Bell towers, the type that anchor public spaces, used to perform a vital everyday function. In addition to signaling the time of day, the tolling of the bells served as a call to worship, marked special occasions such as weddings and funerals, even indicated that danger may be looming ahead.
But with the advent of personal timepieces and cellphones, the role of the bell tower no longer has practical relevance, although it may still retain historical nostalgia of times gone by.
When media sculptor and installation artist Jo Ann Fleischhauer was approached by the Houston Arts Alliance and the Blaffer Art Museum to execute a project that would activate an unused space — a project that followed along the same lines as Blaffer's partnership with collector Jim Petersen in Window into Houston — the Louis and Annie Friedman Clock Tower that overlooks Market Square Park, located on the corner of Travis Street and Congress Avenue, posed an interesting dilemma.
"The more I looked at the bell tower — standing there, idle, in disrepair, as people buzzed by, some stopped to notice it, others didn't even know it was there in the first place — I felt there was an inner dialogue that needed to be explored through art," Fleischhauer says.
Fleischhauer's What Time Is It? documents that conversation. The installation debuts on Saturday alongside a performance by contemporary music presenter Musiqa that includes the world premiere of an electronic music score by Musiqa artistic director Anthony K. Brandt and electroacoustic specialist Chapman Welch.
"I needed to find a way to liberate the clock tower from mere function. Something that would compel passersby to stop, think, meditate, contemplate the different meanings and implications of the concept of time."
The monument blends into the surrounding architectural landscape, forgotten and disregarded by many. The foggy history of its parts, however, dates back to before the turn of the 20th century. Cast in 1876 by A. Fulton's Son and Co. in Pittsburgh, the 2,800-pound bell is original to the third Houston City Hall that burned down in 1903.
The clock was commissioned from the Seth Thomas Clock Co. to the tune of $1,100 in 1904 to be a part of the fourth city hall. Sometime during the 1960s, the clock went missing. It was found in 1988 in Woodville, East Texas, and returned to its rightful proprietor.
The current architecture, designed by the Mathes Group, was built in 1996.
"I needed to find a way to liberate the clock tower from mere function," Fleischhauer says." Something that would compel passersby to stop, think, meditate, contemplate the different meanings and implications of the concept of time. With life going at the speed of light, how could I make time stand still — if only for an instant?"
Do you have a minute?
Fleischhauer encapsulated the duality of inextinguishable motion and the impression of stillness. She installed walls of mirrors inside the tower columns to make the architecture disappear within itself, an effect that's analogous with how the the monument recedes into the urban panorama, both physically and perceptually. Fleischhauer also designed four round, mainly monochromatic, backlit clock faces to be positioned inside the mechanism in an effort to breathe new purpose into the antiquated structure.
Each translucent display, printed on Mylar and affixed to Plexiglass, reflects on a different perspective on the idea of time.
Fleischhauer quotes text that Galileo Galilei wrote in 1610 when he discovered the four moons of Jupiter, a finding that paved the way for the development of a method that measured longitude based on orbital patterns, within a muted blue veneer to comment on storied attempts to quantify celestial movement. In a second face, a black-and-white scheme cocoons poetry of T. S. Eliot and writings of Stephen Hawking as means to survey the psychological awareness of time.
For the third face, Fleischhauer turns to astronomer Carl Sagan and the 1977 Voyager Golden Records that attempted to capture the essence of life on earth. The design, which radiates with warm reds, oranges, yellows and a hint of pink, considers time capsules. In the fourth and final face, Fleischhauer juxtaposes brain scans — which appear melted, somewhat like Salvador Dalí's The Persistence of Memory — as a bridge between art and science.
"Turning the clock tower into a performative space would contribute to making the monument rejoin the community."
But there was something missing, she admits.
"There's a soundscape that's an inherent part of a clock tower," Fleischhauer says. "I'd always wanted to collaborate with Musiqa and Anthony Brandt as he has the same fascination with the integration of art and science. This was the perfect opportunity."
For whom the bell tolls
Brandt seized the challenge and timed Musiqa's opening performance, titled "Time Travel," for the reveal of Fleischhauer's installation.
"What I've learned from studying neuroscience is that the brain needs change," Brandt explains. "Turning the clock tower into a performative space would contribute to making the monument rejoin the community."
Brandt and Welch's What Time Is It?, in response to Fleischhauer's context, is a six-month, tolling, organized performance of a set of computerized sampled sounds. Beginning on Saturday at the performance, and sounding every hour on the hour from at 7 a.m. to midnight, technology concealed within the clock tower will devise a short composition based on a finite number of variables.
"We realized our musical framework based on the Western classical system of 12 major chords, with C major at noon and at midnight," Brandt says. "The register is set to follow the organic rise and fall of the sun. For those who visit Market Square Park often, we hope that in time guests would become familiar with the ascending and descending of the musical patterns."
The software, created through the Max/MSP programming platform, manipulates sound recorded at Market Square and filters it to render pure musical tones.
"We wanted the music to evoke the sound language of a bell but without an explicit connection to the bell."
"These tones are combined into chords that retain some of the dynamic character of the square — such as the crescendo of a passing bus," Welch explains. "The program plays one of these chords every hour, and each hour has a corresponding chord that plays at the same time each day. While the hour chord is playing, the computer improvises additional chords and rhythms that are also created from the sounds of the square."
The improvisations are calculated at random so that not two performances are alike.
The computer selects one of 12 scripts available. Four are fast, four are slow and the remaining four change speed. The program limits each script to one occurrence per day.
"We wanted the music to evoke the sound language of a bell but without an explicit connection to the bell," Brandt adds. "It's how the music orbits around the clock tower, both accepting it and rejecting it, amid its setting, in a poetic fashion."
The collaboration also includes the works of six student composers, three from Rice University and three from the University of Houston, to be performed once a month in a noon time concert. Every concert will start with the tolling of the bell followed by a work for solo trumpet, another for two trumpets and another for three trumpets. The cumulative effect will be executed from the tower's staircase.
Musiqa presents "Time Travel" and Jo Ann Fleischhauer unveils What Time Is It? on Saturday, 7:30 p.m., at Market Square Park. The event is free and open to the public.
Major support comes from the Houston Downtown Management District and the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance. Community partners include Houston Parks and Recreation Department, the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston and the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University.