I got back late Sunday night from my college reunion, which provided both conversation late into the three nights I was there, and an afternoon visit to the Yale University Art Gallery. I took a lot of it in, and the following three details from three very different paintings made a particular impact. They’re also good examples of how I find I’m often more interested in “sound in art” than in “sound art.”
Not long after staring at the textural details of a 4,000-year-old Sumerian votive statue hewn from limestone, I found myself on a different floor, drawn from across the room to a familiar shape in the corner of a painting from merely 110(ish) years ago: this turntable, in the bottom right quadrant of a much larger oil painting, Girl in White Chemise, by German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). (That gold vertical line is the edge of the frame. To the right is simply the gallery wall.) I want to understand how “modern” this object read to a viewer at the time, and whether the record label’s red and white coloring was easily identifiable. I was struck by the flesh color of the tone arm, and the way its seductive shape emulated that of the reclining woman.
This element was a reminder of just how much sound there is in the work of New York native Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988). The larger piece is titled Diagram of the Ankle, from 1982. There is something jittery about the desire to scribble the receptive mechanisms of human hearing, a will to comprehend. This material shown here is a subset of half of a diptych, its background a cream color, adjacent to the other portion’s black, the latter of which features a visually loud, all-caps “WOOFS” next to the faces of some wild-looking dogs — perhaps the very sounds that this anatomical equipment is processing.
I was confronted by the intense graphic sensibility of another New York native, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997). The instant I took this photo, I was faced with the shortcomings of its resulting depiction of the piece’s surface, even when I zoomed in. Then I recalled that I spend too much time thinking about a central irony of Lichtenstein’s work: reproduction doesn’t begin to do it justice. This is from the onomatopoeically named Blam, from 1962. It’s funny to think that one common trope in the description of Lichtenstein’s work is that he “elevates” his source material, in this case a panel from a comic of the same year by artist Russ Heath (1926-2018). It’s arguable that Lichtenstein’s take is, in fact, more cartoony, not less, than the Heath original, which has more doom-laden colors and a far less abstract explosion. And as for “BLAM” itself, it is softer and more rounded in Lichtenstein’s rendering.
Currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art
/ By Marc Weidenbaum
This is “Mirror Image” (2020), a sculpture by Kelly Akashi currently on display at the San Jose Museum of Art as part of a sizable solo exhibit. The artist brings a broad array of techniques to her work, including glass-blowing, candle-making, carpentry, and bronze. If I were constructing a docent tour of the Akashi show, I might ask the visitors to locate the sonic in this piece. Is the blown bubble a signifier of human breath? Is the hand signaling something in ASL?
As it turns out, the pedestal depicts the artist’s own echocardiogram. After learning this fact, you might recognize that the woodwork does, indeed, have an unusual cadence to it — an unusual shape, at least for pedestals, which tend toward the symmetrical rather than the lopsided. And then you might notice that the pulsing, the beating, is at the same time highly familiar, since it’s something we, as humans, have in common. Once you know what the pedestal is, those two secondary bulges, which signify the apex of heart beats, take on a somewhat discomforting significance, and draw further attention to the fragility of the glass bubble below that heavy, if delicately positioned, brass hand. The paired beats form a sort of mirror image, as does the connection between the two representations of mortality. The exhibit closes on May 21, 2023.
Speaking of bronze, I guess it is currently a thing. There’s quite a bit of bronze in the Kehinde Wiley exhibit currently at the De Young Museum here in San Francisco. The Wiley exhibit is titled “An Archaeology of Silence,” a term apparently from Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher. We’re informed that Foucault “used it to describe the action of making visible a socially repressed phenomenon.” This phrase has a social and political connotation in the context of Wiley’s art. In a sort of mirror image, it might also be applied to the more personal realm of intimacy inherent in Akashi’s. (The Wiley exhibit closes on October 15, 2023.)
These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the April 25, 2023, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.
▰ STRING THEORY: HARP stands for Heliophysics Audified: Resonances in Plasmas, a program that combines data from a quintet of NASA satellites. An article in the Washington Post announces that it “is now open to citizen scientists.” HARP is like neighborhood watch — but with your ears … in space. Writes Erin Blakemore: “The hope is that volunteers can help trawl through the massive amount of data while sussing out sounds that reveal more about the vibrations. Researchers will use their increased understanding of those interactions to help humans better prepare for future space weather events.”
Learn more at listen.spacescience.org, where this accompanying image (by QiuGang Zong of the University of Massachusetts Lowell) depicts how “types of space waves are analogous to vibrations in air made by musical instruments.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode!)
▰ FIELD REPORT: I recently ordered an AudioMoth, an open-source device intended for use when making field recordings of sound in nature. It’s a great tool for acoustic ecology. (As The Economist has explained, “The device takes its name from the fact that moths can hear sounds across a wide frequency spectrum.”) I love that the mobile app for the AudioMoth does exactly one thing: it emits a chime that can set the device’s internal clock.
▰ BRAND SLAM: WPP, an advertising conglomerate, has acquired amp (the name is all lowercase), a sonic branding company with such clients as Cadillac, Adobe, Dove, and Lay’s. Michele Arnese founded amp in 2009. I think the big question now is what this means for other small agencies that focus on sound branding: will they continue as standalone entities, or will we see an uptick of such acquisitions in 2023 and 2024? For my part, I think sound branding as a standalone operation isn’t as effective as within a larger organization, where it can be part of a broader, coherent strategy — though as in any field, there will always be small teams that push norms in a way larger organizations struggle to do.
▰ PHONE HOME: The CBC reports on a payphone in the middle of a forest. It is intended for “visitors dealing with the loss of a loved one to pick up the receiver and speak to those they miss.” (My dad died last June just shy of his 87th birthday, and I have an urge to use a wind phone as I type this.) Apparently the concept of the “wind phone” originated in 2010 thanks to Itaru Sasaki, a Japanese garden designer. You can find a wind phone near you at mywindphone.com. The nearest one to me (I live in San Francisco) is across the bay in Oakland on 5th Street below where Interstate 880 and Interstate 980 connect. According to that website, it was created by Jordan Stern in the memory of the three dozen people who died in the 2016 Ghost Ship Fire. Here’s a partial map of wind phone locations around the world. (Via Christof Migone)
▰ TRACK TRACKER: If film music is your thing, then you are probably already (or should be) checking out soundtrack.net’s regularly updated news, such as that Kevin Kiner, known for his work on some great Star Wars animated series (most recently The Bad Batch) is scoring the forthcoming live-action Ahsoka (based on a character who originated in the animated series; now starring actual human Rosario Dawson), and that Mica Levi has a new assignment (The Zone of Interest, based on a Martin Amis novel from 2014 and from the director of Under the Skin, which Levi also memorably scored). Related topic: still no word on an album release for Siddhartha Khosla’s exceptional score for the TV series Rabbit Hole.
QUICK NOTES: Wind Bag: A scientist explored an idiomatic expression and learned it’s mistaken: “It isn’t harder to shout into the wind; it’s just harder to hear yourself.” (Thanks, Glenn Sogge!) ▰ Orchestral Maneuvers: “The Los Angeles Metro is using classical music on its light rail system to deter homeless people from congregating and sleeping in a downtown station.” (Thanks. Rich Pettus!) ▰ Bird Brain: The podcast from Emergence Magazine recently had an episode titled “The Nightingale’s Song,” featuring “acclaimed folk singer, conservationist, and song collector Sam Lee, who steps into the forest each spring to sing with these beloved birds.” ▰ Channel Surfing: What appears to have been an intercepted comment on a taxi radio “has become a sensation in Argentina after the driver’s taxi radio interfered with the signal from the International Space Station and popped up live during NASA’s live broadcast of a spacewalk.” ▰ App Alert:“Voicemod, the popular voice changer and soundboard, has just landed on macOS, allowing Mac users to transform their voices and trigger sound effects in real time.” ▰ Hearing Aid: A new tool in speech-to-text recognition is modeled on the human ear. ▰ Speak AI: Speech recognition software is increasingly part of the medical world, and a recent study, using mock patient encounters, explores its effectiveness in history-taking. ▰ Planet Rock: Jenna Jones and Joseph Joyce, for Ableton, summarize the benefits of data sonification as a tool for climate action. ▰ When a Problem Comes Along: A podcast called the Wind has a new episode about the politics of the whip: “How a small sonic boom came to represent homelessness in Reno, and how the city responded to unhoused people taking up sonic real-estate.” (Via Rob Walker’s always excellent The Art of Noticing newsletter) ▰ Avian Squad: One of my favorite online nature features is the “Shriek of the Week” by Charlie Peverett of Birdsong Academy, who this week highlighted the nightingale, one of the “few birds to sing reliably in the depths of night and during the day.”
These sound-studies highlights of the week originally appeared in the April 11, 2023, issue of the free Disquiet.com weekly email newsletter, This Week in Sound.
▰ BACKING TRACKS: How does music support work activities? Nikki Forrester of Nature spoke with a variety of scientists, including Manuel Gonzalez, an organizational psychologist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey: “Gonzalez encourages his lab members to avoid music when delving into new territory, so that they can apply all their mental resources to process what they’re doing and learning. As researchers become more proficient in particular methods, complex tasks can start to feel routine, a better scenario for incorporating music.”
▰ AIR HAZARD: A lizard called the Colorado checkered whiptail deals with noise pollution by stress-eating: “After aircrafts passed, the lizards’ levels of cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, had skyrocketed, the team reports in a paper published last week in the journal Frontiers in Amphibian and Reptile Science,” writes Carolyn Hagler of Smithsonian Magazine. “Their behavior also shifted—the lizards moved around less and ate more in a likely attempt to rebuild the energy resources lost during their stress reaction.”
▰ AUTO PLAY: Wired’s Boone Ashworth profiles Jeremy Yang, lead sound designer for the robovan company Zoox: “Robotaxis have to use a whole suite of noises to guide a rider through the journey and keep them from doing anything stupid along the way. Most of it is standard car stuff: sounds to let you know a door is ajar, sounds to tell you to put your seat belt on, sounds to alert you that the route has changed. The challenge is making the bleeps and bloops communicate as clearly as a human would.”
▰ VEG OUT: More on the sounds of agitated plants, via the New York Times’ Darren Incorvaia: “The vexed vegetables didn’t air their grievances randomly but rather made specific complaints that matched up with the type of stresses they were under. A machine-learning program could correctly tell, with 70 percent accuracy, whether the grumbling plant was thirsty or at risk of decapitation.” (Thanks, Mike Rhode!)
▰ OTHER EARS: Ithaca College hosted a presentation by Kate Galloway on video games that engage with animal perspectives, and how doing so “articulates the complexity of human-animal relationships, displaces the boundaries between human and other, and articulates ways of listening beyond the human to actual and virtual sensory ecologies.”
▰ QUICK NOTES: Growth Market: Noisy incubators could stunt the growth of premature infants (usnews.com). ▰ GPS Whiz: Meet Karen Jacobsen, whose voice is used ubiquitously by Google Maps — and yet which Siri has difficulty recognizing (standardmedia.co.ke). ▰ Ear-ly Adopter: Martha Joseph of the Museum of Modern Art surveyed MOMA’s past engagement with sound art (moma.org/magazine). ▰ On Brand: Wikipedia debuted its new sound logo (fastcompany.com). ▰ Road Rage: Traffic noise makes blood pressure rise (bbc.com).