See this published on SciArt in America June 25, 2015
The fusion of science into art happens organically through music—as music began to integrate newer technologies into its production methods, the genre of electronic sound was born. The connection between sound and body has been a fascination of sound artists since the 1960s—think of sound pioneers like John Cage and Terry Riley for a point of departure in sound arts’ meticulous history. Sound has never been about listening only; it should also be experienced in the flesh because acoustics are meant to affect the body not only aurally, but physically as well.
To find new places to see and experience experimental sound performances requires finding organizations that cater to this boutique niche. AVANT.org is a great place to start if you are interested in learning about and listening to contemporary sonic art practices. Their recurring series “Sonic Research” is both didactic and experiential because it couples emerging sonic art with contemporary acoustic research.
Their most resent program titled “Psychoacoustics Session I” featured curated installations, artist talks, panel discussions and performances meant to present diverse perspectives and new research into the maturing field of psychoacoustics. This session went beyond thinking of sound as framing a material space and instead employed psychoacoustics as a new paradigm for understanding sonic art as a physical effect on both the body and the art.
I am new to both learning and experiencing sonic art, and the term psychoacoustics completely evaded my intellectual grasp. Thankfully, the organizers Sam Hart and Charles Eppley eloquently printed in the programs description handout an introduction on psychoacoustics and its multidisciplinary origins: “On the one hand, psychoacoustics is a term whose origin is most readily traced through scientific history, emerging after the field of psychology took shape at the turn of the century…Its current status is further embedded in the succeeding biophysical science, inheriting much from booming advances in signal processing, information theory, cognitive linguistics, computational neuroscience, bioacoustics, and medicine.” Artists and musicians have co-opted the term to define conceptual experimentation with sound through psychoactive and psychologically derived forms of composition, improvisation and performance.
The symposium was on May 30th from 4:00-10:00 p.m. at ALLGOLD—an artist run space currently in residence at the MoMA PS1 Print Shop. I am not new to marathon sessions of art and criticism, but was unfortunately only able to attend half of the event because as a New Yorker I keep my schedule pretty packed full of events in the summer (or that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it). As I arrived at 6:30 p.m. I had a few minutes to kill before Seth Cluett’s performance at 7:00 p.m. I grabbed a beer and read the schedule and program descriptions and was sad to see I missed some very interesting performances and talks. Josh Millrod performed Dreaming Together, a long-term solo project which incorporated musical improvisation and guided meditation (check out his soundcloud for examples of his music). I also missed a panel with Stony Brook University PhD candidate Sophie Landres, who lead a conversation between A.K. Burns and Jules Gimbrone on queer sound, giving attention to the subjectivity of sound-making and listening bodies.
At 7:00 we all shuffled into the ALLGOLD’s back room which served as the performance venue for the evening. The room itself was an irregular asymmetrical shape which was very unlike the standard shoebox, surround or fan-shaped design of concert halls. The room lacked the grandiose scale of stadium seating and instead, attendees sat in the center of cozy room on benches that circumnavigated a pillar of speakers creating a very intimate setting for the event. Artists were situated in the back right corner and were barely visible for a few reasons: the space was dimly lit to ensure the audience would have a personal experience without visual distractions plus a wall of electronic equipment including speakers, amplifiers, mixers and computers barricaded the artist from the audience’s view.
As described in the program description, Seth Cluett performed a composition “directed around psychoacoustic methods to create individualized listening spaces for audience members using field recordings and masking/occlusion.” Seth included in this performance 8 sine tone oscillators, some of which swept between frequencies to change the perception of the space. As he explained to me after the performance, these tones were used to both “point up the acoustics of the space and use space as material to explore attention, aural memory, and the relationship between the body and the space.” At a material level, certain psychoacoustic effects were used to mask the 6 field recordings which included:
1. Snow on dried leaves
2. Rain on a stone roof
3. A geophone measuring the vibration of the ground near the Tempelhof Airport in Berlin
4. Walking in sand
5. Walking in gravel
6. A stream recorded from close up
All the field recordings are so delicate—it is hard to imagine the impact of snow on dried leaves would create a distinct sound in itself. His recordings are even poetic and very attune to the delicate rumblings of nature. Reading the recordings he used was completely different than listening to the recordings themselves—when I read “walking on the sand” I am nostalgically drawn to a pastime in my own life. However, the mashup of recordings, plus a few other sounds including wind chimes and a metronome, were so abstracted through the different tones that the performance was not referential to any worldly occurrence at all.
As decibels, tones and frequencies were perpetually altered, the air pressure in the room actually changed as well which physically affected the body and at times induced a range of corporeal to emotional states from anxiety to even drowsiness. After Seth concluded his performance and people slowly shuffled from the space I tried to reflect on what I had just experienced. I found this difficult—like sound, the 30 minute performance was transient and of its time. The true joy was not recollecting but living in that exact moment and feeling the vibrations of the sounds penetrate the body.
At about 8:30 we again went back to the performance space to hear C. Lavender. As described in the performance description, her piece was “centered around the chronobiological phenomenon of entertainment, utilizing isochronic tones, binaural beats, and ambient sounds which encompass specific frequencies that trigger states of brain functions, from deep relaxation to alertness.” Sound speeds ranged from subsonic to ultrasonic tones—from lower than the speed of sound to sounds with a frequency greater than the upper limit of the human hearing (i.e., 20kHz). This vast range happened abruptly throughout the performance creating a very agitated and atonal listening environment.
I discussed with her after the performance concluded how she created the music. All the sounds were computer generated from software called Neural Programer. This software was used to manipulate the sounds to both ascend and descend, creating an expanded sound field that continually contrasted itself. Again, as I reflected on her performance it was difficult to recall the specifics of it all—the many sounds each had multiple frequencies and tones, and as they were layered on top of one another and morphed into each other the specific moments of each individual sound became lost to the overall experience of the corporeal performance.
I learned from my experience that listening is not just an aural experience, and sound is not just physical vibrations that bounce about the walls of a room. Each performance fleshed out the definition of Psychoacoustics as a new way of thinking about sound as a bodily experience that is individual from person to person.