Paul Rucker's Work Requires No M.F.A. to Appreciate

It's even — can you handle it? — entertaining.

From the touring Christian Marclay show at SAM in 2004, to the "In Resonance" exhibit at Bumbershoot '05, to the Trimpin retrospective the last couple of years and the Bill Fontana show next month at Western Bridge, Seattle's definitely doing the "sound art" thing. But as is the case with most fashionable trends, sound art's recent rise has been a mixed blessing. Many visual artists with little in terms of musical experience are putting noise on their pieces as afterthoughts. These works are more about creating multimedia installations than foregrounding sound as a medium of expression.

But what happens when the reverse is true? What happens when a musician turns to art objects? What about the man who knows he wants to create a unique musical experience for an audience but hasn't built a sculpture before? If you look to Paul Rucker, a celebrated jazz composer and performer, you'll find the formula works really well: This particular Seattle musician makes great sound art.

Rucker debuted this side of his artistic practice at the now-defunct Consolidated Works in November 2005. Titled Wall of Pieces, the installation transformed an awkward, nondescript space between the colossal lobby and the unisex bathrooms into a virtual jazz venue. Rewiring 88 keys on an electric piano to play samples from his musical career, Rucker invited his audience to become musicians. If you sat at the piano and pushed C sharp, you might have heard a vibrant jazz ensemble; if you pushed C sharp and D flat at the same time, the sounds might've mimicked a perfect DJ sample.

To help the audience work out which keys played what sort of sounds, the piano was accompanied by 88 delicate black-and-white drawings that hung along a deep-red line of paint. They served as intuitive sheet music, visually making the jazz samples tucked away behind the piano keys more accessible: An energetic, frenzied drawing forecast a vigorous song, a simple line composition accompanied a basic beat. In other words, Rucker provided a graceful cheat sheet for his audience.

In a world in which art can so often alienate and bore, Rucker deserves attention for making work that's both conceptually sound and entertaining. You don't need a degree in jazz or a Ph.D. from a digital-arts program to understand and enjoy it. Though there are thoughtful issues present in the piece—Rucker is clearly commenting on the commodification of the music industry, for instance—you don't need to intellectualize the work to appreciate it.

"What's most important is that people connect with my art and my music, and for me, the best way to connect is to interact," says Rucker. "So, I figured out a new method of delivery, one that lets the viewer make my music their own."

Rucker's latest installation, Happy Ending Machine, functions exactly as its name implies: It's a crowd pleaser. While the Belltown-based art space McLeod Residence has yet to solidify its identity, Rucker's piece once again reigns over challenging environs. In a small, dark room, a Plexiglas sculpture shaped like a modified stand-up piano begs to be played. Four red laser beams are positioned exactly where the keys of the piano should be. Wave your hand through them to break the beam, and any one of four musical parts starts or stops. While one laser controls the saxophone portion of the soundtrack, another's got the bass, a piano, and a shaker tied to it.

As with Wall of Pieces, there is a supplementary visual element. This time, it's somewhat inconsequential found video footage of butterflies projected onto the back wall of the installation. But that's not a complaint. Happy Ending Machine is pretty basic. Watching the butterflies flit across the screen while you jam is just an added bonus.

Up next for Rucker is a show at Jack Straw Productions in May. For this, Rucker will present Catalyst, which he says explores the process of creating art. Though the artist has yet to finish building the piece, Rucker asserts that it will investigate "what motivates, incites, and feeds creative impulses." While this artfully ambiguous description hardly pinpoints what this next project will materialize into, it is safe to say that it won't be as didactic as the sentence implies. We can trust from past encounters with Rucker's work that it'll be a joyful and intuitive experience.

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