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Moving sound to anywhere but the concert hall

Critic's Notebook: Sound art exhibitions were popular in 2013. Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan sounded off, as did L.A.'s Union Station and elsewhere.

December 28, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Visitors listen to "The Forty Part Motet (2001)," a sound installation by Janet Cardiff, in the Fuentiduena Chapel at the Cloisters Museum in New York on Sept. 23, 2013.
Visitors listen to "The Forty Part Motet (2001)," a sound installation… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — This has been the season of the concert hall. The one named after Walt Disney turned 10. How that venue has revolutionized musical life in L.A. and beyond has been the subject of much consideration. Though the economy bubbles and bursts, this great space, having lost none of its contemporary luster, continues to inspire an international concert hall building boom.

That makes this latest push to get music the heck out of Disney and every other concert hall all the more a remarkable phenomenon in 2013. This has been the year of sound art, a year when museums and galleries, alternative spaces and train stations, parks and Beverly Hills formal gardens, even the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva went after a decent-sized piece of the acoustical action. Why now, this explosion of artworks that use sound but are neither visual art (although they tend to come from the visual art world) nor quite music (although music can be defined as organized, or even disorganized, sound)? Are we simply experiencing concert hall fatigue or the venues' formality? Is the art world merely on its usual prowl for novelty?

In fact, what appears to be happening is that we are arriving where Marshall McLuhan said we would. In his 1968 book, "War and Peace in the Global Village," the Canadian media theorist anticipated traumatic technological changes that would involve the transferring of most printed matter in the 21st century to what he called other data sources.

VIDEO: Sound art installations

That, he predicted, would lead to "acoustic space" as a new dwelling place. But first we should prepare for the confusion between one sensation and another, especially between visual and aural. Such has been the case as we gingerly step out of our cozy acoustical nests.

Sound art, however, is hardly new. This year has been the centenary of Luigi Russolo's influential manifesto, "The Art of Noises." The Italian Futurist called for a new music made from the sounds relevant to the modern urban industrial age. Ever since, artists have felt empowered to add sound to their palates. Composers are free to apply, but musical training is not a requirement.

Manhattan, not surprisingly, stole most of the sound art thunder becoming besotted by sound art like never before. The Museum of Modern Art opened its first sound art exhibition, "Soundings: A Contemporary Score." The first modern art presented at the Metropolitan Museum's medieval outpost, the Cloisters, was a sound installation: "The Forty-Part Motet" by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff.

The Upper East Side made a huge amount of noise about noise. New York finally heard Yves Klein's 1949 "Monotone-Silence Symphony" — 20 minutes of a single-sounding chord played by a chamber orchestra followed by 20 minutes of silence — courtesy of the new Dominique Lévy Gallery. Philip Glass gave a piano recital in the Guggenheim Museum rotunda, musically responding to James Turrell's "Aten Reign" light installation. Hunter College mounted a retrospective of conceptual artist William Anastasi's groundbreaking sound works created over the last half century, such as a curiously beguiling clanking radiator.

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But in all of that New York was playing catch-up. San Francisco has long been a haven for sound art, going back at least to the Audium, a series that began presenting sound events in 1960 and is still at it every Friday and Saturday in a dark theater surrounded by dozens of loudspeakers.

This year the Bay Area sound artist Bill Fontana began a residence at CERN in Geneva, where he is collecting sounds made by the Large Hadron Collider as it blasts elementary particles to explore the essential nature of Nature. San Francisco was also the site this past fall for Lisa Bielawa's "Crissy Broadcast," an event in the Presidio, next to Golden Gate Bridge (which Fontana once sonified), for 800 musicians.

London too has been sounding out. Tate Britain put on an excellent exhibition of late works of the German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters, who created the first important sound poetry in the 1920s and '30s. Then the Tate awarded its Turner Prize to Laure Prouvost's "Wantee," an installation that revolves around her grandfather's fictional relationship with Schwitters in Britain.

Cardiff's "Forty-Part Motet" got much of the New York media's attention, which might seem curious given that her installation of 40 loudspeakers — one for each voice in British composer Thomas Tallis' remarkable 1573 study in complex, surround-sound counterpoint, "Spem in Alium" — has been in New York before, at MoMA and Lincoln Center. What was different this time was the setting. The speakers formed a circle under the half-dome of a 12th century Catalan apse, the Fuentiduena Chapel in the Cloisters, in Fort Tryon Park, an idyllic retreat from the urban activity that overlooks the Hudson at the northern tip of Manhattan.

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