Q&A with Seth Woods and Spencer Topel: 'Iced Bodies'

by Elizabeth Garrison | 5/1/18 2:25am

by Evan Morgan and Evan Morgan / The Dartmouth

Last Thursday, cellist Seth Parker Woods and Dartmouth music professor Spencer Topel performed their work “Iced Bodies,” a piece about the Black Lives Matter movement that falls between the line of a musical performance and an art installation. In “Iced Bodies,” Woods played a cello made of black-dyed ice, alternating from holding the cello upright to lying it down in front of him, and from caressing the cello with the metal fingertips of his gloves to chipping away at the cello using tools such as a metal bow, a screwdriver and a chisel. With each movement, microphones embedded inside the cello picked up the acoustic sounds that Woods created while Topel processed them at the sound board and diffused them across glass panels suspended around the gallery.

How did you come up with the idea for Iced Bodies? Why were you interested in being involved with the project?

S.W.: When I was doing research at Northwestern, I came across this image of a cellist in the 1970s named Charlotte Moorman, nude, playing a cello-shaped ice sculpture. She was performing a piece called Ice Music for London by artist Jim McWilliams. I saw this image at a time when I was looking to expand as an artist and come up with my own niche, so I decided that I wanted to make my own contemporary version. The themes of police brutality didn’t come in until later on. I had been living in Europe, and when I moved back to the U.S. I realized there was a lot of heaviness going on in the world. For the first time, I was seeing all of this really up close and personal ... I knew that the situation was dire and there was definitely a kind of revolution boiling up. I had to find a way to comment, so I fell back on this piece. I decided that this would be my protest song.

S.T.: One of the things that really made me want to do it was how important it would be to address these issues today. It became a human expression, a human problem, not just some display of technology or of avant-garde art, but rather something that would intrinsically address the human condition — particularly, the American condition. As someone who is working increasingly in sound installation, I’m interested in fusing the boundaries between visual and sonic expression, how to play between those two spaces and mix them together in ways that makes an audience receptive to new ideas or new experiences. I loved the idea of working with a transition state material like ice that is melting and is different from where it starts to where it ends, and also just the design challenge. How do you go about freezing that much water into a reliable shape? It’s tricky because water doesn’t want to behave when it’s freezing.

How did you incorporate themes of police brutality and the lack of representation of the black community into the piece?

S.W.: I didn’t want it to be a direct association that was programmatic, where you could see the formula. I represent the ideas of police brutality through these torn, tattered and abused black bodies that are on display in the media. That’s why in the performance there are moments where I’m caressing the body of the ice cello, others in which I’m attacking it and I leave the ice pick in the body, and others in which I’m just observing the body. In social media, we see black bodies have been left out on the street to be gawked at after they’ve been killed, not covered up. It’s almost as if it’s just trash on display, so that’s one of the forms of imagery I’ve chosen to embody within the work.

S.T.: I think we very explicitly invoke the idea of the cello being a symbol of the black body, but we want the audience to come to that conclusion on their own because if it’s too didactic or too insistent, people shut out the opportunity to explore that fragile space. In Seth’s actions, there is both an artistic expression and an effigy of an autopsy. In some sense it’s disturbing. For example, when the cello loses its neck a lot of people said it looks like a torso — often times, I felt the same way. The motivation behind making the cello and the whole scene so beautiful is the idea of the vulnerability of losing something beautiful. I want the audience to feel loss. If something looks fragile or pristine and someone destroys it, our instinct is, “Oh no, don’t do that.” I remember the first time I saw Seth destroy the cello, it really bothered me because it was something we worked so hard to create. But I think that’s the emotion we’re going for. To me, this is why art still has relevance today: it is addressing things that we’ve run out of words for.

How did you approach building the ice cello? What were some of the technical challenges you faced in constructing the ice cello?

S.T.: The earliest designs were an attempt to understand if we could mold a 3D model of ice and to play with the dyes. Because most dyes aren’t meant to be frozen, it was challenging to find a way to make the ice cello black. It was amusing because I was researching stuff on all these mommy blogs about dyeing ice cubes for your kids. I went through hundreds of these images until I found one that looked right, and it was black cake icing! I would have never thought of that. Early on I was thinking fabric dye, but that’s toxic. Or squid ink, but that was way too expensive. It turned out that the coloring in cake icing was perfect because it has stabilizers in it to undergo different temperature changes, like when you chill a cake. As for the sound element, I learned this from my colleagues at the Thayer School of Engineering: separating the work’s process from its looks is a good first step, that is, starting by coming up with a functional model that may not look anything like the final product but gives you the behavioral mechanics of it. For us, it was the hydrophones and the water speakers. We froze them into tubs and then we experimented, listening to them and hitting them in different spots. We discovered ice responds very locally with hydrophones, meaning that if I have a pick-up in only one area of the cello, you don’t hear the sounds being made even if the pick-up is just a foot and a half away. I realized we needed multiple pickups to make sure we captured all the sound as Seth touched different parts of the instrument.

The duration of the performance was almost three hours. How did you avoid repetition and keep the audience engaged?

S.T.: In some sense, it’s very much an improvisation. It’s listening, it’s reading the feeling of the room. One general approach I took was to go from these sharp, almost noise-like impulses from the ice — these crackling sounds that don’t sound like instruments — and then gradually transform them into something that sounds like a string instrument, and then vacillate between the two. We used the glass panels as speakers — they actually have their own tones and frequencies, and I’m really trying to work with those. Also, I’m responding to what Seth is doing in the moment, and the kind of articulations that he’s hearing. It’s a combination of us listening together and arriving at different spaces in the experience that are fresh-sounding and new-sounding, but not changing things so much that he can’t play it. His instrument is sort of chimeric — it’s always changing and becoming a new instrument. The change is important because it’s subtle, but it’s enough that the audience isn’t sonically fatigued by the performance.

What do you hope audiences took away from the performance? What does this performance mean for a Dartmouth audience in particular?

S.W.: By just showing up to the performance they were being advocates for activism, but it shouldn’t stop there. I hope the piece pushes them to engage more with these topics that normally are presented in a skewed way or completely neglected in the everyday social environment. Police corruption and brutality is not an issue that directly affects every socioeconomic group so we need to find a way to move toward everyone engaging with this issue and becoming an advocate in their own way.

S.T.: The process by which I created everything came from working in different parts of campus — in the woodshop, Thayer, my own studio — so it was just natural that I wanted to take it home. At Dartmouth, we are in the middle of some very serious questions about race. How do we reconcile white culture with, in particular African-American culture, and more broadly speaking, Hispanic culture and [other] non-black cultures? To me, it’s really important that we have pieces that address this conversation, like my colleague William Cheng’s talk, “His Music Was not a Weapon.” As far as I’m concerned, I have a biracial family, and I know what it’s like to reconcile race in this area outside of campus. Dealing with a homogenous society that is predominantly white, there’s a lot of implicit white values that people think are okay. It’s important to keep bringing these conversations to Dartmouth — quite frankly, because Dartmouth is an international place. I feel the students are the leaders, so they have to address these [questions] right now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.