascinating new course titled “Introduction to Sound Creations.” The class is focused on creating and thinking about sound art, a discipline that has, in recent years, gained major currency in the art world.
The Mouse on Mars ethos is reflected in St. Werner’s engaging personality — animated and restless, and still brimming with excitement about sound after all these years.
Sound is an “unstable art form,” St. Werner explains. “You can’t really compare it with an artwork on a wall or a sculpture. It has sculptural properties; it might trigger associations or revelations, or change your observations.
“I’m not avoiding the term ‘music’,” he continues, “but I kind of jumped right into this massive pool of possibilities of what sound can be — how it reacts with us, and how we can react to it.”
St. Werner’s presence in Cambridge has invigorated the local experimental-music scene, touching off a series of intriguing sonic events in the area. From April 4 until the end of the month, a covert installation will run 24 hours a day at 170 Beacon St. in Boston. Listeners who bring their own radios will be able to tune into an FM-radio transmission based around “Felder,” St. Werner’s new album, issued April 1 on Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey.
On April 6, the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum in Chestnut Hill — a soaring, massive space filled with vintage steam-powered pumping engines — will unveil its very first sound installation, which St. Werner has cleverly embedded inside one of the engines.
“There’s nothing like it,” marvels Susanna Bolle, director of Boston experimental-music concert series Non-Event, about the venue. “It’s a powerful space. It’s a spectacular space visually; the acoustics are really nice and reverberant, and also quite warm. It has wood ceilings, brick walls. You can make use of these really interesting acoustics, and because it’s so huge it’s kind of like playing in a cathedral. They describe the engine hall as being a cathedral to steam power: huge and reverberant, but not unimaginably so.”
St. Werner’s Waterworks installation will run until the end of the month. “Basically, he’s situating a couple of speakers within the oldest and most bespoked water pump in the Waterworks museum,” explains Bolle, who is assisting with the process. “We were doing a test on it last Thursday, and it sounded really wonderful and looked really interesting. His installations are always very simple but very elegant.”
Elsewhere, at Mass MoCA in North Adams on April 17, the sound artist Andy Graydon will perform an “intervention” based on “Felder” in the museum. Related events are taking place around the globe throughout the month.
St. Werner’s spring course at MIT, taught through the program in Art, Culture, and Technology, continues apace. A typical class might fast-forward from Renaissance philosophy to a discussion of the work of 20th-century American composer Charles Ives. Each student was given a speaker, and has been instructed to build something interesting with it.
“I want to tell a story about sound as something that is rather wild and really hard to format,” St. Werner says. “We think that we can so easily trim it down and capture it and frame it. We’re so used to perceiving sound. We cultivate it as something you could frame within a stereo image. What I want to tell those students, those younger artists, is that I think sound is a weird phenomenon — a weird kind of material.”
In the class, students are encouraged to wrestle with sound on its own terms. “It is so hard to break the notion of sound being something that pleasantly accompanies a story, a narration, or visual content,” St. Werner says. “I think it’s great that the visual-art world has embraced sound more, but there is the risk of that becoming a novelty. There’s also a great chance for sound, to see it as its own art form. It doesn’t need anything that makes it agreeable. That’s the great opportunity we see at the moment.”
In May, his students will unveil their final projects — which could take the form of a performance, sound installation, score, or something else entirely. St. Werner is also planning a concert in the Boston area in May with the noted musician Tyondai Braxton, and — quite possibly — a sound installation in a boat on the Charles River.
“It is a quest!” says St. Werner of his myriad sonic explorations. “It’s the exhausting thing about being a human being: You never run out of questions. The more you learn about something, the more questions you have. Sound is an amazing thing to explore — you can hardly find a conclusion in a lifetime.”
JAN ST. WERNER: “Felder”
At 170 Beacon Street, April 4-30, and at the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, 2450 Beacon Street, April 6-30. thrilljockey.tumblr.com/post/140655287222/jan-st-werner-presents-felder
Geeta Dayal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.