“Our inherited symbols of order and beauty have been divested of meaning.”
This is something of an unusual mix: an edited soundwalk consisting of field-recordings made during the Sonic Delights festival at Caramoor in Katonah, NY. Richard Allen has already written about this exhibition (here and here, including plenty of photographs) which motivated me to visit while I was home in NY over the summer. Although I wasn’t able to catch the five works off-site, happily I was able to visit Caramoor on Sunday, July 20th for a day of special programming which included two additional pieces (The Nerve Tank‘s Sisyphus 2.0 and Composers Inside Electronics‘ Rainforest IV, an historic sound installation originally created by David Tudor) as well as a program of live concerts and panel discussions. In the Garden of Sonic Delights will be open through November 2nd, so if you are in the Tri-State Area I recommend stopping by and spending the day. But, as much as this is a mix of Sonic Delights it is also something else entirely. An audio recording is a unique object and can never re-present a lived experience. I’ve produced a soundscape in which incidental sounds figure as heavily as the art works themselves. It’s about the way audiences interact with the works, the grounds, and each other. Ultimately, it is a reflection on the limitations of the term ‘sound art.’
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I don’t like the term Sound Art. In the wake of last summer’s sudden burst of “Sound Art” shows (Soundings at the MoMA, The String and The Mirror at Lisa Cooley, ambient at Bonakdar Gallery, etc) there’s been an increased media attention to Sound Art. Since Suzan Philipsz won the Turner Prize in 2010 -the first artist who works with sound to be granted this honor- critics, curators, and publics alike have grabbed hold of the term. It may be useful for bringing in audiences, but its retrograde theoretically as the art world hasn’t defined itself in terms of materials or medium specificity for over half a century now. We don’t have Metal Art shows, or Oil Paint Art shows. Video Art (as a term) rightly faded away after the novelty ran off.
Audiences aren’t accustomed to having to utilize other senses in gallery arts contexts, yet when an artwork demands we make use of our sense of smell, we don’t talk about Olfactory Art. When a work must be touched we don’t throw a show dedicated to Haptic Art. What is it about Sound, other than marketing, that makes “Sound Art” such an attractive label? As audiences, approaching these works as merely “Sounds” does them a disservice. Does utilizing sound somehow justify bringing otherwise disparate works together for the same show? I’ve set up a bit of a straw-man argument here, as most curators put more work into these shows than that. For instance, The String and the Mirror mentioned above was fairly coherent in terms of its themes relating to the ways listening practices inform our cultural identities and/or structure human modes of communication.
More relevant for us at ACL, many musicians operating on the fringes have also embraced the term. Weird music shouldn’t have to pretend it’s not music in order to justify doing what it does, to “play the art card” (as Alan Licht has said) in order to be taken seriously. I’ll concede that many pieces occupy a nebulous zone between music and art, and that’s all the better, but it’s important nonetheless to think about the way these things are framed. Artists like Francisco Lopez, C. Spencer Yeh, Giuseppe Ielasi, Mark Fell, Tara Rodgers, Steve Roden, Christina Kubisch, Stephen Vitiello, Ultra-red, and many others can rightly claim to be both musicians and artists, yet I think it is important to note that they draw pretty clear distinctions between their different practices, and the resulting works are not defined by whether they are presented in a gallery or on vinyl, but by the nature of the work itself.
To return to In the Garden of Sonic Delights, these are works that are about more than just sound. These artists are installation artists, conceptual artists, sculptors, recording artists, programmers. Sound Art has become a buzz word, though it’s not hard to see why Caramoor lends itself to a show oriented around sound. A bourgeois estate in the suburbs north of New York City, it was built as an Italianate villa designed for the performance of music. Since the death of the original owners, in keeping with their legacy, Caramoor has become a destination for the public to come and experience music. That is, the grounds were built around practices of listening. Each artist or artists were able to choose a different location on the grounds to create their work, so in some sense each piece is site specific, not only in the sense of having been built for a particular site but conceptual intertwined with its location.
Some of the work could be said to fall into what Seth Kim-Cohen has described as “ambient” sound art, or in other words works that are experienced ambiently rather than conceptually. This you might expect from an exhibit with such a saccharine title; delights promise entertainment and pleasure but rarely nourishment. Yet the most successful pieces foster a more complex and substantial engagement with the site and with practices of listening. Stephen Vitiello and Bob Bielecki’s You Are The Sweet Spot foregrounds the notion of the ideal orientation for listening. When we sit in a concert hall we often think about where in the room might offer the “best” (however defined) sonic experience. Recorded music tends to consider (virtual) orientation in a similar way, presenting the sound to the listener as if to position them in that perfect sweet spot. By utilizing the particular resonant frequencies “preferred” by the acoustic space, they’ve produce a piece in which the sweet spot is in dialogue with both the listener and the architecture. When the listener reaches the perimeter of the space, all reverberations vanish. The only sound produced by Laurie Anderson & Bob Bielecki’s We Fall Like Light is that of water falling into a small pond. The piece might seem almost trivial but is in fact quite brilliant, as with the addition of zoetropic glasses that reveal the underlying sine wave of the falling water, causing it to appear to be flowing in reverse. Through the addition of a visual element, the piece reveals something which is already present: the physical similarities between waves of light and of sound. The sounds produced by Stephan Moore’s Diacoustician are dependent on what it hears. That is, the work listens to you, which takes on an added (sinister) resonance in a world in which mass surveillance is now a reality, in which our devices quite literally listen to us. Francisco Lopez’s The [Music] Room is haunting in a very different way, evoking of the concerts previously held in the room by the estate’s founders: Walter Rosen’s piano keys dance but not a sound is heard, while Lucie Bigelow Rosen’s theremin sits ready to be played, its ghostly echoes intermingling with half-heard whispers.
A ‘sound work’ is rarely ever just sound. An site specific installation allows for the listener to navigate space on her own terms, whereas a recording is fixed as a concert hall seat is fixed. A Machine In The Garden is my own particular walk, but is in no sense anything other than my subjective experience. Again, I encourage you to visit the show yourself. For those who can’t make it, or who would like to revisit their experience through my own, I present A Machine In The Garden.