Elevator Is Artistic Canvas

Tang Museum at Skidmore College is showcase
for unique exhibits of sight and sound

By Danielle Furfaro
Staff Writer
April 18, 2006

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Most elevator trips are pretty mundane. You step in, push a button, watch the doors close and, seconds later, you've arrived at your floor. And despite the term "elevator music," most elevators don't even have music anymore.

At the Tang Museum, visitors often find themselves riding up and down, forgetting to exit or even push a button. For them, the elevator is the destination, not the transportation. The museum is working on building a more interesting elevator experience by using the space as a canvas for exhibits, all labeled as "Elevator Music."

Each time the Tang has a new exhibit — several times a year — the elevator also gets a new installation. Sometimes the piece has a visual component. Other times, it is simply the unusual sounds that compel the visitor to stand and listen.

The Tang Museum, on the Skidmore college campus, opened in 2000. The elevator became exhibition space about two years ago.

"The elevator is always kind of a wild moment for people who haven't been here before," said Patrick O'Rourke, a graphic designer at the museum.

The elevator itself is fairly average. There are four stainless steel walls, including the door, and a plain, dark carpet. Some see it as a perfectly blank canvas, waiting to be transformed.

Jesse Pearlman Karlsberg, a master of fine arts candidate at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said he was thrilled at being asked to create a piece for the elevator. His piece is based on shape-note singing, in which a large group of people sing in four-part harmony.

Using digital processing, Pearlman Karlsberg took a recording of an old shape-note song and spliced it, slowing it down and adding reverb. Then he blacked out the lights in the center of the ceiling of the elevator and pasted text incorporating lyrics from the song along the perimeter.

"I do sound works that are immersive, that surround you. When you are in the elevator, you are enclosed in the space," said Pearlman Karlsberg, 25. "It gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted in terms of creating an atmosphere."

The current piece in the elevator is "Elevator Music 7: Billboard." The installation, created by musician and Columbia professor R. Luke Dubois, takes every song that has hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 chart since its inception in 1958 and breaks it into its spectral average that generates a sustained chord, creating one tone. The tone for each song lasts in proportion to how long the song stayed on the charts.

In the end, all of the tones sound basically the same and are completely unrecognizable from the original hit.

The only visual component to the installation is a small monitor that names each song as it goes by. The 857 songs in the 37-minute piece includes such hits as ABBA's "Dancing Queen," "Love Train" by the O'Jays and Crazy Town's "Butterfly."

When Patrick Stacey visited the museum recently, he noticed the exhibit called "Elevator Music." He was shocked when he realized the exhibit was actually in the elevator.

"I think it's very fascinating," said Stacey, a 42-year-old musician from Wilton. "I think it's great to put music in spaces that are not intended for music."