‘The Light We Hear’ Andy Behrle’s inventions transform light into sound

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Some of Andy Behrle’s inventions that enable old record players to create sound from spinning maps of the stars. Shown (top to bottom) are “Astrotone,” “Magnavox Astrum” and “Synthestar.” Photo courtesy of Andy Behrle

The 950 Gallery (formerly the Spaceworks Gallery) is hosting a show of work by Yakima-based artist Andy Behrle. Entitled “The Light We Hear,” the show is simply brilliant — both literally and metaphorically. The various constructions and contraptions that Behrle created for this exhibit are all explorations of the connection between light and sound. You might call Behrle’s inventions photo-sonic machines.

The genesis of the whole endeavor was Behrle’s garage sale purchase of a transparent replica of the rose window (the big, round stained glass window) from Paris, France’s Notre Dame cathedral. The replica was the exact size of a 78-rpm record, which made Behrle ask himself: “What would it sound like if I could play this? What is the sound of light?”

Photo courtesy of Andy Behrle

Despite the fact that he did not possess any particularly advanced technical skills, Behrle embarked on a course of invention and discovery to find the sound of light. The result is a device called “Mystical Rose,” in which the replica of the rose window is set on a vintage turntable. Instead of sound grooves played with a needle, the player is equipped with a device that can scan the colors of the miniature stained glass window and translate each color into a pipe organ tone. Thus, as the gothic disk spins, the player reads the constantly shifting colors and translates them into a series of musical tones that can be listened to via a well-crafted mono-phone that you hold up to your ear.

After that invention, Behrle began to come up with more ideas to explore the connection between light and sound. The exhibit includes several examples of mid-century record players that spin star charts and translate the turning of the stars into percussion tracks or music-box sequences.

“The Gravity of Light” transforms the gallery’s antechamber into a kind of solar temple. Here, images of the sun, transmitted from a NASA satellite, which is in orbit a million miles from the earth, are overlaid with an antiquated, geo-centric diagram of the universe — a diagram made according to the way that medieval thinkers thought the universe was constructed. It was an elegant, geometrical, symmetrical conception of an Earth-centered cosmos.

Photo courtesy of Andy Behrle

One of my favorite of Behrle’s inventions is the “Point n’ Listen,” a vintage box camera that has been retrofitted with sonic apparatus that make it produce sound according to the light level and color that his coming through its lens. It swivels on a tripod so that gallery visitors can point the camera lens this way and that and hear sound produced by the light and color all around.

Some of the works in the gallery show a branch of Behrle’s work that are exploring water as well as light. With “Seasons,” for example, the stained-glass windows from a Christian Science Church are re-done using video footage of the colors and textures of water from rivers and bodies of water in and around Yakima.

“The Light We Hear” transforms the 950 Gallery into a scientific hall of wonders. The inventions are part sculpture, part science exhibit. All of it is beautifully and carefully crafted. 

This is a fascinating exhibit. It is reassuring to see the result of a curious mind at work in the quest to find the answer to a riddle or to solve a problem. Behrle has the heart of an explorer and a keen sense of craftsmanship.

“The Light We Hear” runs through June 21. The 950 Gallery is open every Thursday 1-5 p.m. and third Thursday of each month from 1-9 p.m. You can also view by appointment by calling (253) 627-2175.

For more info on Behrle, visit www.andybehrle.com. For more on the 950 Gallery, visit www.spaceworkstacoma.com/gallery.

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