Golan Levin “Dialtones”

Golan Levin,  recalls making his sound piece Dialtones as

“deliberately treading the fuzzy boundary between music and noise,”

words I believe could be applied to all of the people we have studied in this class to a degree. Pushing the boundaries of composition and music and stretching the accepted view of what sounds are pleasing to the ear seems to be a recurring theme each week as we discuss sound artists.

In the interview, Levin references John Cage’s influence on the experimental and unpredictable nature of his music multiple times. Many aspects of using digital sounds produced by technology are unpredictable in nature, especially when these sounds are produced by a person’s main communication device. Who knows when someone will next be contacted through their cellular device? Levin recounts numerous instances of unpredictable happenstances but does not seem to view these as mistakes in the performance, but as chance elements that heighten contrast for the composed solo section of Dialtones. This idea of letting whatever sounds happen to occur be a part of a performance piece is quite similar to the mindsets of Bill Fontana, John Cage, Edgard Varese, and even all the way back to Luigi Russolo.

Most intriguing, Levin makes a bold statement that

“the days of purely random music were over”,

defining music composition as the ability to effectively manage this randomness. It seemed Levin moved away from this randomness more than he even realized because of the human control in decision making he utilized during the performance. He purposefully chose people to shine light on during the performance and trigger their phone, instead of using

“an abstract sound-triggering system, [inadvertently making the performance] a communications medium that connects people.”

This may have connected him to individual members of the audience as he triggered their phones as musical instruments, but it erased the thought of complete randomness from the performance entirely. Instead, Dialtones is more composed than most pieces we have looked at in class so far.

As I started to read this interview, I was immediately brought back to one of my first ADM assignments in which we had to pitch a large-scale interactive piece. My group focused on human interaction in controlling sound in an exhibition space which turned into a performance space as sound was thought of as organized and composed. We had decided to pitch the idea of using audience members phones in a circular auditorium that would be programed to play musical sounds controlled by a center computer. The idea was quite extravagant and also proposed controlling the flashlight on phones so that the performance could simultaneously be a light show during which sound and light would emanate from each individual person’s seat. Thus, audience members would ideally feel they are a part of the performance — similar to Dialtones in many aspects I am now realizing. However, in both instances, the level of interaction with the audience can be questioned. People are not touching or interacting with their own phones at all, especially when compared to the level of interaction in Thomson & Craighead’s Telephony. It makes me think how connected are to our phones… so much so, that we feel we are participating in a performance just because our possession is being controlled by a computer or in Dialtones‘s case, Levin and his software.

Listening to Dialtones is a very familiar experience as we hear sounds around us daily, although escalated in the performance. I think most people find these sounds that phones emit to be annoying, not because the sounds are annoying themselves but because it seems somehow offensive to emit a sound every time you get a social media notification, message, call, et cetera. Thus, most people keep their phones on silent or vibration or low volume. But I imagine that if a group of people in a densely populated space all turned their phones on full volume for all notifications, the resulting sound would be very similar to Dialtones. The main difference of course being the compositional techniques used in Dialtones that make it more like a musical performance than ambient digital noise.

Pamela Z “Geekspeak”

Pamela Z is described as using extended technique sounds in her sound performances –

 “unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional methods of singing […] to obtain unusual sounds.”

Her multimedia sound art is embroidered with many layers of vocals, instrumental sounds and digital sounds that she creates, reverbs, repeats, and mixes in real time. Her unique performances combine spoken word, classical vocal elements and visuals such as film and movement through digital means that together make quite futuristic compositions.

Pamela’s strong vocals result from her classical voice studies at University of Colorado Boulder. After earning her degree, she attempted to add digital delay and reverb to her classical voice performance in the early ‘80s, moving into an entirely different realm of vocal performance in experimental sound art. I am quite curious how she decided to move from something so traditional as classical voice, which influenced her opera-like tones, to an experimental and digitally-influenced sound.

She then added live looping to her compositions by looping her voice multiple times to make her performances more layered and textural. In our sound and video compositions, we used looping for both video and sound, but the small fragments that are looped in Pamela Z’s pieces give her performance more consistent texture than a 1.5 minute looping video in my project, for instance. This repetition and consistency is heard clearly in her piece “Geekspeak” and in many of the videos of the compilation we watched in class.

As I listened to “Geekspeak”, the tech language and words were directly connected to the content important to the technology nerds of today, making the title appropriate. I questioned whether this was labeled a song or sound piece, since the conversational theme between multiple speaking (instead of singing) reminded me of a podcast. The repetition of sounds and words in addition to the way in which words were said – sometimes staccato-like or put through a reverb system or even cut off in incomprehensible phrases – made me wonder how this piece would sound if I did not know English. Any language is just a bunch of sounds combined together so that they are comprehensible by someone who knows the language. But if I did not understand the language, would it sound more like music than a podcast?

The background digital sounds and spoken words provide a texture similar to instruments in a song. So, possibly, if the spoken words were strung together more like typical singing or if they were more broken apart and incomprehensible like instrument noises, Geekspeak would be very similar to a typical song or instrumental track — though, this diversion from what is accepted as a song and pushing the interaction between sound and technology through live performance is exactly what Pamela Z is most likely going for. Annabelle Woodward describes her sonic compositions well as

“fuse eerie, futuristic audio with spoken word and film” that creates a “dynamic multimedia experience”.


JonCates – Glitch

As I read the conversation with jonCates and researched some of the glitch media artists’ pieces, I found most interesting how he talks about the system which he creates in his works. These glitched systems may malfunction or be loud or have mistakes but Cates considers these imperfect aberrations to be the essence of his artworks.

“A poetic embrace of noise and error,”

the glitch media works to show the messy reality of our technologically driven lives, but in a positive and playful manner.

No doubt, communication in our lives heavily takes place on the web or through technology. This gap between the language of our daily interactions and the language we use on our machines is closing in terms of how we handle ourselves on each. As this gap closes, our lives evolve into a techno-social system like that in Cates’s video. In this techno-social system, we communicate both in reading information and sharing it out to others. Cates calls this

“the performance of everyday life that we’re all doing all the time with all of our technologies.”

Can living be measured by our use of technologies? I don’t believe so, at least not entirely. But it can be a valuable source of information and data storage, a platform in which we live out our communication and therefore, our life.

As our lives revolve around these complex tech-social interactions, technology-facilitated communications start to reflect our instinctive verbal communication and language. Yet, jonCates doesn’t seem to reflect life accurately, choosing to break the reality of daily interactions through layering of text, noises and web interactions in his glitch work. It seems that this is what gives the glitch media the name “dirty new media,” speaking to the chaotic reality of our lives which is reflected in how we use technology. However, I would argue that because it deviates from logic and our communication habits (such as pausing, thinking, reflection, silence, etc.) the glitch media example of BOLD3RRR was not very pleasing to watch or listen to. Cates believes glitch aesthetic is growing in popularity to the point where it is not

“exclusively resistant or exclusively political,”

but I think the glitch media art field would need to greatly expand for the aesthetic to be more accepted or logical.

Janet Cardiff’s Narrative Sound Installations

Janet Cardiff’s sound installations bring a new dimension to the sound pieces we have discussed so far: narrative. In her museum installations, her pieces each tell a story through the sounds she and her husband and collaborator George Bures Miller combine together with spoken language and visuals. Yet some of the most immersive of these narrative sound installations are the audio walks.

The first work I chose to listen to of Cardiff’s was actually a video walk, the Alter Bahnhof Video Walk. Properly named (Alter translates to “old” and Bahnhoff translates to “railway station”), this piece takes place in an old German train station in Kassel, Germany.

At the beginning of the video clip on Cardiff and Miller’s website, the audience is advised to wear headphones to hear the binaural audio  of the video. Binaural audio results from a recording that uses two microphones, positioned to create a 3-D stereo sound experience for the listener. This surround sound enhances the immersive experience of watching and listening to Alter Bahnhof Video Walk and makes the viewer feel he or she is present in the space within the video.

This truly immersive experience is exactly what Cardiff was going for in her video walk both physically and digitally through the same train station. The audio recording is so believable that as I was listening to it with my earbuds I even questioned whether there was a dog barking outside by dorm room or if it was in the video. When I listen to loud music, I commonly take out my ear buds to see whether or not others can hear what I am hearing but this audio recording in the environment you are watching and standing in enhances the confusion of what is real and what is not by tenfold. On the project page of her website, Cardiff describes the piece as a “physical cinema” in which,

“An alternate world opens up where reality and fiction meld in a disturbing and uncanny way”

This uncanny nature of the video walk stems from the dual reality happening in front of you. Watching a video of a place in that exact place is not a typical experience, especially when aided by sounds that could exist in your present environment but do not. In the video, the narrator says  “or lost somewhere in their mind” directly before the video flips to walking through a forest for a few seconds. While this randomly inserted video clip might seem obtrusive, it reminded me how it was more comfortable to watch a video displaying something that was different than my present environment. The narrator’s eerily calm voice adds to the disturbing atmosphere of the video walk as well, as if something terrible is about to happen any minute.

Many of these elements seem to be universal in Cardiff’s sound installations and part of her style. As I listened to Her Long Black Hair, there were many similarities between this audio walk through Central Park and the video walk through the German train station. Both have a strong narrative implication with an aura of mystery as Cardiff prompts you through a space with instructions on where to look and walk. In Her Long Black Hair, she takes the listener through a mystery in which there are some unsettling moments like discovering a crime scene. While listening, I felt I was listening to an audio book of a mystery novel with supporting pictures; yet, if I had been walking through the actual space I can only imagine how “real” the story would feel, as if it were a news story. It reminds me of the couple times I have had a book open while watching a movie version of the story, following along for a few minutes page by page. The description of the piece on Cardiff’s website describes the illusion of the experience accurately as,

“shifting between the present, the recent past, and the more distant past”

resulting from the listener’s environment, the narrator’s environment as she speaks, and the visuals in the photographs.

In a way, Cardiff’s style relates to the use of everyday sounds like Luigi Russolo or Bill Fontana; however, Cardiff’s works are much more contrived with narrative structure and purpose. Both pieces above speak about the affect of the past on the present and how we can blur time and space through what we hear and see. There is a bit of indeterminacy in the present surroundings of the viewer in the real environment as he or she goes through an audio or video walk. But primarily this juxtaposition of present and past scenarios in the same place is about the listener’s interaction with the narrative so that they feel they are an integral part of the performance. Essentially, the listener is engulfed in an immersive experience that they have no control over, despite being the main player in the story. Cardiff describes her work well, as an

“investigation of location, time, sound, and physicality.”

Sound: Bill Fontana and Acoustical Visions

Take a walk through nature and you can easily hear the musical noises of birds chirping or rustling trees. Many people have found their surroundings to be sources of harmonic noises, but Bill Fontana focuses on specific interactions within urban architecture in his sound art. For Fontana,

“the world at any given moment is a potential musical system.” (see below video)

Born in 1947 in Cleveland Ohio, Fontana is now an internationally known artist and composer of experimental sound sculptures.

Since his first sound sculpture in 1976, Fontana has elicited a connection between his audience and their urban environment by drawing out the living sounds of bridges, machinery, transportation, and structures in his acoustical visions. Wikipedia defines sounds sculptures to be art forms, commonly sculptures, that produce sounds, OR the reverse so that sound creates a sculpture. In a sense, the audio and visual elements of his explorations create each other, sound making an image and an image making sound. Sound is elevated to give audiences a new perspective of the visual environment in which the sculpture exists. Rudolf Frieling, the Media Arts Curator at SFMOMA since 2006, described these acoustical visions best, as…

“an audiovisual field recording, enhanced and abstracted in real time or in post-production [in which s]ound and visuals support each other[ and] no leading or supporting role can be identified in this interaction.”

In many of Fontana’s pieces he finds living sounds through everyday architecture or found spaces, inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s concept of ready-made objects. Of paradoxical nature, the installation Distant Trains reconstructs a historic train terminal in Berlin destroyed in the during World War II by projecting live sounds from another train station in the space. The space seems to create the sound just as the sounds creates a “new” space.

Image compilation from Fontana’s installation of Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge

His piece Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge channels the energy of cars and surrounding fog horn and boat sounds recorded from strategically placed sensors. Recorded sounds are heard from inaccessible vantage points and the live camera view is watched from a remote location to experience a situation in entirely new context with unpredictable audio and visual.

Watch Acoustical Visions of the Golden Gate Bridge here: https://www.nytimes.com/video/arts/design/100000001588737/bill-fontanas-acoustical-visions.html

My favorite art piece of Fontana’s is his 2006 piece Harmonic Bridge, a beautiful piece containing sounds from the inner workings of the Millennium Bridge in London. The bridge is alive through vibrations that result from the bridge’s dynamic movements caused by footsteps, wind, and cars. If I had been listening in person, I think I could have stayed in the Tate Modern gallery, where the living acoustic sculpture was exhibited, for a while. The sound was slightly recognizable with distinct moments sounding very much like a stringed instrument. The Tate Modern even describes the bridge as a vast stringed instrument as you listen throughout the space. Most importantly, the sculpture is captivating because the sounds come from a place humans are incapable of reaching without technology like the accelerators Fontana uses. Alan Riding of the NY Times puts the the piece into words perfectly:

“rising and falling, always different, at once strange and familiar, mysterious and evocative, hypnotic and sensual.”

As we start discussing contemporary sound artists, the connection to the forerunners in sound art is clear. Fontana strays from synchronization of his audio and visual elements just as Edgard Varese created infinite harmonic possibilities across unpredictable planes. To Fantana,

“the act of listening is a way of making music”,

reflecting the significance of silence and listening to our surroundings in John Cage’s work. I think that if after experiencing one of Fontana’s sound sculptures we leave with different perceptions of a certain urban space, then Fontana would be satisfied. Because ultimately, sound art is about creating a new experience that is only achievable with innovative technology and original methods of composing—whether Luigi Russolo’s noise machines, Varese’s organized sound, or Cage’s chance compositions. For Fontana, it happens to be his experimental placement of recording devices, the displacement of sound, and his fascination with “the found object” that supplies this new experience.

Sound: Response to John Cage’s “Silence”

History is often read as context for understanding the present. Yet, in John Cage’s “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” he spends the first four paragraphs renouncing history:

“Why, if everything is possible, do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time?”

Instead he proposes, that:

“one does not seek by his actions to arrive at … success… beauty… [or] truth[,] but does what must be done.”

While this seems to contradict any sense of purposeful composition, the theory makes sense in combining noise sounds that may simply be noises that are heard in everyday life — noises combined without artistic intent. Accepting this lack of control can be quite difficult for the designer’s mind in someone like myself, which attempts to design a concrete solution to a problem.

Reading Cage’s writing after reading Edgard Varese’s “The Liberation of Sound” gave me a greater appreciation for how advanced Varese was for his time. Still, Cage criticizes Varese as being not experimental (or varied) enough in the outcome of his sound compositions. Cage’s focus on chance operation and lack of preconceived notions seems to be a reversal of how we compose, design, or create.

Out of the three of these terms, I would deduct “create” to be the word that fits Cage’s proposal for experimental music best; yet, creation typically exists through use of the imagination and Cage reject’s Varese’s use of the imagination. His extreme opposition to history and purpose in music is quite intimidating in envisioning how myself or anyone might compose such music based on indeterminacy.

On the other hand, composing silence seems to be accepted by Cage and planning for space and emptiness is an idea that easily translates across much of art and design. Maybe Cage is proposing that we abandon commonly accepted ways of planning and strategically composing sounds and approach compositions from new angles. We can still write pieces with intent but then flip the composition or erase parts or find other means that would result in an outcome that wasn’t originally conceived. Possibly, experimental music might simply be about letting the sounds drive the composition and being open to however the sounds combine themselves…

“Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds”

This brings up the concept of what is considered sound versus music, which we have explored in each reading so far. If we let noises drive compositions, does that mean they are still musical compositions? One of John Cage’s most famous pieces, 4:33, pushes this to the extreme with silence as sound.


With 4:33 as my point of reference, listening to Cartridge Music actually emphasized “silence” as sound, or as Cage points out in his writing, the importance of emptiness. Even with earphones in while listening to Cartridge Music, I could still hear the background sounds of the cafe I was in: the workings of a kitchen, the people sitting next to me, distant cafe music, silverware clinking:

And yet, these surrounding noises added to the experience of the listening to this piece of inconsistent rough mechanical sounds. Silence allows each listener to have a slightly different experience while listening to a composition. Essentially, through 4:33, Cartridge Music, and his writing, Cage puts a focus on time, unpredictability, and the constant noise surrounding us as the only requirements to successful experimental music.

Sound: Edgard Varese “The Liberation of Sound” Response

In Liberation of Sound, Edgard Varese justifies his vision for new instruments that will create harmonic possibilities far beyond what existed in 1936, a call to create “an entirely new magic of sound”. There seemed to be a focus in moving away from linear movement of sound masses towards three-dimensional movement of sound masses, triggered by compositions of sounds reflecting off each other and combining with others. Some sounds may collide to form new sounds otherwise incapable of being produced, while others may be pushed away or reverberated. Although I do not have much background in music, it makes sense that moving across planes at various speeds and at different angles contradicts the linear sequence of single notes in a melody, thus creating new melodic sounds not able to be produced by the limitations of current instruments.

Varese foreshadows or predicts the rise of electronic music that was to come, but explains it in such a way that reverts back to previous ways of showing musical sounds. His comparison relates electronic sound music to the more organic graphical representations of music from before staff notation with its rigidity and precision. With more fluid sound compositions created from new machines, Varese notes much more is possible including the subdivisions of octaves, extreme high and low registers, and subharmonic combinations – that is with proper composing by an artist. Clearly, Varese’s essay and work Poeme Electronique were groundbreaking during his time. Poeme Electronique started off with the familiar sound of church bells and then abruptly transitioned to high pitched electronic sounds people in the 1930s probably had never heard (or recognized hearing) before. The piece has many pauses and composes sounds reminiscent of nature, environments, machinery, echos, people and materials. Overall, the composition had great diversity of texture, as if you could feel or touch what you were hearing, even if it wasn’t the most pleasing combinations of noises to my hear.

From both the essay and electronic work, it’s clear how Varese’s goal was to shift music in a new direction that would open up opportunities for new sound exploration. He gives clear respect for how music has evolved up until his day and with his writing attempts to free sounds of strict parameters that defined music so as to create a greater expanse of where music might go.

Sound: Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noise

Music has never been something I believed I had a keen ear towards. I enjoy music and played piano but never understood the technicality of it and the study of musical sounds. However, I have always enjoyed putting away the earbuds and sitting and listening to daily sounds around me. Typically I would take walks at lunch during work or sit on the bus in silence or open my bedroom window and hear the sounds from outside. But none of this was ever silence to me, so I resonated with Luigi Russolo’s writing about how daily noises can be more pleasing to the ear than traditionally accepted music.

Russolo’s manifesto opens up the expanse of sounds that we may not realize we interpret each day and prompts us to be active in discovering these noises that exist around us through machines, nature and people. Without a background in music, it is interesting to me that instrumental sounds which were established by people are called pure sounds. I would think that the sounds resulting from nature or from experiences in our life—whether in the city or rural areas—would be called pure. It is also worth noting that these noise sounds, when given words by Russolo in his six categories of noises, are comparative to literature onomatopoeias.

Russolo has a clear stance on the superiority of noise sounds but his piece “Awakening of a City” did not convince me so. As previously mentioned, I think some noises can be quite pleasing to listen to, but as Russolo mentioned, “the variety of noises is infinite” so I believe there must be many unpleasing noises too. I actually listened to the “Awakening of a City” prior to reading The Art of Noise and I was able to pick up slight resemblances between the noise in his piece and the sounds of music I have listened to. As I was listening, I sketched out how I was visualizing this noise piece in my head, not with the intention of accuracy but to be able to see what I was hearing. After reading the manifesto, I think my visualization may have related to the speed and slowing down movements of the piece as well as the volume intensity. Overall, this type of noise sound is intriguing and seems to tell a story in the dramatic nature of its composition — a story that doesn’t necessarily imitate nature or machinery but tries to compose them together to create something new that you may not hear or notice in everyday life.