“People in museums drift along from one work to another. Our goal is to make them slow down and really listen,” says Barbara London, curator of the first major sound-art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Opening August 10, “Soundings: A Contemporary Score” brings together 16 interdisciplinary artists whose works range from silent visualizations of noise to sound-based sculptures to aural environments created through field recordings.
The grid of 1,500 tiny speakers that makes up Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall (2011) will open the show—its textured broadcast changing as museum goers walk beside it. Rigged with transducers, Sergei Tcherepnin’s Motor-Matter Bench (2013) welcomes sitters, and then, “through bone conduction, they’ll hear a composition,” London says. “Their bodies will actually transmit sound.”
Even with the stand-alone medium of field recording, “Soundings” invites more than passive listening. In Jana Winderen’s Ultrafield (2013), meticulously placed speakers fill a room with a choreographed soundscape. The 16-channel piece gradually amplifies the natural noises of insects, flying bats, melting ice sheets, and other phenomena recorded near a lake in Norway.
Some of the sound art produces no sound at all. Camille Norment’s nostalgic Triplight (2008) is a gutted 1955 Shure microphone. From inside the mic, an intense white light pulsates, casting a ribcage-shaped shadow onto the walls. The pattern of the flickering light mimics a musical tempo yet remains silent. “When they see the piece, people ask me what song is playing. They say they can almost guess the melody,” Norment says, laughing. “There really is no song.”
To make his sonically intense installation AION (2005), Jacob Kirkegaard spent three days in Pripyat, a small Ukrainian town near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power-plant explosion. He recorded inside deserted public places—a church, an auditorium, a swimming pool, and a gymnasium—for ten minutes each. He then played those recordings back into the rooms while re-recording their sum, stacking the loops of dripping water, soft gusts, and hollow echoes. “Each room would drone and resonate with its own frequency,” he explains, adding that he borrowed the technique from Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room (1969).
Kirkegaard presents these haunting sounds with layered and blurred video projections of the rooms in which he recorded them. As the compositions grow richer, the layers of images are peeled away, giving us clearer views of Pripyat’s shabby emptiness. “I’m often asked why I made such a beautiful piece out of such a horrifying place,” the artist says. “That is because I don’t find it horrifying.”