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Music Review

Time Out for Audio Art in Activating the Medium

Sonic set pieces by a trio of conceptualists challenge listeners, with varying degrees of success.

February 26, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Audio art is the conceptual art of music. It examines sound as an idea. It does not, like music, concern itself with the sophisticated manipulation of time. Rather, by removing the control of time, audio art liberates sound in the hopes that it might have unique power over the listener.

That is the purpose of the festival Activating the Medium, which was founded in San Luis Obispo in 1998. The event has proven so successful that this year it has been able to travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco and, Saturday night, to Beyond Baroque in Venice. The program included a talk by Douglas Kahn, who has written extensively on the history of audio artwork, and the sonic examples of three artists.

Audio art often deals with sounds traditionally unwanted by music. Although music itself began finding uses for the sounds of environment early in the 20th century with the experiments of the Futurists in Italy, audio art nevertheless remains unique by focusing on the extraordinary effect unexpected sounds can have outside of musical structure. At our most intense moments--say, being put to sleep in an operating room--we usually notice and recall what we hear more vividly than anything else. Hearing, Kahn noted, is said to be the last sense we retain upon the moment of death. No one can, of course, prove that sound ushers us from life, but it seems right intuitively, and it is a fruitful intuition for artists to explore.

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In the work of Joe Colley, a Sacramento visual artist and composer, attention is drawn to sounds we are normally quick to dispose of. In one example, he placed microphones against loudspeakers to produce the squally feedback that plagues public announcement systems and discovered a remarkably earthy texture in the effect. In a second demonstration, he poured water into vats of clay and amplified the satisfying, sucking sounds of absorption.

Damion Romero, a Los Angeles sound artist-sculptor, has grander visions for sound that include transforming the environment. He darkened the small theater and then set his electronics in action, producing deep, rich, mellow, enveloping vibrations. The effect verges on New Age, but as physical and aural space merge after a few minutes, the new landscape becomes a pleasant place in which the mind can wander.

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Achim Wollscheid, from Germany, concerns himself with the social aspects of sound. He has invented a computer program that responds to the audience with rude electronic rejoinders. At first the system didn't work, and that was amusing, because Wollscheid actually had to do something and because the broken, flat frequency had its appeal as we waited for it to come to life. Once in operation, however, it impatiently waited for the audience. People whistled, shouted, stomped their feet, squawked, clucked, activated cell phones and eventually became tired of the whole thing as the computer dully, dutifully, grunted back. Wollscheid studied us. After around a half-hour, most us had had enough and left.

Wollscheid failed to understand or exploit the intriguing differences between music and audio art. It is a composer's work to present a situation in which interaction can be interesting. It is an audio artist's to recognize and cherish the meaning of the unintended sound from a short-circuited computer.

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