Audio Artivity: An Introduction
by Justi Echeles

In between sound and environment lie the ideas that create both. XLR8R's Justi Echeles delves into the world of Sound Art and music installations-the cutting edge where ideas, music and theory are currently being played out in contemporary art.

While electronic music enthusiasts are accustomed to hearing bleeps and blips, helicopters, motors, egg beaters, static, rocking chairs and rain as music, the global storming of current multimedia culture has resulted in new creative hybrids-like sound art. Increasing in popularity, artists from traditionally visual, experimentally electronic and mechanically architectural realms are presenting exhibitions and displays where the central element is not visual, but aural. In the art world, the floodgates are open, and it's sound waves that are pouring in. The art of sound is happening.

Gallery spaces worldwide are showcasing exhibitions of sound in spaces unaccustomed to the variables of audio presentation. A recent show titled Sonic Boom presented 26 sound artists at London's Hayward Gallery, selected by musician and writer David Toop, who states in Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound that he chose artists "alert and responsive to the richly clamorous environment in which we are now immersed. Rather than searching for ways to cancel out the murmurings, hummings, pulses, whistles, alarms, signals, irritations, pleasures and shocks of the contemporary soundscape, they focus on their essence, impact and effect, so shaping new meanings for a bewildering range of aural events."

Likewise, Long Island City's P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center chose to exhibit Volume: Bed of Sound, where the audience experienced 60 sonic artists ­ from sound effects artists to electronic musicians ­ by listening to their work through headphones while lying on "New York's largest futon bed." Tokyo, Japan's ICC Center recently held the exhibition and concert series Sound Art: Sound as Media, The Pleasure of Sound, while San Francisco and Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts hosted Rooms for Listening, a series of performances, multimedia, lectures and sound installations featuring "a spectrum of experimental electronic sound and music." In addition, for about 30 years, San Francisco has also been home to the Audium, a 169-speaker "sound space continuum" developed by composer Stan Shaff.

Opening in the autumn of 2000 is New York City's Engine 27 Sound Gallery. Their mission? "To transform how people experience sound," says founder Jack Weisberg. "We are doing this by creating the first fully flexible laboratory and presentation environment in which artists can control the acoustical, lighting and spacial parameters using familiar instruments and friendly interfaces."

Sound art is, of course, as varied in definition and practice as any artistic medium. However, considerations of our increasingly hybridized culture along with the effort to bring the mystique of electronic music and sound down from its lofty circuits into the immediate sensory realm of the public are at the forefront of many a sonic artist's mission statement. Hear then, this sampling of the sound art.


Sound Art Screen 1: Mark Laliberte (Canada)

"Recognizing popular music as a tremendously important site of common culture, I explore music/sound within the social context of the gallery; an attempt at providing an alternate listening experience for the masses in hopes of detaching the experience from their common expectations. Through my work, I utilize the dominant global language expressed by a hybridized pop music, to effectively transfer its energies and essence into a gallery-motivated context, and to use a soundscape as part of a storytelling language."

The Suspended Room
A digitally assembled "non-linear ambient audio play."

Pillow Scenes :
A presentation of photographed characters in bedroom scenes, accompanied by individual soundtracks. The sometimes gentler, sometimes darker realms of existence are heightened by aural interpretations of scripted audio scenes.

Explaining Noise to Dead Air :
Installation of a physical wall of sound comprised of cement blocks, some of which are modified to produce sound. This six-channel sound collage was created to explore extreme noise, electronic minimalism, electrical processes, digital glitches, the rich industrial environment of motors and machines, modern warfare, and the city. "The concept of the wall of sound," says Laliberte, "has a rich sound history, stemming from the 60's studio style of Phil Spector. In Explaining Noise... this history is explored using audio as a metaphoric and technical representation of today's urban nervous system."


Sound Art Screen 2: Matt Heckert (USA)
(Survival Research Laboratories)

Mechanical Sound Orchestra :
After eight years of building machines and producing soundtracks to accompany them in performance, Matt Heckert explains that his current mechanical soundworks experiment with the idea of using the machines themselves to produce all the sounds of an art piece. All Mechanical Sound Orchestra devices are "playable," produce their own sounds, and are remote controlled via computer interface. Works like Disc-Cable Machine, Rotolyn and Automatic String Rack not only produce the intended timbres and rhythms of the artist, but the auxiliary sounds of motor hums, solenoid clicks, metal creaks, and so on: "Much like the finger-squeak on a guitar or violin neck, my machines breathe and stretch in their own ways. Having this type of control interface allows me to respond to the differences in the acoustic dynamic of a specific location as well as to improvise new compositions during performances."


Birds :
An installation of 26 identical sound machines called Birds. A Bird consists of a 2' x 7' sheet of aluminum mounted on a pole that is driven up and down by a motor causing the aluminum to "flap." The motor has variable speeds, allowing different acoustic values to be achieved. All the motors were controlled by a MIDI sequence activated when viewers pressed a button on the wall.

"There is certainly a sound or sounds I am after when I create a machine," says Heckert, "but there is also the visual quality I consider. In other words, what will the machine look like when it is producing its sound? In the case of the Birds, the sound of a sheet of metal being shaken is one that everyone has heard before, but it was one I wanted to use. So I saw my task as being to make it interesting to watch when the sound was being produced.

Sound has really become an object. Since it's so easy to digitize any smash, crash, bang, boom, flutter, conversation, etc., and use it in a variety of manners, it has provided an infinite array of possibilities for artists and musicians. This transcends society from pop culture to fringe situations. People hear 'non-musical' sound in music everyday, whether they are listening to rap, pop, experimental, etc. The use of sound in this manner has become part of our social 'vocabulary.' People are used to hearing it, and possibilities have expanded exponentially, so naturally when installations or other projects are being considered, the sound object carries considerable weight."


Sound Art Screen 3: Meso/Involving Systems (Germany)
(Karl Kleim, Sebastian Oschatz, Martin Bott)

Mutable Muzzy Musics :
An interactive installation displaying a wall-sized visual representation of loop-based music (for instance at Rooms For Listening, the accompanying music was Mille Plateaux, ~scape artists, Kit Clayton, Sutekh, and Pole, among others). Using four controllers of basic industrial design snaking out from a hard drive playing a CD, users can manipulate a number of parameters, altering the tracks by selection, delay, loop position, granular (pitch) shift and reverb.

"The impetus behind Mutable Muzzy Musics," says Karl Kleim from the pillowed floor of the installation, is "to get the genius [of electronic music] down from the podium and out it in the hands of the people."


Sound Art Screen 4: Oval (Germany)
(Markus Popp)

Skotodesk/Ovalprocess/Public Beta :
On a recent tour of the US, Markus Popp has been astounding the ears of the American easy-listening population with his particularly intense brand on noise. Known for his releases of the digitized sounds of skipping, scratchy and faulty CDs, as well as a work of sonically altered bells, Oval's live performances are sketched-out circuitry sound like what a maximum dose of electronic music might feel like. The current Skotodesk installation, on the other hand, is a project of immediacy: putting Popp's own OvalProcess software into the visual - and therefore more accessible - public realm. An audio CD, OvalProcess is out now on Thrill Jockey.

"Skotodesk is like a Tetris for sound. It was meant to be very accessible, easy to relate to, very colorful, completely iconic and very easy to approach. It was meant to be a very easy-access type of interface, so you end up moving all these small, colorful building blocks around the screen. There's some resemblance to the retro style video game as opposed to having an interface of fully featured productivity software in the audio field. It has nothing to do with entering alphanumeric keyboard commands or whatever, it's just very colorful and easy to operate."


Sound Art Screen 5: Project Dark (UK)
(Kirsten Reynolds, Ashley Davis, Tony Pattison)

Project Dark relies on the surface texture of items like biscuits, cheese slices, Braille discs, etched glass, human hair and circular saws to create the sound when placed under the "somewhat eroded" Project Dark stylus. Via projected images of PD's anti-vinyl sound discs, robotic cameras are incorporated with live DJ shows as the basis of performances like "The Joy of Decks" and "Disc Continued".

"The link between the visual nature of the object creating sound and what is heard is crucial to the essence of the Project Dark live show," says Kirsten Reynolds. "Live cameras are located in the thick of the action on the deck, giving a stylus-eye view of the disc and the necessarily percussive playing style."


Sound Art Screen 6: Scape ­ Expo 2000 (Germany)
(Nik Schweiger/3deluxe, Petra Würfele/Optimat, Martin Mueller)

Visionscape :
Taking inspiration from Swiss scientist Hans Jenny's experiments in Cymatics - the method of bringing inanimate objects to motion through sound - Nik Schweiger from 3deluxe developed the idea for the sound sculpture for Scape youth Media World at Expo 2000. Jenny's experiments - to find out what structures and forms would appear when putting sounds to liquids, powder and elastics - resulted in beautifully arranged patterns. The Visionscape project for Expo 2000 worked by taking a normal speaker, covering it with a clear skin, and placing on top of that a kind of "shiny water." When music is played, the show begins.

"Sound can be art, art can be music, sound can be music," says Petra Würfele. "Everything can be art. Listening to music is a very important part of my life. It's energy, inspiration, happiness, and aggression. I also love to listen to natural sounds and often get surprised by what I find there."


Sound Art Screen 7: Interspecies Communication Research (USA)
(Dave Robert)

"All props should go to the plant; I am merely its human assistant. I connect plants to a hacked human biofeedback system in order to reroute their signals into various computers that trigger real-time image and sound generation. The goal is to use the same technology employed by the military-entertainment complex and modern product peddlers to eavesdrop on the biosignals of plants, remapping their output to signals that fall within the human sensory spectrum, allowing us to see and hear their natural beauty and ponder their sentience. The hope is that by enabling the plants to talk to us, awareness about their consciousness (as proven in studies dating back to the mid-60's by Cleve Backster and Russian cybernetics researchers) might provoke discourse resulting in greater respect and proven action towards the beings that create the air we breathe, amongst other vital things we depend on."


Justi Echeles is the news & letters editor for XLR8R Magazine | email her here