Concepts in Sound Art

From two months studying at NTU, my perception of design has definitely changed. Projects I have been exposed to in all of my courses have been much more than visuals on a poster or screen. The experience of interacting with media is multi-sensory and through this class, so far, I have learned how sound augments an experience in a particular space, shared with others or alone, or while interacting with an art installation. Emotion, purpose and innovation associated with interactive media is very much a result of sound.

One of my first realizations in August came from Futurist Luigi Russolo’s manifesto “The Art of Noise.” Russolo believed that

“the rhythmic movements of a noise are infinite.”

Thus, we should make every attempt to

“break at all cost from this restrictive circle of pure sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.”

Of course, every noise has its own unique sound but Russolo blew the door open for the infinite sounds we could CREATE ourselves. As I explored combining recorded noises in Max and utilized various output modules, it become quite obvious how expansive the sound landscape is.

So where does one begin in producing a sound? Is it entirely fabricated from scratch like the sounds produced from Russolo’s noise machines? Or is it experimental use of instruments that already exist, as composer Edgard Varese  practiced in his piece Ionisation? For the purpose of my project, I was inspired by contemporary sound artist Bill Fontana’s use of everyday sounds, recgonzing that

“the world at any given moment is a potential musical system.”

Listening and observing are a couple of the most important skills in learning and finding inspiration in our daily lives. As I went about my days here in Singapore, I did not actively search out moments of sound inspiration. Rather, it was in the times when I was just being present in a space that I would pick up on a soundscape around me that I wanted to record. These sounds were then combined to become half of my compositional audio-visual piece, layering each of these moments on top of each other to create a new sound landscape.

Yet, with all I had learned about finding and producing sounds, composing them posed a greater challenge. Harkening back to Russolo’s “Awakening of a City”, it appeared that noises could become a musical composition as we try to organize them in a strategic manner. There may be no recognizable form of composition exactly like that of musical notes; but the freeing of sounds as they collide on a three dimensional plane, explained by Varese, creates new colors, magnitude, and perspectives so that

“the entire work will be a melodic totality. The entire work will flow as a river flows.”

Layered sounds, reverberation, additive filters, and changing volumes moved the individual sounds towards a calculated composition in our projects, abandoning linear movement of sound masses. And while what we were creating in class was an entirely conceived sound composition, there are similar sound mass compositions that we experience around us. Go to a hawker center or cafe, a public concert or sports event and you will be able to pick up this textural mass of sounds. Yet we don’t always do so. We pay attention to what we see more so than what we hear. Our reading from composer John Cage on silence, helped me acknowledge that listening is as powerful as seeing or creating.

That is not to say that video should be disregarded. But because we are constantly focused on the visuals in front of us, video feed can make sounds more recognizable and less imaginative. Thus, used wisely, video can help root a composition in narrative. Visuals add depth to a soundscape just as sounds add dimension to video. Combined together, they form what a digital landscape truly is: an immersive experience in a composed story. Artist Janet Cardiff showcases how sound and video can distort time in a listeners mind, relocate people from place to place and open up alternate worlds,

“where reality and fiction meld.”

This alternate reality is what we attempted to create in our digital landscapes.

Screenshot of one moment inside the alternate world created by my digital landscape project.

Whether it’s traditional musical notes or experimental noises, music reflects the world. It reflects the way in which the artist intended a sound piece to be heard. It reflects the thoughtful innovation of unique sounds that have been put into the world. And music reflects the emotion of the listeners and authenticates our experiences. Through our digital landscapes, we are able to take these reflections and our learnings on conceptual sound art to evoke new stories with creative purpose.

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.”