Rio Negro II Comes to Libbey Park

Douglas R. Ewart, Douglas Repetto, and George Lewis: 

Rio Negro II (2007), kinetic sound installation

Bamboo, soil, leaves, found materials, electric motors, digital samplers, electronic sounds, software and robotic mechanisms

Bamboo sculptures, rainsticks, chimes:  Douglas R. Ewart
Robotics and software:  Douglas Repetto
Electronic sounds:  George Lewis
Layout: Douglas R. Ewart and Douglas Repetto

The Rio Negro project dates from 1992, when Douglas R. Ewart and George Lewis, with the help of the technological artist Christopher Furman, then a graduate student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (, created the work for a show at Chicago’s now-defunct Randolph Street Gallery.

Rio Negro is centered on the sounds of rainsticks, which are usually seen as small, handheld percussion instruments. As Ewart has remarked, “The reason that I use rainsticks is because I like the idea of something that can be functional and at the same time be esoteric.  There is something life-like about a rainstick.” Ewart’s rainsticks, however, range between four and six feet in length. With their complex blend of sonic and visual aesthetics, which reference the African-descended Jonkonnu performance traditions of his native Jamaica, Ewart’s rainsticks may be considered more as sound sculptures. 

In the original Rio Negro, these sculptures were performed by computerized motors selected and mounted by Furman, controlled by software written by Lewis that also composed and performed electronic music in real time. In Rio Negro II, first shown at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2007, Douglas Repetto designed individualized robotics and microcontrollers for each of the rainsticks, while Ewart crafted giant bamboo chimes that are also mechanically activated and computer controlled by Repetto’s robotics.

The title of the work references the Rio Negro in Brazil, a major tributary of the Amazon river, and the largest black-water river in the world.  Lewis’s sister visited the river basin in the early 1990s, and her piquant description of the environment inspired Ewart and Lewis to settle on the name “Rio Negro” as a way of referencing both indigenous people and notions of blackness. The name also suggests the sounds of rain-forests, and the work’s strategically conceived silences enhance the nature of the work as a space for contemplation.

The assemblage-like layout of the work, designed in site-specific fashion by Ewart and Repetto, includes stones, soil, bamboo, and leaves, all of which evoke aromas along with the visual and sonic aspects. Electronic sounds appear along with the physically generated sounds. The work has never been exhibited outdoors, but its provenance as an evocation of the forest will prove highly compatible with the natural landscape of Libbey Park.