A Cosmic, Cartoonish, Reverberating Boing

March 11, 2016 
By Wendy Atwell

If you’re near Blue Star at the top of the hour, you may hear a cosmic, cartoonish, reverberating boing coming from a copper-leafed PA horn, mounted onto the building’s exterior. The source is a peculiar room-sized clock tower inside Blue Star Contemporary, made by sound and visual artist Justin Boyd. The unembellished, simple clock stands twelve feet tall on spindly wooden poles, like a Daddy Long Leg.

Boyd is a dj, has his own radio show on KRTU, and is  Chair of the Sculpture and Integrated Media Department at the Southwest School of Art. With his unusual, heightened aural sensibility and analytical and conceptual prowess, Boyd makes art that can be sound-based, visual, or both, but it always surprises the viewer with its poetic and philosophical bent. An understated surrealism accompanies his work, stemming from how he transforms sounds.

The numbered gears, mounted on the clock’s face, convey how time gets marked and measured by this simple, mechanical device. Boyd taped a microphone to its long metal chime, which is connected to a concealed amplifier. The sound of the chime reflects the clock’s design—reality altered ever so slightly to awaken the bizarre.

“I don’t use effects arbitrarily,” said Boyd. “I love the way it sounds kind of trippy and psychedelic. When something is delayed in time, it literally is a spatial effect–that event is repeated and then it diminishes through time. To me, that’s very much what I think about when I think about time.…The idea of a clock is you hear it spatially, you hear it bounce off of a building.”

Boyd received the honor of being one of Blue Star Contemporary’s Berlin Residents, and spent July through October 2014 in Germany. Germans “pride themselves on really good sound,” and it is “the center of electronic music,” said Boyd, who bought a bicycle when he was there so he could ride around the city and listen to its sounds.

In the same way a visual artist may bring a camera, on his trip, Boyd brought two digital recorders and smaller version of his modular synthesizer. At home, Boyd maintains an extensive archive of sounds from all over the globe. While he was in Germany, he took full advantage of adding to it, recording everything from ambient street sounds to organ concerts.

“In the old way of field recording you were basically just an audio anthropologist, you were invisible, just in the background. That’s interesting, but I think coming from a visual artist, and a dj background as well, you’re supposed to mess with sound–that’s your role, you’re picking what comes after what and you’re working on frequencies.”

Inspired by Germany’s tolling bells and clock towers, Boyd recreated the effect for San Antonio. Along with the clock, Boyd created a series of twelve intaglio prints that continue his theme of time.

“One of the fascinations I have with the clock towers is that they provide you a sense of location within the city,” said Boyd. “If you travel, you know where the center heart of the city is because there’s the clock tower, you know what time it is because there’s a chime that happens every hour or every half hour. One of the things I love about it is this very public way of telling time; you don’t have to look at your watch or cellphone; it’s just a way that you’re moving through the day that provides a marker: this is where I am and this is what time it is.”

Because he collects sounds like a traveler collects souvenirs, he also traveled to the Black Forest
. “I like this idea that you could take a sonic recipe—a dash of Black Forest,” said Boyd. While there, he also discovered a clock museum.

“They would run clocks for me and set chimes off so I could record. They had some very, very old ones that were all cast iron, just metal-on-metal, agricultural, blacksmithing sounds.…also old player pianos and animatronic type devices that would tell time and also play a song. These weird hybrids of clocks, player pianos, organs, really amazing.”

Boyd also recorded the hybrids of man-made and natural sounds at places like the Tiergarten, Berlin’s large civic park, and the Luisenstadt Canal. He is drawn to these spaces where the natural and man-made play off of one another.

“I was just sitting there one day recording, and there were people playing badminton. It was still late summer, in the evening so birds were starting to sing, evening birds, crickets were starting to come out, people were playing, riding their bikes and there’s a big open pond, right by a bombed-out church….I went back to the studio and I was listening to it and realized, this is really harmonically rich.”

Working with a modular synthesizer, Boyd alters his recordings to accentuate certain sounds.

“I take the sounds and I split them into frequencies and then, with each of those frequencies, maybe adjust a frequency or oscillator or play with the harmonics….so you’re picking out different windows of things and just enhancing them a bit….It’s subtle at best, but I really like the idea that I can transform them and augment them in some sort of way. So those will stand alone as recordings or I’ve done live performances as well, where something’s happening and I’m processing the sounds live in real time.”

Boyd enlisted the help of his brother, Dillon, while making the clock. Dillon, who is three years younger, works for an organ manufacturer and is also a dj. The two brothers grew up in Dallas, but they were largely influenced by visiting their grandparents in west Texas.

“West Texas, in terms of sound, is hugely influential on the way that both of us hear things. We’d just hear these weird aural phenomenon like the Aeolian harp of the high line, the dust storms, or being inside creaky metal buildings, where everything’s always rustling.”

As djs, Dillon explained, their ears are trained to “hear simultaneously.”

“You have to be able to split your hearing,” Boyd added. “If you’re a dj worth your salt, you easily have to listen to something out of your left ear and out of your right ear and make sense of both of those things.”

Justin’s modular synthesizer is eerily similar to the interior of an organ that Dillon repairs. The complex systems are totally different, but each brother exceeds in his ability and knowledge of how to work them.

“It’s very mechanical. Nothing happens until you take one thing and plug it into another thing,” Justin says about the modular synthesizer.

“You’re using the machine as the instrument,” Dillon explained about Justin’s use of the synthesizer. “Your originality comes out in the way it gets played, not necessarily what gets put into it.” This clock demonstrates how the Boyd brothers relate and understand one another and how their related talents interact.

“It’s not exactly on the hour,” they joked about the clock’s time-keeping. “It’s more like west Texas time.”

Going on Going is on exhibit at Blue Star Contemporary through May 8. Walley Films created a documentary on Boyd, watch it here.