Surveying the Damage: The Scene Is Now
Since the ’90s, sound art has found itself in the same position as all the arts: no one style prevails. You name it, it’s happening today: appropriation, computer manipulation, plunderphonics, environmental works, and narrativity. And, due to the computer, it’s happening in such great numbers that it’s hard to keep track of it all. Much of it is flowing around the networks—every day I discover new works on the web. It’s a landscape of abundance. Let’s make a quick survey of some of the many projects that have grabbed my ear (and mind) of late.
In 2001, Stephen Vitiello made a remarkable disc called Bright and Dusty Things during his artist’s residency in the World Trade Center. He would stand by the window and focus a light-sensitive meter onto an object—say, a flashing police car coming down the West Side Highway—and transform that light into sound via his computer. Or, he would stick a contact mic onto the window of the building itself and record the vibrations of the wind or the air conditioning system, capturing the sonic essence of the World Trade Center. Not only does Vitiello create gorgeous and subtle soundscapes, but in light of recent events, his disc stands as a powerful memory and memorial.
The New York-based artist Kristin Oppenheim has created a number of gallery-based sound installations using only her voice. In her most powerful pieces, she’ll riff on a pop song—Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” for example—with a lilting voice, over and over again, “hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand.” It’s minimalism, it’s environmental, it’s sentimental, it’s entrancing.
Golan Levin, a conceptual digital artist, composed Dialtones: a Telesymphony, a 26-minute piece composed and performed on 200 cellphones. The premise is great: the first 200 people coming into the auditorium who were carrying cellphones registered at a computer kiosk in the lobby, and new ringtones—specially composed for the event—were downloaded to their phones. They were then assigned seats in the front center part of the concert hall in a 20-by-10 arrangement, becoming a cellphone “orchestra.” Onstage, Levin and his cohorts were working banks of computers as they frantically started calling each cellphone in the “orchestra.” Since they knew exactly where each participant was sitting and what their ringtones would be, they began weaving lines of sound through this forest of phones. The piece, scored beforehand, was simply a matter of coordinating hundreds of machines to produce a symphony. And far from stopping at the wonders of sheer geekdom, it also sounds great, making this one of those rare instances of computer-based music where the music is actually more interesting than the machines that made it.
Harry Bertoia also worked environmentally, but through design and in domestic settings. Bertoia’s classic diamond chair, designed in 1952, looks like a stainless steel instrument, perhaps something that Harry Partch would’ve created had he worked in space-age chromed metal. Its shape is like those three-dimensional visualizations you see of sound waves. Run your fingernail across the slick ridges and the whole chair reverberates. It makes you want to pick up a mallet and give it a few whacks, which was Bertoia’s idea.
Around the same time, he was making his diamond chairs, Bertoia started making actual musical instruments that looked somewhat like his furniture. He’s most well-known for a group of sculptures known as the “sonambient” sculptures which have best been described as “metallic harps.” I recall a recent exhibition in Chelsea where his vast metal sculptures were on display. Some looked like pedestals with metal cattails sticking up; others were simply enormous gongs. Viewers were encouraged to take their hand and give ’em a solid whack. The concrete-floor white box gallery was cacophonous with low bellows and shrill treble-like sounds of metal on metal.
In 1999, the young Los Angeles composer Steve Roden interpreted Bertoia and released a 3″ CD called Chair. Every sound on the disc was made by rubbing, bowing, plucking, scratching a Bertoia diamond chair. In the same series, he also gave the same treatment to a George Nelson lamp and an Eames wooden splint. He went on to more ambitious projects, like creating sounds from entire houses. His 2001 project, Schindler House, samples the famous R.M. Schindler house in Los Angeles and its garden: bamboo, fireplace, springs, flowerpots, voice, window panes, airplane and wooden beams all make their sonic debut on this disc.
In 2002, a Norwegian artist, Leif Inge, took Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and stretched it out to twenty-four hours. He was following the lead of visual artist Douglas Gordon, who created a piece called 24 Hour Psycho, which is exactly what it sounds like—Hitchcock’s classic film slowed down, until it becomes something else. Inge, too, transforms the mercurial emotions of Beethoven’s masterpiece into something ambient and quiet. The result sounds like Gavin Bryars‘s The Sinking of the Titanic. The piece is available only on the Internet and I’ve downloaded and listened to all 24 hours of it. It’s entrancing stuff. Like Eno or Satie, Inge has transformed Beethoven into “furniture music,” and that’s no small feat.
The Canadian poet Christian Bök takes a more traditional approach. He simply uses his voice, often times to recite renditions of classic sound poems by Kurt Schwitters and Hugo Ball. But there’s a twist: Bök turns them into the equivalent of speed metal. While Schwitters’s rendition of his Ursonate takes about 40 minutes to perform, Bök has done it in less than half that time. He screams, reels, and rocks through it. Adopting the techniques of rock ‘n’ roll, Bök adds showmanship and excitement, enlivening a century-old tradition.
One night in a hotel in Toronto, the Minnesota-based sound artist Erik Belgum was kept awake by a couple in the next room in the midst of a wild fight. After feeling angry at the disturbance, Belgum turned his artist’s ear to the situation and began to hear the potential for great drama. Although the specific words were not audible, the fight seemed to have a rhythm of its own; there were crescendos and lulls, booms then whispers—not unlike the work of many of the greatest orchestral pieces. Phrases and sounds repeated themselves in almost predictable cycles. It went on for hours, without conclusion or closure. In the end, Belgum never found out who they were or what they were screaming about.
He took the whole experience and made a sound work out of it. Bad Marriage Mantra is Belgum’s brilliantly disturbing transformation of this irritating experience into a post-minimalist operetta. He got two actors into a studio and let them go at each other at the top of their lungs. The only lyrics are “Fuck you, you stupid prick!!!” or “Shut up!!” or “When I say shut up you’d better listen you stupid fucking bitch!!”, etc. for an hour. At first, it’s shocking; then, it’s funny. After a while, it’s really annoying. But finally, however, about a half hour into the disc you begin get the point—you start paying less attention to the words themselves and begin hearing the “music” in the midst of this hysterical onslaught. The precedents of Belgum’s work include Steve Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain mixed with Karen Finley’s rants.
The visual artist Sean Landers has made a career of extolling the virtues of, well, himself. You might recognize him from his comic strip—starring Sean Landers—which ran for years in the back of Spin magazine. You see, Mr. Landers truly thinks that he is the greatest artist known to man. And he has created a fascinatingly narcissistic sound piece called “The Man Within.” Set to the strains of Holst’s The Planets, Landers carries on for nearly 20 minutes about himself: “I am vastly under-appreciated as an artist in my time. I have every confidence that in the future, years after I pass away, I will be in the pantheon of great artists. I will stand tall among artists of note throughout history. But for now, in my time, I must deal with the limitations of the people I walk this miserable planet with. It is my burden and I accept it.”