Sampling Sonic Culture: MoMA’s Cautious Entry Into a World of Noise

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Carsten Nicolai, Wellenwanne lfo (2012). Water tank, water, mirror, audio equipment, stroboscope, display screen.

"Careful listening is more important than making sounds happen."

— Alvin Lucier

Considering the vital role American artists of all media have played in the emergence of sound art, one is inclined to speculate as to why MoMA is just now mounting its first major exhibition dedicated to the subject.

Certainly, there are inherent difficulties with showing these works in a museum setting. Practically, sound works may either be played via headphones, requiring viewers to listen in solitude, or rendered aloud but carefully isolated, often demanding peculiar exhibition layouts. Perhaps the persistent tradition of the nobility of sight over other senses plays a role; a show devoid of visual work may leave an empty impression in audiences accustomed to a predominantly visual culture. The principal impediment may, however, be the culture of sound art itself. Sound artists have long gravitated toward esoteric and reflexive discourse, as well as experiences that probe the extrema of perception, endurance, even existence. In a word, they—and their medium—can be "difficult." MoMA's first significant foray into sound art, Soundings: a Contemporary Score, comes at a time when, out of this impossibly dense non-field, forms of practice are coming to prominence that allow the museum to sidestep many of the aforementioned issues for a show more in keeping with their conception of contemporary art. 

Curated by Barbara London, Soundings presents a sampling of contemporary sound art and its bordering media, piecing together a coherent exhibition from an ill-defined and exceedingly diverse mixture of practices that constitute today's sonic media landscape. Though Soundings leaves wide gaps in its representation of the field, what it does offer are several exceptional pieces that fit neatly into what viewers have come to expect from a MoMA exhibition, that is, thoughtfully-conceived and widely-accessible works, most of which have at least some visual component serving as a point of entry. Soundings orients itself curatorially toward the proposition that "how we listen determines what we hear," referring both to the artist's differing approaches toward sound art praxis, as well as a common thread among their work which takes up the dialectics of subjectivity. The thesis is given further resonance when viewers are asked to consider works vicariously or reflect subjective inquiries internally, subtle variations on "If a tree falls in the forest..." that tease out important features regarding our conception of sound.

Though far from comprehensive, Soundings does explore several artistic positionings, including essential nods to canonical sound artists such as Xenakis and Lucier, explorations by experimental music practitioners, and occasional postures drawing from distant disciplines. Hong-Kai Wang, for instance, employs an ethnographic sensibility in her piece Music While We Work where she teaches factory workers from a Taiwanese sugarcane refinery to perform field recordings, thus opening an aural window into the daily lives of individuals driving our globalized infrastructure. The work serves both as subdued exposition of the spaces of contemporary labor and cultural intervention into these spaces, in that it enables workers to reappropriate them through sound.

Ultrafield by Jana Winderen also makes use of field recordings. Here, listeners sit in darkness as a sixteen-channel ambisonic soundscape submerges them into the exotic ultrasonic universe of insect and aquatic species, an alien acoustic environment where the only instrument within grasp is metaphor. Winderen falls within a contingent of artists whose practices center around the discovery and exploration of entirely new sonic territory, a group which today is exemplified by artists that focus on computer-based production techniques such as Robert Henke or Carsten Nicolai but can be traced back through noise projects, experiments by pioneering sound artists such as Cage, and the inception of modern jazz, if not further. In privileging aural experience over its cultural context, Ultrafield differs markedly from Music While We Work, with its emphasis on the social use of sound. Thus, these two works exemplify how divergent the aims of sound works can be, even where similar production techniques are involved.

Jana Winderen, Ultrafield (2013). Sixteen-channel ambisonic sound installation.

In keeping with sound art custom, a series of pensive existential works are also included in the exhibition, here in the form of ink and pastel drawings by Christine Sun Kim. Deaf since birth, Kim gathers from American Sign Language, English, body language, and musical notation to find fragments of representational unity or conflict with which she creates her artworks. In All. Day., an arc is pictured coming from the phrase of same name in American Sign Language, below it, the musical notation for a rest bar and the approximate number of rests that have passed during Kim's 32 years of life. The painting elegantly presents viewers with a subjective and entirely contradictory interpretation of auditory experience and its representation, thereby staging a meditation on a world of imagined sound.

Christine Sun Kim, All. Day. (2012). Score, ink, pastel, and charcoal on paper, 38.5 x 50" (97.8 x 127 cm). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Erica Leone.

The intricate connection between sound and language is further examined in Florian Hecker's three-channel electroacoustic work Affordance. Tucked away in an adjacent stairwell, Hecker's contribution, though seemingly modest, proves an eminently rewarding conceptual object. A three-channel modulating arrangement of bright, textured computer tones is carefully positioned so as to separate the three speakers and preclude listeners from hearing all sources at once. Affordance thus simultaneously invokes movement and memory as essential players in our comprehension of sound by asking listeners to carry with them the sounds from one speaker to the next. It follows from Hecker's background in computational linguistics that Affordance challenges viewers to substantiate their interpretation of the listening experience as more than mere conversion of waves, but instead a process of mapping ideas. From the wall text: "Hecker takes as a starting point the fact that listening is often driven by a desire for understanding―it is an attempt to make associations, to recognize sounds as familiar, to slot what we hear into known categories." Affordance boldly confronts how we perceive by placing the act of listening within a greater regime of communication, thus allowing listeners to arrive at a unique moment of clarity through an almost topological maneuvering of concepts.

In contrast to academic works such as Hecker's, or Carsten Nicolai's beautifully crafted subsonic water table (pictured at top), that expertly interrogate perception and question the very nature of sound, Study for Strings, originally conceived for dOCUMENTA (13) by 2010 Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz, stands alone in its emotive potential. The original 1943 composition by Pavel Haas, which he wrote for a Nazi propaganda film while imprisoned in a concentration camp, was once played by the prisoner's orchestra and recorded for the film. Shortly thereafter Haas and most of the orchestra members were killed, save the conductor, who survived the Holocaust and helped reconstruct the piece in its current form. The composition subtly discloses an internal struggle between the facade of wartime propaganda and a deep sorrow brought on by life in a concentration camp. The spare rendition features only the viola and cello parts, acknowledging the absence of its missing members with tragic moments of silence that they are unable to fill.

Susan Philipsz, Study for Strings (2012). 8-channel Sound Installation. 

While Soundings features an assortment of exceptional works, distilling a medium which encompases such a multiplicity of attitudes and modalities into a modestly scaled gallery necessarily leaves holes, so, much as an exhibition on contemporary painting or film would doubtless seem incomplete, expectations conjured by the show's billing as "MoMA's first major exhibition of sound art" may mislead those expecting inclusion of specific practices. Soundings instead provides a short, but largely rewarding, dip into a vast ocean of sonic media, tracing some of its origins and highlighting one possible trajectory.

But if Soundings is unsuccessful as a representation of the field of sound art, it is more successful as a collection of artworks, in various media, that inquire into the cultural and subjective framing of sound. And this raises an important proposition about contemporary media practices more generally: that there is a growing tension between specialization within the media arts, resulting in disciplinization of those subjects, and an opposing impulse to incorporate multiple media, tailoring expressive output to the ideas one is trying to communicate. As much of the richest conceptual territory currently lies between media practices or draws upon ideas from wildly differing disciplines, it seems likely that these struggles will begin to typify emerging media practices, sonic or otherwise.

Soundings: a Contemporary Score is up through November 3rd and accompanied by several highly recommended performances.