About the piece
In 1955, Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was appointed Director of the National Library at the same time he was losing his sight completely. In his “Poem of the Gifts”, he reflects on themagnificent irony of being given at once “the books and the night”. Nicolás Varchausky´s La Biblioteca Ciega (the Blind Library) is a site-specific sound art performance composed for the very reading room of the library where Borges stood sightless surrounded by books.
The piece uses a series of custom made instruments that turn light into sound. Mechatronic optical turntables, sonic backlights and bars of light were designed and built by the artist and then played by members of the Banda Sinfónica de Ciegos, an orchestra of blind musicians.
The bars of light turn on and off in chaotic patterns controlled by the performer, generating complex waveforms.
The turntables use a belt and pulley system activated by a hand crank that gets an acrylic disc to spin. Each of the discs has a different sound wave form carved out by a laser cutter. The performer plays the disc by spinning it and bringing a small flashlight closer to the perforated groove. Underneath it, a light sensor reads the fluctuations of light as it passes through the cutouts. An electronic circuit takes these fluctuations and turns them into voltage differences, in other words, into an analog sound signal.
A computer transforms these analog signals in real time using the SuperCollider software and spatializes them through an 8-channel Ambisonic array that surrounds the audience, creating an immersive sonic experience.
What the audience hears is the interaction of the waveform on the disc, the digital processes and the actions of the performers, who can modify dynamic envelope and duration, as well as volume by moving the light closer or farther from the disc, and pitch by spinning the disc faster or slower.
The backlights produce sound in a similar way, but the waveform cutouts are linear and performers manipulate sensors instead of lights.
By experimenting with alternative methods of sound inscription, La Biblioteca Ciega becomes a sonic speculation on reading and writing.
In Borges’s darkened library, blind musicians read to us a passage written in light and shadow, a language that can only be heard through the interaction between humans and machines.