Photo Feature: Mike Zagorski

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Profile of a truly innovative thinker

This week's Photo Feature image is not, in itself, an excellent shot. Truth be told, I decided to run it because I wanted to post the accompanying article about the late Mike Zagorski. Mike was an associate professor of psychology at Memorial when I wrote this piece in 1988, but he was also a musician with a keen interest in sound and how it shapes our understanding of the world.

One of the builders of the Sound Symposium, Zagorski was always pushing the boundaries with his experimentation in sound. This is quite likely the only in-depth profile ever written about Zagorski, and definitely my most abstract piece of arts writing. An Internet search reveals precious little about the man, who died during 2005, and I am pleased to help correct that with this posting. A shorter version of this article appeared in The Sunday Express during 1988, but all 1,800 words are included here.

As for the photo, it was taken in one of the rehearsal rooms at the School of Music. The room has no windows and we turned off the fluorescent lights because they were noisy, so the only light was from a solitary bulb. I used a tripod and a slow shutter speed of probably one second. I could have taken the shot outdoors, but wanted to pose Zagorski next to his sound device.

Mike Zagorski: creating sculptures with sound

By GEOFF MEEKER

Sunday Express Entertainment Editor

Mike Zagorski loves a power failure.

Instead of cowering in a darkened room by the transistor radio, he takes to the streets and listens to the pulse of a city without electricity.

That's unusual.

But then, Mike Zagorski is an unusual guy.

The 47-year-old associate professor of psychology at Memorial University has been fascinated since childhood by sound - from beautiful music to white noise - and how we relate to it as part of our environment.

"Some people feel uncomfortable when the lights go out," Zagorski said, in an interview with The Sunday Express. "The silence means something is wrong. But when the electricity goes off, it's fun to just go out walking, because you can hear a lot more without the sound of electricity.

"We suffer a lot because of noise in our environment, partly because we haven't worried about such things," he continued. "For example, if I turned these flourescent lights on, there would be a tremendous buzzing noise - which we tune out. But when you do that, you tune out a lot of other sounds too.

"If you live in a perfectly quiet house, you can hear things outside, like sea gulls and dogs barking, and we have this psychological ability to form an image of that. Some people are quite spooky about it and say we have a third eye, but the fact is we have an auditory ability to put together a three dimensional picture of the world.

"But we cannot do it when the lights are buzzing and the vents are really noisy. You might say That's alright, I can get used to it', but that's like having a broken leg and saying you'll get used to it. You would never consciously make that choice, yet in our auditory environment, that is the choice we have been making."

Zagorski is also a musician with a special interest in the flowing, liquid movements of new age music. He is fascinated by the relaxing ambience that can be created by the synthesized, though natural sounding musical environment the newly-emerging musical form creates.

And Zagorski has fused his twin pursuits of psychology and music into one artistic medium: sound sculpture. Through miniature computer-controlled synthesizers, some unusual modes of amplification, and a bit of electric power, Zagorski creates works that complement the aural environment of the sculpture.

"There are two things that give them sculptural quality ," Zagorski explained. "One is the actual physical form: they are permanent and the sound radiates from the sculpture itself instead of from a speaker. The other is the actual experience of it: you can take it in for as long or as little a time as you like, and the sound is always different - it never repeats - so that each time the artistic experience is different."

For a person so occupied with ambient environments, Zagorski sure had one blow-out of a beginning. He was born on a pool table in a bar on the south side of Chicago, back in the roaring 40s.

"I'm not kidding," he said. "My father owned a bar and my mother worked there. She was pregnant, and you might say she had me a little prematurely."

Zagorski was exposed at an early age to the museums and cultural centres of the Windy City, and was fascinated by the Museum of Science and the Art Institute of Chicago.

"Yes, these were unusual interests for a young kid. But we had that stuff available to us and, quite frankly, the school system sucked. It was just no darn good. But my father took me around and exposed me to those other things and I developed an interest. Even as a small child I was into electricity and learning how things work."

When he was 11, the family moved to a little town in Wisconsin, and Zagorski eventually entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He studied math, physics, then biophysics, settling finally on psychology "because I could get money for going to school and besides, it appeared that psychologists could do anything and still call themselves psychologists!"

Zagorski moved on to Indiana University in Bloomington and studied physiological psychology, then mathematical psychology. In 1971, he moved to St. John's "because it appeared then that the university was going to play an important role in the development of the province. While I don't think it has (played that role), I think it is starting to do so now. And to me, that was really exciting, that airy-fairy scientists could actually contribute to the development of economies.

"I think it's quite explicit throughout the university that industrial liaison will not be something that's a pain in the rump, it's something that will be fostered."

In keeping with his fascination for all things aural, Zagorski is currently working on developing an improved hearing aid design.

"Information about the world, and I guess all art, comes through these holes in the head," Zagorski said. "We now have the technology to do anything - the limit is no longer the musical instrument or the artistic medium, the limit is understanding how the eyes and ears work. That's what I do in my daytime job.

"If psychology is any good, it ought to be applied," Zagorski continued. "And I 'm interested in the application of perception to artistic media, to music. Not only is it an interesting and developing medium, but people forget where the technology comes from, they almost hide from it.

"We're at the stage where nobody is really hiding the technology - with the exception of weapons research - but the average citizen doesn't care where it came from. And as long as we lose that sense of awe, we lose control. If we let small groups of people control the technology, I think we're in trouble.

"So I'm interested in exposing people to the technology once again, through sound sculpture."

These sculptures are incredible works; three dimensional in form with a subtle, constantly modulating sound. Zagorski had one of his works, an installation piece in a room at the university's new School of Music, featured in the recent Sound Symposium. It was simple enough - a microphone placed in the end of a 12 foot sewer pipe picked up the resonances in the pipe produced by sounds in the building, fed them through a computer controlled filter and amplifier, then through a four inch speaker placed at the other end of the pipe. The result was something more than noise, with distinct tonal qualities and fluctuating patterns, but something other than music as we know it.

"It's interesting because that amplifier is only putting out one tenth of a watt in power," Zagorski said. "If you took the speaker away from the pipe, you wouldn't hear anything - that pipe is picking up sound from the environment, providing resonance, then amplifying the sound itself, by 50 to 100 times."

Shanawdithit, another of Zagorski's works, is on permanent display in the outdoor courtyard of the School of Music. The sculpture stretches 28 feet into the air, a metallic pole capped by a giant wing-shaped span of metal. Attached to its sides are cables, which transmit sound impulses to metal plates on the pole, producing sound that emanates from the entire sculpture.

Zagorski has also done multi-media works with visual artists Frank Lapointe and Hanny Muggeridge, by composing a computerized soundtrack that he felt complemented the painting. "With the home environment, these works provide very pleasant, very subtle background. It's certainly not as loud as a refrigerator motor, but it ties into the architecture of a room and gives a little ambience where normally there would be none."

Zagorski has also experimented intermittently since the early 70s with live music, performing new age works with Don Wherry, Martin Rickert and others in a group called Fusion. In fact, Wherry, Zagorski and friends played an integral role in starting the first-ever Sound Symposium, now an internationally-renowned event.

Zagorski and Wherry have also experimented even further afield, with recordings of nature - beach rocks set in motion by waves, flocks of seagulls, babbling brooks, and so on - and used these as base tracks on some of their new age works.

"We play over the top of them with synthesizer and percussion instruments, carefully avoiding traditional musical scales because if you take these delicate sounds and play even two notes of the scale, it just breaks it up."

Zagorski believes we are at a threshhold, not just of a new music, but of a redefinition of music itself.

"There are theories that say the next logical step in musical scale is, instead of going with 11 notes per octave, to go to something like 17 or 19 notes per octave. But the theory doesn't say exactly what you should do with those notes... I suspect one of the things we'll be moving into is more naturalistic sounds.

"There are four areas of listening that we know scientifically about.

"Let's say you were designing an animal. You would certainly design it to hear simple sounds, and to be able to position those sounds.

"Then there are the more complex sounds of speech. We'd certainly design an animal with a communications system. That would be very useful. And as complicated as speech is, we've got a pretty good idea of how it works.

"Now, after all these years, we're getting an idea of how music works. You would never design an animal to hear music. People may disagree with me on this, but nowhere in nature does an animal have to discriminate between a major triad (three notes played simultaneously) and a minor triad. So music is perfectly abstract; it doesn't relate to the real world the way other arts do.

"The fourth area of listening that we have never studied or attempted to use as an art form explicitly is an area that you would design into an animal, and that is the ability to use stoccastic ensembles. Stocasstic is a sound that is random, but random with a pattern, like a flock of gulls. You know by the sound when that flock of gulls spots a school of fish. You know by the sound of the wind in the trees when that wind has changed direction. It's like waves, or a babbling brook there's a pattern, but it's a random one. And when that pattern changes, we hear it. And we're very good at it.

"In the old days, before sound pollution, there were fishermen who could tell the weather by the sound of the church bell. We were never able to control that ability, to understand how we do it, or use it as an art form. But I think the application of this fourth area of hearing is what lies beyond the threshhold. We may have new musical forms associated with new scales and rhythms that we couldn't have controlled before.

"And I'm pretty excited by all this. I've been working toward it since I was a kid."

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