These Speaker Dresses Are Both Eye and Ear Candy

Artist and musician Pauchi Sasaki spoke to us about designing attire that is both fashionable and playable.

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Dec 9 2016, 8:00pm

Pauchi Sasaki and Claire Chase performing Pauchi's Gama XV : Piece for Two Speaker Dresses ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

Dresses are more likely to be worn as attire to draw the eye than as a self-contained sound system to lure the ear. But my ears perked up when midway through the first night of Claire Chase's density 2036: part iv—an evening of flute, vocal, and breath works performed at NYC experimental arts venue The Kitchen—the renowned flutist was outfitted by a chorus member in a plated silver skirt of flattened speakers. I watched as she was then handed a swab of glowing cables that resembled the spilled intestinal tubes of Ash, the android from Alien. Chase put this tangle to her mouth and began to play.

As the stage and platform lighting dimmed to a mere two spotlights, ghostly sounds emerging from the dress filled the room in a foggy ambience. From the corner, a second woman in a speaker dress—its designer, the Peruvian musician and sound artist Pauchi Sasaki—was making her own noises, scream-like breaths amplified from a headset and mic hanging over her lips. In slow, methodical steps, the two performers enacted a Butoh-like choreography; their bodies and attire embodying the aurality of the space.

What I was witnessing was the world premiere of Gama XV: Piece for Two Speaker Dresses, described in the program as exploring “the relationship between air as sound source; body as a medium of sound amplification; and space as the container of [elemental] interaction.” Also making its premiere was the second of Sasaki’s speaker dresses (the one worn by Chase). “For the first dress,” Sasaki wrote in her artist’s note,” a usually soundless skin becomes the sound source for the dress.” Sasaki added that for the second dress, she “wanted to visually integrate air and respiration.” The web of chords played by Claire was meant as a “mask...with several [tubes] connected to a purse [emanating] negative ions, becoming an emulation of an artificial ‘lung system.’"

Following the performance, Sasaki was kind enough to answer a few questions from The Creators Project:

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Pauchi Sasaki at the Kitchen in New York City, December 1, 2017, with self-designed speaker dresses for her composition Gama XV : Piece for Two Speaker Dresses ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

The Creators Project: How did you make the dresses and how did they fit into the performance?

Pauchi Sasaki: I made the first speaker dress in 2014; it is a self-contained system that functions with three stereo amplifiers, a battery, and covered in 100 speakers. The second dress, which premiered today, is made out of 125 speakers. It’s an independent system, everything is wearable. Both dresses utilize a double-wireless system—one travels from the microphone to the headset to the mixer. And the other brings in receives the signals for the sounds I designed through a Max MSP patch. In designing these, I wanted to stress their efficiency as a self-contained system. This was the first time I had two dresses on stage at the same time so it was very exciting to see how they played off each other, and how, as sound sources, they could move around the space.

Can you talk to me about your choreography process in working with these dresses?

This piece is based on structure, not note by note. It’s all done by scenes. The first scene were done by interpretive instruction—take deep breaths, sound like a firework, now a squirrel. But these are component ideas; the next full scene was to make diagonal sounds with our body, like screaming and pulling sound away from the body. Each scene had its own specific treatment.

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Pauchi Sasaki playing the electric violin, wearing self-designed speaker dress for her composition Gama XV : Piece for Two Speaker Dresses ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

Where did the idea to create speakers dresses come about?

A few years ago, I was to perform in a temple in Lima, and I brought my violin and my system to process its sounds. But of course, it’s an ancient temple, so there was no electricity or outlets; I could perform only acoustic sounds, even though that’s not what I had planned. That’s when I got the idea of a self-contained system, but one that could be integrated into my body, that was the idea.This resulted in the first speaker dress that wasn’t just functional as a mobile sound system, but also as something visually compelling.

What kind of performances with these dresses do you have in mind for the future?

My dream, well, I say that after suffering through building the second dress [laughs], my dream is to make a medium-sized opera with very weird characters. But medium-sized because these dresses don’t really function well in large concert halls, where it’s hard to manipulate the sound sources.

Will there be male characters?

For now, no. I’m focused on femininity and what it means to have a body that screams. So I’m just sticking with feminine dresses for now. But rather than developing a male counterpart, I’d like to work on more androgynous outfits. I think that’s what I’ll work on next.

To learn more about Pauchi Sasaki’s work, visit her website here.

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