On 28 October 2014, fine art and art history students on Art/Sound (an art history module run by the School of Art, Aberystwyth University) engaged in a workshop that provided a two-fold immersive experience: of noise and of silence. Both phenomenon involved attentive listening, but of different orders, intensities, and foci. One of the workshop’s aims was to develop not only a discipline of hearing but also the ability to describe the sound percepts. Students of fine art and art history are used to perceiving with their eyes and mind and articulating those observations in writing and speech, using a language and vocabulary that’s native to their discipline. They aren’t competent to deal with acoustic awareness in the same way. The contexts of listening were the School of Art and Holy Trinity Church, respectively.
In the first part of the workshop, the students collectively endeavoured to realize Marcel Duchamp’s (1887-1968) Sculpture Musicale (1913). His only instructions/description were: ‘Sounds lasting and leaving from different places and forming a sounding sculpture that lasts’. At 9.00 am, the composer/audients arrived and, after a brief introduction to the tasks ahead, eight amplifiers and oscillator devices, situated in different parts of the School, were turned on simultaneously and very loudly for over half an hour. The students and I walked from room to room, through the corridors, along landings, and down staircases, adjusted the parameters of the oscillators continually, and thereby changed the character of the soundscape throughout the course of the event. It was a genuinely corporate (multi-authored), spontaneous, mutable, and chance proceeding.
The inspiration for the exercise (‘happening’ would be a more apposite description) was the School’s fire alarm test, about which I’m inordinately enthusiastic. At 8.45 am every Tuesday, the alarms in the main areas of the building activate together, filling the whole interior with a moderately uncomfortable shrill pitch at a fundamental frequency of around 3,000Hz (‘F#’ in the top octave of a piano forte). I enjoy identifying the harmonics and the peculiar effect (illusory, perhaps) of hearing a slightly different range of overtones in each ear: truly stereophonic. I stand transfixed, head lifted back, eyes closed, smiling.
The frequency of the oscillators deployed in the installation ranged from around 100 to 2000Hz. The compound of steady notes, pulsating beats, and repeating tone patterns, projected from an array of amplifiers with a power capacity between 10 and 1000 watts, generated a sound akin to a heavy-industrial plant. I imagined intimidating, relentless, Futurist machines dedicated to the production of noise alone. Intoxicating. Some of students discovered a new pleasure, others, a genuinely new and enriching experience, and yet others, no doubt, found the phenomenon oppressive and unsettling. Together, we experienced the ‘invisible architecture’ of sound superimposed upon the physical architecture and acoustic properties of the building’s interior. Or, to change the metaphor: we ‘felt’ the sound, as though it was palpably sculptural (Is this what Duchamp envisaged?) – something to which we could reach out, and that could in turn press down upon us.
Each sound generator produced a distinct and contrasting sound that could be identified with the specific room or area that accommodated it. Thus places could be known remotely; that is to say, without us having to be present within or near to them. Distances and divisions between architectural spaces elided. Sonically, the interior architecture of the School imploded.
The project gave art history students a rare opportunity to not only ‘observe’ but also to reconstruct the artwork under scrutiny. The art historian’s practice need not be restricted to writing and textual and artefactual research. Performing or re-enacting the artwork in this way, like the practice of experiential archaeology, is a valuable interpretive tool, one that helps the researcher to connect with the object of their inquiry with an immediacy and sense of personal and sensory involvement that actively dissolves the historical gap between them and it. The artwork is made anew and present.
‘After the earthquake … a still small voice’ (1 Kings 19.12). In the second part of the workshop we visited Holy Trinity Church – a Gothic Revival, Anglican parish church close to the School. The church has attributes that cannot be accounted for by an inventory of its architectural details, but are, nevertheless, a bi-product of them: the ambience and quiet.
We sought to locate, notate, and denote very small, discrete sounds within the space and silence (in the Cageian sense) of the interior, by adapting Pauline Oliveros’ (b. 1932) techniques of ‘deep listening’. (This is to sound what life drawing is to vision.) The practice was originally conceived as a means of training performers to respond to the environmental contexts in which they played. The development of sonic awareness in this sense is a concept comparable to John Berger’s (b. 1926) notion of ‘visual consciousness’ (1972). Indeed, ways of seeing and of hearing, like our visual and auditory cortices, are not so far apart.
Sculpture Musicale (1913/2014)
Composers: Marcel Duchamp, students of Art/Sound, and John Harvey.
Personnel: students of Art/Sound and John Harvey.
Instrumentation: Electro Harmonix Flanger Hoax; Korg Kaos Pad KP3, Kaossilator, and Monotribe Synth; Laney LV100 (x2); Line 6 Amplifi 75; Peavey W100; amp; QSC K10 amp (x2); Skychord Utopia Synth, Sleepdrone 5, Sleepdrone 6, and Glamour Box, and Yamaha THR10 amp (x2).
Context: Workshop 2, Art/Sound module, School of Art, Abersytwyth University, UK, 28 October 2014.
Source: Captured on a Tascam DR-2d PCM Recorder.