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Zsanett Szirmay with her work Image Credit:

If cross-stitch embroidery were music, what would it sound like? Zsanett Szirmay, a student at the Design Institute of Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Budapest, has the answer for you. For her Soundweaving experiments, she has transferred folk embroidery patterns on to strips for a punched card box, which plays the traditional motifs as sounds — and the result is nothing less than music to the ears.

Her experiments were showcased in the UAE, first at Dubai’s Tashkeel and more recently at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Modern Art Gallery. “To create the fabric of the future, we cannot only use digital programming. We have to go back to the roots, otherwise everything will fade with time and be lost forever,” says Szirmay.

The installation in Abu Dhabi had rooms full of punched-out paper screens — they appeared like lace curtains hanging from the ceiling and below them were placed the carpets from which the punched out patterns were created. It was a spectacular adaption of Hungarian folk tunes into the fabric of patterns traditional Afghan embroidery.

The concept

Soundweaving is an integrative and experimental project breaking through the boundaries of genres. The concept, originally a half-year assignment undertaken by the artist in 2013, stems from the particular fusion of Hungarian folk embroidery and a special technological contraption — a punched card comb music player. Szirmay transferred the selected embroidery motifs from Transylvanian Bukovina, Kalotaszeg and Hungary on to laser cut textiles, which serve as bands for the music box. This transforms the cross-stitch patterns into melodies.

An inspiration can strike you any time, all you need is an artist’s heart. “The first time I visited the Middle East was last year during the Dubai Design Week. It is an enchanting place with rich visual symbols, which you can use almost endlessly. By studying Afghan rugs, I had the chance to delve into an oriental world, to be part of it somehow,” says the artist.

Soundweaving brings together two cultures and their creative practices of weaving, textiles, music composition and graphic design. It adds another dimension to traditional embroidery, activating multiple senses and inspiring visitors to interact since anybody can visit the exhibitions and try it for themselves.

In the Abu Dhabi edition, she took the patterns in rugs created by Afghan women and turned them into music compositions by using little wind-up music boxes — also designed by the artist. The punched cards reflected the rug motifs, wanting us to believe that everything that has order has music.

Szirmay believes that the role of contemporary art is to make us more sensitised towards matters of the world. “It teaches us to see. It moves our senses, and helps us to understand the deep questions of our existence,” she says.

“When I was working at a weave workshop, I was extremely fascinated by the punched cards and their use in weaving machines. I recalled that barrel organs with punched tapes in my childhood worked on the same principle. I used to do folk dance and wore traditional Hungarian embroidered clothes for that. Contemplating about that and taking it a step further, I was curious what cross-stitch patterns might sound like. You may look at cross-stitching as a pattern of pixels. I assigned one cross-stitch to one note on the score. In this case, the punched tape acts as the score. I punched the patterns from traditional folk costume bodices or ends of pillows manually.”

Hugely influenced by the work of Hungarian composer and philosopher Zoltán Kodály, Szirmay says, “The sound ‘do’ [syllable] is relative, I took the liberty to decide by the sound where the tonic [the first scale degree of a scale] is placed and where I start the perforations for the pattern from. As part of the transformation, embroidery patterns turned into laser cut textile pieces, and cross-stitch patterns into melodies.

The collection also features layered textiles that refer to the layered character of the sound editing software where individual melodies are displayed in layers. You can also set the time interval in the software, and if you offset them from each other, then you have phasing, or canon. The canon motif also appears in the offset laser-cut layered textile.”

Textile design

The principles of composition are similar to textile design, because you call the basis motif in both disciplines. Both areas use the prime form, inversion, retrograde and retrograde inversion.

“I played with these transformations for creating the punched cards with the help of musician and composer Bálint Tárkány-Kovács as co-producer. When I started to get immersed in embroidery patterns, I noticed that other peoples’ pattern stock also includes similar geometric motifs and the pattern has much more to it than just focusing on a specific culture. The music box is available in the market as a toy, you can order it on the internet. Our choice consists of 20 tones,” says the artist.

The resonating structure, the pedestal, was designed by the architects of Budapest-based Sporaarchitects. “The latticework and hollowness of the pedestal amplify the vibration of the sounds, so basically this is the sound cabinet, while it also enables the tapes to be played in loop,” says Szirmay.

Unique response

Soundweaving was first showcased at the Vienna Design Week in 2014. It debuted at Schwarzenberg Palace as an exhibition of Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in the framework of the guest country programmes of Hungary.

“The visitors at the Vienna Design Week were very open to the project. They instantly grabbed the point of it, began playing music on the exhibition pieces and wandered in the white textile forest as if it was enchanted. I believe interactive works help you get closer to people. At the same time, the beauty of textile panels has a deep impression on visitors,” says Szirmay.

In Dubai

As part of Dubai Design Week, Tashkeel collaborated with Hybridart to present the interdisciplinary, experimental and interactive Soundweaving project produced at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design Budapest in Hungary.

In 2015 the Soundweaving exhibition went on a very successful European tour in Germany, Poland and Bulgaria in the Post Digital Festival at One Design Week.

Soundweaving’s Middle East edition at Tashkeel in Dubai and later at Etihad Modern Art Gallery Abu Dhabi replaces the Hungarian embroidery patterns with those taken from rugs created by Afghan women artisans who work under the Fatima Bint Mohammad Bin Zayed Initiative (FBMI). “The knotted rug motifs were transformed into sounds by a punch card comb music player, with the pattern of holes on the tape in the musical box designed by me. The punched tape acts as the score and conversely, the patterns on the rugs are turned into laser-cut textile pieces,” says Szirmay.

Hungarian composer Dániel Vikukel worked with the graphic patterns of the rugs to map and develop patterns of sounds that culminate in the Soundweaving tunes.

Textile of the future

In June, the artist plans to exhibit in Ulm (Germany) and then in Los Angeles later this year.

“My aim with the exhibition is to bring the two cultures closer together. Even though I don’t speak the language, I’m trying to communicate visually, with a project that stimulates more senses than one,” says the artist.

Besides making art, Szirmay works as project manager in an art gallery in Budapest. She has found a place for herself by being an artist-entrepreneur. “I also organise my own exhibitions and promote my art. My upcoming exhibition will be in the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest, which is part of a scholarship programme I have won previously. At the moment, I’m working on a type of fabric that reacts to the human touch and emits a sound, using computer programming. My research topic is textile of the future”.

Every child is an artist

Szirmay believes that childhood plays a big role in shaping one’s future. “I loved drawing as a child. I was 8 years old when I said I wanted to be an artist. After college, I worked hard to be able to go to the applied arts university. Even though I often felt discouraged in the face of challenges, when I saw that I could overcome them with hard work, I was reassured that I made the right choice and I’m in the right place.”

She has a very practical advise to budding artists. “To young artists, I would say never to give up on your dreams, because it might cost you your happiness. Even if this profession won’t make you rich, it is worth it. A job on the side won’t hurt, though.”

The artist’s work is popular in several events in the Middle East and Europe, as well. In Milan, her work was selected as one of the 100 most progressive works. BBC radio played Soundweaving melodies. It was also included in the Hungarian Design Yearbook last year. The artist regularly participates as a speaker at international conferences.

Archana R.D. aka B’lu is an artist-journalist based in the UAE who writes on global art and culture.