Sound meets sculpture in ‘Circle of Fifths’, a Handmade collaboration between the Danish audio specialist Bang & Olufsen and the Latvian artist and designer Germans Ermičs. For Ermičs, music is a lifelong passion. ‘I used to play guitar in a band, and I went back to it with this project,’ he says. ‘Before I ever thought of the object form, I was thinking about sound.’ The Amsterdam-based practitioner’s familiarity with Bang & Olufsen helped. ‘I lived in Denmark in 2005, and that’s when I realised what a design leader Bang & Olufsen was,’ he says. ‘They are true craftspeople; their pieces are handmade, almost like sculptures.’

A sculptural aluminium object, ‘Circle of Fifths’ is designed to be caressed. Stroking the undulating circle of polished aluminium elements plays a series of notes, carefully selected to complement one another to form a dynamic aural landscape. One element Ermičs wanted to incorporate was the Danish firm’s ‘magical’ way with technology. ‘I really like products with panels that can be opened by an approaching hand,’ he explains, and the piece’s interactive nature sprang from this desire. ‘I also knew how good Bang & Olufsen are with materials such as anodised aluminium.’ A factory visit, including a tour of the company’s sound laboratories, cemented his high opinion. ‘It really helped me understand how they worked,’ he says. The sonic component was developed in collaboration with Bang & Olufsen’s tonmeister Geoff Martin, the sound engineer responsible for tuning the company’s Beoplay range.

Circle of Fifths sketch by Germans Ermičs and Bang & Olufsen
Circle of Fifths electrical board
 

Top, a sketch showing the elements assembled in undulating form, encouraging the touch that will trigger their sound. Bottom, a board used to test the different electrical components. Photography: Leon Chew.

‘Circle of Fifths’ is an exercise in harmonic synchronisation, an experience which took Martin back to his former career as a teacher of electroacoustic music composition. To create the sculpture’s musical element, he began by sampling a selection of unfinished aluminium Bang & Olufsen products – ‘I played them like cymbals,’ he recalls. The resulting sounds were synthesised and digitally enhanced to create a trio of notes – the root, plus a fifth shifted upwards and a fifth shifted downwards.

Each of the eight curved aluminium sections is linked to an Arduino board, which in turn sends the signal to Bang & Olufsen’s bespoke speaker-tuning software (a program originally developed by IRCAM in Paris). The final trio of notes, each of which is looped and slightly varied in pitch with a touch of delay, is played through an off-the-shelf Beolab 17 speaker. As you move your hand around the circle, the notes change yet stay harmonious. ‘There’s an element of randomness in there, but it’s constrained,’ Martin explains. ‘The idea is that 12 people can play at once without it sounding busy.’ Ermičs agrees. ‘It’s like a musical instrument, but not everything sounds perfect,’ he says.

Elements for the piece, one seen at a raw anodised aluminium stage, far left, and two others with their coloured satin finish. Photography: Leon Chew

The end result is sensual; the sounds it produces are otherworldly, both soothing and slightly dissonant. The seductive experience is enhanced by the undulating curve of the eight elements, each one coloured in shifting hues of satin-finished anodised aluminium. ‘I wanted to create an object you desired to touch,’ says Ermičs. ‘It’s a very experiential piece – you can really sense the shape of the sound. It has allowed me to go deeper into the relationship between the tangible and the intangible.’ Kresten Bjørn Krab-Bjerre, Bang & Olufsen’s creative director of Staged and Flexible Living categories, concurs: ‘Bang & Olufsen exists in the space between art and science, and our engineers are very familiar with giving designers possibilities. We also like to explore how things feel when you touch them; our products have to feel right; forms have to correspond with the way things sound.’

Ermičs is adamant that he’s not a conventional industrial designer. ‘I’m an artist working with spaces and functional pieces,’ he says. ‘I work a lot with colour – especially in glass,’ he continues, ‘and it’s the transition between two and three dimensions that interests me. This project has sound as an indefinable element – it’s about materialising the sound, giving it a physical shape and colour.’ For now, ‘Circle of Fifths’ creates a symbiotic relationship between art, sound, technology and manufacturing perfection. §

As originally featured in the August 2019 issue of Wallpaper* (W*245)