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Columns : Art Life - Susan Mackay Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

Sound Art - Listen Up!
By Susan Mackay
Sep 15, 2006 - 3:56:24 PM

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Sound Art - Listen Up!

I was putting the trash out today and I was struck in an instant by the blueness of the sky and the insistent noise of the cicadas. Being from Scotland, neither phenomenon is a common occurrence. My first experience of intense heat and cicadas was on a summer holiday in Greece. Now when I hear that noise and feel that heat, I am transported - floating on a glacial turquoise Aegean Sea, overwhelmed by the intensity of the azure hot sky and the shimmering green of olive groves, ears filled with the wild buzzing of the cicadas.

Cicadas make such a distinctive noise. I am not sure if my fascination with it is because it is not a sound I grew up hearing. I love to listen to the noise build to a rattling fury and then taper off into silence. It always seems that the noise is a result of the intense heat burning into the plants, hence the plants themselves and not some bug, start vibrating noisily!

While back in Scotland last year, I was introduced to a movement of art called
New Media Art through working briefly with the new media artists Alex Hamilton and Richard Ashcroft. (New Media Art is exactly that, art that uses modern technologies as the ‘canvas and paint’. The media can be as diverse as video art, digital art, sound art, computer art, etc.)

Hamilton and Ashcroft were the creative talent behind the innovative
Horsecross, Perth Concert Hall . Horsecross is a perfect example of this art movement and its importance in considering public spaces today. In the construction stage, the artists worked with the architects to create a spectacularly cutting edge ‘Threshold’ (entrance foyer) for the concert hall. The building itself is modern with a traditional twist – A domed copper roof and glass walls. As soon as you enter the building through automatic sliding doors, there are portals that ‘speak’ to you. Or, the official term – ‘interactive sound boxes’. Once inside the open glass building, the interaction continues. There are more sound boxes placed throughout the foyer floor assailing the visitor with well considered and relevant ‘sounds’.

On the mezzanine level, highly visible, are 22 display screens. These are digital canvases that new media artists are invited to create for. They are unlike regular flat screen TV’s as the software created for the
‘Threshold Wave’ allows artists to utilise the sum of all the screens to produce continuous flowing images. There are also 2 large projection walls and screens in another part of the foyer. No space not considered ‘Threshold Flush’ is display screens in the public toilets!

The artists’ vision was to utilise these normally dormant spaces and what they have created is astounding. More importantly, they have produced a multi faceted digital and public space with unending potential.

For the opening of Horsecross, Perth Concert Hall, sound artist
Janek Schaefer was invited to exhibit some of his work. Being new to this form of art, I was initially perplexed by the apparently random sounds that boomed around the threshold space. Janek sat in the middle, with his vinyl, turntables and headphones. It was an extraordinary experience – bombarded by a plethora of sounds, however I was intrigued by the similarity in processing the auditory information as I would with visual information in any other art form.

Sound art is obviously similar to music. And like the most abstract composers, sound artists are pushing the boundaries of auditory experience. However sound artists may come from diverse disciplines and often deliberately separate themselves from musicians to prevent any preconceived ideas of listening to ‘sounds’. It is, like contemporary art, more experience based, than structured or product orientated.

And like a traditional painting sound art is made up from smaller elements and motifs and composed to produce a complete piece that evokes some feeling or message. I imagine the sounds layered over each other like paint. And a sound highlighted and left to ring clearly like an image depicted in detail. But unlike music, it is without a typical structure or rhythm.

Although I had the wonderful experience of listening to Janek’s work, which incidentally includes sounds from outer space, and though I understood the concept of sound art, I confess I was still unconvinced about this medium. However, one cold dreary day, still in Scotland, I found myself in a huge freezing barn –
Skateraw - an incredible archive of art collected by Richard Demarco, on the wind drenched coast of the River Forth, with some artists from Cumbria. Amongst them were sound artists and their recording equipment. As we were shown round the vast space, I watched the sound artists as they stood quietly recording with ecstatic faces. I hadn’t really noticed before that the barn was filled with wild wind and metal sounds. I closed my eyes and listened with their ears and heard sounds that were as compelling and evocative as the art we had come to see.

Back in Freeport I sit on the beach with my eyes closed and listen with a new ear. I can hear the ocean, the gulls. Then the overpowering noise of jet skis and speed boats, like an ignorant splash of red paint on a scene of pastels. But it occurs to me that the sound artist would not necessarily have my prejudice. Is a man made sound any less valid than the sounds we expect to hear in a natural environment? And is it not exactly like art to have a violent juxtaposition to awaken and heighten our tired perspective?

Similarly the cicadas are an apparently random sound, yet for me they are imbued with so much personal history and memories. Somehow the sound has attached in my memories with colours, taste and life beyond what is present. Like a painting or any other art, the sound, or the motif becomes something more than a bland hum in the midst of a morning framed in the canvas of Freeport. So I will endeavour to embrace this new art language and remember to greet the day, not just with open eyes, but with open ears!

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