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The Making of a Score

By Hollis Mickey
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Passing through the doors into Armstrong’s studio.

Classical music plays over the speakers. Incense wafts through the air. A portentous black dot painted on the wall seems to vibrate with a mysterious presence. Immediately upon passing through the doors of Maralie Armstrong’s Providence studio, you know you have entered a space of active creation. Potent evidence of making is everywhere.

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Elaborate knotted ropes and bundled bits of furniture pose against the wall, simultaneously potent sculptures and relics of past performances.

Armstrong (RISD MFA 2009, Digital + Media) deftly traverses sculpture, video, performance art, and experimental music, making work independently and performing with Eli V. Manuscript as half of Humanbeast. The musical score Armstrong is currently creating is inspired by the RISD Museum’s collection of Nō robes, garments worn by actors in a form of Japanese theater performed since the 14th century.

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Armstrong discusses her work, highlighting the tension between stillness and movement.

Armstrong researched the history and function of Nō robes through reading, watching, and listening to a range of archival materials. She also visited RISD Museum storage to get an up-close look at objects in the collection. For Armstrong, this deep dive into research led her to consider how to activate the robes in a museum setting. Because the actors’ movements are very slow and calculated in Nō theatre, and because the robes are worn in many heavy layers, these garments have a certain degree of stasis even in performance. For Armstrong, the solution was sound.

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The residue of Armstrong’s practice—nets, wigs, cassette tapes, and costumes—arranged in exacting displays.

Armstrong is in no way attempting to re-create the music of Nō theatre with her score, but rather is taking inspiration from it. Nō’s distinctive, arresting music and vocalizations are non-melodic. Armstrong shared some of this source material during my visit to her studio: the soft sounds of the actors’ feet on the floor; otherworldly chanting; the loud, percussive cracking of drums; an ethereal flute. Harvesting from what she hears, she is generating an entirely new sonic landscape. She intends for her score to invite listeners to a unique experience of the garments on view, invoking tensions between past and present, objects and performance, movement and stillness.

Her score will be available for in-gallery listening via smartphone as of Thursday, June 19th as part of the Museum’s free Design the Night event: Know How. Armstrong will discuss the project in the newly refurbished 6th-floor galleries at 7:30pm. Come that evening with smartphone in hand to get a first listen to her score and learn more about her process.

Hollis Mickey
Assistant Educator, Gallery Interpretation