Sound Art

Sound Art and its origins have been debated and hypothesised by many, mostly due to it’s fragmentary and multi-faceted nature; while the definition of Sound Art remains elusive, there is no denying it’s presence from as far back as the 1960’s. Most agree that sound-art explores notions of space and time, and an encouragement of aural awareness. Perhaps Sound Art can be best understood as a “sonification of artistic ideas, or sonic representations of the same”[1]. My personal interest in Sound Art stems from the thought of moving beyond the limits of traditional art categories; a change that we are yet to fully fathom. In this essay I will be focusing particularly on the use of sonification in relation to experiencing and perceiving exciting new phenomena. In addition I will be looking into the nature of sound itself, and how it’s acoustics and resonance interacts with physical and physiological structures.

Sonification is a term used to describe the representation of intangible or hidden energies and phenomena through the medium of sound. Haine’s and Hinterding’s collaborative installation ‘Electromagnetic Composition for Building Plants & Stars’, was created to reveal the ‘wildness’ or hidden energies in the building itself, surrounding plants and ambient sounds from space. Their site-specific installation involved the use of an enormous antenna (copper coil) that is seamlessly integrated with the structure of the radical Toyo Ito-designed building. Aside from its sculptural beauty, composed with the building itself, the antenna picks up low frequency radiation from within the building, from around Sendai, and most interestingly from space, the Milky Way[2]. The sound that is heard by the audience is a mixture of these low level frequencies, combined with field recordings taken from the area of Sendai. In this way, sonification is used to elucidate hidden frequencies that are embedded spatially within a particular place, but also networked and distributed across many places. The combination of natural field recordings with low frequency electromagnetic crackling of stars produces an ever-changing transformation of our perception of spatiality.

A video projected onto the facade of the copper antennae consists of recordings of overgrown foliage and rivers, also taken from field recordings in a way that sympathetically harmonises the surrounding natural environment with the sonification of other intangible natural phenomena. The architecture also plays an important role in consolidating our awareness of space, as Haines points out that “architecture [is] as much concerned with invisible forces, or ‘walls of sound’ as visible structures”[3] Like much of Haine’s and Hinterding’s works, the work responds to it’s ambient physical environment in a way that makes us aware of our spatial context by bringing new worlds of resonance into being.

 

(Above) Haines and Hinterding, ’Electromagnetic Composition for Building Plants & Stars’ 2006. Video available at [https://vimeo.com/36590073]

The challenge of sonification is to represent something that lacks a natural sonic reference point; to create sounds that direct the viewer’s gaze to the source rather than sounds experienced in other contexts[4] In this way, data and information can be translated into an aural experience, as evidenced in the work ‘Coral Symphony’. The work uses data derived from water, in this case the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, and focuses on the beautiful simplicity of the reef waters in flux and how, through the translation of energy from one form
of data to another, we can experience this motion in extraordinary ways. Data functions as another type of medium – it is rich yet unfamiliar. The aural qualities of data are inextricably linked through mathematics and physics: the motions of tides are comparable to the frequencies of sound waves. Sonification is about finding these interrelated phenomena and bringing them to life through sound.

 

coral

(Above), representation of the process of sonification of data in the work ‘Coral Symphony’ (Johnstone, p. 10).

Similarly Mussel Choir by Jeremy Jenko (Above) is another bio-sensing artwork which harnesses the water filtration activities of live mussels (i.e. the bivalves), measuring their activity to trigger a sound piece in an adjacent park.

Max Neuhaus and his work aptly titled ‘Times Square’, directly accentuates the aural qualities of a space, not through sonification of data but through acoustics. A large loudspeaker is physically mounted under a traffic island grate, producing a deep, continuous drone that has mechanical qualities. Neuhaus is interested in the natural reverberance of space, and how building up character through added tonality and resonance contributes to a greater understanding. Accentuating the existing aural environment through the use of a deep drone is a conscious decision: between the complex currents of traffic there exists an equally complex set of tonalities. The reason for doing so is to make itself heard, commenting on its setting and questioning it as one moves around the space[5]

Sonically, the work is in a constant dialogue with its surroundings: the physical characteristics of sound act as the vernacular. Tonality, the ebb and flow of amplitude, resonant qualities and reverberance all intensify certain characteristics about a place. However as each element builds the character of a particular place, it also builds and augments our own perception of that place. By sculpting an aural experience, Neuhaus begs us to question our role in the environment and how sounds serve to define a particular place. This becomes a conscious act on our behalf, serving to “enhance an aural situation in such a manner that the change is almost imperceptible to listeners accustomed to its sounds”[6] Discreet and highly localised, ‘Times Square’ is an intimate listening experience that begs to be engaged with if we choose to tune in.

The soundscape around us is constantly changing.  In our increasingly urbanised environment, that which futurist Luigi Russolo described in his manifesto The Art of Noises… “an orchestra of noise makers, consisting of buzzers, howlers and other gadgets”.

“Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore.” — Schafer, R.M., 1993. The soundscape: Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world.

Which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, multiply? When we know this, the boring or destructive sounds will be conspicuous enough and we will know why we must eliminate them. Only conscious sonification and a total appreciation of the acoustic environment can give us the resources for improving the orchestration of the world.[7]

[1] Kolber, David. “Hildegard Westerkamp’s Kits Beach Soundwalk: shifting perspectives in real world music” Organised Sound 7.1 (2002).

[2] Murphie, Andrew. Extract from “Joyce Hinterding and David Haines: High Res Resonations with the Milky Way” Available from: http://www.haineshinterding.net/2006/05/06/electromagnetic- composition-for-building-plants-stars/ [Accessed August 15, 2015]

[3] Murphie, Andrew. Extract from “Joyce Hinterding and David Haines: High Res Resonations with the Milky Way” Available from: http://www.haineshinterding.net/2006/05/06/electromagnetic- composition-for-building-plants-stars/ [Accessed August 15, 2015]

[4] Johnstone, Robert. Creating a Coral Symphony: Sound Art and Sonification

[5] LaBelle, B. 2006. Part 4: Public Supply: Buildings, Constructions and Locational Listening. In “Background noise: perspectives on sound art”, Continuum International Publishing Group, London, New York, pp. 147-181

[6] LaBelle, B. 2006. Part 4: Public Supply: Buildings, Constructions and Locational Listening. In “Background noise: perspectives on sound art”, Continuum International Publishing Group, London, New York, pp. 147-181

[7] Schafer, R.M., 1993. The soundscape: Our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Inner Traditions/Bear & Co.

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