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RATTLE AND HUM : Kids and Contact Are a Loud at Irvine's 'Instruments of Sound' Exhibit

March 12, 1992|CATHY CURTIS | Cathy Curtis covers art for The Times Orange County Edition.

The tinkle and crash and hum is the best part. The second best part is being able to make a whole bunch of those sounds yourself. At the Irvine Fine Arts Center through April 22, musical instruments large and small make up a kid-friendly show called "Instruments of Sound."

You can perch on a seat attached to a peculiar steel framework that extends w-a-a-a-y back behind you and suddenly find yourself animating mallets and four drums and a little wooden figure that jiggles on a metal platform. (That's Catherine MacLean's piece, "Rats in the Attic.")

You can dreamily run your fingers through two facing clusters of taut nylon filaments strung with little bells and produce a silvery "angelic" sound. (That's Karen Frimkess Wolff's "Bridge to Somewhere.")

Or you and a pal can sit on the polished wood seats at either side of a huge wooden wheel that makes nifty crashing and splintering music, the kind of sound effect you'd hear if a cartoon character had just up-ended a piano and dumped it over a cliff. (That's Marlin Halvorson's "Sonic Kaleidoscope III.")

A room-filling piece Wolf Gowin calls "Industrial Ranting," lets you bash brightly painted metal sheets and pipes hanging from a big rack, or kick a bunch of rusting, bolted objects that look like trailer hitches, lurking in heaps on the floor.

There's nothing terribly special about this display other than its opportunities for letting off steam, but the poem painted on the walls--"The Night Is Waiting for You"--is quite nice, though seemingly out of sync with the rest of the installation. It is about the nocturnal sounds of wild animals: ". . . every night/the opera of darkness/is played by actors/who remain unknown."

There are some vexing problems with this exhibit, unfortunately. Viewer-operated cassette tapes are a great way to convey the musical qualities of instruments the public can't play, but it would have been much better to offer a single short piece for each composer or instrument instead of stringing together such irritatingly brief fragments that deny the flow, duration and mood-setting possibilities of music.

It also takes a while to figure out that the objects that have labels with green dots are OK to touch, and--once you get going--it's frustrating not to be able to pick up everything and make sounds with it. Some pieces--such as the ceramic pipes, whistles and flutes Susan Rawcliffe makes in the shapes of such things as chili peppers, a speckled banana and her own knees--are simply too delicate for visitors to handle.

But the biggest problem is that the exhibit cries out for more explanations. There's little here to slake a child's curiosity about why these gizmos work, or--in the case of some pieces--what they're supposed to do in the first place.

For example, John Doe Co.'s mysterious, microprocessor-controlled "Virtuoso Timer Plays 'The March of Mankind' " just sits there--an enigma in a violin case--without any explanation. And it isn't clear how the pan of water in Daniel Wheeler's computer-generated sound piece, "Ben," might influence the quality of the sounds that issue from an old, twisted funnel attached to an weathered wooden plank.

It would have been marvelous if the show had tried to deal, on a basic level, with the physics of music-making. Maybe someday the art center might tap the wisdom of elementary school science teachers or others (Mr. Wizard?) versed in explaining the "how" and the "why" of the practical world.

But in the meantime, as a young person's introduction to the possibilities of making curious and pleasing sounds with a surprising range of objects, this exhibition does just fine.

What: "Instruments of Sound," musically related art objects by 13 artists/musicians.

When: Noon to 9 p.m. Monday; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Through April 22.

Where: Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave.

Whereabouts: Drive North from Culver Drive exit on San Diego Freeway; turn right on Walnut Avenue and left on Yale Avenue. Or drive South from Culver Drive exit on Santa Ana Freeway; turn left on Walnut and left again on Yale.

Wherewithal: Admission is free.

Where to call: (714) 552-1018.

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