The Art of Sound

Fresh perspectives on the act of listening are offered at South London Gallery in a show utilising sound sculpture and performance to explore the moment of hearing.

When John Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard in 1951, he expected to find silence. Instead, trapped in a room where all sound is absorbed by the walls and sound-proofed against external noise, he heard something high and something low; the former his nervous system, the latter his circulating blood. If a listener is present there is even noise in a silent room. Sound is everywhere, continuous, and so common that most of it blends into the background. Sound art draws attention to that constant, non-musical, everyday tune and the place of the listener within it. At the moment of being heard  continues this tradition, showing a variety of intimate or loud pieces waiting to be heard.

Cage’s 4’33”  (1952) originates from this experience. The clock starts, initially there is silence, but inevitably someone shifts uncomfortably in a chair, or turns to their neighbour to speculate. In this way, 4’33”  becomes four minutes and 33 seconds of arbitrary noise, scuffling and human interaction, practising his belief that all sounds should be listened to as music by giving them a space in which they can be considered so. They constantly appear, interact with the noise just before, after or during them, and then become context for the next. As Simon Parris, curator of At the moment of being heard, puts it: “I think how a sound is bookended is as important as the sound itself … what’s heard before and during, the sound’s decay, and what follows – all of these colour how it is experienced.” As a result we have a show that is as much about interaction between artworks as it is a presentation of individuals. Sound is inextricable from its surroundings, and the listener’s surroundings are inextricable from them. This is not an exhibition of sound art as such; rather it is an exhibition about sound, bringing together the work of six artists for whom noise is a medium, theme or concern, backed by a wider programme of performances and events.

The godfather and guardian angel of this show is the late sound art pioneer Rolf Julius (1939-2011), famous for his so-called “small sounds.” These involved placing small speakers on stones or bowls, or underneath ash, and using chirps, whirs and drones at very low volume. The idea here is to whisper so the listener leans close, making a small audio environment in which the listener and the objects share a secret. Parris says: “There’s never absolute silence; it’s more listening, training the ear to hear sound in a different way.”

The show at South London Gallery is at once old-style and revolutionary, happening as museums and commercial galleries begin to become more comfortable with the idea of exhibiting sound works. This has the side effect of strengthening the until-now academic or nebulous term “sound art.” With Haroon Mirza (b. 1977) winning the 2011 Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale and making the leap into the commercial sector with a show at the Lisson Gallery, London, in the same year, then in 2013 being included in MoMA’s first exhibition of “sound art”, Soundings: A Contemporary Score (running until 3 November), it seems as though this collection of works as a loose grouping is set to “become” sound art. Combined with the exhibition Sound Art. Sound as a Medium of Art  (2012-2013) at ZKM, Karlsruhe, there seems to be a new canon and narrative being formed. So while the institutionalisation of sound-based work has increased in recent years, the genesis of At the moment of being heard  is to try to keep a definition at bay; to keep what can be heard as part of the surroundings rather than attempting to circumscribe certain works with a definition. Sound belongs to the world, not to a gallery.

This has been the attitude of many artists working with it. The 1950s saw Cage throwing emphasis on the random and un-hierarchical, considering listening as an action rather than a state. In the 1960s, Fluxus Happenings and Environments led to the idea of sound as both free expression and an exploration of space itself – ephemeral and performed, utilising the specific nature of those particular surroundings, echoes and acoustics, and the human body’s position within them. With its specificity and intimacy, noise can also convey absence. Maryanne Amacher’s (1938-2009) City Links  series, begun in 1967, transmitted noises from urban environments to another location, in real time, providing a greater sense of eerie disjointedness and context-mixing than more physical Land Art, owing to sound’s precision and fading nature – both fully formed and its own elegy. Soil in a gallery loses the direct link with its source; sound, like a photograph, keeps a precise record of a definite past.

Other uses followed. Hildegard Westerkamp’s (b. 1946) Soundwalking  (1978-1979) recorded sounds in rural locations and then played them back to both the area and its inhabitants as a kind of “sonic mirroring”, giving them the opportunity to hear their own voice and to increase their awareness of their own omnipresent but ignored sounds. Rolf Julius’ Concert for a Frozen Lake  (1982) was a performance in which, as he described it: “Several loudspeakers play the music for a frozen lake. I hope that the lake itself becomes music.” Julius’ practice aimed for the sonification of an environment, but later began to examine listening itself. In the same year as Julius’ Concert, William Hellermann (b. 1939) established The SoundArt Foundation, which produced the exhibition Sound / Art (1983) at the Sculpture Center, New York, and in doing so coined a problematic phrase and created a non-descript genre.

Recently, Christina Kubisch’s (b. 1948) Invisible / Inaudible: Five Electrical Walks (2007) set pedestrians walking around wearing magnetic induction headphones that picked up inaudible electrical signals from the environment and converted them into sound, focusing on the experience of listening to an environment rather than turning the environment into an instrument. At the moment of being heard, therefore, comes at the end of this sound art lineage. It places attention on the acute subjectivity of listening, the fact that an environment is fluid and changing, that a country may not recognise its own voice. So while Land Art artists sought to break and confuse boundaries, most of the works in this exhibition are from a later phase in 20th century intellectual history during which it was taken as axiomatic that boundaries are just constructs, thus there aren’t actually any boundaries to confuse, let alone break. The world is fluid, and experience of it is wholly subjective and context-based. There is no such thing as sound, only sound in a place and time, amidst other noises.

The thought that sound happens in space, surrounded by others, and has to cross it, is an important element in the South London Gallery show. Emphasis on small noises immediately pricks ears up, and possibly for the first time ever, one begins to search out sounds to listen to. Julius Rolf ’s Singing (2000/2013) comprises a line of seven speakers hanging minimally from the gallery ceiling, each with a layer of black pigment on it. When leaning over the speakers, a low hum becomes audible, and the pigment is seen to move almost imperceptibly as the speaker works. His work is personal, quiet and subtle, even gentle, using sound to resonate minutely with us and the world, refusing to see spaces or sites as just passive recipients of, or containers for, music.

NEUM (2013) by Eli Keszler (b. 1983) is a monumental sculpture made of huge lengths of piano wire criss-crossed into a web and struck fearsomely at intervals. It cuts across the small sounds with an enormous, almost physical thunderclap that reverberates through all the walls, floor and ceiling, making a huge sound sculpture of the room. Parris explains: “Rolf’s piece has this rather discreet, intimate sound content, and Eli’s piece was introduced into the room to offer an accent and punctuate the other works.” Yet, though site-specific, NEUM is arguably more of an instrument than it is part of the walls, prioritising a starting point in music and using sound as sound rather than as sonar. At the exhibition’s opening reception, the sculpture formed a trio with Keszler himself and multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi (b. 1969), playing bass for their duet.

NEUM as a performing entity is programmed with a finite amount of note combinations that repeat over a given time period. This is the work of a composer with links, inevitably, to John Cage. Randomness-within-confines, and the older idea of sound being a temporal (as opposed to spatial) art, draws our attention to periods of time, and to them passing, with each period marked by the sculpture striking like an angry grandfather clock. Yet the piano wire sculpture provides a spatial counterpart to the sound it makes, at once more fixed and yet more chaotic than its chimes, as though it is its own score. The length of the piano wire determines the note – Keszler’s music is bound, in a very different way to Julius’, by its spatial qualities. Sound is, again, wedded absolutely to specific space.

Another featured artist is crys cole (b. 1976), who works differently with similar concepts. She wishes “to create a heightened awareness not only of the sounds she creates, but of the environmental ones that arise during listening – and, ideally, of the listener’s own self-consciousness as a perceptual body and agent.” To this end, cole presents filling a space with salt (in two parts) (2013). Into one vent on the floor of the main gallery, she has poured enough salt for a small mound to emerge out of the top. Inside another vent, the sound of the salt rushing in is replayed. A long-time admirer of Rolf Julius, and here giving a nod to Hildegard Westercamp (b. 1945), cole ensures the gallery re-hears in detail the 108 minutes the salt took to fill the vent – the amount of time taken to create the visual part of the work. Sonic interaction happens as well as influence. Parris comments: “Rolf’s piece is kept very much in peaks and troughs but crys’ piece is a recording of the whole process of pouring salt into the vents – it sounds like rainfall.”

In contrast to Julius’ peaks and troughs, which affect the black pigment in pulses, the constant nature of cole’s sound implies an ongoing pour of salt that is somehow eerily elsewhere. The end product is there – the salt pile – and the sound is there, but not the action itself. As in a film with no video, or a kind of audiobook, the listener inevitably becomes more sensitive to each nuance of the soundtrack, as if to capture what the process might have looked like. filling a space with salt (in 2 parts)  draws the viewer into a flashback in which the end result is known, waiting for time to catch up. Between this ending and the sound of a space and time from which the listener was absent, a fabrication is required: the necessary creation of a personal scene or a timeline to connect the end of the story and the middle. The past is always quite a personal thing.

Baudouin Oosterlynck (b. 1946), a contemporary of Julius, has been considering different ways of listening since the mid 1970s: “My phenomenological point of view considers a world that only exists in the contact field of the perceiving subject … Instead of moving the sound sources, the audio-visitor moves himself to localise them.” This has led him to create several installations towards which the listener has to bend an ear, seek out the sound, like Enveloppe ou Vêtement  (1978, not in exhibition) where a certain “shape” of sound was projected into a specific spot, enabling the listener to step into or out of its “envelope or clothing.” Variations of Silence  (1990-1991) is this time an investigation of silence as, just like sound, happening in a specific place at a specific time. This piece consists of sketches made after 10 journeys across five European countries, trying to find moments of silence in them, discovering in doing so that silence is dependent upon context and place; that silence after hearing running water is different from suddenly coming upon it after cresting a hill.

Oosterlynck-like, At the moment of being heard  changes hearing into conscious awareness, whether the sound be cole pouring salt into a vent sometime in the past, Julius’ low hum moving pigment, or the visitor’s footsteps echoing around the room. In listening, as Oosterlynck states: “The art is as love: the instant of coincidence to you, to other people, to the world.” Sounds interweave, the show becomes like the outside world, proffering unrepeatable combinations as ears lead us through the world.

At the moment of being heard  runs from 28 June until 8 September at South London Gallery, and is presented in parallel with a series of live performances and special events at the gallery and nearby off-site venues as part of SLG Local.

Jack Castle