Beer Makes Pots Sing at Met Breuer

Vessels from a range of eras, wired to amplify their ambient tone

Take 5,000 years of ceramic vessels from the Met’s collection, give them to art-installation genius Oliver Beer, and he’ll create something that will never let you think about fired clay or cast bronze the same way again.

Beer has unleashed the “voices” of 32 precious objects in the beautiful, unforgettable installation Oliver Beer: Vessel Orchestra, in a fifth-floor showcase at the Met Breuer through August 11.

Beer recognized that ceramic and metal containers each have their own distinctive ambient note. It took him three years of searching through the Met’s collection to find which vessels among thousands could emit precise notes.

Oliver Beer at the mixing board and keyboards, demonstrating how the voices of the vessels are activated.

When you enter the Met Breuer gallery, you’ll meet his perfect cast. Beer has a sound mixer and keyboard to activate and amplify different combinations of sound from the 32 installation stars. A single microphone captures the natural, ambient sound of each vessel.

After spending decades on the Met’s shelves and in storage, each vessel’s distinctive voice is brought life in contemporary performance. As Beer and other artists play the keyboard, objects created in different eras and cultures blend their singular voices. They sound perfect.

Met LiveArts has invited guest artists to perform on Friday nights throughout the run of the show. When we were there, Helga Davis, a soloist who has triumphed in avant-garde operas like Einstein on the Beach, explained why she found the sensation so satisfying.

Vocalist Helga Davis

She said that she loved feeling her own voice “disappear” when the note she sang blended with a vessel’s own singular note. Listen in on our video clip.

Recently, the Brooklyn Raga Massive collaborated with the vessels in live performance to create a meditative, transcendental experience. Upcoming collaborators include composers Nico Muhly (August 4) and John Zorn and company (August 9).

Vessels in the orchestra — Qing Dynasty porcelain vase (1644-1911) and the back of one of Betty Woodman’s 2003 series The Ming Sisters.

When live performers are not present, Beer has programmed the keyboard to activate his ensemble. A little light on the cord running to each vessel illuminates when the vessel is singing, so viewers can see exactly who’s contributing to the ambiance at any given moment.

The vessels are quite an elegant crew, including a sinuous art nouveau porcelain, a sleek modern bronze portraits by Lachaise, and a monumental angular slab pot by American master William Daley.

Visually, the vessel presentation is clever. Betty Woodman’s whimsical 2003 ceramic trio The Ming Sisters knocks a bit of seriousness off their otherwise tightly controlled neighbor — turquoise-and-gold Qing Dynasty porcelain masterwork.

Vessels wired to amplify their ambient tone, including a female effigy (7th – 6th c. B.C.), Beatrice Wood’s fish, an Iranian storage jar (3800 – 3700 B.C.), and a Canaanite jar (1500 – 1400 B.C.).

And Beatrice Wood’s 1947 fish pot is swimming, singing, and bringing the fun out of a totally ancient threesome – an old, tipped-over Canaanite jar, an ibex wandering across a 4th millennium B.C. Iranian pot, and a 7th century B.C. lady.

Some things that look ancient aren’t. A simple, unassuming, unembellished creation seems to have been made at a more primitive, far-away time. But it’s a 1975 stoneware pot created by artist Juan Hamilton, Ms. O’Keefe’s friend and assistant, who taught her how to make pots in her later years at Ghost Ranch.

There’s so much to hear and see in this show, so be sure to experience this extraordinary ensemble before August 11. See close-ups of some of our favorite Met singers on Flickr.

Here, the engaging and brilliant Oliver Beer explains how it all comes together:

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