Tuesday, December 13, 2005

An Introduction To Sound Art

On 9 Friday 2005 at 2pm I presented a seminar on sound art at the University of Brighton. About eight students took part; this was a perfect number, as we could sit in a circle in the smallish room, with the lights dimmed to a comfortable level, listening to a variety of sounds. Though most had a basic education in the topic, and recognised the people and books mentioned, they had generally not had the opportunity to hear works associated with those names. This was an oversight soon rectified!

Because I was present in Brighton as a poet, I focused somewhat on language-based pieces. I discussed some of my own works towards the end of the seminar, and was sure to include other Canadian artists. For fun I played some of the phonography pieces before telling people what they were listening to, so we could play a sort of guessing game.

Given that people in this visual age don't often take the time to just sit and listen, this was a rare opportunity. I thank the participants for their patience, Conall Gleeson of the School of Arts and Communication for facilitating the session, and John Davies, coordinator of The South, for inviting me to their poetry festival.

What follows is a outline of the seminar, with links to further resources.

Luigi Russolo
Italian futurist painter and composer, lived 1885-1947. In 1913 published "The Art of Noises". In the same year he performed a concert using his invented instruments, called intonarumori ("intoners" or "noise machines"). Specifically, he had arrayed 3 buzzers, 2 gurglers, 2 bursters, 1 shatterer, 1 thunderer, 1 shriller, 3 whistlers, 1 snorter, and 2 rustlers. Unfortunately, none of these survived WWII. Despite upsetting many listeners with his avant-garde stance, he was also admired by such composers as Stravinsky and Ravel. Here follows an excerpt from "The Art of Noises", available in full as a PDF at the absolutely fabulous UbuWeb.

[N]ature is normally silent, except for storms, hurricanes, avalanches, cascades and some exceptional telluric movements. This is why man was thoroughly amazed by the first sounds he obtained out of a hole in reeds or a stretched string....

First of all, musical art looked for the soft and limpid purity of sound. Then it amalgamated different sounds, intent upon caressing the ear with suave harmonies. Nowadays musical art aims at the shrillest, strangest and most dissonant amalgams of sound. Thus we are approaching noise-sound. This revolution of music is paralleled by the increasing proliferation of machinery sharing in human labor. In the pounding atmosphere of great cities as well as in the formerly silent countryside, machines create today such a large number of varied noises that pure sound, with its littleness and its monotony, now fails to arouse any emotion.

Fillippo Tomasso Marinetti
Wrote the Futurist Manifesto, first published in "Le Figaro". The sound poem "La Battaglia di Adrianopoli" was, according to Russolo, written in the Bulgarian trenches. A brilliant version was recorded by Marinetti (1876-1944) in 1935. This and the following two pieces were made available in 1988 as part of Tellus magazine issue 21, "Audio By Visual Artists".

Antonio Russolo
The brother of Luigi Russolo and a Futurist composer. "Corale & Serenata" is from 1924 and illustrates a mix of traditional and non-traditional instruments.

Kurt Schwitters
Infamous Dada artist whose classic "Die Sonate in Urlauten" (1919-32) is often interpreted even by contemporary artists.

The Art of Noise
Taking their name from Russolo's book, this pop group leveraged sampling technology to create compositions influenced by everything from musique concrete to hip-hop. Their debut EP, Into Battle With The Art of Noise, appeared in September 1983 on the house record label ZTT (Zang Tumb Tumb, a phrase taken from Marinetti's poem above).

Though their faces were never seen, the original group was made up of classically trained composer and musician Anne Dudley, keyboard player J. J. Jeczalik, and producer Trevor Horn (famous at the time for prog rock group Yes). Journalist Paul Morley was considered the fourth member, though his activities were mostly limited to pillaging intellectuals for quotes to adorn the record sleeves. The excerpt from "Paranoimia" includes a dripping tap as percussion and processed voice as melodic instrument. This version from the 1985 album In Visible Silence does not include the voice of Max Headroom which propelled the single version into the charts.

You can hear some samples.

R. Murray Schafer
Born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1933, Schafer studied in Canada as well as at the Royal Schools of Music and the Royal Conservatory of Music. In 1977 he wrote the pivotal book The Tuning of the World, following on earlier pamphlets like The New Soundscape. To implement his ideas, he founded the World Soundscape Project. Schafer is an important link between the "classical" tradition and sound art.

The following quote explicates his term "schizophonia":

We have split the sound form the maker of the sound. Sounds have been torn from their natural sockets and given an amplified and independent existence. Vocal sound, for instance, is no longer tied to a hole in the head but is free to issue from anywhere in the landscape.

Glenn Gould
Canadian pianist (1932–1982) well known for his recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach and his rather eccentric behaviour. He gave up live performances in 1964, but continued to produce powerful interpretations of the repertoire. Less famous are his radio documentaries, produced through his long association with the CBC. The Solitude Trilogy (The Idea of North, The Latecomers, The Quiet in the Land) used a technique of overlapping voices executed with great attention to the natural rhythm of the sentence, tone of voice, and content. Gould called this "contrapuntal radio". An article on The Idea of North can be read while listening to some streaming audio, which unfortunately is in the nasty proprietary RealAudio format. Maybe better to check out some of his other work at UbuWeb.

John Cage
A follower of Zen Buddhism and practitioner of chance-based composition, Cage (1912-1992) is famous for the recital piece 4:33, premiered by David Tudor in 1952. Cage's book Silence is essential reading, but following its title we will say nothing more about Cage here.

Hildegard Westerkamp
Born in Germany, Westerkamp has been in Canada since the sixties and is strongly associated with the landscape of that country, due to pieces like "Beneath the Forest Floor", which recreates for our ears the old growth forests of British Columbia. She joined Schafer's World Soundscape Project, lectured at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Vancouver, and was a key member of Vancouver Co-operative Radio. Her works include radiophonics, phonography, and electro-acoustic composition, combining natural sounds with people, music, poetry, etc. A variety of her recordings can be streamed from the DIFFUSION i M├ęDIA site.

Annea Lockwood
Lockwood works similarly in compositional phonography. Born in New Zealand, she has worked from the USA since 1973, primarily at Vassar College. Her piece "A Sound Map of the Hudson River" (1982) shows a particular affinity for place and environment.

Quiet American
A phonographer since a trip to Vietnam in 1998, this artist hosts an impressive site that contains the One Minute Vacations, short glimpses into other places and times. I recommend setting aside a particular time of the day and listening to one of these per diem until they are exhausted. Meditation is optional!

The next two selections are One Minute Vacations.

Albert Casais
Field recording of a peach tree swaying in the wind of Bayonne, New Jersey.

Dr. Frank Veit
Field recording of dolphins (with shrimp providing background noises) in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aqaba.

Stephen P. McGreevy
High-energy electrons are continuously entering the Van Allen radiation belts of the magnetosphere surrounding the Earth. Their traces show up in ELF/VLF radio spectrum, which corresponds to the audible range of 300 Hz to 11 kHz. Their association with the visual spectacle known as the aurora gives this phenomenon the name "auroral chorus". Stephen P. McGreevy, from California, has released several albums under this name. The example I played was recorded 24 August 1996 at 16:00 UT in Grass River Provincial Park, Manitoba, at a latitude of 54 degrees N.

escalation 372
"Deep Shelter Mentality" is a track created entirely by software synthesis, but which nonetheless bears a resemblance both to the natural recordings of the aurora and dolphins. It is taken from the 2004 limited edition release of Planet Earth Vs. The Plasma Monster, a CD which pays homage to H.G. Wells, kaiju eiga (Japanese monster movies), and the post-apocalyptic zeitgeist evident in the world since the destruction of the NYC World Trade Center.

unknown artist
A satellite transmission that could instead be a piece of musique concrete or some post-punk synth band on an off day.

Lincolnshire Poacher
This recording demonstrates the shortwave phenomenon known as a "numbers station", an endless transmission of numbers or phonetic alphabet (sometimes broken up by music or strange electronic sounds) that are presumed to be encoded transmissions from secret service agencies to their spies in the field. This is from MI5. The entire four CD Conet Project is available for download. You can read more about these oddities of the airwaves on sites like Simon Mason's.

escalation 721
"Anamnesia Part 4" is part of an unreleased project that decomposes the word "memory" into many mangled, twisted forms. In this case granular synthesis is used to cut the sound into thousands of discrete temporal units. Rather than reassemble them smoothly, the glitches are allowed to remain. Sometimes it is the space between sound that makes meaning. Want to listen?

escalation 746
"Instrument Approach" is from the 2005 project Control Tower Sound, which began as a live electro-acoustic improvisation on 5 August 2005. Subsequently, recordings were made to reproduce this performance, and these have been assembled into a (so far) unreleased CD. An important component in this project were recordings of Air Traffic Controllers. Here the spaces between the controllers' voices have been exaggerated into a drone that sounds peculiarly like the drone of the aircraft engines themselves. For more on this project, have a look at the articles in the soundscapes category.

escalation 746
"What Do They Call It, Radar?" was recorded March 1992 from a radio call-in show on the topic of life after death. The tape punch-in method of W.S. Burroughs was used in a pure fashion to create a collage beyond conscious control. "When you cut into the present, the future leaks through." Available on the limited edition 1999 CD Device for the Transmission of Electrical Energy Through Air

escalation 746
"wave, particle, falling leaves" is an installation which premiered 28 May 2005 at the Framemaker's Symposium, Limerick, Ireland. It requires two sets of independently controlled stereo speakers and a room of particular size (which is to say, fairly small). Because I did not have four audio channels available at the seminar, I presented just stereo sound (a compromise I rather regret). Again the human voice is the source material, but this time a sung female voice provides phonemes that are processed so as to play with the boundary between language and non-language, music and non-music. The piece may at first sound algorithmically generated, but is in fact improvised at the computer, enhancing the "human" and "musical" dimensions of the result.

and so on...
There are many other resources on the web. You might wish to listen to Far Afield: A Webbed Hand Compilation, check out the phonography mailing list, visit the Acoustic Ecology Institute, read the articles at The World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, or investigate The Quiet American's list of links, just for a start.



prof_lofi said...

hi robin,

great post. i was glad to come across it. for what it's worth, i've started a yahoo group about sound art that you and anyone else would be more than welcome to join. it's at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/soundasart/

hope to see you there,


Anonymous said...

hey there,

was in this lecture, almost two years ago now, stumbled across this. Remember enjoying it. All a bit of a blur but nice to have the memories rekindled.




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