3.13 / The Sound Issue

The Sound Issue: Introduction

By Tess Thackara April 19, 2012

Image: Paul DeMarinis and Jim Pomeroy. A Byte at the Opera, 1976 (still); 1977 performance at 80 Langton Street; sheetrock, dried beans, loudspeakers, colored chalk dust, silly string, power tools, Kim-1 microcomputer, digital port drivers. Photo: Marion Gray.

All it takes is one visit to San Francisco’s Audium to realize the debt owed by contemporary sound artists to their 1960s forbearers. An immersive sonic environment designed to give subjects a heightened experience of space, the Audium is an icon of the radical explorations in sound that took place in the Bay Area during that era. This thematic issue of Art Practical will not only provide some of that rich history but will also probe the very essence of sound and delve into the hybrid practices of contemporary sound artists.

The San Francisco Tape Music Center (SFTMC), of which Audium’s creator Stan Shaff was an associate, led the way with their participatory audiovisual experimentations. As Liz Glass notes in her essay on the collective, “For the members of SFTMC, music was constantly ‘a thing in the process of becoming’: ever shifting and growing through the incorporation of improvisation, technologically advancing through the advent of inventions like the Buchla Box, and fluidly structured through the simultaneous use of recorded sound and live performers.”

From the earliest days of sound art, artists and experimental musicians discovered in the genre a medium that is inclusive, participatory, and disruptive and that could embody their political goals. For Paul DeMarinis, interviewed in this issue by Renny Pritikin, this took the form of public performances, interactive sound sculptures, and the subversion of technologies of power. For Paul Kos, whose work is discussed by Tom Marioni in a roundtable discussion, sound could occupy a conceptual realm; in his Sound of Ice Melting (1970), viewers strained to hear the sound of ice melting in what could only have been a tangible silence.

Today San Francisco continues such sound explorations through the SFTMC’s successive body, SFSound and festivals like Activating the Medium and the San Francisco Electronic Music festival, as well as long-standing and influential institutional programs. The Bay Area’s technological reign has established San Francisco as a destination for sound artists seeking to advance their practices through the genesis of new mediums. In “Sonic Infrastructure,” Marc Weidenbaum talks to engineering pioneers who have built sonic arts technology for the likes of Bill Fontana, Marina Rosenfeld, and Björk, among others.

Ellen Tani and Jacqueline Gordon discuss the way in which sound intersects with and colors our experience of space, operating as an active force with the potential to reconfigure environments. In his profile of the collective Infrasound, which has produced a series of site-specific, spatial acoustic concerts since 2001, Matt Sussman finds an elastic medium

 capable of conflating sensory experience; sounds are both aural and physical, producing reverberations that register in our ears and bodies and that locate or disorient us in space.

Artists working with sound explore the medium’s fluidity and relational capacity. How do sounds respond to different contexts and juxtapose with other artistic forms? In Ethan Rose’s practice, Bean Gilsdorf finds an artist working in both private and public spheres—recording albums, performing, and collaborating on film soundtracks. The latter he describes as a delicate dance between narrative and musical elements that prevents either from being subsumed by the other. In his essay “Collation & Synthesis: Unifying Fields of Cultural Production,” Aaron Harbour examines the art of DJing, its systems of collaborative channels, and its possibilities as a model for creative production, allowing for cross-pollination between producers of all forms.

Together these essays and interviews constitute a fraction of the rich and varied world of experimental sound. Laetitia Sonami, Nadine Robinson, Laurie Anderson, Tristan Perich, Kamau Patton, and so many others not covered here continue to break ground in the sonic arts. In conjunction with this issue, we are delighted to highlight the annual Activating The Medium festival—an internationally recognized showcase of the most innovative and visionary practitioners of sound art. During the weekends of April 20–23 and April 27–30, 23five Incorporated will present sound works at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Lab with ancillary lectures and psychogeographic soundwalks.

As a continuation of the discussion between artists Chris Duncan of LAND AND SEA and Joshua Churchill, in which they consider the accessibility of sound and its potential for synchronicity and chaos, Art Practical is producing a podcast that will include excerpts from interviews and samples of sound art. In Episode 348 of Bad at Sports, Art Practical explores sound art as an agent of human connectivity. As Churchill and Duncan both note, sound is something we can’t disconnect from; the power it grants us to locate ourselves and define the space between us can inspire awe and amazement.

Paul Kos Sound of Ice Melting

Paul Kos. Sound of Ice Melting, 1970. Two twenty-five-pound blocks of ice, eight boom microphone stands, eight microphones, mixer, amplifier, two large speakers, and cables; dimensions variable; installation view: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Francisco, 1970. Courtesy of the Artist. © 1970 Paul Kos.

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