The relationship between sound and environment has been explored throughout the XXth century and, in the late 1960s, the notion of “sound installation” emerged for the first time. This thought process is echoed today by many contemporary artists in search of a new harmony between man and his ecosystem.
TAO / Max Neuhaus
It was artist and musician Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) who first coined the term "sound installation." A percussionist by training, he interrupted his career as an instrumentalist at the age of twenty-eight to make a radical departure, under the combined influence of Varese and Cage. While those composers were the first to integrate everyday sounds into their compositions, Neuhaus took this approach even further: since they are now recognized as musical, why not invite the public to listen to the sounds directly in the field, away from a concert hall? He then installed listening devices related to specific sites, thus escaping the traditional performance in a venue, museum or gallery. While Neuhaus helped to bring sound as a full-fledged medium in its own right into the field of contemporary art, his intangible, ephemeral and anonymous works faced opposition by institutions unable to adapt to them. Confused by his approach, they kept trying to associate them with coalitions or a signature that he systematically refused. It is by working in public spaces that his conception of a purely environmental music took shape, devoid of any cultural context and stripped of the notion of authorship. For his first sound performance in 1966, he invited a small group of viewers to party in the industrial neighborhoods of New York with a single instruction: the word LISTEN stamped in capital letters on their hands.
In Neuhaus’ mind, ambient noise generated by the urban space --the hum of a factory, the ebb and flow of traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge or the drone of an air vent in Times Square-- can be listened to as a music that is self-perpetuating, without a beginning or an end. By drawing attention to the musicality of sound in its natural state, freed from its subservience to musical writing, Neuhaus encourages the viewer to change his perception of a place. Through his many features and devices, which he then developed later in Europe, it is above all, as Cage mentioned, about "letting nature take its course."
Objective sound / Bill Fontana
Following in Neuhaus’ footsteps, Bill Fontana (born in 1947) develops sound sculptures and interactive installations designed to change the perception of a space, to map it out symbolically, to reveal through sensors and micro-contact a whole acoustic micro-world that would usually be imperceptible: the structure of the Millennium Bridge in London, the waters of the Thames, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the streetcar in Lyon, railroads in Berlin ... Through the abundant sound life that unfolds there, these sites suddenly acquire a physical presence to become organisms with their own autonomous life. “My sound sculptures use the human environment and / or natural environment as a musical information system in real time, filled with meaningful sound events. I see music as a natural process that occurs continuously.” Sculpture remains the best go-between between the world of matter and the immaterial world of sound.
From here to ear / Céleste Boursier-Mougenot
New generation & new technologies
Today a new generation of artists, at the crossroads of experimental music and the visual arts, continues this creative process, which is enriched by the precision of new technologies. Sound artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot (Marcel Duchamp Prize in 2010) produces ”ambient” installations with evocative titles: Harmonichaos, Videodrones, bruitformé, From Here to Ear... "For me it’s about revealing forms of potential rather than intentional music, that result from situations, actions and logic alien to the music, whether animal, mechanical or human. My approach is accomplished through the development of translation or amplification devices designed to make visible the biorhythms and the differentiation of living phenomena." (in Artinfo France, September 2010). In these environments of striking visual beauty, the sound is produced by random phenomena: porcelain bowls collide in a basin under the effect of an electric pump; vacuum cleaners are connected to harmonicas and controlled by electric guitar tuners; sparrows, released into the vast space of a gallery, come to perch on top of electric guitars, producing scattered notes in harmony with their chirping ... The viewer is invited to walk through these sound areas for a poetic meditation.
The singing ringing tree / Mike Tomkin & Anna Liu
Other artists follow in the path of Land Art, as evidenced by the sound structures designed by Luke Jerram. His impressive sculpture Aeolus, which took two years of planning, consists of a metal arch inspired by the design motifs of a mosque in Iran and from which springs up a collection of tubes pointing to the sky. The wind rushing into these organ pipes makes a deep and vibrating whistling sound, like a meditative Om. Along the same lines, the sculpture Singing Ringing Tree by architects Mike Tomkin and Anna Liu, commissioned by the Lancashire area, is a huge twisting assembly of pipes erected atop a mountain. The sounds that emerge from all sides of it are like a heavenly song, giving an alien aura to the sculpture. As for the installation Sun Boxes by Craig Russolo, it is made of twenty speakers powered by solar panels. Each speaker contains a computer that broadcasts a fine looped guitar note. Sounds interfere and melt into each other, creating an evolving composition whose sounds differ depending on the viewer's movement and the intensity of the sun. This discreet convergence between nature and technology suggests the possibility of an unprecedented cohesion between man and his natural environment.
Wild song at down / Chris Watson
Another branch of artists remains committed to recorded media in order to hear sounds gleaned from nature. Chris Watson, founder of industrial bands Cabaret Voltaire and Hafler Trio in the 1980's, has been recording wildlife sounds from the most remote geographical areas of the world for the past fifteen years. These field recordings reveal incredible soundscapes that one never tires of listening to. For some musicians (G * Park, Eric La Casa, Steve Roden, Toy Bizarre, Mnortham...), these environmental sounds are the raw material for electro-acoustic compositions of an almost intimate quality. The melting of the ice, the friction of gravel or the buzzing of a hive are rendered unrecognizable by electronic processing and reveal a world of sound that is mysterious and somewhat disturbing. Spanish sound artist Francisco Lopez also works with the sound-material of the world, especially the sounds of the jungle and meteorological phenomena. By filtering these recordings in a purely intuitive way, he produces noisy compositions that literally upset the psyche of the listener. In his public performances, the viewer is invited to go blindfolded to experience the sound as an introspective and rightfully metaphysical experience.
It is likely that these forms of live, constantly evolving music will profoundly change our view of the world in the decades to come. Who can say if this elemental and primary music might not be the one that will best stand the test of time?
Documents and links
In the series
THE RUINS OF THE FUTURE
Friday 15 April 2011
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