Poemophone cacophony

To approach a concept, as one would a form, from differing points of view, is a kind of sculptural thinking. It is a pluralistic, non-hierarchical, flexible & multidirectional query, which navigates from one distinct vantage point to another. Circumscribing the whole embodies the richness of the sculptural experience. Time, memory, & corporeality are inherent in this complex of sensations.

My creative practice involves a synthesis of research, sculpture, & experimental music. My process is often staged in phases & I work on multiple projects simultaneously, often at a different phase within each project. Most recently I have been researching & learning to play traditional & folk musical instruments specific to my interest in the mechanics of sound propagation. From that experience I design & build experimental musical instruments as sculptures to be used in performance. With these experimental instruments I engage collaborators (writers, musicians, artists) to compose & perform with me.

My current research into the craft of musical instrument making is focused within contemporary & historical Persian culture. My particular focus is on stringed instruments using sympathetic resonance. This research is to inform the look, sound, & performative aspects of a series of experimental musical instruments/sculptures that I am building.

It is through this creative work that I am considering the origins of languages(s). This project has arisen from my interest in using sympathetic resonance as a means of sound propagation in the sound sculptures I have been building. These sound sculptures explore the poetic potential of the decay of language through acts of translation, challenge the authority of language for making meaning & invite participants to play within compositional strategies by giving voice to these sculptures. Through this work I am synthesizing my interests in experimental music, interactive sculpture, & feminist linguistic theory.

My work is becoming more performative in nature, engaging new skills in composing, performing, & directing collaborations. Most recently I have been cultivating opportunities to perform in sound art festivals, produce audio CD/booklets, & present my work within venues that allow my work to straddle both music and visual art.

In order to better understand sympathetic resonance I have taken up the study of how to play the sarangi, one of the oldest & most important bowed instruments of North Indian music. The classical instrument has 35 steel sympathetic strings, which resonate with three bowed gut strings, giving it a uniquely haunting sound. The sarangi is used as an accompaniment to vocal & tabla solo recitals as well as being itself a solo instrument.

The term Sarangi is widely believed to mean “a hundred colors” indicating its adaptability to a wide range of musical styles, its flexible tunability, & its ability to produce a large palette of tonal color & emotional nuance. According to some musicians, the word Sarangi is a combination of two Persian words ‘seh’(three) & ‘rangi’ (colored). Another school of thought believes that Sarangi is Hindi for ‘of a hundred colors’ or “the voice of hundred colors”. The music produced by the sarangi is believed to resemble the human voice.

I have recently returned from a residency in Maine where I spent time integrating field recordings & site specific performances into the language-based works I have been creating with ‘Poemophones’, a series of experimental instruments that I have built based on the Mbira (Africa). There I performed & recorded new work in the woods & on/at the water in the varied landscape of Maine. I used this residency to compose & edit on site so that I may re-perform & re-record as needed in order to layer, refine, & base compositional decisions on listening to what has been recorded while being able to return to specific locations within the landscape for further experimentation.


Tracey Cockrell completed her MFA with a focus in Sculpture at the University of California at Berkeley in 1991.  An interdisciplinary artist, Cockrell has cultivated a studio practice that synthesizes sculpture, experimental music, linguistic theory, and collaborative strategies.  She has taught in MFA, BFA, and nonprofit institutions including Pacific Northwest College of Art, UC Berkeley, Maine College of Art and The Crucible.  Most notably, her work has been featured at Center for Contemporary Art in Seattle, Thingamajigs Festival for Music and People, Boston Center for the Arts, Institute for Contemporary Art in Portland, Maine, Oakland Arts Council, and the San Francisco Arts Commission.  Reviews of her work can be found in Sculpture Magazine, ArtNewEngland, the Boston Sunday Globe, WGBH tv’s ‘Greater Boston Arts,’ and Maine Public Radio’s ‘Maine Things Considered.’  Audio broadcasts of her work have been heard on KPFAs ‘Discreet Music’ and KBOOs ‘Desolo Luna Vox Theatrum’.  Her studies include a fellowship to Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture, post-baccalaureate studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Sculpture Department, and a BA from the College of William and Mary.  She is currently Chief Academic Officer, Academic Dean and Full Professor at Pacific Northwest College of Art.


I have formulated each Poemophone´s tuning system for specific collaborators-musicians, writers, visual artists-so that each sculpture has an individual voice. Each voice is derived from `Outlaw´ tuning systems, meaning that intervals between tones are irregular. Applied to a typewriter keyboard, each letter of the alphabet has a musical tone. Any combination of letters played on the instrument generates an audible musical phrase rather than written transcription. Text played on a Poemophone results in an act of translation, an interpretation. Because each instrument in the series has its own unique tuning system a text composed on one will sound differently when played on another.

My interest is in how the poetics of making meaning is grounded in the look and sound of these instruments.  I am hybridizing these forms (mbira/typewriter) to juxtapose two distinct systems of composing – tuning systems and alphabets – in order to play with the voicing of meaning. The instruments I am building are to sound the thing described; playing language as a physical force.


Our live collaborative performances will emphasize an interweaving of sound, visual art, music & text. As a group we will engage in collective brainstorming to explore compositional strategies at the intersection of linguistics, literature, experimental music, & sculpture. The intersection of media is often seen in film. Rarely do artists from a variety of genres have their work culminate in sound. This project brings an unusual opportunity to me & my collaborators & to our audiences.

While the essential subject of this project questions acts of translation, the larger content of the work is intended to shift with the interpretations of my collaborators. In the months leading up to July & during our stay together in Portland we will use collaborative work-time to collectively brainstorm, challenging the form of presentation & potential content of this project.


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