A Trip Through the Garden of Sonic Delights
This article was originally posted on the blog Ephemeral Objects: Art Criticism for the Post-Material World, made possible through the funding of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.
In 1948 the French composer and acoustician Pierre Schaeffer coined the term musique concrete and thus provided the language to allow us to fundamentally change the way we think about music. According to composer and sound artist Andreas Bick, Schaeffer “saw in the invention of radio, tape recorders and phonographs the potential for a new experience of sound, separated from its source, allowing sounds to have their own existence.”
Schaeffer subsequently coined the term “sound object” (Objet sonore) that, once again quoting Bick, “is an intentional representation of a sound. With the rise of new audio technologies, the “sound object” recorded on magnetic tape or phonograph (or every other medium that followed after on) is not indicating to a sound source such like: this is the sound of a violin or of a guitar, rather the “acousmatic experience“ refers to sounds that one hears without seeing the causes behind it. Acousmatics were the disciples of Pythagoras who demanded them to listen to his teachings while he was hidden behind a curtain, without seeing him, only hearing the voice of their master. The acousmatic experience reduces sounds to the field of hearing alone. The attention shifts away from the physical object that causes the auditory perception back towards the content of the perception.”
This concept is essential to the understanding and appreciation of Sound Art, a major exhibition of which is currently installed in Westchester County. In the Garden of Sonic Delights , curated by Stephan Moore, is centered at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, spans six of the region’s most dynamic cultural institutions and features fifteen newly commissioned, site-specific artworks by some of today’s most prominent and influential artists working with sound.
I recently spent a morning at Caramoor experiencing the exhibit in the company of the curator and was quite impressed. Though I was unable to visit all of the works on this trip I hope to return, as the pieces installed at Caramoor are, to a one, extraordinary. If you are unfamiliar with the world of sound art, I can think of no better introduction to the profundity and possibility of the medium than this exhibit.
Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts is known nowadays for its reliable summer program of classical music, opera and jazz concerts, but it has a fascinating history as the estate of adventurous arts patrons Walter and Lucie Rosen.
Walter Tower Rosen was a successful international banker, musician and art collector; Lucie Bigelow Dodge was a free-spirited young woman from a prominent New York family. Their mutual love of art and music drew them together, and Caramoor was the home they built. According to Caramoor’s website:
Lucie was an unconventional woman and was very interested in anything new the art world had to offer, be it fashion, dance, visual arts or music. In the late 1920s the Rosens met a young Soviet scientist named Leon Theremin, who had caused a stir in Europe before arriving in New York. He had invented one of the first electronic instruments, called the theremin. Lucie Rosen was mesmerized by the unusual instrument. She became Theremin’s pupil and an accomplished thereminist in her own right, performing throughout the United States, sometimes with Walter Rosen on the piano.
In recounting the story of Caramoor and the origins of this exhibit, curator Stephan Moore shared, “Throughout the process and when I walk through the exhibit even now, I often feel that the happy ghost of the lady of the house has been looking over my shoulder.”
We started our tour at Eli Keszler’s “Catenary“, which consists of two boxes made of what looks like steel, designed in a style reminiscent of brutalist architecture. The boxes are mounted on poles set into concrete blocks, and from each box extend multiple lengths of piano wire.
The piano wires run through and from the boxes, attached to different points of the trees at various lengths and tensions. Inside the boxes are piano pin blocks and a motorized system of padded felts, the resulting sound is resonant and percussive, somewhat foreboding and bleak. Think of a giant robot colossus striding across a decimated cityscape; clanking and rumbling like a massive, deconstructed, post-industrial prepared piano. Sonically and visually Keszler’s piece stands in stark contrast to the bucolic setting of Caramoor, and one can imagine it sited in a parking lot in Brooklyn with equal, though different, effect.
Continuing the theme of deconstructed piano, we next visited “The Pianohouse” by Seattle-based sound artist, composer and inventor Trimpin.
“The Pianohouse” is as much a site – specific interactive installation as it is a work of sound art. The visual and tactile experience of the work is, at first, inseparable from the sound it creates.
Trimpin created the house using six upright pianos and a chainsaw and nature will deconstruct it over time as the elements – rain, wind, heat, humidity – inevitably warp the tone and erode the materials.
One of the donated pianos was an Orchestrion, which is like a player piano that also includes a wind orchestra, kettle-drums, side drums and cymbals. Trimpin has included pieces of the Orchestrion along with the reassembled pianos, handsaws and other percussive and/or destructive elements to create an ever-decaying push-button activated jukebox playing six songs on repeated cycles.
The “songs” vary in length and tenor, ranging from the purely playful to abstract and perplexing, but all invite further engagement with the object itself. The music changes every day of course, quite possibly within the span of a single day, as the tension on the piano wire, the condition of the wood, the solidity of the striking pins and numerous other variables respond to the changing environment. I was told that Trimpin tuned the piece when it was first installed, but that the de-tuning over time is essential to the work itself. In this way Trimpin has established a thoughtful tension between the ephemeral nature of sound itself and the precarious materiality of the means by which sound is produced.
We moved on from “The Pianohouse” to explore Stephan Moore’s “Diacousticon” that, not unlike Eli Keszler’s “Catenary“, creates a tension between the bucolic and the ominous. “Diacousticon” consists of a series of networked robotic instruments installed along the perimeter of the domed roof of the dovecote in the center of Caramoor’s Sense Circle fountain. Built from slide whistles, housing deconstructed music boxes and resembling surveillance cameras, the combination of sound, movement and position is at once whimsical and threatening.
Moore told me that he was inspired in part by Bentham’s Panopticon, a design concept for prisons where a single guard in the center of a prison is able to see any inmates at any given moment, while the inmates are unable to know when they are being watched. Thus they needn’t actually be observed at all times, merely be aware that they will never know when they are being observed.
The slide whistles and music boxes are equipped with microphones and the sounds going into the system are run through algorithms that change the sounds coming out. This results in an ever-morphing loop of sound that affects, and is affected by, its environment.
Like most of the works on exhibit, one must look closely to find the hardware that is “playing” the music. I asked Stephan to show me where the computer was hidden and it seemed somehow appropriate that in this case, if you knew where to look, it was more visible than most of the other works. And it was behind lock and key.
Like “Catenary” and “Diacousticon”, a strategy of generative composition is central to the aesthetic proposal of Scott Smallwood‘s “Coronium 3500 (Lucie’s Halo)“. Unlike the previous two works that emphasize the contrast between ambient and generated sounds, that accentuate the difference between natural and mechanical, here Smallwood uses the natural soundscape as source material and inspiration.
Over the course of several site visits Smallwood made field recordings of the native insects and birds, using them as a sonic template for a generative composition created by the simultaneous voices of twelve solar-powered sound-making devices arrayed in a circle. (The blog A Closer Listen describes it as “a series of twelve metal “birdhouses” arranged around a large tree stump…”)
The solar-powered devices include eight smaller voices that make sounds at very low light levels and increase with the amount of light present, and four larger voices that only generate sound in direct sunlight. The effect is a sound bed of sporadic “chirping” that, in bright sunlight, is complemented by a fuller, more complicated melodic composition.
In the misty morning the sound was quite subdued, but as the fog burned off and the sun came out, the sound became stronger, denser and louder. I was told that in bright sunlight the music became quite loud indeed, and one felt as if immersed in a cloud of crickets and birds.
Moving more steadily away from material objects and into ephemerality, we walked over (and into) Stephen Vitiello and Bob Bielecki‘s “You Are The Sweet Spot“, installed at Caramoor’s Italian Pavilion.
The Italian Pavilion is a spacious, open air structure set between The Butterfly Garden and the brick-floored Reception Tent where an old tennis court once stood. Originally designed as a vantage point for observing tennis matches, the Pavilion’s design was inspired by the Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi and includes an arched floor that, when combined with the gently arched ceiling, gives the space extraordinary acoustic properties.
Vitiello and Bielecki visited the site to make field recordings and conduct sonic research, including a “frequency sweep” to determine the resonant frequencies of the space. All of which sounds very complicated but, simply put, they analyzed the sound of the space and then created audio loops on the computer using an “ebowed” guitar. The audio loops were recorded with tones and frequencies which complement the natural acoustics of the space. Then Vitiello and Bielecki installed a speaker system (cleverly hidden!) that makes it sound as if the “sweet spot” is wherever you are.
As I wandered around the space, absolutely transported by the gorgeous wash of generatively composed sound enveloping me, Moore explained that the acoustics of the space varied according to temperature and humidity, which initially presented a challenge to Vitiello and Bielecki.
After months of hard work and research, after many days fine-tuning the audio loops, algorithms and speaker arrangement, they thought they finally had it working perfectly and left for the night. Upon returning the following day, with different temperature and humidity, the perfectly tuned space sounded horrible. Realizing that sound travels differently at different temperatures, they installed a temperature sensor that would adjust the algorithms and thus re-tune the sound according to the variable temperature, in real time!
Once again, it sounds super complicated but the short version is – Vitiello and Bielecki created a soundscape that is perfectly attuned to the properties of a space and an “instrument” that re-tunes itself when the conditions of the performance space change. It is kind of amazing, if you ask me.
From the dulcet tones of the finely tuned soundscape in the Italian Pavilion we moved from genteel sophistication and cultivated gardens to an awe-inspiring epic concert of nature’s secret sounds unleashed in Annea Lockwood’s “Wild Energy“.
Lockwood, also working with Bob Bielecki, has left civilization behind and with it all pretense of human mastery over the environment. As described on the Caramoor website, “Wild Energy is a fifty minute loop which begins with solar oscillations recorded by the SOHO spacecraft, sped up 42,000 times, and ends with ultrasound recorded from the interior of a scots pine tree, slowed down 10 times, to make them audible to us.”
The sound sources for “Wild Energy” include solar oscillations, gas vents and tremors from the Kilauea volcano, Very Low Frequency (VLF) electromagnetic waves created in the Van Allen Belts and by lightning along the Earth’s magnetic field lines, the singing of Sei whales, earthquake seismogram recordings, the ultrasound emissions of trees, Hydrothermal Vents, echolocation calls of bats and auroral kilometric radiation waves. It is like a mash-up, remix composed from the subsonic music of the earth, sea, sky and space.
While knowing the sources of the sounds from which “Wild Energy” has been created adds layers of depth and meaning, what is so extraordinary about this piece is that, whether you know the sources or not, the work is viscerally affecting while being completely invisible. In this way the piece is as close to a pure acousmatic experience as possible, where “The attention shifts away from the physical object that causes the auditory perception back towards the content of the perception.”
The overall effect is transfixing and transformative. One finds oneself held rapt by the soundscape, gazing into the woods but having the increasingly rare experience of deliberately sensing by sound before sight. It is amazing how sharp your hearing can become; the transformation comes when we realize we are actually hearing in a new way, becoming hyperaware of how fantastically subtle, complex and sonically variegated our audible (and inaudible) world already is. If art is, on some level, about perceiving beauty and compelling us to experience and be in the world in some new way, then “Wild Energy” is wildly effective.
And it is here that the concept of ephemeral objects, sound art and the ideas of Object Oriented Programming align very neatly. As Chris Ashworth from Figure 53 said in our interview , “A properly organized object oriented world has these interfaces between objects that hide the detail of the implementation of the object.”
Lockwood and Bielecki have made a work of sound art that demands that we, as listeners (a true audience) engage with the complexity of what lies beneath and within the material world and it’s visual, physical manifestations. By taking the subsonic environment and re-presenting it using only a naturally occurring woodlands as visual palette, they bring us into a new way of being.
In the context of digital culture, “Wild Energy” seems to be a prompt to at least consider that all of this technology is optimally deployed in pursuit of greater understanding of our world, as a way of being in the world more lightly and perceptively and profoundly. We are called to act as conscious stewards of the Earth, not solipsistic subjugators and exploiters, and that despite human delusions of grandeur, the Wild Energy of the world is always at work and will eventually “win” anyway.
We moved on from the woods to the beautifully tended Sunken Garden for Betsey Biggs‘ work “Sunken Gardens”, a richly textured work using a relatively familiar technology to exciting new ends.
At the entrance to the garden you are offered a headset and and an Induction Loop (aka “Hearing Loop”) receiver:
and invited to wander the various spaces and explore. The Sunken Garden itself is a symmetrically composed series of spaces surrounding a raised terrace and Biggs has created a kind of “invisible landscape” that the visitor “plays” by moving through the environment.
Induction Loops work (basically) by running sound through speaker wire without attaching speakers. The receiver picks up on the magnetic fluctuations “induced” by the alternating current in the speaker wires, and transforms it into sound for the individual listener. This is the same as the telecoil or “T-coil” technology that is used in movie theaters and opera houses.
For this piece Biggs has sunken several speaker wires in patterns around areas of the garden, each wire playing a different soundscape. The sounds and volume shift and change over time and based on the listener’s position, and one can easily find oneself moving in and out of specific areas, or in specific patterns, trying to decipher the sounds. One can also imagine the listener as sonic cartographer mapping the sonic histories of an invisible landscape. It is a lot of fun, to be honest, and I’m told that kids in particular really love to run around and play with the different ways of hearing the piece.
After playing in the Sunken Garden for awhile we made our way over to Laurie Anderson‘s “We Fall Like Light“, also created in collaboration with Bob Bielecki.
“We Fall Like Light” is a very simple but effecting piece. Anderson was inspired in part by the YouTube video “Amazing Sound and Water Experiment #2“, an ancient play called The Birds (I don’t think it is Aristophanes, however) and her 2005 Japan Expo collaboration with Shirou M. Wakui, designer of the royal gardens in Kyoto.
The work itself is a small pond, constructed from bricks found throughout the garden, with two small spouts of water. A companion soundscape plays and we hear the sounds of water, crickets and frogs. When you hear the frog sound, the water changes directions.
The way it works is that a subwoofer makes the water vibrate at +/- 42 Hz, taking the shape of a sine wave. During the day visitors can put on LCD 3D glasses. The flickering of the water through the lenses in the glasses creates a zoetrope effect, allowing us to see the wave in the water as though it were standing nearly still. For evening viewing they have installed an LED strip so that the fountain can still be seen and the “backwards water” effect can be seen with the naked eye.
It is a cool trick that Stephan explained further: “There are two elements needed to make the piece: the fast-moving wave in the water and the element of flickering. In the day, when there is light, the glasses make the flicker happen by creating short, periodic bursts of darkness (opacity). At night, when it is dark, the LED creates the flicker by creating short, periodic bursts of light.”
Somehow the idea that work operates through bursts of darkness in the day and bursts of light at night seems meaningful. The pond serves as a place of reflection, contemplation and attention. The piece is simple in its concept and execution, yet profound in its effect. It feels elegiac, like a small shrine or memorial, a place to stop and meditate on the flow of time and the balance of nature.
Interestingly enough, by the time we visited Caramoor in August the lily pads had overtaken the pond and real frogs had begun to overtake the recorded frogs. We captured this picture of an amphibian musician adding his voice to the piece:
Where Scott Smallwood’s “Coronium 3500 (Lucie’s Halo)” uses digital technology to reference birds and crickets and Laurie Anderson’s “We Fall Like Light” does the same for frogs, Suzanne Thorpe‘s “Listening Is As Listening Does” is inspired by the longtime resident bat population of Caramoor’s Spanish Courtyard.
Thorpe has placed two speakers at opposite sides of the Rosen House‘s spacious courtyard, both of which are equipped with a pair of microphones. The speakers project sound (inspired by bats echolocation calls) into the space, the microphones pick up the sound – and any other sounds happening in the space – which informs the way the captured sounds are processed, creating a constantly evolving generational composition loop.
By creating a responsive loop between generated and manipulated sound, Thorpe, a flautist and founding member of experimental psychedelic noisemaking outfit Mercury Rev, puts the visitor in the interesting position of being both listener and player. It brings to mind the Observer effect. Since the natural acoustics of the space are augmented by a soundscape referencing Caramoor’s vanishing bat population (the bats have been disappearing due to the spread of White Nose Syndrome), and since the listener’s presence alters that sound, the experience of deep listening implicates us in creating imbalance in nature in much the same way “Wild Energy” reminds us of our interconnectedness to the environment.
Leaving the Spanish Courtyard, we made our way into the Music Room for Francisco López’s “The [Music] Room”, a sound installation that imagines the room where Walter and Lucie Rosen hosted so many musical evenings after the music has gone. López has created a soundscape that proposes the sound of the room after all the performers and the audience have already left, but their sonic presence persists.
The hall is arranged as if we are present immediately after a concert and the room is filled with, among other things, the sounds of a rustling audience. Onstage an automatic piano silently performs selections from Walter Rosen’s preferred classical repertoire while a theremin “performs” a composition created from original recordings of Lucie Bigelow Rosen in concert.
The overall effect is one of wonderment and temporal dislocation. As described on the Caramoor website, López’s “The [Music] Room” “manifests as an apparently immanent state of eternal quasi-presence.”
This particular piece seems the most self-conscious of itself as “art”, where the soundscape is working in close concert with the constructed space and the visual design of the installation environment. While it less closely adheres to an abstract ideal of the object sonore, it serves as a thoughtful companion to the other pieces at Caramoor.
Taken as a whole, the works that comprise In the Garden of Sonic Delights offer an engaging, rewarding and aesthetically pleasing survey of the varieties of sound art. Stephan Moore’s thoughtfully curated exhibit is not limited to the work at Caramoor, but unfortunately I was unable to experience the installations at partner organizations in the vicinity including Aaron Taylor Kuffner’s “Gamelatron Sanctuary: Suara Sinar (The Sound of Light)” at the Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art (Peekskill), John Morton’s “Usonia” at The Jacob Burns Film Center (Pleasantville), Ed Osborn’s “Palm House Transect” at Lyndhurst (Tarrytown), Ranjit Bhatnagar’s “Stone Song” at The Neuberger Museum of Art of Purchase College, SUNY, and Bruce Odland’s “Seven Bells for Stone Barns” at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture (Pocantico Hills). I hope to find the time to hear and see them.
There are 2 minute interview pieces with each of the show’s 15 artists on YouTube, made during the installation period. They’re a good way to get a glimpse of all the pieces and hear the artists talking about their work in their own words.
If you’re thinking about getting out of town for a day trip or weekend excursion this summer or fall, head up to Westchester for In the Garden of Sonic Delights. It’s closer than you think and really far out. The exhibit runs at Caramoor and partner venues through November 2.