As a rule, sound infiltrates space, and the nearby listener can’t help but inhabit what is heard. Sound can grate upon or delight one’s immediate, internal presence in a way that visual information cannot. The implementation of its unique influence for investigatory aesthetic aims has been a concern of the sound art genre since its emergence via Dada and Surrealist movements early in the 20th century. Soundings—MoMA’s first show to present sound art exclusively—clings to the museum’s typical foregrounding of the image, exhibiting work that demands visual appraisal as much as it demands close listening. This fidelity to visual media impedes the expressive capabilities of the works as sound. In this way, the show fails to make clear the unique influence that sound wields as a reservoir of meaning left largely untapped in our image-laden culture.
To the show’s credit, the reason why its shortcomings are so glaring is that it does indeed provide rare moments of pure, sonic eloquence, which set the bar high. Jana Winderen’s Ultrafield (2013), a sixteen-channel ambisonic sound piece installed in a darkened gallery, is, along with Susan Philipsz’s Study for Strings (2012), among the mere two works in the show that offer nothing but sonic information. Winderen’s piece is comprised of ultrasound field recordings culled from around the world—we hear bats, fish and underwater insects—which the artist has pitched down low enough to be detectable by humans. The piece has an incongruous beauty to it. Unmistakable creaturely rhythms sound like rising clusters of synth bleeps and within this striking simultaneity of the familiar and unfamiliar, one is reminded that technology still butts up against an incredible wildness.
Philipsz’s Study for Strings is taken from a 1943 orchestra written by the Czech composer Pavel Haas during his imprisonment in a concentration camp. A performance of the piece was staged there as part of a Nazi propaganda film, and Haas, along with most of the musicians, was executed shortly thereafter. Study for Strings, drawing from a reconstruction of the score assembled by the surviving conductor, reduces the orchestration to only the viola and cello parts. The piece is unique in Soundings in that it not only uses conventional instruments, but is concerned with traditional musical criteria—such as harmony and counterpoint—if only in its divergence from them. While hints of melody in the piece are enough to conjure a warm, emotional identification on the part of the listener, long, abrupt silences provide the meditative space from which to question why and how. Is it in the music itself or the painful history of its composition? Conceptual projects rarely produce work so immanently expressive.
Ravaged lives, ruined buildings, and cast-aside technologies provide content for a good portion of the works presented, though the subtle devastation of Philipsz’s sonic mood stands alone in its precision. Jacob Kirkegaard’s Aion (2006), though not devoid of sensory appeal, is overly burdened by concept. The film is a succession of fixed, long shots taken in four different derelict buildings in and around Chernobyl. Video and audio have both been subjected to a layering process, resulting in a dark image that is gradually peeled away to reveal details of the room depicted. The sound consists of low, atmospheric noise swelling to a heavy, machinic drone. The project reportedly pays tribute to Alvin Lucier’s vocal piece I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), which employed a similar layering technique. Aion‘s waves of mounting tension are sensorially absorbing, but its immediate audiovisual impact fails to anchor the artist’s references.
Overall, the curation tends toward a science-fair enthusiasm for mechanics, which encourages a manner of viewing that is more investigative than affective. Carsten Nicolai’s wellenwanne lfo (2012)—a box-like apparatus of mirrors, water, and light which visually translates sounds inaudible to the human ear—looks like a sleek lab project, whereas a different curatorial context might present it as an elegant minimalist sculpture a la Donald Judd. Richard Garet’s Before Me is a clunkier iteration of the show’s gadget-art theme, piecing together dated sound equipment into a cheeky assemblage topped with an amplified marble rolling on a revolving turntable. The dull sound of the marble and the cobbled-together look of the sculpture implicate technological obsolescence in an ironic statement no less crude than its presentation.
Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall (2011) is the only tech-heavy piece in the exhibition that is refined enough in both concept and effect to offer a simple, unencumbered experience of sound. Perich’s sprawling grid of tiny speakers broadcasts a series of minute pitch changes which hum together in a white noise drone when approached from afar. In walking back and forth along the variously pitched rows, one can manipulate what is heard, generating, in a sense, one’s own improvised sound composition. Here, the piece’s stated motive is detectable within the encounter, such that the experience and its mechanics are elegantly unified.