Laura Maes her work has its genesis in pure sound, but has a material aspect. Maes has an interest in the relationship between the organic and the synthetic, which is evident in her work Spikes. Spikes, which is composed of 200 solar-powered circuits, presents an interesting contradiction and incongruity, in that the sounds engender identification with the natural world, like crickets, but are mechanical in nature. As well, the sounds are reminiscent of those at night, but are entirely sustained by sunlight, and thus fall silent after dusk. Oorwonde, another one of Maes works, is an exploration of bodily hearing. It is a tactile experience in which the visitor lies down upon an interactive operating table that wholly immerses them in the aural space of a surgery. The sounds are transmitted through transducers that allow the sound to resonate throughout the body. Oorwonde is thus a demonstration of how sound is able to extend throughout all parts of the body, and permeate deeply into the corporeal human form. The work is a careful exploration of the exercise of sound within an organic framework, and its properties as a simultaneously natural and synthetic quantity.
The third section of the text examines the nature of silence, and the implications of its properties for sound art. The section opens with an examination of the composer John Cage, who was a part of the vanguard of indeterminacy in music. He is mostly renowned for his composition 4’33” which is an exploration of the absence of deliberate sound. His work critically assesses the holistic nature and specific sub properties of silence. As a class, we touched on this work in one of our earlier discussions in a cursory overview of our long held assumptions about the nature of sound, and of its ostensibly diametric opposite, silence. It critically assesses the nature of musicality and the musical experience, and in doing so, also functions as a study of the demarcation between silence and sound. Cage cites his works’ conceptual genesis as being found in the visual artwork created by one of his friends. One of Cage’s close friends created a series of apparently blank canvases, that actually took on markedly different appearances depending on where they were hung, because of the variability of lighting conditions. Cage wanted to explore this phenomenon in an aural space, and determine whether or not there is such a thing as true silence. Reading about John Cage encouraged me to critically assess my conceptions about what constitutes noise, and musicality.
Christine Sun Kim’s work explores an entirely different facet of sound art: the idea of sound and its non-auditory exercise. As a class, we visited Kim’s installation predicated on the idea of acousmatic sound, called The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatic. She uses clay as a way of exploring the relationship between the corporeal and sound as an abstract. Kim cites Pythagoras, who believed that his students would focus better if they did not see him, by virtue of their heightened focus on his voice. As well, she refers to Pierre Schaeffer, a French composer who explored the idea of the emancipation of sound from its source. He examined the idea of how sound can manifest as an object independent of its source. The trajectory of the meaning of object as it relates to sound changed through Schaeffer’s deconstruction of sounds and their physical-causal sources. Kim has worked with Sign Language interpreters her whole life, an exercise that she views as a challenge, but also as a high form of collaboration in which voices merge. She likens this relationship to the function of acousmatic sound, in that interpreters take in sounds, and then interpret them and impart them to her.
Terry Adkins was an interdisciplinary artist who in some of his works, explored the constructs of race and black identity, specifically with regards to the existence of Black America. Synapse, one of his works that we observed as a class, and a part of his Black Beethoven series, is a digital portrait that confronts the assumptions about race that are endemic to western society. It is a digital image of Beethoven that slowly morphs into a self portrait of Adkins. The work refers to the questions and the mythos surrounding Beethoven’s race, and thus invites the viewer to participate in history. It does not seek to make a determination, but rather, encourages viewers to question assumptions about race, and closely scrutinize the exercise of blackness within the landscape of classical music, and canonical western culture as a whole.
Alvin Lucier’s work, 5 Graves to Cairo, continues his tradition of experimentation with the physical properties of sound. 5 Graves to Cairo is a deliberate, and thoughtful demonstration of acoustic phenomena. Lucier positions his work as being inspired by a 1943 war drama of the same name, in which a British spy seeks to unearth five supply depots hidden in the Egyptian desert. 5 Graves to Cairo, in turn, is comprised of five loud speakers, buried beneath the Bema in oil drums. As such, the sound sources are invisible to visitors of the installation, but entirely audible, their clarity conduced by the natural quietness of the secluded space. Lucier does not have a traditional studio; rather, he comes up with ideas and figures out ways to execute them. His ideas find forms, and thus, the concept dictates the manifestation rather than the other way around. His foundational idea for 5 Graves to Cairo, to send sound through different mediums, and its historical and cultural inspiration, naturally suggests a sort of subterranean instillation, hence its actualization in the Bema. His work creates an interesting perceptual conflict for the listener. The subterranean speakers, in a naturally beautiful and secluded area, seem indigenous to the space, as they evoke a sense of seismic activity, while simultaneously feeling almost hostile because of the mechanical quality of the sound, like a robotic chthonic presence.
Jacob Kirkegaard further highlighted the different manifestations that sound can take in art, and the thematic implications entailed by different forms, through his work Transmission. Kirkegaard positioned his work as one that explores the forgotten histories of subterranean geological spaces, by using seismic recordings from stone arches largely located on sacred Native American sites. However, Transmission is not entirely rooted in the past. The acoustic, above ground recordings from the same sites, are played at the top of the vertical space that Kirkegaard creates with his work. The old sounds, of the past, play on the main level of the Fairchild center where the work is installed, and are juxtaposed with the new, acoustic sounds of the present that play above. His work is a study of temporality, spirituality and the collective unconscious.
Bill Fontana is an artist whose body of work largely examines the space of acoustic ecology. He created a piece at Dartmouth specifically for the Resonant Spaces exhibition. For his piece MicroSoundings, Bill Fontana took time-shifted recordings of different apparatuses in the Life Sciences Center, and played them back on a steel form. He made short recordings, interspersed with short silences, which he perceives as compositions in and of themselves. The vibrations from the playback were picked up on accelerometers, which play back the final work. This continues Fontana’s practice of using sound as a sculptural medium that transforms visual artifacts and spaces. Fontana carefully considered the resonant properties of the different apparatuses he recorded, and largely relied on his intuition to decide which sounds to incorporate into his work. Transmission acts as a study in the different ways that an aural environment can be experienced, and how source sounds can be manipulated through transmission of secondary structures. This work is similar to Maes piece Oorwonde, with the divergence being the secondary structure in which sounds are transmitted. Fontana’s piece is more concerned with the examination of how sound moves through synthetic quantities, while Maes is more preoccupied with the human body as a vessel for sound.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller work in tandem to create immersive sound art installations that they call audio walks. These audio walks largely function as a multifaceted exercise incorporating elements of narrative sequencing, sound, and kinetics. The audio walks that her and Bures Miller create are entirely immersive aural spaces that engage multiple senses and create a compelling and often tactile environment. The walks are fundamentally predicated on visitor engagement, and thus are not meant to be exercises of passive observation. They are often multimedia endeavors that incorporate sculptural and video elements. They also focus on the spatial quality of audio, in that her and her partner use such techniques as binaural and holophonic recording in order to create senses of space. Cardiff posits that her and Bures Miller’s works are conceived as steps away from consensus reality that allow the visitor to thus see said reality better.
Part I of Khan’s work, like the preface, was difficult to synthesize and acquire a holistic understanding of. I think that with further exposure to the study of sound, and of art, I will be better able to understand his text. However, like the earlier reading from his book, I was able to make sense of a few of his ideas that he proffers. I liked his examination of the quality of handwriting, and how it relates to the quality of significant noise. Writing is an arrangement of letters intended to be read with little difficulty, but there is a wide range of variability between perfectly legible and entirely illegible. Within that variability lies a communication of a wealth of information. Noise is inextricably intertwined with said variability, and hence why it is such an abstruse expression that is capable of articulating information and thus facilitating, instead of inhibiting communication.
The artist site visits enriched my understanding of the coursework by allowing me to experience firsthand the principles that we had discussed in class. My two most important takeaways pertained to how spaces can be transformed by sound, and how sound can appear in different manifestations in art. The first takeaway was derived from our visit to Jacob Kirkegaard’s installation in the Fairchild Physical Sciences Center. Kirkegaard recorded seismic vibrations of rock arches in Native American tribal lands, and made acoustic above ground recordings at the same sites. In his work, Transmission, the underground recordings are played back on the ground floor of the Fairchild atrium, while the above ground recordings are emitted from speakers at the top of the atrium. I felt that this work was well-suited to the inherent properties of the space. It felt congruent with the structure, and made for a work that was natural and ambient. Interestingly, the installation was vandalized on several occasions, which seemingly refutes this characterization. However, as we discussed in class, the vandalism was most likely a product of art being viewed as of secondary importance, and thus subject to the controls of the space’s visitors. The other takeaway pertained to silent sound art. Silent sound art is ostensibly a contradictory construct, but I realized that it is an entirely possible came to this understanding through our class’ exploration of Terry Adkins’ works on display at the Hood Downtown. Most of his works are silent, but suggest the presence of sound. For instance, his work Mute, is a silent video installation of a famous singer. The absence of sound, in this work, assumes the role that sound would take.
I found reading the introduction to Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts to be a difficult, though thought-provoking exercise. Kahn’s prose is clearly geared towards readers with a reasonable degree of familiarity with the study of art, if not sound art in particular. His frequent use of artistic jargon, and references to concepts outside of the purview of my past study, made it hard for me to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the chapter. However, there were several points that I was able to connect to, and link to both our classwork and my body of personal experiences. For instance, I found the reference to the story about the birth of hearing to be particularly interesting. I had always conceived of the inception of self-consciousness as a product of seeing one’s self. I had never thought of self-consciousness in aural terms, that is, the actualization of self that is achieved through hearing the sound of one’s own voice. I also hadn’t really considered how the advent of the phonograph fundamentally changed the nature of this self-awareness, by allowing people to hear their own voices, divorced from their bodies. This change was fundamentally apart of the new nature of sound. It is no longer a transient quantity, but something that can be stored and manipulated. This introduction, while not necessarily what I am accustomed to in terms of historical accounts, was an interesting starting point for the course literature.
The introduction to Collins’ Handmade Electronic Music was a good platform for his work, and highly topical. Although he notes in the second chapter that his text is meant to be practical and instructive, rather than theoretical, his musings in the preface on the corporatization of electronic music, were especially salient and incisive. I was unaware that in the early years of the electronic music form there was little distinction between high and low tech. This sort of artisanal approach to electronic music technology was disrupted by corporate development and mass production over the means of creating electronic music. Collins notes how this laptop-centric form of music production has had a detrimental effect on the quality of performance, by alienating the performers from the tactility of their music. This phenomenon is especially evident in today’s electronic music scene, where producers try to ameliorate for this condition by increasing the focus on secondary theatrics, like costumes, and light displays. While this does make for a more entertaining performance, one has to consider whether this pursuit has diminished the importance of the sound as the primary element, and diluted it as an art form by undergirding it with smoke and mirrors. This change made me wonder how such artists can retain their connection to their artistry and the essence of music, while still making use of the creative possibilities afforded by the proliferation of affordable production technology. Is it it possible to reconcile these two pursuits?
The Visiting Experience: This narrative is the hypothetical visitor experience for my tentative final project conceit. The project is an interactive installation that not only encourages, but requires direct visitor participation in order to be appreciated. The final project is comprised of a series of physical objects that explore the relationship between memory, human experience and identity, and sound. Sound is something that can transform spaces and things, and thus become powerfully associated with a particular time and place. Sound can come to characterize experiences as much as experiences can define sound. My final project intends to explore this phenomenon through the theme of a loss of innocence predicated on childhood trauma.
The visitor will approach my installation, which at first, looks like a wooden toy box. The toy box will be adorned with decorations and words that comport with the thematic import of the project. The visitor will then engage directly with the project by opening the box, and taking the objects out one by one. Each object is consummately childlike: a few stuffed animals, a fifth birthday card, and a coloring book. Further direct tactile engagement is required for full exploration of the project. However, this engagement will not be encouraged through the use of title cards or directions; in keeping with the theme of hidden childhood trauma and a loss of innocence, the engagement will not be overt, but discovered through a self-guided exploration. Using a trigger that deliberately short circuits audio playback, like the kind found in birthday cards, the card and coloring book will play back pre-recorded audio. The stuffed animals will bear small devices that when squeezed will too play back audio clips. The clips will highlight the incongruity between the object and the audio’s content, and will ultimately fundamentally inform the conceptual nature of the project. The visitor can either choose to put the objects back in the box, or leave them atop of the table that the box is positioned on.
Three Modes of Listening Analysis: My project is predominately focussed on casual listening. The visitor will listen to the sounds emitted by the objects that they engage with, and will be invited to consider the implications of its source, as well as the meaning entailed by the sound. In this project, the visitor will likely be able to discern the general source of the sound, but will not be able to determine exactly what mechanism produces that sound. For instance, upon engaging with the stuffed animals, the visitor will likely be able to determine that the cause of the sound is mechanical, but will be unable to identify exactly the module producing the sound. As well, the primary source of the sound (the human voice), will be one that is foreign to the visitor, and largely beyond the purview of their exact determination. They will be invited to make inferences and conclusions pertaining to the source of the sound, and think critically about its implications for, and place within, the other objects in the installation. Each object will function as a supplementary source of information for the other objects in the work. The primary focus will be on analysis of and exploration of the initial causal source of the sound, and what it means for the work as a whole. The archetypal childhood objects will be incongruous with the traumatic nature of the sounds being played, and thus inform the thematic import of the project as an exercise in the relationship between tactility, memory, identification and sound. My installation is not really concerned with semantic or reduced listening.
Block Drawing: A note: the mechanisms used to play sounds in the objects will be premade modules used for insert in birthday cards and stuffed animals. For the colouring book, the module will have to be slightly modified for a proper fit.
My group was comprised of myself, Alexis, Aaron & Janice. During our first meetings, we took turns presenting our individual projects to one another in order to look for unifying elements, or a logical nexus for which our concepts could be conflated. Both Aaron and I created apparatuses with wires and rods that explored the relationship between frequency, movement and sound. Alexis and Janice both made projects that involved an assemblage of triangles. Initially, we conceived of a project that used Aaron’s as the foundational work. We intended to hang an array of mini plastic triangles from the wire, with the hope that the vibration from the wire would cause the triangles to make noise. Unfortunately, we were unable to generate sufficient movement to make audible sound. We thus opted to change the configuration of the project into a flatter arrangement, and tested a gamut of materials to find the ones that produced the best quality sound. We arranged aluminum scraps and pieces of wood along the wires (at the same frequency that made them vibrate maximally). We tested different frequencies, as well as different angles for the aluminum in order to observe the different outputs. Our final project was aesthetically industrial, and reminiscent of a construction site. The sounds comported well with the visual appearance, in that they engendered thoughts of construction. As well, the project itself invites interaction via exploration of different possible outputs (which we examined), and is thus a work in active construction. The videos attached detail our final project, as well as our tests with the different angles and frequencies.
This project proved to be the most difficult for me. I had several different concepts that I was unable to actualize before creating my finished product. The unifying element in all of my attempts was that each sculpture had a kinetic feature that was fundamentally intertwined with the source sound. My sculpture is a demonstration of the relationship between movement and sound. I took a thin metal rod, and bent into an arch shape. I positioned the two ends of the rods in a prism that I had fashioned out of cardboard. I connected the two rods with a third rod, that I had affixed with electrical tape. A piece of thin sheet metal provided the base for the cardboard box. I then strung a thin piece of wire around the arch, with a washer threaded through it. The transducer was then situated in a hole in the box, and on top of the metal sheet, while touching the connecting rod. My intention was that the vibration from the transducer would reverberate across the road and sheet, and thus cause the metal arch to move. I knew that the movement would be hardly perceptible, hence my decision to include the washer strung across the piece of wire. The washer would translate the subtle vibrations of the metal arch into a more obvious display. I decided to use this quality to do a visual exploration of the relationship between frequency and sound. I played an oscillator tone at 200hz, 400hz, 600hz and 800hz. As the frequency increased, the washer became less mobile, because of the reduction in vibration. For my sculpture, I ultimately wanted to create a work that was aesthetically-pleasing and explored the way that sound can transform objects and spaces.