Sennheiser sends a fierce “Sound Panzer” and headphones-with-a-halo to Art Basel Miami
You likely don’t realize it, but when you’re watching sports on television or listening to music, much of what you’re hearing was captured by Sennheiser microphones. The 70-year-old, Hannover, Germany-based company was nearly as invisible but just as effective when it sponsored an exceptionally striking example of “sound art” at the recent Art Basil Miami, where they were the event’s sole audio sponsor.
There, as part of the company’s Future Audio Artists Program, they backed sculptor and sound artist Nik Nowak, a Berliner who combined brash sound and kinetic form in his “Sound Panzer”: a performance piece that uses Italian-made Eighteen Sound speakers and JBL tweeters powered by 8,000 watts as armament atop a compact but hefty (nearly two tons) Japanese front-end loader whose treads and faux armor evoke the fearsome Wehrmacht WWII battle tank.
Those speakers readied it for combat with another vehicle — a 1980’s-era Dodge Windstar van, also loaded with speakers and subwoofers, that sat across the outdoor dance floor of Gramp’s, a club in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood that’s become the locus of the city’s art scene. The van was the weapon of choice for Jamaican-born Bass-music legend Neil Case (aka Bass Mekanik), one of the foremost practitioners of Kingston’s “car clash” auto-sound competitions, where winners are determined by firepower measured in low-frequency SPL, which is often loud enough to bruise internal organs of those who venture too close. The night before Art Basel opened in Miami, Nowak and Case went at it with everything they had, rattling the tin roof of Gramp’s and letting the world know in no uncertain terms that sound as a fine art has arrived.
Novak is tall, lanky, bearded and everything you’d expect if you called Central Casting for a sensitive-yet-assertive creative type. He credits the Fluxus movement, described by Dutch critic Harry Ruhé as “the most radical and experimental art movement of the sixties,” as an inspiration.
Not surprisingly, Novak sees “Sound Panzer” as provocative piece, intended to stimulate a frisson comprising both trepidation and fascination. “Music can be weaponized,” he says, as anyone on the wrong end of a CIA interrogation might attest, but it also serves as catalyst, he adds, “to make people think and bring them together.”
The other treasure that Sennheiser brought to Art Basel in Miami was smaller but no less exceptional. To call the HE1 a headphone is to call the Fife Tiara a headband. It’s a dazzling confection of luscious materials (the case that holds the coils of its 99.9-percent silver-plated copper cables is made of a choice of three colors of vein-cut marble from Carrera, in Tuscany) and comes with an artist’s sense of theater: upon lifting the HE-1’s case lid, its six vacuum- power tubes rise slowly and dramatically, a mini-performance taking exactly the 20 seconds they need to warm up. The 6,000 individual parts that make up the headphones have been put together with horological finesse. Sonically, they’re magnificent, covering an ultra-wide frequency range of between 8 Hz and 100 kHz — “It would take a bat and an elephant together to perceive the extremes of this spectrum,” the HE1’s documentation informs us — and using gold-vaporized ceramic transducers to guarantee exceptional electrical and acoustic performance. Leather and velour ear pads fit like gloves. Each control dial is made from a single piece of brass beneath a layer of chrome.
At about $55,000 the HE1 wouldn’t have felt out of place on the show floor of Art Basel. “It’s designed to look as beautiful as it sounds,” says Daniel Sennheiser, who with his brother, Dr. Andreas Sennheiser, are co-CEOs of the company founded by their grandfather, Fritz Sennheiser, in 1945. Bringing sound to art engages the senses in way that visual art alone cannot: “You can always close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears,” he likes to point out. “Sound creates a direct connection to the limbic system. Audio in art represents a direct connection to emotions.”
You may get to see and hear Nik Novak’s artistic assaults someday, but Sennheiser’s HE1 is more readily available, and at a price commensurate with the work of art it is.