February 13, 2014, is the official release date for my 33 1/3 book on Aphex Twin's 1994 album Selected Ambient Works Volume II, available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: sound-art

Gestural Sound, Gestural Drawing

The work of Warren Craghead

Warren Craghead is a master of the casual artistic action. There are the field recordings (as housed at his soundcloud.com/craghead account), such as those of a playdate, an ice storm, a shirt being ironed, and an office. And there are the gestural drawings that comprise his primary activity. He lives a life of seeming constant production, often in the form of slips of paper and Post-it notes he leaves in the homes of friends and the packed school lunches of his children. He’s part of a group show at the Winkleman Gallery in Manhattan, “The Fire to Say: Comics as Poetry,” that begins tonight, January 17, and closes on February 14. Here’s a shot he posted to Instagram, and noted on his blog, of some of his work on display:

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And here’s one of a characteristic action (he left a piece in a hotel stairwell):

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As part of this diary-like accumulation of work he has posted the audio he describes as “Sound of walking to the gallery in NYC (The Fire To Say).” It is very much that, the sound of someone walking: the sound of feet, and the sound of the world those feet are navigating. Certainly there are distinctions to be noted between gestural drawing and gestural sound, but there are parallels as well. For example, at times in the audio a whistler can be heard, and the whistle is akin to the personalized Post-it imposed on an otherwise external environment:

Track originally posted for free download to soundcloud.com/craghead. Craghead lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, and makes his home on the web at craghead.com.

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10 Great “Sound (in) Art” Starting Points

For the Dubai-based Gallery of Light / DUCTAT

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The Dubai-based Gallery of Light, part of DUCTAC, the Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre, is hosting a sound art exhibit this month, January 2014. The curator, Simon Coates, invited me to participate.

Artists featured include the British musician Scanner and the early musique concrète figure Dr. Halim El-Dabh, as well as Porya Hatami (Sanandaj, Iran), the British-Iranian Soosan Lolavar, Leopoldo Amigo Perez (among his works is a recreation of Arseny Avraamov’s 1922 “Symphony of Factory Sirens”), and Christina Kubisch (Germany). The exhibit will also include an installation of Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room,” with Lucier’s approval.

For my part, Coates requested that I hand write a list of 10 recommended works of sound art, the intended reader being someone somewhat new to the subject. His concept was to then print the piece large scale and hang it in the Gallery of Light, along with the other exhibited work. I expanded on his idea a little, and fleshed out the 10 recommendations with brief descriptions, plus an opening and closing statement. The title of it is simply “10 Recommended Works of Sound in Art.” Here’s what it will look like from across the room (click it and you’ll see the thing at a more legible scale):

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Here’s a detail:

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And here’s the text, along with correlating YouTube videos. The videos aren’t in the exhibit, just in this post.

. . .

“10 Recommended Works of Sound in Art”

I spent an afternoon once wandering the city of San Francisco with a pop musician who had begun to put aside song in favor of sound. I brought up “sound art” but he rebuffed me: genre, he said, was antithetical to the creative enterprise. I was confused until I, months later, recognized I was less interested in “sound art” than in “sound in art.” These 10 works are intended for listeners starting down a similar path. Marc Weidenbaum 2013.12.03

. . .

1. The Forty Part Motet
By Janet Cardiff
2001

Forty speakers stand in a room. Each emits the vocal line of a different member of a choir singing a 16th-century piece of music. Walk amid them like one of the angels in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire.

. . .

2. Vexations
By Erik Satie
c. 1893

A short piece of music is played 840 times in a row, for close to 20 hours. Soon enough the music ceases to be music and takes on new purpose: installation, endurance test, mystic journey, wallpaper, irritant, lullaby.

. . .

3. Video Quartet
By Christian Marclay
2002

Bits of footage from numerous films run on four separate screens. Sound and motion are choreographed in a manner to make connections, and jokes, and even alternate narratives.

. . .

4. The Buddha Machine
By Christiaan Virant + Zhang Jian
2005

The Buddha Machine is a tiny box (also available as software) that plays brief sound loops. It is sound art on the go, an objet d’art that is practical and economical.

. . .

5. Deadly Edge
By Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake)
1971

“Up here, the music was just a throbbing under the feet, a distant pulse.” Thus begins the 13th novel in the Parker series: a rock-concert heist. All novels have a sonic component, especially novels about thievery.

. . .

6. Electrical Walks
By Christina Kubisch
2004

Participants in a walk around the city wear powerful wireless headphones that are sensitive to electro-magnetic fields. They discover the autonomous music that surrounds us.

. . .

7. Listening Post
By Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin
2003

Dozens of small screens display text pulled live from the web based on singular queries. Text-to-speech and music bring the data to life.

. . .

8. Test Pattern
By Ryoji Ikeda
2008

Sound, along with other source information such as text and photos, is turned into an immersive installation of barcode patterns.

. . .

9. The Rise and Fall of the Sounds and Silences from Mars
By Christof Migone
2011

All the audio-related words from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles are extracted and displayed — in a book, in video, as an installation, on flag-like cards outdoors on a hillside.

. . .

10. Times Square
By Max Neuhaus
1977

Warm, enveloping drones emanate from below a midtown Manhattan grate that serves primarily as a steam vent for the subway. Passersby mistake the sound as municipal in origin, or luxuriate in its unique properties, or both.

. . .

I’d like to close with an exercise we do in a class I teach about sound in the media landscape. Sit somewhere and write down for 15 minutes everything that you hear. After the self-evident sounds are accounted for, it can become arduous — but then the world opens up again. The longer we go on listening, the more things open up to our ears: one’s home, one’s office, a street corner. Even a museum — and even a museum where no art is intended to make a sound.

. . .

Update (2014.01.08): Here’s a shot from the curator, Coates, of the individual notebook pages, each of which has been enlarged to the size of an A2 piece of paper. They’ll be hung shortly:

marcs notebook 1200

. . .

More on the exhibit at Coates’ facebook.com page and at ductac.org/art.php. Coates’ home on the Internet is at simoncoates.com. Special thanks to Holly Leach of Albertson Design for the assistance with scanning.

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A San Francisco Soundwalk

Megaphones, parabolic concrete, waterfalls, and much more

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We were confronted on the street corner by an evangelical wielding a large, battery-powered megaphone. This being a soundwalk, the appearance on this very cold day of the screaming man in the t-shirt was something akin to an act of serendipity. As he burdened us with the fear of eternal damnation, all I could think was: “My, what a perfect specimen of the urban soundscape.”

A soundwalk is a docent tour of everyday reality. A docent in a museum walks a group of visitors through the galleries and discusses the art: drawing connections, recounting history, responding to and posing questions. The leader of a soundwalk describes the sounds that are encountered en route — how they function as part of the overall soundscape, what they mean culturally, what their origin is, how they set context and are shaped by context.

The “we” on this cold winter Wednesday in San Francisco was myself along with students (a mix of BAs and MFAs) from the course that I teach on sound at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The course’s subject is the role of sound in the media landscape. It is divided into three sections: how to listen; how objects, services, and organizations employ sound to express themselves (industrial design, jingles, etc.); and how music-related products (bands, stereo equipment, social networks) express themselves in non-sonic ways.

I had mapped out the soundwalk agenda in advance, but the world has a way of intervening, and not just in the form of an angry man hellbent on, well, talking about hell. Which is fine — in fact, interruptions are part of the plan. An itinerary, as they say, is the map, not the territory.

What follows are some key moments along the walk, some planned, some chance:

Simulated Activity: The tour started early on Wednesday morning at the entrance to the Westfield San Francisco Centre on Market Street, near the corner of Fifth. Inside the mall, if you closed your eyes, you might have thought it was as busy as holiday shopping could get. In fact, the only business with customers was a coffee shop on the basement level, where office workers and mall staff were lined up for post-dawn caffeine. The mall, however, seemed to brim with activity because the house music — that is, the music played on the speakers from the ceilings — was loud, upbeat pop. It was downright noisy, in pop-punk sort of way. The noise provided a simulacrum of activity. Without it, the mall would have felt like an airport at 3am: ghostly, void. The noise was a form of wishful, self-fulfilling prophecy. It set the pace for commerce, and in time consumers would arrive and adhere to that pace.

Score-by-Accrual: While still in the mall, we discussed how the structure had its own score-by-accrual, a score in addition to the “official” music. The majority of the individual stores had their own interior musical playlists, and these sounds leaked out and merged in the atrium and walkways. These individual playlists served as cues to potential shoppers, and as such were distant descendents of the barkers at stalls at the bazaars of yore. They also served, once one was inside a specific shop, to block out the sounds of the rest of the mall. The result is a music arms race.

Horns and Chatter: We walked back out to Market Street and headed east, toward 4th Street. The noises of the street provided a clear contrast to the music of the mall. There was no single overarching sound. There was instead a mid-level cacophony of horns and chatter, street cars and shuffling. Each time, though, that I attempted to suggest this contrast between mall and street to my students, the siren of an emergency vehicle managed to muffle my voice.

Different Kinds of Quiet: When we reached 4th Street, we turned south and immediately experienced just how quiet a simple change in direction could be. The bustle of Market subsided. The mall had presented itself as an interior city, but in fact the rules of the mall city differ from those of the actual city. In particular, stores on the street were not each blaring their own scores. Noise ordinances take care of that, as do the closed doors of cold winter days. Of course, the city doesn’t need music to suggest activity. It simply is active. And when it isn’t active, that quietude is generally welcome — unlike in the mall, where it suggests economic downfall.

A Private Silence: On the way down 4th Street we passed the entrance to a building with a large, artfully barren lobby, and discussed how the lobby provided, with its visual and literal quiet, a salve for those who entered. In a city, money buys many things, key among those things a relief from the pressures of the city.

Reel Life: At the corner of 4th and Mission we stopped — briefly, because soon the angry man with the megaphone appeared — to look up at the logos emblazoned on the exterior wall of a newly refurbished shopping mall. The ones high above the adjacent corner emphasized the movie theater situated on the upper floors of the mall. It was noted that these signs announced the presence of an Imax screen, but not of the sound systems. The heralding of high-quality sound comes and goes just as hemlines rise and fall. There are periods when THX and Dolby logos are everywhere. This is, at least in downtown San Francisco, not one of those times, even though this theater features screens with Dolby Atmos, which is barely a year old. Even on the website of the theater, the Atmos brand is subsumed as part of the ETX (“enhanced theatre experience”) brand.

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Holy Noise: We paused in front of the lovely St. Patrick Church, whose congregation dates back to the mid-1800s, and talked about the role that church bells play in a city, about the unique nature of that accommodation. It is difficult to imagine a new kind of business or organization appearing in a city and being allowed to make such a regular contribution to — or intrusion in, depending on your point of view — the city’s soundscape. And yet around the city, around the world, church bells ring out repeatedly, marking not just the hour, but regular times of prayer. (Photo of St. Patrick Church by Andrew Crump.)

Water Wall: Mission Street is fairly narrow between St. Patrick and the Yerba Buena Gardens, divided by a midsection, and the park area feels quite remote from the city. Part of that sense of ease in the park is owed to the constant waterfalls of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial that lines the rear of the space. In addition to being lovely, and filling the urban valley with a light mist, it also provides a subtle white noise that blocks out much of the city’s intruding sounds.

Unscheduled Playtime: Among the many chance incidents that informed our walk, a favorite of mine was the oversize poster for the Jacques Tati film Playtime that we saw on the inside wall of a French-themed cafe at one corner of Yerba Buena. Playtime was one of two films I had the students watch as part of their homework this semester, the other being The Conversation (our classroom is just blocks from where the openning of The Conversation was filmed, which makes the surveillance theme all the more eerie). Next semester I may swap out one of those films for Diva.

Ambisonic Planning: We crossed back over Mission Street and made our way up the alley alongside St. Patrick and the Jewish Contemporary Museum. Just two steps from the sidewalk, and the noise of the street, in particular the idling of a delivery van, largely disappeared, the result of trajectory, but also of some sizable concrete structures. I talked a bit about the work of Arup, the architectural and engineering consultancy with offices a few blocks away, and how it employs ambisonic technology to allow architects and urban planners to test in a virtual space how structures will influence sound in real space, how materials, forms, and other variables shape not only the physical but sonic space in which people interact.

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Parabolic Fun: The soundwalk concluded back on the sidewalk on the south side of Market Street. Here an installation by the Exploratorium as part of the city’s Living Innovation Zone program had two oversized concrete hemispheres situated in such a way that anyone sitting in one could converse with the person sitting opposite them. (There is, apparently, also an “singing bench” that involves a completed electric current, but we didn’t see or hear it on this walk.)

And, this being an academic soundwalk, there was homework.

Students are to map three sounds in a two-block radius of the building at the corner of Bush and Kearny that houses our classroom:

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The assignment is: “Pin the spots where those sounds originate. Then write up for each spot a sentence or two in which you (1) describe the sound and (2) note the sound’s meaning, utility, function, or some other aspect.”

If you live in the area and want to upload your own map here, or a map of your neighborhood, that would be excellent.

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Sound of Commerce

John Kannenberg, our man (temporarily) in the U.K.

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John Kannenberg is a sound artist with a particular interest in place. Much of his work is raw or lightly edited recordings of physical environments, notably art museums. He has, in the past, reversed the idea of sound art by making sound art of places that house art. He travels with his audio recording equipment as others might with a camera or a sketch book. What follows is his audio of a shopping mall in the U.K. It is the sound of commerce, of activity and inactivity, of daily life: a barker, passing conversation, thick local accents, even the squeak of shoes against the floor. Framing lends the mundane a sense of drama. Repetition lends structure, narrative.

Track posted for free download at soundcloud.com/johnkannenberg. More from Kannenberg at johnkannenberg.com.

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A Festivus of Sound

After Thanksgiving comes Phil Kline's "Unsilent Night."

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Tomorrow may be one of the more beloved holidays on the United States’ calendar, but a global secular holiday with a moveable dateline and a growing following begins soon after. This is “Unsilent Night,” the brainchild of composer Phil Kline. Each year in cities around the world, people gather with boomboxes and CD players, Bluetooth speakers and makeshift portable audio systems, and they create a lovely collaborative din. Kline’s “Unsilent Night” consists of four complementary (and complimentary — they’re free to download) recordings of sheer sonic tinsel. Individually they are enjoyable to listen to, but the real pleasure comes in hearing them played in near simultaneity on dozens of different audio players as you walk through the city.

When played in public on Unsilent Night, the tracks are delightfully discordant even beyond the intended combination of Kline’s four jigsaw compositions. First of all, no two people start their systems at the exact same time, and the lack of true sync lends the music an echo effect. Second, the playback varies from device to device: well-worn cassette tapes played against high-fidelity CDs, bass-heavy Jamboxes joining in a robot choir with tinny old RadioShack computer speakers. From a distance, it can look like a Say Anything flash mob. Up close, the chiming percussives bring to mind minimalist composer Steve Reich at his most ebullient.

The calendar is being updated at unsilentnight.com/schedule.html. Right now the earliest date is December 6 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Other dates include New York City, where the work originated 21 years ago in Greenwich Village, on December 14; Brussels, Belgium, on December 14; Los Angeles on December 21; and Kansas City, Missouri, on December 8. As of this writing, dates for San Francisco and Montreal, among numerous other cities, are not yet set.

If you bring a boombox to the event, tapes and CDs are usually available, albeit in limited quantities. There are also Android (in the Amazon app store) and iOS apps.

Here’s a video about “Unsilent Night,” filmed to celebrate its 20th anniversary:

More on the composer Phil Kline, who is working on an opera about Nikola Tesla with Jim Jarmusch, at philkline.com. Photo from a San Francisco Unsilent Night shot by Steve Rhodes, via flickr.com.

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