Tuesday, 20 August 2013
At the Moment of Being Heard at the South London Gallery
The exhibition At the Moment of Being Heard at the South London Gallery in Peckham includes a number of works of sound art in which the sounds are either heard, implied or prompted in the viewer’s imagination by visual cues and scores. John Cage is and abiding presence, both in his philosophical guise, exploring the nature of sound and the boundaries of the musical. And as a composer who employed elements of chance and the approximate navigational charts of graphic scores, which could also be seen as works of art in themselves.
In the main hall of the old Victorian arts and crafts building (the gallery originally opened in 1891), New York artist Eli Keszler’s sound sculpture NEUM stretches across the face of the west wall like some giant cat’s cradle. A web of resonant wires are tautly strung from floor to ceiling, resembling the cables flexibly anchoring radio masts or suspension bridges. This structure, impressive enough in itself, was silent when we first entered. It comes to life periodically, as if stirred by a sudden gust of wind. In fact, a small motor is set in motion, driving metal rods to saw against the cables, producing a metallic thrum akin to a stick being run across a long stretch of coiled wire fence, or a small chorus of croakily hocketing frogs in a cave. Different frequencies, produced by the varying lengths of cable, overlap and create resonant harmonies. The reverberations are spaced apart so that they don’t agglomerate into a clogged and indivisible mass of sound. They echo back and forth, filling all the corners of the space and sounding out this large room. Algorithmic patterns programmed into a computer, discretely hidden in a black box, vary the order in which the strings are played, resulting in a music in which randomness plays a part, but is contained within strict parameters. In this respect, it’s a little like Xenakis’ stochastic music, which also derived ‘approximate’ patterns of sound from mathematical bases. The nature of the sound produced also changes organically over time. It’s noticeable the small metallic bars which ‘bow’ the wires are deeply grooved with frictional wear. Presumably, the strength of attack correspondingly grows weaker, a built in reflection of natural decay which would mean that the initially strident playing of the sculpture gradually shifts to a more delicate, whispering touch. The notion of creating resonant sound from expansive stretches of wire brings to mind other composers such as Ellen Fullman, with her long string instrument, and Alvin Lucier, with his Music on a Long Thin Wire, and even Pythagoras’ notion of the divine monochord. They tend to create sustained drones, however. The music of Keszler’s sculpture is more fractured and pointillistic, producing a series of singular, echoing zings whose reverberations fill the ensuing pauses.
Other works in the hall produce small sounds which are inaudible until you bring your ears up close to the source. Combined with the periods of silence during which Keszler’s shivering web lies tautly still, this neatly solves the problem of noise leakage which is often a problem with sound art exhibitions. The artists here politely allow each other to be heard without any unseemly shouting for dominance.
Canadian artist crys cole (who seems to self-effacingly disdain capitalisation of her name or the titles of her work) hides her piece away in the interstitial spaces of the hall. filling a space with salt (in two parts) uses the air vents set into the parquet flooring in the corners towards the back. One is filled with salt, which rises to a white peak through the grille like a miniature Everest. Its form, made up of countless steadily poured grains, determines the limits of growth within this confined space. Any more and the structure would be destabilised, excess salt spilling out to spread across the floor and be walked through the rest of the galleries. The tip which we see here, peeking out into the gallery proper, is suggestive of a whole subterranean world, the air vent the entrance to some complex of hacked out salt mine tunnels, from which this might be an extracted heap. It leads us to re-imagine an empty, incidental space which we would normally have paid no attention to, locating art in areas on the edge of the official display boundaries (and a little beyond). A second vent has hidden speakers below which play a close-mic’d recording of the pouring of the salt. This obliges the listener to kneel down on the floor (or lie down if they feel like it) and press their ear to the grille. The sound is akin to trickling water, with a chaotic variance in the density of flow. There are abrasive rushes and interludes in which individual grains or droplets are distinguishable. It’s the sound of the salt mountain taking shape, order dictated by the physics of mass, volume and stable forms. But an alchemical transformation has taken place. From this driest of compound elements, liquid sounds have emanated. We are once again led to re-imagine spaces we would normally pass by (unless possessed with a particular fascination for Victorian iron grillwork). The air vent now becomes a drain beneath which we can hear the flow of underground streams or sewage systems.
German artist Reiner Ruthenbeck’s Geräuscharbeiten (Noise Works) from 1978 area a series of photographic images which try to capture particular sounds visually. No.3, Rolladen is the one on display here. It shows a woman scrolling metal shutters down over the entrance to what apparently is an art gallery (although the nature of the building is really incidental). There is a slight out-of-focus blur of motion which gives the action a sense of in-the-moment immediacy. Concomitant with this captured movement, there is also implied sound. The segmented metallic clattering of the steel shutters being pulled down from a rolling spindle is played out in the mind of the viewer.
German artist Rolf Julius’ Singing, conceived in 2000, is the first of several of his pieces scattered throughout the galleries. They act as something of a mini-retrospective following his death in 2011. His work generally involves low-level, unobtrusive noises which the listener has to crouch or kneel down near to the sound source to hear. They reflect on aspects of the natural world, both in the sculptural forms or assemblages built up around the tiny speaker cones he uses, and in the nature of the sounds which leak out of them. Singing is a relatively monumental work in Julius’ terms. An array of upturned speaker cones are strung like cradles from long wires attached to the ceiling, set gently swaying by the circulating draughts (or by the occasional clumsy listener who knocks them with head – ahem!) The speaker cones are set at a level such that you have to bend over at an awkward angle to listen them, literally forcing us out of our comfort zone. It’s a child’s ear level, and invites you to hear afresh from a new perspective. What we hear when we bend our ear is a rushing riverrine susurrus overlaid with bird song, insect chirrup and other sounds of forest chatter. Beneath it all runs a deep bass drone, the thrum and pulse of the lifeforce. Closing your eyes and concentrating on the sounds, a vivid and colourful picture is created in the mind, taking you away from Peckham and into the jungle. The suspended cones also act like censers, their bowls containing a fine dust of dark pigment, like a deposit of dried alluvial silt. This dust is shifted by the beating diaphragm of the speaker, and forms a pattern over time which in some sense gives shape to the sound waves pulsing outwards. It like an aural equivalent of the iron filings thrown onto a sheet of paper under which a rectangular magnet has been placed, which trace the lines of force radiating from the twin poles.
Some of the roughly circular forms thus produced have been transcribed and joined together in strips of paper which form the large painting Five Red from 2007. This is presented as a graphic score, of the kind drawn by John Cage, Morton Feldman and others in the 50s and 60s. The imperfect, rough hewn circle certainly recalls the Zen influences on Cage’s music (and indeed his visual art). The irregular, semi-natural forms of the silt circles, which are a reproduction of sound over time, are in turn used as a prompt to create sound. This in turn could potentially be recorded and played back through upturned speakers with a sprinkling of pigment on them, leading to an evolving, spiralling process. The visual cues are more psychological than notational, the circles forming a series of musical Rorschach blots. Most are in black, but there are five red blots interpolated at various intervals. These suggest both different tonal colours or dynamic levels, and a certain rhythmical emphasis. The way in which the ‘score’ is read is completely down to the performer. Having stared at it for a suitable length of time, they could even just close their eyes and play the phosphor dots drifting across their retinas. You can hear (and see) one response to it, from singer and composer Joan LaBarbara, over here.
Upstairs, Black Spot, another Julius piece, this one from 2009, goes almost unnoticed on the landing. A small and discretely placed speaker on the corridor wall emits a low level twitter of high-pitched bird song. It has a subliminal effect, providing a counterpoint to the exterior traffic noise drifting in from Peckham Road, allowing access to interior gardens or wilds. Another room contains two more Julius works. Four Stones comprises four small upright blocks of slate, a few inches high, surrounding the upturned bowl of a black speaker cone as if it were an altar stone. The connecting white wire trails back to the wall circuit like some ceremonial path. It’s like a mini megalithic site, and I struggle to dispel images of Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge from my mind. Leaning down over this site like some great Pagan deity, you hear tiny, high-pitched sounds on the edge of human audibility; Bat squeak, owl scratch and the skitter of rodent claws – the noises of the night. With a little imagination, you can picture a full moon hanging over the stones, illuminating them in its milky light. Volcanoes II from 2010 has three small computer screens placed on the floor, joined and folded out like a sacred triptych. If they depict an aspect of any divinity, however, it is a dormant god of fire. The upturned speaker cones which are at the centre of each screen are here likened to volcanic caldera. The absence of relative scale created by the frame of the screen means that the illusion is easy to maintain. They have the appearance of volcanoes as they might have appeared on Thunderbirds, models given the charmingly animated appearance of life. The three screen set up also suggests a modish 60s Woodstock-style split viewpoint. The cones are all covered with a deposit of ash, which disguises their true nature. The sounds are once more small and subliminal – flutterings and rustlings, which cause light belches in the ash. There’s a feeling that we’re waiting for a more dramatic eruption, a power chord or blast of digital feedback which will cause the ash to explode into a dense suspended cloud.
In the back room of the upper floor, the Belgian artist Baudouin Oosterlynck has created a series of works on paper under the general title Variations of Silence which are a combination of graphic scores, expressionistic sketches and diaristic evocations of place and emotional state. Again, any music to be ‘read’ from these scores will be more a matter of psychological, aesthetic and intuitive responses rather any logical following of fixed notation. Each drawing, outlined in variously coloured pencils, is a record of a particular location discovered during several journeys in search of moments of profound silence. Moulded relief maps on tables in the centre of the room are pinned with little marker flags which allow us to trace Oosterlynck’s wanderings, a bit like Richard Long’s maps, which act as a record of his walks. Oosterlynck, riding his bicycle, covers slightly wider territory, though. In order to find anything approaching silence in the modern world, he has to stray far from human habitation, peddling his way to woods, valleys, mountain paths, lakes, rice fields, gorges and pine forests. The ‘scores’ for these silences once more raise the spectre of John Cage. They are a mixture of descriptions and line drawings, both abstract and figurative. The descriptions can get a bit floridly poetic in a very French manner. ‘The silence is the sun’s favourite cloud’ could be one of Cantona’s old pearls of opaque wisdom. Perhaps it’s a problem of translation, particularly acute where poetry is concerned. The sketches are fantasias incorporating figures and landscapes. The sounds are in the lines and contours and in the feelings implied by the figurative distortion. The different colours are also coded in order to be ‘read’ in a particular way. One drawing looks like a diagram of the inner ear (Prelude du Silence no.11 op.89). Another resembles an inverted, coloured cone (resembling a dropped ice cream) suggesting an initial outburst of sound which narrows to the point where it finally dies out (Ouverture du Silence no.1 op.80). A purple mushroom forest is like an upright version of the sound baffles hanging from the roof of the Albert Hall (Prelude du Silence no.10, op.88). Images of confinement and burial (including one evoking the atmosphere of the Swedish cemetery at Haman suggest that the ultimate blanket of silence can only be experienced in death. The assignment of opus numbers to each piece puts forward the Cageian idea of silence as composition. The detailing of different shades of silence, each with their own particular texture, goes to show that there is in fact no such thing as absolute silence. There’s just the extraction of the elements (largely human) which obscure deeper, quieter layers. Whilst we’re alive, there’ll always be noise, as Cage discovered when he was left alone in an anechoic chamber. Life is always accompanied by the pulse or hum of sound.
There’s nothing quiet about Danish artist and musician Henning Christiansen’s Symphony Natura, op.170 from 1985. This is housed in a separate gallery building at the bottom of the Fox Garden (presumably a favourite with the urban variety). It’s an appropriate trek past the summer flower beds, since we then effectively a sound jungle. 8 speakers are set up around the room, which is filled with cacophonous cross-currents of animal calls recorded in Rome Zoo with the assistance of Lorenzo Mammi. These seem to emerge from a roaring wind, through which the crystalline tolling of a glass bell is buffeted. Singular elements of the overall soundstorm can be determined by moving close to separate speakers to isolate them. But for the full effect, it’s best to stand somewhere in the centre, in the eye of the storm, and let it rage around you. On the walls between the speakers, there are more painted graphic scores, although given that the sounds here are recorded, these are more impressionistic attempts to embody the nature of each sound track in terms of colour and form. Seascapes or fantastic palaces convey the idea of the imaginative landscapes to which the symphony might transport us. Multilingual titles, some in English, some Italian and one in German, give some sense of the species and their habitats (natural or surreal) which are amalgamated in this concentrated world of sound. We have a Gibbon in glass; Kakadua (cockatoos) in the North; Orso e foca a Villa d’Este (bears and seals at the Villa D’Este); Canzone di lupi con basso continuo (Song of wolves with basso continuo); Cervo e gibbone nella civiltà (Deer and gibbons in society); Il mare degli animali (The sea of animals); and Vogelorgel (Bird organ), which conjures up images of Paul Klee’s Twittering Machine.
Unconventional notational marks superimposed over the paintings are like worlds which in a foreign language, using a wholly alien alphabet. It’s the language of screaming monkeys, howling wolves, cackling birds and elemental forces. It’s a language which gleefully casts aside the constraints of civilisation, kicking over the barriers, tearing up the conventions and letting loose a wild blast of untrammelled chaos. This is a place to become engulfed in, allowing your senses to be overwhelmed by a ceaseless maelstrom. Your awareness of the outside world gradually fades away as this new environment becomes dominant, leading to a pleasurable state of disorientation. In an exhibition in which small and sparely employed sounds and variations on silence are predominant, Christiansen’s dense symphonic mass of noise makes for a startling contrast, a final cathartic blast which prepares you to walk back out into the rush and roar of traffic along the Peckham Road.