“Cor + Som”
Filling an Alentejo castle with colour and sound
Painter Pat Badt and I have often collaborated on site-specific projects. Always interested in space, our collaborations have through the years become less tangible and more about making sound, light, colour and space equally palpable.
We began working on our installation Cor + Som [Colour + Sound] in the summer of 2015 when we were artists-in-residence of the Obras Foundation in the Alentejo region in south-central Portugal. Alentejo is a sparsely populated area of gentle savannah with cork oak and ancient olive trees. It has been inhabited since the Mesolithic times and is rich in prehistoric stone sites. Sitting quietly beneath an oak tree, one imagines that not much has changed over time.
The Obras Foundation is a special place, beautifully situated on a gentle hillside overlooking pastures, tangled gorges, cork trees and a distant castle — the Castle of Evoramonte. There is little sound aside from the wind. It is a place to clear your head and regain the ability to listen to the world around you, as well as the landscape within (Fig. 1). I made many field recordings of the countryside, the sheep herds, the local village and the wind. When the wind came, it swept across the fields in waves that the dry grass made visible. With the wind, the space became visual and aural, as one could see and hear it sweep across the fields.
As I was making recordings, Pat Badt was painting notes of colour. Taken by the intensity of the light and the endless sky, she painted many, many paper sketches of colour and form.
We returned to the Obras Foundation in the summer of 2016 with an invitation to create an installation within the Castle of Evoramonte, a castle that dates back to the 14th century (Fig. 2).
The castle is situated on the tallest landform within sight, with a breathtaking panoramic view of the landscape. Its construction began in 1306 as a fortification. We were interested in honouring its place and history without celebrating its aggressive militaristic presence. (Interestingly, the treaty ending the Portuguese civil war was signed there in 1834.)
The interior space had three remarkable attributes: it had beautiful, regulated light from four windows deeply set into the massive walls of the Great Chamber (Fig. 3), the view from the windows was breathtaking, and the space was remarkably resonant due to the vaulted ceilings and hard stone surfaces. Given the historical nature of the site, our installation had many restrictions. For example, we could not build or hang anything on any of the surfaces, nor could we in any way alter the interior.
The impressive heaviness of the architecture also presented a daunting challenge. We decided to empty the space of all objects and fill the interior with nothing but sound and light. The view of the intense blue sky from the high vista provided by the windows and the panorama of the landscape became our “borrowed landscape”; the sound of the Alentejo would become our “borrowed soundscape.”
Our plan was to treat the windows in such a way as to alter the light in the space and simultaneously fill the spaces with sound. There were two rooms — a large Grand Chamber and a smaller antechamber — and we wanted to fill each of the two rooms differently.
Using Pat Badt’s colour studies from the previous summer, we developed a collection of colours that could work in the windows of the castle to alter the light via transparent gels temporarily fixed to the castle’s windows (Fig. 4). In the Grand Chamber we concentrated on the sky, intensifying its blueness while leaving a horizontal band of untreated windows that would offer visitors a heightened experience of the panorama.
Using the audio field recordings made the previous summer, I created a series of 5-channel ambisonic compositions. As the blue light filled the large, vaulted space, we filled the stone void with swirling, ambisonic sound that moved through the space like the wind and dissolved the heavy walls into the surrounding space of the landscape (Audio 1).
While the main chamber became a glowing blue with gels that enhanced the blueness of the sky and cooled the interior light, the smaller antechamber became red and earthy (Fig. 5). Its visual heat worked in contrast to the cool blue of the main chamber and reflected the stark contrast between the land and the sky that surrounded the castle. Complementing the earthiness of the colour, we introduced the original field recordings of the Alentejo into this smaller space in stereo.
Our installation was not the first artwork to have been exhibited in the Castle of Evoramonte; however, it was the first sound and light installation. The castle is a historic site and a destination for tourists travelling in the area. We were interested to see how this installation would be received by visitors. Although we emptied the space of its objects, we filled it with light and sound. We were pleased to see many visitors and families spending time within the installation, listening and looking.
Additional audio excerpts from the project can be found on the author’s website.