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Kendall Sculptures Bring Music, Talk to Strangers

By Eva Moy
Staff Reporter

Local artist Paul Matisse looks like an artist, with his beard, longish hair, and baggy clothes. But his musical sculptures displayed at the Kendall Square MBTAstation are nothing short of engineering.

Matisse spoke about the three works at the Kendall T station - Pythagoras, Kepler, and Galileo - last Wednesday at a talk sponsored by the Media Laboratory.

The sculpture-instruments are operated by the passengers waiting for their trains. The music brings together the people, allowing them to make eye contact and exchange a few words, something they otherwise might be scared to do, Matisse said.

"Everybody can play, but nobody can force their music [style], because their music is coming from the sculpture itself," he said.

Matisse won an MBTA commission for the artwork in 1981. However, because of the T station reconstruction, the Kendall Band was not installed until 1987.

"I found this very dirty, abandoned station back in 1981," Matisse said. He worried that the sculpture would be covered with black brake dust, and that people would vandalize or climb on his sculpture.

Matisse chose to put the artwork at the station's center. "It had a third rail on one side, a third rail on the other side, and I thought it would be safe."

But the sculpture is more than something to look at. With no sound in the station except for the screeching stop of the trains' brakes, "it seemed very clear to me that we needed a bell-like sound especially with the stone walls and ceiling of that station."

In the nine years since its installation, Matisse has had to make many repairs and upgrades, including the recent ones this past month. Matisse cannot start working until after the trains stop at 1:30 a.m., so he doesn't get to see people interact with the Kendall Band.

Each time, he writes a letter explaining the repair, and passengers reply with their praises and admonitions. The comments allow him to connect with his audience in a way that artists rarely experience, Matisse said. "There were many messages that made this sculpture very particular to me."

"Music in the subway is like bringing the sunshine underground," wrote one of his admirers.

Built by trial and error

The local artist creates art out of basic materials, like metal, rubber, gears, and bearings. Despite his many years of experience as an artist, he constantly found that he could not rely solely on his intuition, Matisse admitted.

Throughout the design process, he consulted a physics book and even used high-speed photography to make the project a success.

Pythagoras is a set of long tube bells tuned in B minor struck by a line of pendulum hammers. When the passenger moves the handle on the station wall, the hammers swing back and forth, striking the tubes. The short tubes create the high pitches, and the long tubes the low. If a person swings at the right frequency, he can access both sets of tones.

Although the design of the bells may seem simple, the design process was full of trial and error. "I thought the sizing should be intuitive," Matisse said. He chose 6061 aluminum, a 10-foot length, 4-inch diameter, and 1/4-inch wall thickness.

The first tube he hung up, "I hit it every which way, and there was no way for me to hit this piece of metal to make the sound," Matisse said. Unlike organ tubes, his sculpture depended upon the nodal points of the tubes and had nothing to do with the air inside.

Closer analysis revealed that the two major nodes were a major seventh apart or, in layman's terms, in discordance. In addition, the two notes interfered with each other, quickly damping out the sound.

Matisse experimented with ways to bring out only the first overtone. First, he adjusted the lower note to become an octave apart, which is musically pleasing. Holding the nodes of the first overtone (the major tone), Matisse slowly shortened the tube until the note converged.

Then he cut slits into the tube at the nodes of the first overtone. This did not affect the first overtone - nodes are points that do not vibrate, by definition - but greatly weakened the power of the higher overtones.

Matisse accidentally discovered that when the cuts were slightly asymmetric, the note was no longer pure but played with a vibrato, a pulsing effect on a note by rapid variations in pitch.

Without the vibrato, "you just didn't feel anything for the music," Matisse said.

"I was really just delighted," he said. "It's arriving at these moments that are a great pleasure in doing these things."

Kepler, Galileo a challenge

Kepler is a 125-pound ring of metal, struck by a ratchet-controlled hammer. Matisse said he was fascinated by the way the word "ring" described both the object and the sound.

The pitch of the ring depends on its diameter, so Matisse was lucky that the ring strikes an F sharp, a perfect fifth to complement Pythagoras' B minor.

Galileo is a thunder sheet, similar to those used in theaters. When passengers shake this metal sheet, the sound of thunder reverberates throughout the subway tunnel.

Every step of the design process posed a great challenge for Matisse. Every cut, notch, and hole affected the vibrations within the solid pieces of metal. He had to be especially careful of the way the parts were mounted so that crucial vibrations were not dampened.

Matisse was driven by the desire to solve each problem as it presented itself. But his continual upkeep is one of paternal love.

"I have been going in and fixing it like I would [take care of] my children," Matisse said. "The hope is, ultimately, it really is MIT's baby."

Matisse hopes that one day, when he no longer can travel down to the T station to make repairs, that people will maintain both the sculptures and the idea that music can still bring strangers together.