Three hundred tubes of electric light fill the 3,400-square-foot Icebox, a former cold storage warehouse now an exhibition space at the Crane Arts Building in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. They are suspended on a grid of 20-foot wires strung from ceiling to floor.
The bulbs remain dark until a drummer comes.
Artist Ezra Masch constructed and wired each light by hand, programming them to be triggered by the sound of percussion. Lights on the bottom of the grid react to lower frequencies, and higher-up bulbs illuminate to incrementally higher pitches.
Lights in the center of the room respond to quieter sounds, expanding to the perimeter as the drumming gets louder. There is a standard drum kit set up in the back of the room.
Over the course of “Volumes,” the month-long installation at the Icebox, Masch has scheduled a series of guest drummers to perform in the room. A deft musician can make patterns of light fly throughout the space.
“You can observe the very moment where they stop playing the drums and they start playing the lights,” he said. “One of the reasons for doing it is to challenge and grow the way that you think about musical performance.”
The Austin-based artist grew up in Philadelphia, and had brought an earlier, smaller version of “Volumes” to the Icebox in 2015, as “Big Bang” using fluorescent rods. Now in its fifth iteration, “Volumes” is the largest it has ever been, networking all the LED lights into a digital web.
Masch is primarily a sculptor who also plays a wide variety of instruments, but “percussion is really where I feel most at home,” he said.
He said “Volumes” combines his sculptor’s mind thinking about shapes in space, with his musician’s mind about shaping sound in time.
“I learned to play by visualizing intervals, spaces between notes,” he said. “I’ve thought about music this way my whole life, but in creating this project it was the first time that I could manifest those ideas into a physical form.”
A lineup of professional drummers is scheduled every Saturday during the run of “Volumes,” with two additional days on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 12 and 13. The roster includes nationally sought-after session musicians like Mark Guiliana who has toured with Meshell Ndegeocello, and played on David Bowie’s final album “Blackstar,” three-time Grammy nominee Nate Smith, and Philadelphia-raised jazz drummer Johnathan Blake.
Steve McKie will play on opening night, Oct. 8. The versatile drummer has played behind popular R&B artists like Jill Scott, Bilal, and Musiq Soulchild.
He said he has never played in a room full of lights before. There is a learning curve to it.
“It makes me think: How can I entertain? How can I make this a cool and fun thing?” said McKie. “Sitting behind the drums is one thing. Now you’re sitting behind the drums and you’re controlling every lighting that goes off. That’s just amazing.”
On Thursday, Oct. 13, the art galleries inside the Crane Arts Building will be open for the monthly Second Thursdays open house, when performers will be participants of the local organization Drum Like a Lady.
LaTreice Branson founded Drum Like a Lady to provide a safe and accessible place for women to drum, and to advocate for music education and mental health.
Before “Volumes” opened to the public, Branson sat at the provided drum kit. She did not take up the drumsticks. Due to a series of back injuries, she said playing with sticks causes her too much pain, to the extent it can compromise her mental health.
Instead, she slapped the kit with her bare hands.
“Once I began to play with my hands, I could sense it better. I knew how to create waves,” said Branson. “With my hands, I’m more sensitive to that.”
For her performance, Branson plans to play in a drumming duet with percussionist Jan Jeffries. They will be bringing their own set of congas, ranging from the lower tones of tumbadora to the higher pitched quinto congas.
They plan to play rhythms that will trigger the lights in ways that will soothe.
“You can play with these, you can trigger them, but how can we use them so that when people leave the room they feel renewed from it?” she said.
“Volumes” opens Saturday, Oct. 8 with a free performance featuring McKie, Chris Cogburn, and Erika Mack. Subsequent performances are ticketed at $25, with some free performances throughout. Those interested can check the exhibition listings online.
Visitors are welcome to experience the installation during gallery hours Friday through Sunday outside of the performances times, for free, when the lights will be set to pre-programmed patterns.
Saturdays just got more interesting.