The Story and Kinetic Sound Sculptures of Mo H. Zareei, his Brutalist Noise Ensemble, and the Brutalist architecture in Tehran and artists that influenced him – Trimpin, Bernier, Messier, Zimoun, and Pe Lang, and others. [Photo above by Mohsen Kamalzadeh]
We met at the Jamjar art center (thejamjardubai.com) in Dubai in November 2014 during the ISEA week, and experienced his mesmerizing performance along with other intrigued international visitors.
I was born and raised in Ekbatan, an apartment building complex in west Tehran built in the 1970s, that is comprised of a series of extremely monolithic looking blocks of concrete and glass, accommodating approximately 50,000 people. Spending all my childhood among these gray Lego-like giants, I grew a strong sense of attachment to Ekbatan while growing up. The poetry of its parallel lines and right angles, its strict geometries, homogeneous grayness, and the perfection of its zigzag paver blocks made it very different than the rest of my city. Ekbatan was a gracious haven of order and coherence in an enormous city of haphazardness, and I lived the first 25 years of my life there.
Architecture, Kinetic & Sound Artists that Influenced Zareei
After finishing a degree in Physics in Tehran, I moved to the US to study Music Technology at California Institute of the Arts. There, I was lucky enough to have Robert Henke as a guest lecturer in the very first month of my studies, to hear him talk about the complexities of making music in East Germany, and see him perform his music on his custom-built controller. Other than his story, there was something about his beat-oriented pulsating glitches and mind-tickling frequencies that really resonated with me. The sonic curiosity instigated there, led to my discovery of works of Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender’s works, and the whole record label Raster-Noton phenomenon. Later that year, I was again lucky enough to be in New York City when Ryoji Ikeda’s Transfinite was on exhibit. While I wasn’t entirely sure what was so fulfilling about this punctiliously ordered carnival of the non-musical, the pixelated, and the black & white, I knew immediately that I wanted to be a part of it.
During my studies at CalArts, I started to learn how to make sound from scratch, and this wasn’t limited to the software side of things. My mentor Ajay Kapur, a musical robotics pioneer, introduced me to the field of mechatronic music. Through him I met Trimpin, and got to learn about his fascinating loudspeaker-free sound art. I had started making digital glitch music inspired by the Raster-Noton aesthetics, but this mechanically produced sound art was also a striking beast and I needed to explore it more. Accordingly, after finishing my degree at CalArts, I moved to New Zealand to work on a project combining all these sources of inspiration. As the core of my PhD studies at Victoria University of Wellington, I built an ensemble of mechatronic sound-sculptures to transpose my Raster-Noton-influenced music from the digital realm into the physical.
What is so pleasing about the four-on-the-floor of Pan Sonic? What is so right about Bernier’s tuning forks or Messier’s sewing machines? What makes works of Zimoun and Pe Lang just so “good”? What makes that “Raster-Noton” aesthetics so captivating? These were the kind of questions that I was occupied with early on while developing my ensemble of noise-machines.
They lingered on in my head, until the time that I was back home for a visit, and the answer came to me like an epiphany as I was walking among the old concrete blocks of Ekbatan. That was it. The connection between my deep-rooted attachment to the complex and my subconscious appreciation of works with certain aesthetics was clear. It was always there and I hadn’t noticed it.
My passion for Ekbatan made me look further into Brutalism: a failed movement producing numerous works of architecture that, although widely hated for the most part, I thoroughly adored. The monolithic appearance, visibility of material, valuation of crude concrete, strict geometries, repetitive modules, lack of nonfunctional ornamentation, these were all fundamental principles by which I have constructed my sound-sculptures, as in Gradient (2015):
So was there also a connection between Brutalist buildings and, for example, Zimoun’s rigorously organized stacks of cardboard boxes with noisy motors inside? Can the appreciation of noise or pure tones with minimal to no modification in Alva Noto’s music, or aesthetically recycling of the Singer sewing machines in Messier’s work be compared with the valuation of raw concrete? Or the lack of sentimentality in these works of sound art with the coldness of the Brutalist building, the avoidance of melodic and harmonic embellishments with the rejection of decorativeness, and the metric rhythms, rigorous repetition, and the iterative sound and visual components with the right angles, repetitive modules, and firmly mathematical and geometric structures of Brutalist architecture?
Perhaps, if it didn’t sound a bit pompous, I would have written a few more pages on this and called it the Manifesto of Brutalist Sound Art, especially that after decades of rejection, there now seems to be a new wave of interest in Brutalist architecture as well. Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the works of sound art and music that I am influenced by share some fundamental aesthetic and ethical features, and their common characteristics are strangely reminiscent of Brutalist architecture, and can be summed up as the sensory experience of the conventionally non-interesting on a highly ordered and sensually accessible structure.