Iowa State University visual arts professor finds music in weaving fabric

Olivia Valentine sits at a large wooden loom and weaves fabric while Paula Matthusen sits at right in front of a computer composing music.

Olivia Valentine, left, and Paula Matthusen collaborate during a performance of "Between Systems and Grounds" in Des Moines in March 2019. Photo courtesy of Olivia Valentine. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa – It has to be one of the most unusual choices in musical instruments ever.

For the last few years, Olivia Valentine, an associate professor of art and visual culture at Iowa State University, has collaborated with composer Paula Matthusen to explore the relationships between space, time, music and textiles through an innovative project known as “Between Systems and Grounds.” Valentine’s “instrument” of choice in this groundbreaking collaboration: a weaving loom.

To bring this unusual collaboration to life, the two artists work in the same room or connect virtually. Matthusen creates an electronic soundscape that influences Valentine, who sits at a loom and weaves together intricately designed fabrics. As the fabric grows and takes shape, it inspires the decisions Matthusen makes in creating the audio component of the project. The loom doesn’t make sounds traditionally associated with music, but the complex fabric it produces helps to shape the music, nonetheless, making the loom something akin to a musical instrument.

It’s an experiment that illuminates some of the surprising commonalities between music and textiles and weaves the two disciplines together, Valentine said.

“We consider our two practices of electronic music and textile construction to be disparate in many ways, but we find ways for them to produce feedback with each other,” Valentine said. “We communicate back and forth with the audio and visual output to make a series of interrelated sounds and objects.”

The project has yielded two full-length albums, the most recent of which will be spotlighted during a release party in Des Moines on Sunday, June 18, during Art Week Des Moines.

Valentine and Matthusen, professor of music at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, began collaborating in 2016 in an effort to merge electronic music with textile construction in real time. Valentine practiced a kind of weaving known as bobbin lace, a process first developed during the Renaissance that involves braiding and twisting lengths of thread. In subsequent iterations of the project, Valentine switched to the use of a hand-operated, computer-controlled loom to craft the fabric.

Valentine said weaving fabric can seem “slow and solitary,” but the musical collaboration with Matthusen highlights the artistic merit of the weaving process as the fabric takes shape alongside the musical composition in an ever-evolving feedback loop. The elements of time and repeated patterns unite the music and the textiles, with both components highlighting and elevating the other, Valentine said.

“The loom feels like a musical instrument in many ways,” she said.

Valentine and Matthusen have conducted performances in music venues and art spaces across the United States and internationally. They use audio-responsive software to control hand-woven patterns on the loom, and they developed an original audio synthesis program to aid in the composition of the musical and textile performances.

Valentine said the project encourages the audience to look and listen closely to the audio and visual elements and make connections between the two. Not only does the project produce recordings as a document of their artistic vision, but the fabric acts in a similar way, representing a physical manifestation of the artistic process, she said.

The most recent album, titled “Between Systems and Grounds – the Overshot Sessions,” was recorded remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. The album features five tracks ranging in time from about four minutes to nearly 20 minutes. It will be available digitally as well as on a limited edition 7-inch vinyl album through Carrier Records, a New York-based independent label dedicated to publishing unique and adventurous music.

The album release party takes place June 18 from 2 to 5 p.m. during Art Week Des Moines. Valentine and her collaborators will perform in her studio in the Fitch Building at 304 15th St., and the event is open to the public. The performance also will include saxophonist Ritwik Banerji, an assistant professor of world languages and cultures at Iowa State; as well as composers and performers Warren Enström, and Sam Wells.