Making the Green Monster sing
Percussionist Maria Finkelmeier has jammed on pots and pans, palm trees, LEGOs, egg shells. You name it, she’s made music with it. Locks on the chain-link fence at a Paris bridge? She’s played them, too. “I make music by hitting things,” she says.
But in early October, Finkelmeier is scaling-up her percussive ambitions in a big way. She’s organized a group of drummers and projection artists from the Illuminus festival to play Fenway Park’s Green Monster. The performance is part of HUBweek, a joint venture among MIT, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and The Boston Globe.
Ideas reached Finkelmeier by phone to talk about scale of the project. Below is an edited excerpt.
IDEAS: Playing the Monster usually means shagging flyballs in left field. What are you up to?
FINKELMEIER: As a percussionist, I’m always interested in the sounds of the world around me. We were given space this year on Lansdowne Street for our part in the Illuminus festival. As we were walking around the space, we realized that there was a lot of potential for playing the supporting structures of Fenway Park, which, in that area, is the back of the Green Monster. We walked along with a bag of drumsticks and mallets, just banging on things with sticks and with our hands, to see what kinds of sounds we could find. We immediately began to get a real wide range of sounds. I knew that whole structure would really sing.
IDEAS: You talk about this as a percussion project. I assume that’s more than a drum circle in the park. What are attendees going to see?
FINKELMEIER: Drum circle in the park? No way. This is a multinight performance that’s going to last several hours. We are creating music, a sonic experience. The music comes from that act of striking, but it’s organized in a way to make it pleasurable. You can make music with almost anything, a timbale, a marimba, a drum set, and in this case, a baseball stadium. There will be nine professional musicians working simultaneously on different parts of the structure, reading sheet music written specifically for this instrument and the compositions that we’re playing. There will be light projections around the space to accompany the pieces. The best public art is art that doesn’t just sit in a space but interacts with that space, with the surroundings.
IDEAS: How do you score a stadium?
FINKELMEIER: There’s sheet music that we designed especially for this, which shows not only the notes but the location on the structure where the note is played. We created a map of the structure, with that basic information so any composer can come to it and write music for it.
Next, we did an open call for scores and gave out the notation system, samples of each of the sounds we could make, photos of the wall, videos of it being played, and other materials for people to learn about the structure as a musical instrument. We received a dozen submissions, and we picked four to play during the performance. I also wrote a piece, and Ryan Edwards, another organizer, wrote a piece. So, six in all.
IDEAS: A traditional musical instrument has a range of notes, what about the Monster?
FINKELMEIER: As you would imagine, there are lots of high notes, from the metallic components of the wall and its supports. But we also found some amazing bass tones and resonance. There are more than a dozen big, vertical pillars that run down the back of the park along Lansdowne Street. During our scouting walk, we took a big rubber mallet and struck one of those pillars and found out that it was hollow. The entire column acted like a resonating chamber, and we got this weirdly low, long tone like you’d find with a bass drum or a bass instrument. We all started giggling with glee when we heard it for the first time because that low tone will expand the range of possibilities in the music tenfold.
Moving up on the structure, we found lots of resonating metal pieces. That’s going to give us the high end of the tonal range. Imagine banging on pots and pans. Each pot or pan is going to have its own tiny sound — some are very short and muffled, while others ring for a long time. We found six to ten sounds that each player could make. There will be nine performers in all, each with several playing areas to use.
IDEAS: Not all of those parts are easily accessible from the street. Are you going to have staging?
FINKELMEIER: No, we’re going to have harnesses. We’ll have one tier of players on ground level with access to the supporting columns and the brick wall. Then a tier above them three musicians will play on the X-beam supports and metal plating, and a third tier of players suspended inside the structure on harnesses. So we won’t just be outside the structure, but we’ll also have people suspended up inside the bowels of the Monster itself.
IDEAS: Does the age of the materials matter in terms of the sound quality?
FINKELMEIER: That’s what’s exciting about working with something as raw as this park — the structure has age, there’s bird poop on it, and climbing around inside, you get a feel for that space and why it’s attractive. Our challenge has been: How do you translate the structure for other people through music? How do you explain this music to projection artists who are going to match a projection project with what we’re playing?
IDEAS: What are the types of compositions you’ve selected?
FINKELMEIER: What you hear will depend on the moment that you walk by the space. Overall, it will be a very sonically intense experience. Sometimes you’ll hear these rapidly interlocking rhythms, groovy bass tones. Some of it will make you want to dance. Other parts will make you want to pause and reflect. The spectrum of music that the Monster can produce is wide and very different depending on the composer. There are parts that feel very African, there are others that feel very avant garde and experimental. We can even create long tones on the structure by playing very quickly, so the spectrum of possibility is wide.
At the same time, a projection artist will map huge images onto the players, or focus light on very specific places on the wall itself. There are also eight sound-reactive triggers, which means that the lights will work in time with the rhythms that we’re creating — we’re going for a multisensory experience. Each piece will be under 10 minutes long, and they’ll repeat. You can catch some of it, walk through some of the other exhibits in the area, and when you come back it will be totally different.
Alex Kingsbury can be reached at email@example.com.