Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 14, 2015
Barbara London and Anne Hilde Neset Soundings: A Contemporary Score Exh. cat. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013. 84 pp.; 70 color ills. Paper $18.95 (9780870708886)
Exhibition schedule: Museum of Modern Art, New York, August 10–November 3, 2013
Soundings: A Contemporary Score. Installation view. August 10–November 3, 2013. © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar.

Soundings: A Contemporary Score was the first major exhibition of “sound” at the Museum of Modern art (MoMA), which Christopher Phillips once famously characterized as “the seat of judgment.” But it encompassed far more than the exhibited sixteen artists from ten countries. It was a large and integrated program of exhibition, films, sound performances, workshops, and lectures overseen by Barbara London, associate curator in the Department of Media and Performance Art, and curatorial assistant Leora Morinis. This review can merely outline some of these concerns by reducing the vast array of diverse impulses brought together into a few basic categories. Fortunately, categorizations and terminology, with the arguments they contain, are an overt concern within the sonic field. Sound artists constantly refer to the struggle between their individual creativity and the restraints that categorizations impose, not the least of which is the exhibition of an immaterial medium within the powerful public domain of museums dedicated more to the preservation of material objects. More specific to the field and a central concern to many of the artists as well as to the process of curation and display are the taxonomies and their parameters used for soundscapes.

The general intention of the largest number of works in the exhibition seems to fall into or near the traditional taxonomy of “field recordings,” but consciously modified through concerns over environmental sounds, auditory immersions, and installations. A better designation might be what Toshiyo Tsunoda refers to as “soundscape field recordings,” which he argues as parallel to “landscape painting” in order to avoid categorical preconceptions and procedures. He thinks of situations where autonomous entities interact between materials, artists, and social objects to record “a trace of a particular collision” (exhibition catalogue, 25). Two such examples in the exhibition are also the only two videos.

Hong-Kai Wang’s Music While We Work (2011) shows recruited sugarcane workers (now retired men and women with family members) listening to and recording the audio of various sectors of their previous jobs. Their recording process as well as what they recorded were also videoed by Wang, with the sounds of the concrete encounters and the video projected in sliding, episodic fashion across three large room walls. Varying concepts of subject, object, and viewer entangled themselves in the interrelation of objective distance and personal immersion; viewers watched watchers watch their own lives through others while Wang retreated into apparent if not conceptual anonymity.

These are keynote concerns throughout the exhibition which are sui generis not only to field recordings but to social documentary in general: distance versus immersion complicated by aural and imagistic reembeddings, the self-reflexivity of positions and the functions of the listeners and the recorders which include the location of the artist as author. And provocatively, under what terms are field recordings considered “music,” as Wang’s title claims?

In the exhibition’s other video, Jacob Kirkegaard coordinated image, light, time, and sound. He placed microphones and video recorders into a field of nuclear disaster, specifically several rooms at Chernobyl, in 2006. The work is as much an aesthetics of light and color as it is of sound, with tones that slowly morph, often in relation to light, from soft to noise and back. One scene, a courtyard, emerges slowly in the light, evoking a Baroque theater set, then fades while conjoined to a single tone. At other moments, the overdubbed sounds create a mish-mash dirge of disruption, perhaps fear. The experience is immersive, with time measured in both the work’s structure and title: AION, from the Greek for time and eternity. The soundings here are also part of a larger historical turn to acousmatic sound, with greater consideration given to the sonic qualities rather than the sources. Less the sounds of the rooms, these are open-ended challenges to listeners.

A kinetic installation piece by Luke Fowler and Tsunoda, Ridges on the Horizontal Plane (2011), serves as a bridge between field soundscapes, with Tsunoda’s references to painting and especially “collisions,” imagism, and a compositional technique of randomness. The work involves a piece of fabric billowed by rotating fans to become a screen on which projected landscape images rippled in distortion. As the cloth moved, it randomly brushed against electrified piano wire to create a crescendoing sound that ends, then rebuilds. The sound itself was not especially exploratory, but correlated well with Tsunoda’s interests in traces and the ways that conditions and spaces shape vibrations.

The films of Luke Fowler, developed over the years and presented as part of the exhibition’s correlate evening programs, testify to the differing ways film and sound can connect to challenge their normal, direct relationships in field recording. His short Tenement Films (officially titled David, Anna, Lester, and Helen) of 2006 are based on knowing your neighbors more through the sounds coming from their flats and our projected, imagined narratives. The films are dissociative as they concentrate on parts of the apartments, especially common objects, along with time and light, rather than the people—a strategy central to his films. His early documentaries, such as The Way Out (2003) and Pilgrimage from Scattered Points (2006), which also showed in the film program, are attempts to dissociate the authorial command of the director as well as the documentary and field recording limits of direct interviews and participatory subjects by radically reducing the presence of the subject and disjointing the narratives through intercuts.

Fowler follows this structuralist experimentation in A Grammar for Listening (parts 1–3) (2009), especially in parts 1 and 2. But it is particularly part 3, in collaboration with Tsunoda, that his structural rules for listening turn more radically to interiority and the normally inaudible, as stethoscopes record internal reaction to exterior confrontations. Fowler gives credence to this concern via his self-expressed “thinking through the problem of the acousmatic” in terms of Pierre Schaeffer’s formulation (see, for instance, his interview with Christopher Cox at

A concern for the inaudible, or making sounds visible, seemed the second largest area of interest. This was most obvious by the inclusion of drawings by Marco Fusinato, Mass Black Implosion (Shaar, Iannis Xenakis) (2012), and Christine Sun Kim’s Scores and Transcripts series (2012). Fusinato’s dense cluster of black-ink lines tying all the notes to a single point reminded me of the exploding-imploding tonal clusters played with the forearm at the end of John Cage’s 1942 In the Name of the Holocaust. The relationship established between the singular sound and the differences that occur when they are conjoined finds its echo throughout many other projects in the exhibition, especially in interference patterns.

Born deaf, Kim developed a personal and independent rather than what others consider a “correct” relationship between sounds, language, and social behavior. This can be seen in her drawings’ use of dramatic, embodied lines of pastel and charcoal to inscribe words, letters, and gestural marks. But it was her November 2013 artist workshop, entitled A Choir of Glances, conducted in more-or-less silence with the audience wearing ear plugs and communicating (mostly) via printed and projected gestures and bodily motions—temporarily deaf but not mute—that resonated most strongly with not only her unique journey but the politics of the “Deaf community” which emphasizes the “social legitimacy of non-vocal language” (40).

In a separate room painted completely black and furnished with cushions, listeners could hear what humans cannot hear: the communication sounds of insects, fish, and bats in the ultrasound range. In Ultrafield (2013), Jana Winderen recorded and pitched them down to the range of human hearing. However, the desired contemplative element was marred by one of the weaknesses of the exhibition, sound bleeding from other projects. But the ability to eavesdrop on the inaudible world of these other creatures was reverential while reminding us that we are all creatures.

Carsten Nicolai sought to transcribe sound into visibility more directly. Within the exhibition space his Wellenwanne Ifo (2012) kinetic apparatus projected inaudible low-frequency sound waves through variations in air pressure onto the surface of water, then reflected the interference patterns onto a screen as a form of meditative science. In one of the MoMA Studio programs he teamed with the Japanese sound artist Ryoki Ikeda under the name Cyclo to work with Ikeda’s concentration on raw sounds, like noise and sine tones, here translated into vibrant trance-like abstract visual forms generated through real-time visual analysis.

What most people might consider normative music was not much in evidence at Soundings, and when it was, it carried its own sense of presence through absence. From a 1943 composition by the Czech-Jewish composer Pavel Haas for a full orchestra written while in the Terezin concentration camp—it was performed by the camp orchestra for a Nazi propaganda film, after which most of the participants were transferred and murdered—only the cello and viola parts were recorded by Susan Philipsz in her version of Study for Strings (2012). Describing the project, she writes: “I think the absence of sound is much more active [than silence]—compelling a listener to fill in the gaps” (62). Here the dissonant pauses projected into a large, dark-gray room by eight large speakers were the performers who could not be filled in.

Although many of the projects concerned themselves in part with interference patterns, what is often referred to as sound organization (modifying Edgard Varèse’s original use) was central to several works. None were more emphatic in engaging viewers than Tristan Perich’s Microtanal Wall (2011), in which 1,500 tiny speakers arranged along 25 feet of the corridor leading into the exhibition were each tuned to a single and different frequency. Once again embodied proximity was integral to the aural space, including white noise from a static distance, an ascending or descending scale as the listener moved past, and single frequencies up close. His composition Parallels (2013) was performed by the percussionists Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins (Meehan/Perkins Duo) at an evening performance, reinforcing Perich’s concern for combinations of low-fi and singular (1-bit) soundings.

A film equivalent to interference came from Philip Brophy’s Evaporated Music (parts 1 and 2) (2000–4/6), where in both cases the original film scores were erased and the sonics refashioned and resynched, with substitutions ranging from incidental sounds to his own voiced presence. Where Fowler played sound against image, Brophy played noise against image to defamiliarize both registers. Their similarities in strategies well demonstrate the weakness of categorization for all but the temporary development of thematic concerns.

However, MoMA’s press materials emphasized there was one consistent aspect in the exhibition, that of the involved listener. And none demonstrated it as well as the first of the evening performances by the now legendary composer Pauline Oliveros. Her What’s the Score? (2013) proposed a challenge to the exhibition title through her composition by improvisation which called on the audience members to “score” it for her use in a later work. The cybernetic loop between artist and the sonic awareness of the listener, pioneered by Oliveros in the 1980s with her concept of Deep Listening, clearly exerted direct influence on the gallery talks, which centered on the sonic awareness of visitors and provided a singular underlying theme to the exhibition.

Richard Leslie
Graduate Lecturer, School of Visual Arts

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