Barbara London recently curated an exhibition titled Soundings: A Contemporary Score at MOMA, which investigates the relation between auditory events and everyday life. Anyone who was involved in my undergraduate career came into contact with my thesis on urban sound as poesis, and indeed, as an occasion for auditory poetics. The sustained investigation took me across the globe from New York to Paris and London in search of a research platform. I spoke to and collaborated with many sound artists in the generative process. The results were lasting, as much of my current research continues to explore the hybrid terrains between auditory events and visual reading. That is to say, I am at work on deconstructing the ambiguity of the auditory as a phenomenal event and exposing how the visual becomes reified in canonical Anglo-American criticisms.
William Empson, in Seven Types of Ambiguity, characterizes a poetics of sound in the following manner:
“Once you abandon the idea that sounds are valuable in themselves you are thrown far towards the other extreme: you must say that the sounds are valuable because they suggest incidental connections to meaning. If this be true, one can do a great deal to make poetry intelligible by discussing the variety of resultant meanings, without committing oneself very deeply as to how they have been suggested by the sounds” (Empson 11).
True, Empson’s prose presents problems of accessibility for lay readers. Where could Empson possibly derive a thesis concerning the “value” of sound for the articulation of a poetic process, let alone a science? One can hear echoes of a poetic defence filter into Empson’s writing. He proceeds to characterize the aesthetic ambiguities of poetry by way of reference to a “latent fundamentalism” in “sound” (15). It is precisely such “fundamentalism” that Soundings: A Contemporary Score uncovers. Sound art provides the opportunity for a brand of fundamentalism insofar as noise goes unnoticed in the practice of everyday life. We do not question how things sound, much less how we sound.
Indeed, much of Empson’s reading in the early chapters of Seven Types of Ambiguity relies on a fairly nuanced paraphrase of the theory of Paget, whose empiricism set readings of sentiment aside in favor of precision. Here is Paget, from his volume Human Speech, where he describes the audio event of speech. The selection I have selected here is somewhat obtuse, but nevertheless conveys the idea:
…owing to the comparative paucity of different mouth-gestures, each mouth-gesture—which produces its own particular sound or root word – has to stand for a considerable number of hand – (or other bodily) gestures; to put it in another way, each root word is naturally liable to bear many meanings…One other point may be noted; the same mouth-gesture may be naturally construed in many ways. Thus, the movement of tongue or lips may represent a pantomimic movement, symbolizing a real movement, or a spatial relation of some kind, e.g. above, below, around, or it may represent a shape of some kind drawn in outline. Finally, any of these meanings may be used figuratively instead of concretely (Empson, 15).
Paget’s distinction between figurative as oppose to concrete meaning resonates in the curatorial ambition of Soundings: A Contemporary Score. The exhibition, a first of its kind in New York, covers auditory events and performances from 1960s onwards with the advent of musique concrete. Moreover, the various works on display document innovation across the globe in London, Stockholm, Kolm, Milan, and Melbourne. The result is a magnificent tour de force from mixed media artists working in contemporary audio design and programming.
For the sake of brevity, I will foreground several pieces. Richard Garet’s 30 Cycles of Flux (see above image) takes cues from Russolo, Futurism, Dadaism, and Fluxus, in a project of self-definition. Garet describes his manipulation of audio as material practice that enabled him to “reinvent myself sonically” (London 30) by crafting sound as a material, much like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets came to sculpt language as material practice. According to Garet, the material allows him to “engage conceptually and subjectively with my broader investigations of technology’s function-and-defunctionalization, commodity, culture, and environment” (30-32).
Other pieces of strong resonance include Florian Hecker’s Hinge, which is on display on the first floor of MOMA. In minimalist fashion, audio speakers drape from the ceilings and rotate around a room, conveying what Hecker characterizes as a confluence of subjectivity and space. With similar ambition and ambiguity, Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall (2011) colludes with the audience to interrogate and expose the “physicality of code” (London 58). We could invoke Donna Haraway’s argument in A Manifesto for Cyborgs to mobilize “coded devices” (2190) in the service of new aesthetics.In the case of Microtonal Wall, the text is both self-developing and designed to reproduce frequencies that engage audience as well as producer. In Perich’s own words, “each listener’s exploration of that aural space shapes what they hear, from the totality of white noise (from a distance), to the single frequency of each speaker (up close). The piece functions according to the inverse square law in physics: the volume of a sound drops off over distance from its source” (59-60).
Soundings: A Contemporary Exhibit is on display at MOMA through November 3.
Empson, William. Seven Types of Ambiguity. New York: New Directions,1966. Print.
Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” in The Norton Anthology of Theory
and Criticism. ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co, 2010.
“Richard Garet,” in Soundings: A Contemporary Score. ed. Barbara London. New York: MOMA, 2013.
“Florian Hecker,” in Soundings: A Contemporary Score: ed. Barbara London. New Yorlk: MOMA, 2013.
“Tristan Perich,” in Soundings: A Contemporary Score: ed. Barbara London. New York: MOMA, 2013.