German-born sound artist Rolf Julius passed away on the 21st January 2011 at his home in Berlin. Whilst it’s a great loss to the sound art community, on a personal note Julius’ work has been immensely important to my development as an artist over the past five years – in the conception, composition and realisation of my studio and installation work. More critically, the work of Rolf Julius has had a profound and lasting impact on the way I listen to and experience the world.
I first came across the work of Rolf Julius in a sound art text a few years ago (Resonances: Aspects of Sound Art, Kehrer, 2002). There was one particular work that captivated my attention. warum grau warum gelb warum grun (2002) is an installation of loudspeakers, coloured wires, playback devices, photographs, ceramic bowls, and at the far end of the space; a resonating iron plate with cement dust scattered across its surface.
At first glance it looked like an unholy mess of sonic detritus, but upon closer inspection one could sense a harmony to the arrangement. There appeared to be a natural order to everything, like an abstracted network of neural pathways or some kind of organic structure. The book that featured the work came with a CD that contained an audio recording of warum grau.. which gave some much needed audible context to the work. What I heard was a dense sonic cacophony of multiple voices (sourced from electronics, found sounds and conventional instruments) coalescing in rich homogenous textures and sounding a bit like a field recording that had been made in a synthetic rainforest. In 2009, I wrote about the work in my post-graduate research thesis:
Warum grau, warum gelb, warum grün is, on the one hand about the transparency of process itself. From the far end of the exhibition space we observe an arrangement of objects unified by their association to each other as carriers and projectors of sound (wires, loudspeakers, amplifiers), objects conveying sensation and symbolism (colours, bowls, loudspeakers as containers of sound). The iron plate at the entrance illustrates the transparency of its sounding process in a less metaphorical sense, instead it conveys the physical relationship between sound and object. The vibration of the metal surface and the cement dust is analogous to the propagation of the resonant sound waves. For the listener, the work appears relatively homogenous on the surface – disparate sounds blending with each other to form an elaborate sonic texture. However upon closer inspection through the observation of both sections of the installation, the listener is made aware of the modes and sources of the sounds (locational), and may observe (visually) and make perceptive estimations as to the representational meaning of the bowls and photographs on the gallery floor.
Aside from his technical proficiency, part of the beauty of Julius’ work lies in the relationship that it fosters with its audience – the unpretentious and thoughtful composition of his installations encourage a unique mode of participation, a deeper appreciation of sound through the suggestion of metaphor and symbolic meaning using a combination of sonic and visual media. Loudspeakers, photographs, bowls, cisterns, cooking utensils, detritus, pigments, ash, dirt, telegraph poles, walls, clearings, frozen lakes, forests, rivers, oceans… What would otherwise be ordinary or inglorious outside the context of Julius’ work is transformed and rendered into beautiful and captivating reflections of nature, space and life itself.
There’s a temptation to go further into detail here, but I’m really trying to keep this post succinct.
I did (sort of) manage to experience Julius’ work first hand when I was in Berlin back in 2008. That is, without the crucial sound component as I had missed the exhibition in question by a couple of days. Through the glass windows of the Galerie Anshelm Dreher I could see a couple of works still on walls and plinths, but that was as close as I got. I pressed my ear to the glass hoping to hear something in a desperate attempt to make further connection with the works, but to no avail. It was pretty disappointing. I shared a couple of brief e-mail correspondences with Julius around this period and we had planned to meet during my stay in Germany, but a meeting didn’t come about regrettably due to clashing schedules. If only I’d stayed in Berlin a couple more days.
Rest in Peace Rolf Julius.