Grace notes from the underground

MIT students restoring ingenious, outlandish Kendall T stop sound sculpture

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 9, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

CAMBRIDGE — Seth Parker stepped off the subway at Kendall Square, pausing amid the rumble and hiss of the departing train.

He was on his way to meet old friends for lunch, but that could wait for the joy of the bells. As people moved about him on the platform, Parker reached for a polished handle on the grime-flecked wall. He gave it a tug, but felt none of the familiar resistance.

The connection was broken. Across the tracks, the bells were still and silent.

In better days, Parker knew, the sculpture that spans the station had made music: resonant, harmonious, even rumbling music, capable of bringing strangers together across the tracks and making people wish, for once, that the trains might arrive just a little slower.

But the massive, carefully tuned elements that hang between the inbound and outbound tracks and comprise the Kendall Band — “Pythagoras,’’ a row of pendulous, pipe-like bells and mallets; “Kepler,’’ a hammer and a ring big enough for a dolphin to leap through; and “Galileo,’’ a metal sheet the size of a barn door — have been quieted by disrepair.

The elegant network of rods, cables, and gears linking the sculptural elements to levers on the subway platforms has eroded, and sculptor Paul Matisse, Henri’s 77-year-old grandson, no longer has the time and energy to maintain the work.

Others had lamented the loss of the music, but it was Parker, a 57-year-old energy consultant, who got the right people to pay attention. Last summer, he started making calls, to the MBTA, to MIT, to anyone he could think of who might be able to help.

His pleas reached the ears of a sympathetic music administrator at MIT, who alerted a materials science instructor at the university, and together they assembled a group of students intrigued by the challenge. Now the Kendall Band Preservation Society, as members dubbed themselves, has begun to dismantle the sculpture, haul its parts to MIT’s Rapid Fabrication Laboratory, and painstakingly repair a beloved sound sculpture that has been broken for so long most of today’s students have never heard its music swell in the station or rise faintly above ground.

Parker, a Newton resident who passes through Kendall Square from time to time, has receded into the background.

“Basically, I got the ball rolling, but I haven’t had to do anything since, other than get the occasional e-mail,’’ he said, sounding sheepish about his role in the restoration.

But his initial calls were like pulling a lever on the Kendall Band, when it works: a little effort, carefully timed, can have a powerful effect.

Moving parts
Paul Matisse has been labeled an artist, an inventor, and an engineer, but he is uncomfortable with titles. He has an unhurried way of speaking, a bohemian air, and a boyish sense of wonder.

“This business of making things is the heart of it,’’ he said, between sips of pomegranate juice, at a table fashioned from the baptismal font of the restored church in Groton where he lives and works. “My greatest interest is in life itself, and working that out properly, and keeping the window open for the ideas that are inside.’’

Matisse is not only a grandson of Henri Matisse, but a stepson of Marcel Duchamp. If his works echo theirs, it is in their playfulness, Henri Matisse’s love of color and fluidity, and Duchamp’s freedom from the past.

Paul Matisse is twice a dropout of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he studied to be an architect. For a time, he worked building geodesic domes for Buckminster Fuller. He spent a year turning an 18-inch Alexander Calder model into a 76-foot, 920-pound mobile for the National Gallery of Art.

He devoted the 1960s to fabricating something he called the Kalliroscope, a glass-encased mix of fluid and crystalline powder that, when shaken or warmed, creates a swirl of graceful, mesmerizing currents. He made thousands, selling small versions at book shops and department stores and larger ones at galleries, but said he lacked the business acumen to turn a profit.

He once built a musical fence for the city of Cambridge, a set of tuned pipes aligned like pickets, that proved so popular it had to be dismantled and removed because it kept neighbors awake at night. Thirty years ago, he won a commission to create a work for the Kendall T station, part of an “Arts on the Line’’ program to beautify stations along the Red Line.

The other artists, as a rule, produced art that required no maintenance. Matisse, who wanted to make something that would encourage interaction and provide pleasing tones between the cacophony of arriving and departing trains, did not.

“You’d probably have to say it was folly of me to press ahead and present them with something that had moving parts,’’ Matisse said. “I figured it was going to be all right.’’

‘Please fix it!’
The Kendall Band broke almost immediately after it was installed. Matisse had spent years honing and calibrating the pieces before the new Kendall Square station was dedicated in October 1987. But Pythagoras, the row of bells, failed even before Galileo and Kepler were fully in place.

“The problems all relate to my underestimation of the strength of humanity,’’ Matisse wrote in a Nov. 4, 1987, letter to T riders that he taped up in the station as he dismantled the new sculpture for repairs. “With any luck at all, we will make it last forever.’’

By the time Matisse returned to the station, somebody had scrawled, “Please fix it!’’ on the margins of his note. When Pythagoras broke again, Matisse posted a new note, generating a new set of messages from passengers. “Keep up the good work!’’ and “Thanks for the explanation!’’

But there was debate, too.

“If you spent my tax $ on this,’’ one anonymous rider wrote, “then may you DIE SLOWLY!!’’

“If you spent tax dollars on this,’’ someone else replied below it, “may you live long + happily.’’

Over the ensuing years, joints gave out, weldings failed, bearings slipped. Each fix brought new solutions, like a hidden set of clutches that disengage the levers from the instruments when someone yanks too hard or too fast.

On each visit, Matisse left a note, returning always to find the margins covered with comments, in cramped print and elegant script, in English and French and Arabic, with praise, encouragement, criticism, and advice.

“I can’t stay away from it.’’

“Great to do while stoned!’’

“Thank you for making me forget the horrors of this day.’’

“Try to get a tapered connection from the first vertical to the second on this side and an oversized second vertical linkage with perhaps an internal shock absorber.’’

“La mejor estacion del mundo.’’

Matisse never tired of the Kendall Band or the messages, but after nearly 20 years, he began to grow weary of the maintenance. He tried to interest various organizations and corporations, but had little luck.

“I just kept it going, and then at one point I decided that I was just going to have to let it go out on its own,’’ he said. “Sort of like one’s kids. The time comes.’’

Student repair crew
On a Thursday evening last month, the Kendall Band Preservation Society gathered on the outbound platform to begin removing handles and connectors.

The entreaties by Parker had reached a music and theater administrator at MIT, Clarise Snyder, who in turn enlisted Michael Tarkanian, a materials science and engineering instructor.

“When you’re at MIT, you have a lot of difficult days when you’re a student, especially an undergrad, and the bells always made me feel better,’’ said Tarkanian, a Brockton native who earned a pair of MIT degrees and now runs the fabricating lab, a high-tech workshop.

Tarkanian and Snyder put the word out and soon attracted dozens of students, all too young to have been at MIT when the sculpture functioned fully.

They got permission from the T to work in the station, and some traveled to Groton to meet Matisse, who explained the finer points of the Kendall Band, the blueprints for which were lost in a hard-drive crash. The students hope to have the Kendall Band working again by winter.

“There’s a novelty to it, and a great satisfaction in being able to cross those boundaries that you normally cannot cross,’’ said Maxwell Mann, a sophomore from Falmouth.

To passersby, the students’ work in the station might have looked like an MIT prank-in-progress, or the setup to a joke: seven young men wearing reflective MBTA vests over mismatched street clothes, pushing a cart laden with power tools, duct tape, and plastic ties, huddled around a hand crank.

Two steadied a ladder, two turned wrenches, one took notes on a double-sided clipboard, two observed. All chimed in, talking over one another at times, debating the best way to disengage clips, or the proper nomenclature for labeling removed bolts.

Two MBTA inspectors waved passengers along in nothing-to-see-here fashion. Richard A. Davey Jr., the new general manager of the T and an avowed fan of the Kendall Band, stopped by to wish them luck.

The students toiled late into the night, and returned the next week to start on the inbound side. They taped up notes, just as Matisse had done so many times, explaining their repair project. Already, the margins have filled with messages. Some are scatological, some are cynical, but most are genuine expressions of thanks.

“Hurry,’’ someone scribbled, finding room in an upper corner of the page. “I miss it.’’

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at

Connect with

Twitter Follow us on @BostonUpdate, other Twitter accounts