In 1867 the Prussian-born, Paris-based astronomer Rodolphe Radau collected marvelous stories about sound for a book titled Wonders in Acoustics, which formed part of a larger series, The Library of Wonders. According to Édouard Charton, editor of this series, The Library of Wonders was conceived as a way to “put the ideas which are the pride of our civilization [within] the reach of everyone.”1 Between 1865 and 1890 series grew to include such varied titles as Electricity, The Life of Plants, The Wonders of Fire, Bird Migration, Magnetism, The World of Atoms, and The Human Body, among dozens of other volumes that aimed to bring scientific knowledge to the masses. The French used the term vulgarization to describe this popularization of science. Today we might more generously think of such an enterprise as the democratization of knowledge: to make accessible to a large number of people those ideas that would otherwise be produced by, circulated among, and made available to only a very select few.
Radau’s book was remarkable both in terms of its scope (it numbered over 250 pages) and in its desire to extend beyond the often-repeated scientific experiments described in classic texts on acoustics. Yes, Radau covered such well-worn topics as the propagation of sound waves; the intensity, volume, pitch, and timbre of sounds; and resonance and other properties of acoustics. His treatment of these topics, however, was unusual in being both scientifically informed and poetically energized. For a chapter on “Sound in Nature,” for example, Radau set out by establishing that “sound is movement.” He wrote, “Repose is [mute]. All sound, all noise, tells of motion.” He concluded that sound “is the invisible telegraph which Nature uses.”2
In another passage, Radau variously described the human voice as the “offspring of air”; as a thing that “invites, attracts, or repulses, excites or soothes”; and as a “marvellous incarnation” that “lends an invisible form to thought.”3 He suggested, perhaps curiously, that by observing animals, humans might come to understand animal languages—and even to speak them. He also recounted an episode that had taken place during Ascension week in Brussels in 1549, when, in honor of a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary, a bear played an organ whose keys were tied to the tails of cats. Such stories might reasonably be approached with skepticism—both by the modern reader and the Victorian one—but there was, and there remains, little doubt that Radau’s stories were utterly captivating, at times profound, and always, as was the point, full of wonder.
I am reminded of Radau and his desire to inhabit the wilderness of sound, and to bring the masses into this wilderness with him, as I make my way through autumnal woods to see the Resonant Spaces exhibition at Dartmouth College in early September 2017. I am accompanying a group of docents, all women, who volunteer for the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth. The docents are mostly retired professionals who worked in such fields as medicine, education, and engineering. Although none are specifically experts in sound or acoustics, all have a firm grounding in contemporary art and many are well versed in music. Perhaps more importantly, all share a desire to understand in depth the various sound-based works that comprise Resonant Spaces, the first exhibition that features sound installations at Dartmouth College. The docents will eventually be tasked with discussing these works with various groups of visitors who attend the exhibition, whether children, school groups, members of the College community, or others who seek to uncover these wonders of sound.
Our first stop this morning is a landscaped amphitheater in the College Park woodland. As our group wanders around the large, grassy clearing we notice small white loudspeakers embedded in the ground in an arc-like pattern. We are at the site of a new work by Alvin Lucier, a celebrated American composer and foundational figure in the world of sound art, who at the age of 86 continues to invent new ways of imagining and experiencing sound. Lucier’s installation, 5 Graves to Cairo (2017), is described in the exhibition literature as an “underground sound installation.” “Five loudspeakers [are] buried beneath the surface of the ground of the [amphitheater], and as visitors walk across the outdoor space they will hear the sounds of pure waves slowly spinning from speaker to speaker in semi-random patterns.”4 While this may sound innocuous enough, the effect is beautifully disconcerting. When our chatting quells, sine tones seem to grow out of the earth itself. They envelop us in subtly swelling waves that become audible and inaudible at various points and nodes along the grotto. At times the moving tones give the impression of harmonic beats that have been slowed down to their most fundamental, sinewy selves.
Almost immediately there are questions: are the sine tones changing in frequency or amplitude? How are they being generated? Where are the electronics of the installation hidden? Why are the loudspeakers placed in these specific positions? What makes a pure tone “pure”? A sophisticated discussion ensues, one that touches on conceptual, technical, and aesthetic dimensions of the work. One docent observes that the tones are reminiscent of the Om sound heard in Hindu meditative chant. Another requests a diagram of the electronics, wishing to be as precise as possible when discussing the work with future visitors. Another relays her experience of hearing birdsong and crickets as she walked to the amphitheater the previous day. To her mind, these sounds had become reconfigured as a kind of “prelude” to Lucier’s installation. Another suggests that Lucier’s work reveals “the power of the theater of nature.”
In Wonders in Acoustics Radau makes the striking claim that “music is the image of motion,” and that, in music, “every shade of expression, every possible difference of time is given.”5 Radau imagined such “shades of time” as “the drowsy meandering of a stream” and “the stormy impetuosity of a mountain torrent.”6 Certainly the music Radau had in mind would have been very different from Lucier’s earth-released tones. Still, with these words he might have been describing Lucier’s installation, which, by generating impressions of various motions that change as we ourselves move in and between them, occupies multiple shades of time simultaneously: the time of the present moment, and, because the installation seems to last forever and has “always ever been,” a kind of time approaching infinity or perhaps timelessness. By inhabiting multiple dimensions of time, Lucier’s installation further makes us aware of our own consciousness of time and how the medium of sound can shape this consciousness.
The next stop on our tour is a sound installation by the Danish artist Jacob Kirkegaard. A widely exhibiting artist, Kirkegaard is perhaps best known for his work AION (2006), an installation that was itself inspired by the work of Alvin Lucier and whose title translates from the ancient Greek as “infinity” or “eternity.” According to Kirkegaard, AION drew inspiration from Lucier’s iconic composition I Am Sitting in a Room (1969). In this composition Lucier reveals the resonant properties of a room through the iterative process of recording, playing back, and re-recording a short fragment of speech inside a room. The theorist Douglas Kahn has described this composition as shifting the “consideration of musical sounds to all dimensions rather than two dimensions only.”7 Kahn writes, “Pitch is not high or low for Lucier. Instead, it is a matter of shorter or longer wavelengths, travelling in multiple directions at once, physically reinforcing and interfering with themselves among structures, bodies and artefacts while inhabiting and traversing forces and intervening media.”8 Lucier himself commented of I Am Sitting in a Room that “thinking of sounds as measurable wavelengths, instead of as high or low musical notes, has changed my whole idea of music from a metaphor to a fact, and, in a real way, has connected me to architecture.”9
Lucier’s conception of sound as an artistic medium that can come into being in new ways through its connection to architecture is apt when considering the Resonant Spaces exhibition as a whole: nearly all the works in the exhibition are site-specific, conceived for and in connection to particular spaces and architecture. It is especially apt when considering Kirkegaard’s installation, which seamlessly spans the four floors of the Fairchild Physical Sciences Center, a building that—as with the other sites in Resonant Spaces—is entirely appropriate for the work it houses. Kirkegaard’s project deals with seismic vibrations of the earth; Fairchild is home to the Departments of Geography and Earth Sciences. The curators of Resonant Spaces—Spencer Topel, a composer, sound artist, and assistant professor of music at Dartmouth; and Amelia Kahl, associate curator of academic programming at the Hood Museum of Art—specifically sought to cultivate a deep engagement with site and space through the exhibition. They ensured that the artists would be able to visit the various available sites well in advance of the exhibition so that each could select a preferred location and plan a work specifically for that site. The curators also prepared an extensive, 95-page dossier for the artists. It contained, among other things, links to environmental (ambient) sound recordings made at each site, as well as impulse response tests made at each site, which gave the artists a sense of the resonant properties of each space. The dossier had notes on the history of each location, details of what was technically possible to mount there, and photographs showing multiple perspectives of the site.
The artists responded, in turn, by creating works that seemed to emanate from, and breathe new life into, distant corners and everyday spaces of Dartmouth College. At one end of the campus, the American artist Bill Fontana’s installation MicroSoundings (2017) leaked and boomed out of the Life Sciences Center, whose steel structure he transformed into a resonator. There, recordings of sounds captured from inside the building spilled out onto its exterior, where, through the use of accelerometers, they combined in real time with vibrations created by passersby and fluctuations in the weather. Inside the gorgeous Sherman Art Library, the New York–based artist Julianne Swartz’s Transfer (objects) (2017) enabled library visitors to do something unusual: pick up an object, hold it, feel it, explore its contours, and put it to their ears to hear a world of sound unfold through it. Swartz has said that a book is “enigmatic and then becomes known through your investment of time, effort and touch. It transfers information, triggers emotion, and can transport you to another place and time.”10 Her “listening objects,” which, as the curators write, “resemble books in scale, weight, and location,” both imbue the space of the Sherman Art Library with a sense of playful intimacy and, as with regular books, perform the profound act of transporting the reader/listener to another place. With Swartz’s sounding books these other spaces extend to the abstract spaces of philosophical ideas, drawn in one instance from Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, a book in which Bachelard reflects upon poetic reverie, a dreaming consciousness, and poetry as a radiating, consciousness-forming, freedom-making phenomenon.11 Swartz also draws on the writings of the American composer Pauline Oliveros, whose seminal book Deep Listening expounds upon a practice of listening “intended to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.”12
One of the exhibition’s most stunning examples of the re-imagining of space through sound is reserved for a kind of space that the anthropologist Marc Augé would have described as a “non-place”: a place through which people merely pass, and to which they would normally not form any meaningful connections.13 In the non-place of the otherwise nondescript entryway of Cummings Hall in the Thayer School of Engineering, the Belgian musician and sound artist Laura Maes installed an astonishingly complex sound work that operated on the level of what the composer Curtis Roads has called “microsound”: miniscule “particles” of sound that last less than one-tenth of a second and reside “below the level of the musical note.”14 Maes’s installation Spikes (2017) is composed of 200 solar-powered circuits that produce clicking sounds, each at a distinct frequency. The effect is a dizzyingly rich, detailed, and layered composition that seems to ebb and flow with the sun’s movements (the circuits, all handmade, are solar powered, and are installed on the exterior of the building). Maes says that her composition evokes the composer György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique, a work that is scored for 100 metronomes. To my mind it also recalls the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’s Concret PH (1958), which Xenakis created from miniscule recordings of burning charcoal. Like Concret PH and Poème symphonique, Spikes is so impressively layered that a musical composition seems to become an inhabitable space.
Back at the Fairchild Physical Sciences Center we learn that Kirkegaard’s four-story sound installation, Transmission (2017), projects two different sets of recordings of Native American tribal lands in Utah and Arizona. One set stems from seismic vibration data that was captured underground. The other set records acoustic (ambient) sound captured above ground. The above-ground recordings “whisper from the top of the atrium,” while the recordings of seismic data are heard in the atrium’s ground floor.15 According to Kirkegaard, “This creates a vertical sonic space inside the building spanning from below to above the surface of the earth.”16
Kirkegaard’s notes on the project begin with a simple definition: “Transmission: a signal that is broadcast or sent out. Or something that is passed on.” When we discuss Kirkegaard’s work, the docents, perhaps reflecting on this double meaning of “transmission,” suggest that we need a “glossary for sound.” One docent observes that the exhibition invites people to “think in terms of vibration.” This idea might have been plucked from recent academic discussions in which scholars have described a “material turn,” whereby the matter of sound—vibrations, sound waves, acoustic energy, and other physical, auditory matter—has become a primary lens through which to understand music, sound art, and auditory cultures. The idea that the matter of sound “matters,” however, is nothing new. In a chapter titled “Sound Is a Vibration,” Radau speaks of observing window panes shaking when drums are beaten; the trembling of the earth when a cannon is fired; and the trembling of the air that a listener will feel upon touching his or her own head when an orchestra plays. Radau and his contemporaries had far less sophisticated tools than artists and acousticians do today for exploring the phenomenon of acoustic vibration. Instead of seismic transducers and digital sonification techniques, they used such devices as fiddle sticks, wooden hammers, ivory balls, pencils, bars of steel, pendulums, sand, cards, cog wheels, sirens, flames, tubes, bells, discs, and fingers to examine the properties of acoustic matter.
The idea of the sacred dimension of the acoustic realm—or as Radau conceived it, the “miraculous power of sounds”17—was not lost on nineteenth-century acousticians, either. In one passage Radau recalled the Pythagoreans, who believed that “the human soul is in some way formed of harmony.”18 He also examined the nature of the transcendent and divine as it was expressed in various musical cultures around the world:
In the songs of Finland we see the river sands change to diamonds, the haycocks rum to stow themselves in barns, the sea calmed, the bears tamed by the lyre of Wainamoinen; and he himself, falling at last under the spell, sheds in his ecstasy a torrent of pearls instead of tears.
The holy books of the Hindoos are not behind-hand in celebrating the power of music. Men and animals move in harmony with the musician’s wand, while inanimate Nature obeys the influence of music composed by the god Mahédo and his wife Parbutéa. In the reign of Akbar, the celebrated singer Mia Touisine once sang a “ragà” consecrated to the night, in open day. Immediately the sun was eclipsed, and darkness spread as far as the voice was heard. There was another “ragà” which burned him who dared to sing it. Akbar, desiring to make a trial of it, ordered a musician to sign this song while plunged up to the chin in the river Jumna. It was of no use: the unfortunate singer became a prey to the flames.19
By turning to Radau I do not mean to suggest that “everything that is old is new again.” Rather, I believe that Radau and Resonant Spaces share a common purpose: to spread secret knowledge of that mysterious and powerful substrate of human cultures, sound, to those who might otherwise not have a chance to come into contact with its most profound mysteries. Beyond this, by revisiting texts like Radau’s, we can see that various ideas that inform contemporary sound art reach much further back than the early twentieth century, the period that coincides with the Italian Futurists’ experiments with noise instruments, often cited as the beginnings of sound art.
As we wind our way through the various sites of Resonant Spaces we discover various other miracles of sound. In the Hood Downtown gallery space we are invited to put our hands to paper to hear sound, and to hold hands with one another to enable sound to be conducted through our own bodies. These form elements of the American artist Jess Rowland’s The Other Side of Air: Notations for Interactive Sound and Life This In Find We (both 2017). Rowland’s project includes several interactive works that trouble the boundaries between musical notation, sound recording, and reproduction, as well as visual arts disciplines like printmaking and drawing. In one instance visitors can hold a stethoscope-like receiver to a print to hear a recording that is transmitted through copper foil that winds its way through musical notation on the print. Rowland says that, while her works “are inherently ‘prints’ of copper and aluminum foils on paper, they are also sound objects: participants can create sound through gesture on, near, and above the surface of the artwork.”20 Again, while Rowland’s approach is entirely original, and executed with great beauty and attention to detail, some of the larger concepts she engages—in particular the transmission of sound through diverse media—have fascinated for centuries. In Radau, for example, we find a long list of experiments on the transmission of sound through various media including the teeth, the skull, and other parts of the human body.
At Hood Downtown we are also introduced to the work of the American artist Terry Adkins, whose untimely death in 2014 shook the sound art world and in particular the community of African American artists and musicians who frequently collaborated with Adkins. Over a period of nearly three decades, Adkins created a vast body of works he described as “recitals.” In preparing these works he immersed himself in the life and world of various historical figures (his subjects included Bessie Smith, W. E. B. Du Bois and John Coltrane, among many others). For his recitals Adkins used objects, instruments, sculptures, and ritualistic performance to invoke and recuperate aspects of these historical figures’ lives. When we discuss Adkins’s Black Beethoven (2004–7), a multimedia work that grapples with the idea that Beethoven may have been a Moor, Kahl asks the docents why, in their opinion, Adkins’s work might be understood as an intervention into the world of classical music. Without flinching, they respond, “It’s white.” Herein lies part of the genius, I believe, of Resonant Spaces. Although the exhibition is focused on a relatively small number of artists (there are eight in total), it represents a truly impressive range of works and diversity of perspectives. The choice of artists also speak to this diversity: the curators made a conscious effort to feature junior and senior artists across the gender spectrum, as well as artists who represent a range of sexualities, ethnicities, nationalities, and abilities. While this may seem like a simple gesture, we do not need to look much further than the vast majority of sound art exhibitions to know that, as a curatorial concern, the concept of inclusiveness is very rare indeed. In Resonant Spaces this socially and conceptually inclusive approach is coupled with an astonishing level of detail in the presentation of each work. Visitors can genuinely develop a sense of familiarity with each artist featured in the exhibition, even if there is only a single work by that artist on display.
One of the most thought-provoking works in Resonant Spaces, to my mind, and one that speaks to this diversity of perspectives, is an installation by the American artist Christine Sun Kim. Kim’s work in general examines aspects of sound, hearing, acoustics, and musical cultures from the perspective of a person who is profoundly deaf. In her now-famous TED Talk, “The Enchanting Music of Sign Language” (2015), Kim says that, as a deaf person, she grew up with the feeling that the world of sound was off limits to her. She says, “I was born deaf and I was taught to believe that sound wasn’t a part of my life. And I believed it to be true. Yet I realize now that that wasn’t the case at all. Sound was very much a part of my life really, on my mind every day.”20
Starting around 2008 Kim began to create a body of work that specifically engaged concepts of sound through the prism of deaf culture, and discovered that she received an overwhelmingly positive response from the art world. For Resonant Spaces Kim created The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics (2017), which comprises about a dozen ceramic sculptures and text. She says, “Sound often comes with anticipation, waiting to be performed and sometimes detached from its origin. The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics is based on the concept of ‘acousmatic’ sound, or sound that is heard, but with no visible source.”22 The concept of acousmatic sound has come to be associated almost strictly with concerts of electro-acoustic music in which there is no visible source of sound—in which sound is projected from loudspeakers, and not from acoustic instruments. Kim explains how the concept of acousmatics stemmed in part from the work of French composer Pierre Schaeffer, who is considered a pioneer of musique concrète (a term that is literally translated “concrete music” and that is commonly understood as music created from recorded sounds).
In The Grid of Prefixed Acousmatics Kim turns popular conceptions of acousmatic sound on their head, focusing not on “music derived from unseen sources,” but on her own conceptions of acousmatics as a person who experiences sound often through its transmission from other people—for example, as translated by a human sign language interpreter or through captions on television and film screens. Using various Latin and Greek prefixes, Kim proposes new terms for re-conceptualizing acousmatics, terms that she coins and illustrates in the form of drawings and ceramic sculptures. They include such terms as “an-acousmatic” (“without, not”). She lists various associations she has with these terms (for an-acousmatic, her associations include “microphone, asterisk, parentheses, podium, glass of water”). Another concept is “infra-acousmatic,” with infra referring to “beneath, below,” which she associates with “ghost, eyeballs, haunted sites.” By dwelling in Kim’s project we are not only privy to new ways of thinking about sound, but also immersed in Kim’s own extended, idiosyncratic, inspired, and inventive ways of hearing. Indeed, one of Kim’s concepts is “idio-acousmatic,” the prefix idio referring to “one’s own.” Her associations with the idio-acousmatic include birds and sushi rolls.
In Resonant Spaces audiences can dwell in these wondrous installations while also being introduced to critical ideas that confound common or popular conceptions of sound, listening, and acoustics. The exhibition not only reconfigures the various spaces of Dartmouth College it inhabits, but also reorients our own understanding of our senses, and our place in the wonders of sound.