Far from the traditional sculptures behind ropes in a museum that demands to be looked at, an acoustic sculpture forces you to see with your ears.
For pioneering sound artist Michael Brewster, acoustic sculpture is an environment people can experience, said art history professor Homer Charles Arnold.
“An acoustic sculpture is a sound environment created by filling a space with a series of sound tones, sonic tones. It’s not meant to be music, it’s not meant to be melody. What happens is sound, as it bounces around in space and creates various kinds of acoustic phenomena.
“And what Brewster wanted his audience or his visitors to do is physically move around the gallery space and listen to these different phenomena.”
Brewer’s career began in the 1960s. “Acoustic Sculpture” is a term he coined to describe his larger works that use standing waves to create sound fields.
“Sonic Drawing” is also a term Brewster coined to describe his other major body of work. These are sound devices that, when activated, emit singular noises such as whistles or clicks.
He is known for his self-contained installations, with no beginning or end. The experience is controlled by the viewer.
Arnold said Brewster started doing outdoor installations with a series of flashing lights called turn signals. He transitioned into sound before earning his MFA degree from Pomona College.
Arnold, who was a student of the late artist, said Brewster began exploring the concept of acoustic sculpture and building more complex sound works after Brewster built a sound studio on Navy Street in Venice, which is very close to the ocean.
“He was an amateur engineer. He himself designed and built at least three separate pieces of hardware for his work,” Arnold added, explaining that aside from the turn signals, Brewster himself was the one who built the sound device and pocket synthesizer called Multi for his work.
“[Multi] was a device that he could pre-program and then send to a gallery and the gallery, the person could hang it on the wall and turn it on and it would create the sound work because there was a period in the sixties- ten where Michael was traveling, I think he had 12 shows in about two or three months and that’s a lot.
“He probably didn’t have the time or the energy to travel all over the world. So he came up with these little bits of technology to go in his place. And the multi is definitely a piece that did that.
As well as being a great artist and amateur engineer, Arnold considers Brewster a “great teacher”. He learned from the artist when he studied at Claremont Graduate University from 2002 to 2004.
“He didn’t talk about his job. He was very focused on his students and very focused on making our program successful,” he remarked.
Brewster died in June 2016 at the age of 69. To date, his works can be seen at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Orange County Museum of Art, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, the Giuseppe Panza Collection and private collections.
Three of his sound installations are on permanent display at Villa Panza/FAI in Varese, Italy.
Arnold will talk more about Brewster’s artistic journey and how he invented various technologies to create his works August 13-14 at the “Within Sound: The Acoustic Sculptures of Michael Brewster” exhibit at Mount Wilson Observatory. .
Following his speech, a reception with curators will be held outside the 100-inch dome showcasing Brewster’s artwork.
For more information regarding the event, visit: https://www.mtwilson.edu/arts-the-observatory/brewster/