Painting with a Microphone
The medium of sound art is complex and multilayered, and creates a huge palette of experiences. It does, however, possess a number of internal contradictions, which are affecting the work contemporary artists are making.
A huge buzzing fills your headphones; all-enveloping, whipping from ear to ear. Abruptly, it cuts off, replaced by a warbling, almost bird-like synth sound, which degenerates slowly as it is modulated, becoming more sporadic and erratic. Eventually, it is replaced by an African man speaking about a piece of music he has made, as synths gradually fade in the background. Not a piece of music; rather, a piece of sound art. The sounds belong to John Wynne’s Upcountry. It’s a recording Wynne made celebrating William Ingosi Mwoshi, a Kenyan musician. Wynne, who first premiered the piece at the Purcell Room in London in 1999, is a sound artist.
Sound art, at its most basic, consists of pieces of sound, which after processing and filtering them according to the desires of the artist, are arranged to form a recording that explores a particular idea or motif. Practitioners of sound art are as skilled and as resourceful as those who create art out of clay, paint, stone or metal. The sound they use can come from a range of sources. It can be “found sound” (recordings made in the field of unplanned environmental sounds, such as a car pulling off from a red light or crickets at night) or heavily processed synth notes made with software instruments. It can take the form of, among others, acousmatic sound (highly processed, abstract and unrecognisable sounds blended together), lowercasesound (pieces which emphasise extremely quiet, soft sounds and large spaces) or intelligent dance music, which rejects the typical musicality of dance and techno for a more nuanced version.
It is a complex, multilayered discipline, and often an extremely contradictory one. One of these practitioners – and one who understands the contradictions in her art form is Katharine Norman. Trained as a musician, Norman has a PhD in computer music from Princeton University and is a senior lecturer at London’s City University. She is a creator of what she terms electro-acoustic compositions, and for starters, she doesn’t even like the term “sound art”. “I find myself using it because it seems to have a currency and people can understand it,” says Norman. “I think it was a constructed term in the 1980s, and people started using the term “sound art” as a way of talking about art made of sound in the same way you would about visual art.”
Norman, who is also author of the book Sounding Art (Ashgate 2004), is creator of several pieces of sound art. One of these is Islands of One, a layered, unsettling account of being ill in a remote place. Norman lived for a time on an island off the coast of British Columbia, and the piece, which uses the sound of gently swirling water as a backdrop to create themes of insomnia and fever, is a good example of some of the work that Norman does.
Over the past few years, a revelation has taken place in the field of home studios. Hardware and software have become cheaper and more compact; much of the heavy, space-hogging pieces of equipment like equalizers and compressors have become software (the term used for this is “in the box”). This has changed the kind of sound art being made; although many pieces have a visual element to them as well as an auditory one (Wynne has used sound to create “animated architectural drawings” using stereo reflections at an exhibit at the E:Vent Gallery in London) it means that where before complex equipment was required, it is now possible to create sound art with nothing more than a good microphone and an editing program – meaning it’s a lot easier to do.
Norman, who says her foray into audio experimentation was on an ancient computer with one pair of headphones shared between four students, agrees. These days, she operates from a single Mac laptop, a lot of hard drives, ProTools to edit sound (plus Final Cut Pro for the images she works with) and a “good pair of headphones.”
Norman is enthusiastic about the developments in the art form: “I can remember a few years ago when everyone was saying that the bedroom studio was going to be the thing of the future, and in many respects it is, but I don’t think people knew how it would change the kind of work produced and also the ways and reasons for producing it. I think what I’ve noticed is that there is a lot more music-making going on in all kinds of contexts between groups of friends; ad-hoc improvisation, and also people making fixed media pieces, which I suppose you might call sound art sometimes, with entirely varying resources. I think that does result inevitably in a much more variable and wider range of craft and quality. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing, and I don’t necessarily rate expertise in craft as being my main criteria in deciding whether a piece of work is valid or interesting.”
Of course, this is another of the inherent contradictions in producing sound art. It’s a big one: at what point does a collection of sounds, labelled sound art, become a piece of music? According to Moeti Damane, a Lesotho-born music producer who goes by the name of San The Instrumonumentalist, such a point exists: “There should be a dividing line, it has to be conceptual. Concept has to ring out more than anything else. If you try to fuse sound and art together, then there has to be an underlying concept. There are all kinds of sound out there, even noise counts as sound, so I think it has to have a theme.”
Damane specialises in the production of instrumental hip-hop music for a variety of artists but he, along with his production partner, South African Mark Sunners (known as Alias, and collectively known as Inspiration) have been stepping over that line for some time. Their latest project, Numb3rs And Alphab3ts, is a mix of both contemporary beats and elements that push it into the direction of sound art composition. Take their piece Blood In The Well; it begins with the sound of dripping water, echoing as if in a dark, dense place, before kicking into a highly emotionally-charged beat which melds a regular hip-hop drum break with several different samples. On the surface, it’s a piece of music; yet it has several of the stylistic techniques similar to that of contemporary sound art. “What I wanted to invoke with Blood In The Well was almost a feeling of you being there as the listener,” says San, who, like Norman, works off a single laptop and a pair of headphones. “Being able to interpret the music implicitly. The emotion and the perception has to be somewhat similar to a greater degree for someone listening to a piece of music. I wanted to capture that moment of silence, but at the same time have your mind drifting towards the overall concept of the piece of music which was of people facing all kinds of hardships with that little moment of silence, I was able to capture that.”
Sunners agrees with his production partner that “both sound art and very good instrumental music would be one and the same thing, because it takes you to another realm. It takes you out of yourself. You experience something through the sound, which is what good instrumental music does. That’s common ground that they share, creating an auditory landscape. With sound art, you are being enveloped in an experience, where both the person who is experiencing it and the person who created the art are linking through that experience.”
Inspiration are not alone in this type of musical experimentation; others, like Dutch producer Nicolay of the group The Foreign Exchange, uses sound art practices to paint aural pictures of urban environments in his City Lights series. His latest release, Shibuya, explores Tokyo, taking in the silence of Ueno Park before slamming into the controlled chaos of Shibuya Station.
Of course, sound art is as much about who is listening and how they are listening as it is about the sounds that are being played. It is not uncommon for pieces of sound art to be played through massive installations: speaker stacks scaling up the sides of buildings, huge rooms filled with carefully calibrated subwoofers designed to rattle your stomach, perfectly dark spaces filled with increasing concentrations of ambient sound. With such a wide palette of experiences and artists working their magic, sound art – whether you agree with the term or not – can be an enormously rewarding medium.
For more information, visit Katharine Norman: www.novamara.com, John Wynne: www.sensitivebrigade.com/wynne.htm, Inspiration (San and Alias): www.reverbnation.com/santheinstrumonumentalist, and Nicolay at www.nicolaymusic.com.