17 November 2001
Feel the noise
Browsing in a record shop one day, you might come across a CD called Ticker. It’s an album-length recording of a ticking clock. The tick is fed through an echo, and the echoes get faster or slower depending on the body temperature of the artist, Alvin Lucier. He made the recording with thermal sensors attached to his body. Sometimes, perhaps to avoid charges of anthropocentrism, he puts the sensors on a potted plant instead.
This is sound art. Normally, I prefer to listen to music. Shostakovich, Rage Against the Machine, Ibizan trance. Just listening to interesting sounds has struck me as the sort of thing an ultra-stoned hippy might do, pushing a door back and forth for hours and swaying in addled wonder to the melody of the creaks.
I spend a day downloading fragments of sound art from the internet. Abstract soundscapes of whooshy static, with the odd washing machine or robotic cricket. Here’s a warehouse space revolving about my head, punctuated with dull clanking. Here’s a horrid, metallic flanged object being scraped with a very large piece of chalk. Computer modem noises; radio-tuning warbles. One can summon up a forensic interest in this stuff for a while, but a lot of it is simply ugly and tiring.
Chris Amey runs London-based sound-arts collective Limited Noise. I am relieved to find out that he doesn’t like a lot of this material either. A lot of sound art “implies sitting in silence while stuffy academics make you listen to whooshy noises going past you, and then you clap politely at the end,” he says wearily. He prefers to think of sound art as “paintings with speakers”.
Amey plays me one of his own pieces, Music for Sleeping. Its undulating, harmonically rich noise initially seems grating, but becomes weirdly soothing, like a bright metal object that is unexpectedly warm to the touch. It might just send you nicely to sleep.”We had it set up in a room at a festival,” Amey explains enthusiastically. “At night it was lit only by a few candles, and otherwise it was pitch black. There were beds on the floor and they would all have people on them. They’d either be asleep or very quiet, not talking or only whispering very softly.”
This is sound art with a humanitarian purpose. I’d much rather listen to it than a CD of whale music or warbling multi-tracked Gaels. But other branches of sound art are not quite so mellow. Amey tells me of Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda, who blasts a pure sine-wave tone at his audiences for 15 minutes at a time. It’s the logical extension of minimalism, but I wouldn’t want to be around to hear it.
Other mini-genres of sound art include plunderphonics, which relentlessly samples other sources in a kind of audio collage, and turntablism, in which loops from randomly chosen records are played simultaneously on numerous gramophones. The polyphonic crackling of so many pieces of old vinyl on the track I hear, by US turntablist Philip Jeck, becomes a rather lovely sound in itself.
One revered sound-art prophet is the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo. “We find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the Eroica or the Pastoral,” he wrote in The Art of Noises (1913). Thrilled by the clatter of the industrial age and the boom of warfare, he demanded they be incorporated into musical composition, and designed his own mechanical instruments to do it. Sadly, no major composer ever used the noise machines, and Russolo faded into avant-garde legend.
Russolo only went so far: he wanted to domesticate noise, to notate it, to control it. Later, John Cage began writing “music” that he couldn’t control, and seemingly contained no music at all. His most famous work is 4’33″ (1952), “for any instrument or combination of instruments”. The musician adopts the playing posture and does nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. It draws attention to tiny, ambient sounds: the rustle of fabric as audience members cross their legs, the squeak of shoe-leather on the floor, the stifled cough or sigh. These random noises become the artwork.
On my desk is something similar: Jonty Semper’s Kenotaphion, a new double-CD collection of two-minute silences observed on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. Each one begins with the tolling of Big Ben and then dissolves into ever-changing patterns of ambient noise: fragments of birdsong, sussurations of distant traffic, the occasional ungovernable crack of thunder. Behind it all is the listener’s knowledge of a mass of people gathered precisely to leave no aural record of themselves.
Another artist working in Cage’s tradition is Matt Rogalsky. Recently, US radio stations have introduced technology that strips out the silences between presenters’ words, compacting talk-time and leaving more space for ad breaks. “If you know American talk radio,” Rogalsky says wryly, “you will probably also know that the fragments they are throwing away are often the best part of the programme.” So he wrote software to do the opposite: to strip out the words and keep the silences, with just the ghostly tail-ends and beginnings of words audible. There is currently an Edinburgh installation demonstrating this in realtime. In December Rogalsky will collect all the silences from BBC Radio 4 in one 24-hour period and press them onto a box set of CDs. “I have been very interested in the range of listener responses,” Rogalsky says. “Some people hear an urgency suggesting something dark and sinister… several people have found this material erotic.”
“I don’t think it’s that useful to try and separate ‘music’ and ‘sound art’,” Rogalsky warns. Certainly it is increasingly difficult in what’s left of the classical tradition. As 20th-century composers dismantled the usual stuff of music – including Edgar Varèse’s experiments with electronics and Pierre Schaeffer’s coinage “musique concrète”, to describe music made from found sounds such as birdsong or traffic – the line between what was music and what was simply noise became increasingly blurred. Often, recontextualisation was enough. Just as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal had become art by virtue of being placed in a gallery, so could the roar of cars – or a two-minute silence – if presented as an object of aesthetic contemplation.
Musician and author David Toop, who curated an exhibition of sound art at London’s Hayward Gallery last year, and whose book Ocean of Sound traces a sensually fascinating path through 20th-century sound art and leftfield music, agrees. “Duchamp is hugely important in sound art,” he says. “If you transport something into a different context, it then has a different meaning.” Toop offers an analogy with the visual arts. Figurative painting is only a subset of everything possible within the visual arts. Similarly, “figurative” music – music with harmony, rhythm, melody and so on – is only a subset of the many possible ways to organise sound artistically. “It’s like making the jump from Turner to Kandinsky,” Toop suggests. “Turner explores light in a narrative context, whereas in Kandinsky it has become a purely abstract exploration.”
On a bright, cold morning in London’s Docklands, I sit at the top of Trinity Buoy Wharf Lighthouse. As wintry light scatters off the Thames through the observation window, a slow hieratic clangour emerges through four loudspeakers. A gentle high bell sound, like a glint of sun through cloud, is answered by a low and heavy splash; soft tinkling gives way to something like a wavering note from a French horn. It is otherworldly and beautiful. If we could hear the music of the spheres – the mythical sound made by the concentric metal globes of the heavens grinding forever above us – it might sound something like this. And it has something of the same reach, for the piece, called Longplayer, will last without ever repeating itself for 1,000 years.
It was created by musician Jem Finer, one-time banjo-player with the Pogues. “I started thinking how long and slow time is for things like rocks and trees,” he explains. “And then how, to an ant, humans must look like they go on for bloody ever. I wanted to find some way to make that tangible.” The piece is made from recordings of Tibetan prayer bowls, looped and stretched by a computer over 1,000 years’ worth of combinations. Finer can’t be sure that computers will be around that long, so he is investigating ways to ensure the piece’s survival. There will be one copy installed in the new Alexandria Library in Egypt. Ideally he’d like to have it uploaded to satellites and broadcast continuously around the world, “so it’s everywhere”. He grins infectiously at the idea.
“I think it’s definitely music,” Finer says. “And if there’s such a thing as sound art then it’s certainly sound art as well. Sound is the consequence of an idea, and maybe that’s sound art; and if you take that sound and make something else of it then maybe that’s music.”
As I descend the lighthouse staircase and go outside, the haunting, accidental harmonies of prayer bowls recede. Longplayer doesn’t care whether it’s sound art or not. It has no genre anxiety. To it, I was of no more consequence than a single, scratched frame of film in some long-forgotten movie.
You could say that, far from being a niche playground for computer boffins, sound art enjoys a stealthy omnipresence. Many everyday sounds are deliberately designed. The ring of a telephone, the beep of an alarm clock, the soft chime of a lift stopping: someone, somewhere, has decided what these things should sound like and made it happen. They are sound artists too, in their small way.
Sound art is also a crucial partner in films, commercials, television and videogames. In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for example, the extraordinary abstract sound design by Alan Splet almost becomes a character in the narrative. And since the 1980s, dance music has experienced a “timbral shift”: the primacy of melody is challenged by experiments with novel, complexly textured sounds that evolve among the hard, repetitive beats. People are employed full-time by musical-equipment corporations such as Yamaha and Emu-Ensoniq just to create new sounds for their next synthesisers. They, too, are sound artists.
One work that revels in the form’s multimedia possibilities is Canadian artist Janet Cardiff’s work The Missing Voice (Case Study B), which is part radio play, part performance poetry, part sonic design and part portable installation. In London’s Whitechapel Library, I am given a Sony Discman. Through the headphones, a woman begins talking. She seems paranoid. There are sounds of other library-users: scuffling feet, brushes of paper against paper. Soon the woman tells me to go outside. I am led through the rainy, mazy streets for 45 minutes, following a fragmentary, surreal detective story. I am never quite sure if a police siren or a passing lorry is real or only on the CD. At one point gunfire erupts; inside a church, a heavenly choir sings out of nowhere.
The history of recorded music is a history of creating virtual spaces. Classical CD recording, for example, places you in a prime stalls seat in a nonexistent concert hall, by virtue of the way the instrumental sections are distributed in the stereo field. Much abstract sound art is interested primarily in the structure of the virtual space itself. And then there is Cardiff’s work, which projects a virtual space – the recorded sounds of a walk through Whitechapel – on to the original space from which it was modelled. You experience two realities at once. And you can begin to play this game afterwards, imagining that the apparently random street scenes around you are carefully choreographed and soundtracked to a mysterious design.
This, perhaps, is the primary value of sound art: that it encourages you to pay attention to how you listen, and to experiment with new ways of listening. I’m not going to start sitting down and listening to CDs of traffic and iron-smelting every evening, but perhaps I will take more interest in the uncontrollable sounds around me, rather than blocking them out as unwanted noise. If nothing else, it makes waiting for a bus less boring.
Having decided this, I get home through a noisy London rush hour and then listen to Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Suddenly it seems even more impossibly beautiful than ever.