Sound Scavenging

Black Iris builds an interactive exhibit around the sounds of Richmond.

Of all the ways to play tourist in your own town, it would be tough to find any as sonically satisfying as Black Iris Gallery’s “Low Frequency Travel Show.” Set aside an hour and a half and you’re guaranteed an utterly unique adventure that’s part urban scavenger hunt, part site-specific musical experience — and in all likelihood, one that will take you to new places.

Step one is emailing Black Iris to schedule an appointment to pick up travel necessities. The excursion begins at its gallery on Broad Street. There, you’ll pick up a suitcase and directions which send you on a journey through the city. The suitcase holds a speaker, and an interactive map allows you to push a button once you reach the location to hear an original composition by musician Nelly Kate specifically written for that place. It’s a marriage of place and music created to be heard only there.

Benjamin Thorp, curator and programmer at Black Iris, started talking with Kate last January about doing an exhibit around sound.

“We were trying to figure a way to make it interesting to use the acoustics of the urban experience to create a total experience,” Thorp says. The next questions were where and how. “We had the idea to use suitcases to contain all the elements along with the tactile experience of having to touch the map to hear the location’s music,” he says.

Kate started by thinking about the “cultural topography,” she says, choosing her locations based on two criteria: “What are our urban oases, the secret ones maybe, and where are spaces in need of an illuminated perspective? I wanted some spaces that were really positive and some that needed something positive projected on them to make them great. I wanted the possibility that people could discover places they might not know.”

They took field recordings from all six locations. Using them as the basis, rhythmic elements and patterns were added.

“When Nelly was laying down the voice tracks,” Thorp says, “we were trying to enhance the overall sketches for songs while retaining elements of the initial impression of the site.”

Like all of Kate’s music, the compositions involved layers of combined sound. “It’s kind of like sculpture,” Thorp says, “built in layers, with a foundation and accent moments to color the space in certain ways.”

Inside each suitcase, a log book is attached with Velcro. Thorp and Kate hope travelers will use them to record their impressions of whatever affects them about the experience — the music or the cityscape. “We’re hoping to encourage participants beyond the passive consumption of the work and really encourage an equally active observational role as well,” Thorp says.

“At its finest, the books give an opportunity for people to diary their thoughts in a poetic way, capturing the moment,” Kate says. “It’s nice to bottle that up and have it as a memory of the piece. We didn’t set parameters, just asked people to note their thoughts on what they saw. “

Kate envisions the suitcases becoming the basis for a lending library of suitcases, a prototype for future projects. “It would be so nice to see it happen on a larger scale,” she says. “If I do it again, I’d like to do 20 or 30 sites. It would be a simple thing to lend them out all the time, like going to the library to check out any AV material.”

The structured drift through the city allows travelers to enjoy public spaces through sound while experiencing the historic, tactile and aural nature of the journey. “We’re a dominantly visual culture but we access sound and music in a different way,” Thorp says. “It’s a lot less analytical and far more visceral. That’s the power of music.” S

“Low Frequency Travel Agency” suitcases are available by emailing and for pickup at Black Iris Gallery at 321 W. Broad St. Allow an hour and a half to two hours for your trip. Last appointment time for checkout is two hours before dark.


WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: