'Sonic Blanket,' a Yearlong Multimedia Installation in Brattleboro Combines Sound, Poetry, Art and Community | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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'Sonic Blanket,' a Yearlong Multimedia Installation in Brattleboro Combines Sound, Poetry, Art and Community


From left: Jonathan Gitelson, Diana Whitney and Weston Olencki - DAVID SHAW
  • David Shaw
  • From left: Jonathan Gitelson, Diana Whitney and Weston Olencki

At the stroke of midnight early on Sunday, December 19, beneath the full moon, an invisible force field of sorts will cover Brattleboro. While denizens of the small, artsy city in southern Vermont won't be able to see this force field, they will be able to hear it — provided they're awake and near an FM radio.

A unique new transmission called "Sonic Blanket" will, for the first time, emanate from the tower at WVEW 107.7 FM Brattleboro Community Radio, bathing the city in an aura of sound and poetry intended to ward off bad spirits — at least for 15 minutes, anyway. It will rebroadcast every night at midnight for one year.

"The idea is protection and comfort," explained Brattleboro's Jonathan Gitelson.

He's a professor of art and design at Keene State College in nearby Keene, N.H., and the original architect of "Sonic Blanket," a collaborative multimedia installation combining music, field recordings, poetry and visual art. The nightly WVEW broadcast is the project's centerpiece, featuring a poem by Brattleboro poet Diana Whitney read aloud by community members and set to music by Brattleboro composer and sound artist Weston Olencki.

But the radio piece, which is the same every night, is just one metaphorical square in the quilt that is "Sonic Blanket." The endeavor includes a year of related programming supported by grants from the Vermont Arts Council and Keene State.

In addition to the radio broadcast, the project kicks off this week with posterlike visual artworks created by Gitelson running on full-page spreads in both the Brattleboro Reformer and the Commons newspapers. All year long, monthly midnight listening parties will be held at Epsilon Spires, a Brattleboro performance and exhibition space in the town's former First Baptist Church. The Vermont Center for Photography will host an exhibition of related artworks currently still in development. And listeners will be invited to post their own images and thoughts on social media. Other yet-to-be-determined programming is expected to evolve between now and December 2022.

"For me, it's a new way of creating art," Gitelson explained.

At its core, "Sonic Blanket" is public art that reflects the resilience and interconnectedness of the Brattleboro community during a time of isolation and trauma due to the pandemic. The seeds that sprouted the project's many branches were planted in the early days of lockdown.

Shortly after the pandemic struck Vermont in March 2020, Gitelson sought solace the way many did in those uncertain first weeks: He took walks. While wandering in the cold, he was moved by the contrast between warm, yellow light spilling from house windows and the dark, lonely streets.

"You could see that everybody was home, and everybody was cut off," Gitelson recalled. "It was just pure fear."

As he pondered the isolation, the visual artist was reminded of a previous passion: radio. Gitelson was once a board member and DJ at WVEW.

"The thing I was always drawn to about radio is the idea of radio waves," he explained. "That there's this thing above us, like a force field, a barrier that's gonna protect us from this outside thing, which is the pandemic."

That idea of radio waves as a protective barrier became the framework for the project — specifically, WVEW's 10-mile broadcast radius. All three artists involved live within range of the station, and all of the programming will occur within that bubble, as well. In fact, the bubble itself will be part of the installation. Early in the project, Gitelson drove every road out of Brattleboro to find out where WVEW's signal ended. He plans to put up signs letting people know when they are entering and exiting cover of the blanket.

"It quickly became clear that it was a project about the idea of localness and about place and about site-specific creation," Gitelson said.

"Sonic Blanket" is also intimately rooted in changing seasons. Whitney's poem cycles through winter ("Winter night, cloud cover / low pressure, no light"), spring ("Remember sunlight, remember"), summer ("The loon opens her throat / and wails into the heat wave"), fall ("the trees turn crimson, letting go") and winter again ("a quilt of snow feathers / perpetually falling").

Whitney said her poem "reflected the going inward that happens in the dark season," along with "the resilience that we need" to weather the changing seasons in Vermont.

"There have been seasons of the pandemic," Whitney said, "and I think this project reflects that, too."

Composed largely of field recordings taken in and around Brattleboro, Olencki's composition tonally follows Whitney's poem through those meteorological and metaphorical seasons, from the rippling of Whetstone Brook and the Connecticut River to the bells of the First Baptist Church to Abenaki drums, rattles and rain sticks.

"I really like to work with the sounds of the world around me, rather than sounds or musical ideas from my own head," Olencki explained by email. "Throughout making the piece I imagined what this land might have heard throughout the centuries — a kind of 'tuning' of a geographical space, one that remembers and holds histories of who and what have lived upon it."

As for those currently living in Brattleboro, Whitney said she hopes that, through the project, her neighbors experience "the power of the imagination to connect us."

They might also discover a new appreciation for their hometown, as did Gitelson.

"I've lived here going on 12 years, most of that looking outward," he said. "But there is something special about here, which I hope other people feel."

Though he's a relative newcomer, having moved to town during the pandemic, Olencki seems to have gained similar perspective.

"As I've grown older, I've come to really believe that everything is interconnected through geography and temporality," Olencki wrote. "Every place is a center in and of itself."

"Sonic Blanket" debuts at midnight, early on Sunday, December 19, on WVEW 107.7 FM Brattleboro Community Radio. Learn more at sonicblanket.org.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Blanket Statement"

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