Feel What It’s Like To Conduct The Music Of A Thunderstorm

In an installation sure to please Thor and John Cage alike, visitors spin four massive “instruments” to elicit a cascade of thunder, lightning, and rain.

Composers have been writing odes to thunderstorms for centuries: think of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, or the 1997 track that launched Missy Elliot to fame. A new installation called Symphony in D Minor continues the tradition in Philly this month, inviting visitors to “conduct” a thunderstorm by touching a series of kinetic sculptures.


The symphony was “written” by a married duo of New York artists, Chris Klapper and Patrick Gallagher, who specialize in video and sound. Klapper and Gallagher started working on the project almost a year and a half ago when Eileen Tognini, a Philadelphia curator, approached them seeking a sound installation for the aptly named Skybox Gallery.

Visitors to Symphony in D Minor, which opened on October 20th, are greeted by a darkened room and the sound of rain falling. Four huge cylinders hang just overhead, roughly six feet above the ground. Anyone bold enough to reach up and set one of the cylinders rolling on its 22-foot-long axle will trigger a motion sensor attached to two systems: first, a sound system, which plays one aural element of a storm (thunder and rain); and second, a digital projector, which paints the curving surface of the tube with videos of water, clouds, and lightning that react to the intensity of the storm. Each cylinder has its own set of sounds and images, so collaboration with other visitors is key. “Interactivity is a medium in and of itself,” say Klapper and Gallagher. “Symphony in D Minor uses state of the art motion sensors to turn the positions of each piece into data streams. This data is processed through a software program specifically designed to trigger audio elements and affect the duration of video playback.”

The cylinders themselves are worthy of description. Each is made from a wide swatch of fiberglass cast in resin, creating reflective organic patterns “inspired by the rolling horizontal columns of Altocumulus and Arcus cloud formations,” explain the duo. The texture gives the video projections–beautiful in their own right–an eerie dimensionality. After a roiling crescendo, the 40-minute-long symphony eventually quiets down and begins again.

Aleatoric music, in which certain elements of a performance are left to random chance, has a long history. John Cage was a major originator of the genre, producing works like HPSCHD (Harpsichord, sans a few letters), which randomly processed some of the most-played classical harpsichord sonatas into bizarre, dissonant compositions. HPSCHD has more in common with Symphony in D Minor than the use of chance, though. When Cage premiered the piece in 1969, the audience was invited to get up and explore the space, where images from NASA were projected onto a massive rotating screen–a larger version of the ones hanging in Skybox Gallery this month.

But unlike HPSCHD, Symphony in D Minor actually lets the audience participate, encouraging visitors to self-organize to manipulate the system. Cage’s piece was about using early computer processing to make music. This symphony is of the crowdsourcing era, where computer processing is only an armature, enabling a mob of musicians to collaborate.

[H/t The Art Blog]


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.