Partial view of the video installation Tempo, 2015, by María Elena González
Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Modern

On a snowy night last week, María Elena González: Tempo opened at Hirschl & Adler Modern Gallery in midtown Manhattan. The day before, González took a break from installing to talk about the show, and how she came to make music from trees.

What’s the concept behind the exhibition?

The title of the show is Tempo—keeping time in music. Music has been part of my work for a very long time, sometimes in very subtle ways. Not that sound emanates from these works. Recently, they have been musical compositions that I started working on a little over ten years ago.

I consider the compositions as sculpture. The music itself is time-based, it’s spatial—it’s a non-object sculpture.

It started here. [Gestures to the video installation, Tempo, seen above.] Not with this piece, but at this spot. I was on the faculty at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture [in Maine] in 2005. This is where I would sit in the mornings with my café con leche.

The property is filled with birch trees, and in the mornings I would spend close to an hour with my café con leche. I couldn’t help noticing the similarity between the vertical birch tree and a piano roll. The same striation, it seemed to me, visually.

The idea was, What would the tree sound like? So I embarked—no pun intended—on this project of peeling the bark off a fallen birch, bringing it back to my studio and figuring out how those markings were going to be translated so that I could cut a player-piano roll and hear it on a pianola.

María Elena González in front of T2 #2 1-55, 2015
Photo: Cuban Art News

This is T #2. This rubbing was taken directly from the bark of the tree. This is the whole tree in its entirety, about 40 feet long.

A close view of T2 #2 1-55, 2015. At left, rubbings of tree markings; at right, their translation into markings for a player-piano roll
Photo: Cuban Art News

You see the marks? Those are the marks on the tree. In a further part of the process [seen at right in the image above], they get isolated, and this is the [template] file that is used to cut the [piano-roll] paper.

I end up with a player-piano roll. This one in particular is about 90 feet long. Depending on the tempo that the music is played, you end up with anywhere from 18 to 22 minutes [of music].

María Elena González, Turn I, 2016
Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Modern

I love making objects. After T #1, I began thinking about bringing the bark back to the cylinder. Turn I is such a piece. And there’s Turn II over here, which is another [example] of bringing the bark back to the cylinder.

So this is bark that has…

No, it’s wiggle wood that’s been laser cut with my files from the birch bark. The wiggle wood is probably some sort of a mahogany.

It’s really called wiggle wood?

Different people call it different things—wacky wood, wiggle wood. It’s very thin plywood that is meant to bend. So you can make a column with it, which I did.

One more thing about Turn I. The tree has certain rings, but to me the top of sculpture is more about an LP [vinyl record]—about the relationship to music and the LP as much as it is to the rings of a tree.

María Elena González, Chromatic Scale (Xylophone), 2017
Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Modern

I was also working on this piece, which is called Chromatic Scale (Xylophone). Visually, it is a chromatic scale—it goes from white to black, with these shades of gray in between. But acoustically, a chromatic scale is how you tune an instrument—A flat, et cetera.

These are made of hydrocal and durocal. The white one is hydrocal, and the rest is rockite. It’s cement based, but it’s like this stone, and depending on how you hold it, you can really hear it.

The steel rack is lined in the red felt that’s used in pianos, where the hammers strike.

María Elena González, Clave, 2017
Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Modern

This is called Clave. You know, with Cuban music, you have the one two three, one two—you have the cylinder. One reason I picked these materials to work with is that they have a sonorous, acoustic sound to them when you put them together—almost like glass. They really resonate.

The Xylophone and the Clave are casts of a piano roll. See the cuts? And that’s the tab that latches onto the player piano, so that it unrolls.

María Elena González, Vitrine (Capsule), 2017
Photo: Cuban Art News

Coming to the Vitrine (Capsule)—I had the opportunity to work with porcelain. I had made sculptures of the piano roll, and now I was making porcelains of the piano roll.

I started wanting to get paper-thinness. Because the player piano paper is a very special paper. It almost looks like baking paper, a little bit translucent. When it gets old, it’s brittle.

I got into the qualities of porcelain, the thinness of it. Here, I even included the tab of the piano roll.

María Elena González, detail of works in Vitrine (Capsule), 2017
Photo: Cuban Art News

Again, the cylinder is the recurring formal element. The cylinder of the tree, the cylinder of the piano roll. The motion of the piano roll—when you play it, it comes this way, and then it re-rolls the other way. There’s this cylindrical back and forth. It’s probably the most consistent and present form throughout.

What about these pieces?

These are the excess, when I was rolling out the porcelain to get it thin. I just got into the qualities of the material. I would cut the sides and keep rolling it. This was the debris that was left over. I started making these forms with the remnants.

I started liking what was happening, so I started making bigger remnants that I could work with. These have the scraping, the bunching up—like the movement of the paper. Because if you let the paper come down, you end up with something like that.

María Elena González, detail of a work in Vitrine (Capsule), 2017
Photo: Cuban Art News

As much as the work and the whole exhibition is about sound, it’s a pretty silent exhibition. Except for the video. It does have sound. [Walks into video room.] Do you know the song of the loon? You’ll hear it soon. You hear faint sounds of wind, and maybe a door slam. My cabin is right behind the chairs.

You use real, miniature chairs to cast the shadow on the screen. Why?

Because it’s more of a memory than actualizing a scenario. Also, I like this projection through the chairs, and that the chairs become a screen in and of themselves.

Installation view of María Elena González, Tempo, 2015
Photo: Cuban Art News

The chairs are also made of birch from the area. I milled the lumber and cut it to the stock that I needed and made the chairs out of them.

I’ve worked a lot with the idea of memory and how your brain works.

I remember, years ago, you did an outdoor sculpture of a plan of your apartment in Havana.

The outdoor sculpture was actually from floor plans for public housing. But I did do an installation at the Ludwig Foundation in Havana, which we later did at the Bronx Museum, called Mnemonic Architecture. That’s the floor plan of the house I grew up in, from memory.

When I went back to Cuba to visit, it was completely different. It was longer and narrower. I think I made it squatter and wider.

Your memory flips things around. The material that I used for that installation was reflective glass beads. And with that material, you don’t see the floor plan all at once. You see it when you get in a certain line with the light behind it. Only certain parts are seen at one time.

[The loon is heard on the video.]

Like, when you’re trying to remember something, you remember this part, you remember that part. Some areas are sharper than others. And that material behaves in the way that I think memory behaves. Even the color of the wall had to be a particular yellow, because for some reason, to me it’s the color of time. I don’t think you can give time a color, but… that’s what it was.

María Elena González: Tempo runs through March 18 at Hirschl & Adler Modern Gallery in New York City.