The concept of creating music on the ArtShip isn’t exactly new. Artist Slobodan Dan Paich, whose fertile imagination led to the creation of the floating cultural center moored at Oakland’s 10th Avenue Terminal, sees the 491-foot vessel itself as an instrument that produces an array of sounds as it interacts with the wind and surf. But when cellist and music scholar Hugh Livingston attended an ArtShip art opening last June, he was struck by the amazing array of spaces within the ship and the variety of acoustic environments. It seemed like the perfect venue for a performance series, but since the ArtShip isn’t open to the public yet he decided to launch a recording project by capturing musicians playing 21-minute solo improvisations in various spots around the vessel. The first four ArtShip Recordings are available at both Amoeba stores this week.
“It’s such an evocative place, both because of its history, and because it has so many different spaces,” Livingston said. “As deep as you go, you get more isolated from the overhead sounds, but then a motorboat goes by and you hear the waves lapping against the hull. Tony Bevan came over on Friday and played bass saxophone in the engine room, accompanied by compressors pumping hundreds of gallons of oil. Damon Smith did a bass solo on the main deck, accompanied by water skiers and airplanes.”
The ArtShip didn’t start out as the world’s most acoustically complex performance venue. Built in the ’30s as an Art Deco cruise liner, the ship was named the Del Orleans until it was requisitioned by the Navy during World War II and rechristened the USS Crescent City. In 1970 it became a maritime training center and was renamed the Golden Bear. For the past three years it has been moored in Oakland, where the ArtShip Foundation is slowly securing the permits and licenses necessary to host public events, art exhibits, and performances.
On a recent Friday, shakuhachi master Phil Gelb was ensconced below deck in a small room, slowly moving from corner to corner while playing delicate, fluttery passages on his bamboo instrument. At each spot where he paused, the chamber offered a different quality of resonance, which was captured by a DAT deck monitored by Tom Bickley.
“The whole concept of doing this on a warship is awesome,” Gelb said when he was finished. “I love the idea of taking an instrument of destruction and transforming it into a vehicle for creativity.”
Livingston hopes that the recordings will build interest in an eventual live ArtShip performance series, while also drawing attention to the wealth of improvisational talent in the region. The project has certainly piqued the interest of Bay Area musicians. The second set of discs will be released on December 8 at a party on the 9th Avenue pier when the ArtShip dedicates the elevators that will make it handicap accessible.
“I’ve captured the musicians’ imagination,” Livingston said. “The idea of creating the music spontaneously for this odd acoustic environment, using the way the sound bounces against the wall and whatever is there in terms of outside noise, is really stimulating.” For more information on ArtShip Recordings see www.stringsandmachines.com/artshiprecordings or www.artship.org.