Rosemary and Harry Mountain


Rosemary Mountain (b. 1954, Montreal, Canada) began playing music at a very early age, but her creative output was initially in the plastic arts. In 1975 she enrolled in NSCAD [Nova Scotia College of Art and Design], but soon after meeting Harry Mountain she was persuaded by him to focus on music, and completed a BMus. at the University of Western Ontario (Theory & Composition) in 1980. After a short break from university she enrolled as a graduate at the University of Victoria, completing an MMus (Composition) with Rudolf Komorous in 1986 and a PhD (Music Theory) in 1993. Her dissertation was on rhythmic theory, and referred to issues of temporal and rhythmic perception as well as 20th-century musical works.  She was a full-time faculty in music at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, from 1994-99, and since then has been at Concordia University in Montreal. In both Aveiro and Montreal she worked in administrative as well as teaching roles, and helped develop the inter-university research institute Hexagram.

Harry Mountain received his early enticements for creativity from his father and a family friend who was a painter.  He began his formal training in sculpture at  NSCAD [Nova Scotia College of Art & Design] (1969-74).  He found this an exhilarating experience and threw himself whole-heartedly into making and thinking about art. Shortly after graduation, he met Rosemary Smith and began developing his career as a sculptor, moving to London Ontario where he worked as the sculpture technician at the university.  An urge to engage in deeper research led him to enrol in an MFA in Sculpture at Calgary, where he uncovered new materials and methods for making art inspired by the local geography, but became disillusioned with the programme and withdrew after 18 months.  Although he continued to make sculpture, he focussed increasingly on a self-directed research into the ancient Celts – a research that has already produced an extensive encyclopedia and is now inspiring several artworks and collaborations as well as the development of a lecture series. Harry is also developing a new series that reflect his research into symbols, updating his Wind Dancers series with micro-sensors, as well as continuing his involvement with the IMP, which he helped design and develop.

The following interview was developed through an email exchange between Rosemary and Harry Mountain and Ricardo Dal Farra on August and September, 2008.

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What is the Interactive Multimedia Playroom?

Rosemary: It's difficult to describe, because although it looks like an installation and functions as such in broad-minded art galleries, it is more than an artwork. In fact, it began as a tool for music and multimedia analysis, but as far as I know, no other analytical tool demands 3-dimensional space. It has leanings towards being a resource centre.

Harry: That is, it will become a resource centre as it morphs by adding information from different experiments, and each clone will lead to new and different areas of exploration.

R: One of our collaborators calls it a platform, and I think this is probably apt; I have often called it "a flexible environment." But whatever it is labelled, it is designed to encourage people to reflect on the various components of multimedia art - sound, image, lighting, movement - and to help researchers investigate (and invent, when necessary) terminology and classification strategies.

How is the IMP related to your Multimedia Thesaurus project?

H: The IMP is the vehicle that houses the Multimedia Thesaurus.

R: Yes - the Multimedia Thesaurus was invented first.  It is a tool that presents users with a 3-D framework and specific banks of sounds and images to be “sorted” according to their salient characteristics.  Our current framework consists of a large wooden frame attached to the ceiling, with plastic chains suspended almost to the floor in a 5x5 (or 7x7) grid with just enough room to walk between rows.  The X, Y, and Z axes of the grid are assigned labels which can relate to mood (e.g. happy / sad), sound-image relationships (e.g. synchronous / asynchronous), parameters (e.g. bright / dark), or any other descriptive words (e.g. brittle / supple).  Handheld wooden objects are linked by barcodes to short clips of sound or image (still or moving).  Participants scan the barcodes with a wireless scanner, and then hang the clip on the grid according to their ideas of how it matches the labels.  When a sound and an image clip make an interesting combination, they can be paired.  The user can also "sort" the clips in other ways, such as into different bins with verbal or graphic labels.
The Playroom was then designed to "house" the Thesaurus, and give it some context.  It includes a library of relevant books, journals, and media resources, placed in a corner with comfortable chairs, so that interested participants can find out more about the status of multimedia perception and analysis.  We are also assembling a database so that visitors can add their own recommendations. The IMP also has video cameras, so that people can record their reaction to sounds by using movements, if they prefer. Similarly, we were happy to receive the donation of a SmartBoard, which enables people to draw their impressions and then if they wish save the file as a video which retraces the drawing with its original timing. We place simple sound-producing objects - bells, wooden sticks, drums, ocarinas, etc. - in the room as well, so that when people start trying to describe sounds, they have access to means for illustration. Other elements we want to incorporate include a "Manipulator" which would permit the alteration of a clip by physical action like stretching the time-fame of a sound by pulling apart on a spring. I also would like to incorporate two or more swings, if we could find the right space, as this can provide a wonderful illustration of polyrhythm; we have already suggested this with rocking chairs.
The Playroom is designed to be a place that many people can enjoy, and we have already seen that conversations about sound and sound-image relationships arise very naturally in such an environment. The set-up means that it is relatively easy to design little experiments, and it can really help when two or more artists wish to collaborate, as they will quickly come to appreciate each other's opinions and descriptions. It brings to the surface many ideas about the intangible effects of sound which usually stay in our Sciencefiction.

Rosemary: Did your interdisciplinary background influence other works too?

R: I worked with collaborators more frequently in the 1980s, though I am starting to get back into it.  When I was an undergraduate in music, I had already taken some courses in art and continued to do so, and perhaps because of that I was approached by people in different media asking me to collaborate: with dance, theatre, installations, etc.  I continued until my more academic graduate studies finally overwhelmed me!  But even when not active in collaborations, I have let other artforms influence my own work and my teaching; I enjoy trying to "translate" ideas from one field to another, and to stress to my students how many artists throughout history were deeply in touch with creative work in other disciplines.  Of course, living with a sculptor makes interdisciplinarity a daily phenomenon....

Harry: How does your interest in different cultures and their traditional art connect with your own practice as a sculptor and your collaborations with new technology-based projects?

H: My formal training as an artist at NSCAD [Nova Scotia College of Art & Design] gave me a comfort zone with minimalism, process art of the 60's, etc. and a preference for non-figurative art; further research led me backward to Russian constructivism. Another research strand in Western art from Brancusi to Gilbert & George brought me back into figurative sculpture. My research into the Celts was initially only for some simple geometric design for a minimal sculpture I wanted to decorate.  After a number of years on that research, I began a series called Gods, Heroes, and Warriors. This has since been supplemented by my further research into Eastern and Indian mythologies. The concept was to make mere shadows of the subject: i.e. silhouette cut-outs, painted black. One side is the shadow of the material being, while the other side has the symbols which connects it to the ethereal world.  It is a bit like the Blue Willow pottery I collect, with its double stories: one to mislead the conquerors and the other to preserve their religions beliefs or secret knowledge.
The connection between my artwork and the new technology is a slow and reluctant process.  A meeting with Max Mathews, talks with Garth Paine, attendance at EMS [Electroacoustic Music studies] conferences and my discovery of NIME [New Interfaces for Musical Expression] have excited my interest, but as yet my new artworks are mainly oil paintings of ancient symbols; my main collaboration with new technology and art has been through my involvement with the Playroom and the MMT [Multimedia Thesaurus]. I am mentally planning an update of an old series of kinetic sculptures called Windancers by adding sensors to record their different movements, but have not had the time to devote to its realization. On the other hand, I find it easier to incorporate new technology into my Celtic research; at present I an working on a "hyperactive map" to be the visual platform for teaching the different stories of the ancient diaspora of the Celtic people. The mapping exercise will allow me to take note of the  different cultural areas they passed through and what innovative techniques they were exposed to along the way: pottery wheel, three-piece mold, religious concepts, musical instruments, architecture, etc.

Rosemary and Harry: What is art research for you?

R: A good question!  It still sounds like a contrived term, but research has been a major part of our lives and always a normal part of art-making. For me, art is one way of expressing things which I discover through research, so it's actually often the exploration that is the dominant activity. And I think we both get involved in each other's research: Harry took courses in geomorphology so that he would better understand earthworks, and it influenced his thinking about his works like the Outwash and Meltdown series, but it also helped me in a small way by giving me metaphors for subsequent compositions like Subterranean and Underground Streams. And then his curiosity about the Celts, which was a 20-year project resulting in The Celtic Encyclopedia, is a pretty clear example of being subsumed by research - we think the term "extreme research" is an appropriate description for our approach! But as I come from an academic background, I had a tendency to associate research with books, and therefore my musicological work, whereas composition seemed like play, so the Playroom has been a good exercise of merging those two - though I believe that the funding agencies still have some difficulty with it for that reason.

H: What is art research to me? Well, I'm more of a lateral thinker and prefer to do multiple searches on subjects that seem to have little connection to each other; more often than not, information gleaned from one subject is often used where one wouldn't expect it to be used. Understanding the geomorphology formula "forms made by processes acting on materials over a period of time" allowed me to realistically add the element of time to my art. The study of symbols has allowed me to connect art objects to concepts by using them as triggers to unleash more information, similar to footnotes.  Researching into the art of the Bronze Age demonstrated to me that every detail had a purpose or a point of view: even the number of spokes on a wheel was significant.

… and about the future, what do you imagine the IMP will be in 10 years?

R: I have a mental image of a Playroom installation that occupies a whole building, with corridors lined with hundreds of little drawers, shelves, etc. to allow for multiple sorting options. And lots of different architectural spaces - old-fashioned oak-trimmed boxes in one area, modern materials in another - because I believe that these would all have an influence on our choices. Of course, all of this will be easier as we find more financial support for development. But as we love to travel - not just Harry & I but also our core research assistants - we are quite open to negotiation for interesting proposals of any dimension. We would love to see installations of the IMP in many places worldwide (universities, art schools, film studios, museums, foundations, etc.), with the option for each one to be connected to the others, through sensors and the internet; we are already working on this and there is considerable interest. Each installation would naturally have its own character, depending on the precise space, materials used, etc. and mainly because of the social and cultural context. So it would be an ideal way to allow researchers to discover the different reactions to identical digital files, and to begin having a good sense of which associations are really "universal', and which are the result of specific training or cultural traditions. Also, as one of the main motivations for the Thesaurus was to come up with some acceptable terminology and strategies for describing sounds and sound-image combinations, such an international network would be very helpful.
Lately, as we watch the reactions of the various people who have into our installations, we have realized that the project's flexibility means that it can be adapted to many different disciplines: applied human sciences & teambuilding; education; communication studies; market analysis; etc. Therefore, the whole structure can provide a kind of common denominator between quite disparate fields; and thus help people understand disciplines which are distant from their own, through analogy.  This all sounds rather farfetched, but once you have seen several people involved in the Playroom, you realize how unique it is. And as it is enjoyable, people end up being more involved in research than they would normally - it doesn't feel like "work".

H: So, not only is the Multimedia Thesaurus a great tool for gathering and processing information, it is also a networking system which can join together many researchers and their work, allowing a type of research that was not possible before.