Sound/Spaces in, and of, art
February 28, 2011 § Leave a comment
For the official finissage on sunday January 30th that wrapped up nearly two months of Resonance in Maastricht, Stichting Intro in situ invited Peter Kiefer. The German sound artist and scholar presented his book Klangräume der Kunst (Sound spaces of art) in the Selexyz bookstore in the Dominicanen church. Kiefer (who originally is from Aachen in Germany, some 30 kilometers from Maastricht) is a classically trained percussionist and composer. He has been working as a sound artist for nearly 20 years. Kiefer taught for 15 years at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne, where he set up the sound lab. Currently he is teaching at the University in Mainz, which has a college of music.
“In Cologne I was bringing music into new media. In Mainz I bring technology and new media into music,” Peter told us. “Since 2010 Mainz University has a master program in sound art composition, which is the first studies focused exclusively on sound art at a college of music in Germany.”
Klangräume der Kunst appeared in May 2010. It looks and feels like a bible or similar holy book. The work has nearly 400 pages, weighs more than 3 pounds, comes with a DVD that has over 1,5 hours of video and sound material. And – not very usual for a work focusing on the art of sound – there are near to 300 images in it.
“One of the notable differences between sound and the visual is that one perceives sounds unconsciously. That is because sound touches much more our emotions,” Kiefer explained. “Our listening is connected to the eldest brain part. It is an organ for alerting, a sense for alerting us. That is why you cannot close your ears. It is a warning sense, which creates a social space. If you sit in a cinema, watching a movie and you just have a look at your mobile phone, nobody will be disturbed. But if the mobile phone is ringing the people around you will get very annoyed. Because the sound is creating a social space. That makes sounds very different from images. We are continuously living inside a soundscape. Sound is created in space, and the way in which our brain locates sound within the space is very complicated. There is a horizontal level, left, right. Then the next level is up and down. And then, is it in front of you or in the back? On the neurological level one actually finds that the brain already knows where the sound comes from before you get aware that you are hearing it.”
Klangräume der Kunst found its origin in an exhibition that Peter Kiefer curated in Cologne in the summer of 2004. Klangraum/Raumklang started out as a quest for a possible – or impossible – museum of sounds, and came with a two day expert meeting and symposium on sound art.
“The symposium was very well received and it is an academic tradition that such a symposium is documented in a book: the symposium book. Usually that means a lot of text on a great many pages that take quite a bit of persistence to go and read through. I also experienced that the research in sound art, basically, came from musicology, which makes it difficult to explain to curators, which are often exclusively concentrating on the visual arts,” Peter said. “I therefore decided to make a book that would be more than just a report of the symposium, but which includes many other aspects and which has a lot of examples: visual examples. I think of sound art really as a combination of sound and (visual) art. It therefore should be placed also within the theoretical frameworks used by those working within the visual arts. This then really started my ongoing research into the relation between art and space and sound, and the uncovering of a lot of interesting examples, which show that already since thousands of years sound and image have been thought of as one union.”
More than just looking at sound art’s ways of melting sound and vision, Klangräume der Kunst thoroughly investigates different ways in which sound relates to space. Space of course is the ‘container of reality’: it provides a stage for all that we hear and for all that we see. The bulk of the 20 articles by 19 different authors that together make the book, cover the wide and varied ways in which sound determines space, and space is shaping sound. The complex and multifaceted relation of space and sound indeed is central to Peter Kiefer’s view on sound art. Klangräume der Kunst offers a useful, a practical, framework for discussing a great many, though obviously not all, works that generally are classified as ‘sound art’, without attempting to tie them down within a rigid, a for-once-and-for-all, theoretical construction. The view is kaleidoscopic. Reading the book, one is led through architectural sound spaces, musical sound spaces, museal sound spaces, public sound spaces and virtual (media) sound spaces, via a varied collection of fascinating historical examples (several of which were new to me), extensive descriptions of a number of recent works, many pictures, interviews, artists’ descriptions of and reflections on their work, and a number of more general theoretical and philosophical ponderings.
Most curious among the many contributions is Martin Carlé’s dia-lyrical report of an expedition that in the autumn of 2003 set out to Li Galli (also known as Le Sirenuse), an archipelago of little islands in the Tyrrhenian Sea, the largest of which has the form of a whale. A research team (comprising among others a media-philosopher, a conductor, a biologist specializing in animal sounds and a musicologist) took opera singers and amplifiers to the islands as their tools for an experiment in acoustic archaeology, aiming to re-construct the sound of Homer’s Sirens as it might have been heard by the blind bard’s sailing hero. Though for me, even on repeated reading, the precise results of this acoustic excavation remain hidden somewhere between the Pythagorean comma’s in the article’s whirling and near to never-ending German sentences, this is a fascinating paper. If nothing else, it managed to make me re-think these phrases from James Joyce’s book of the Sirens (the 11th episode of Ulysses), which is so brimful of musics and sounds: “The sea they think they hear. Singing. A roar. The blood is it. Souse in the ear sometimes. Well, it’s a sea. Corpuscle islands.”
As sound waves unfold and propagate through one space or another, when hearing the sounds we always experience a passing of time. Sound of course is intimately linked to both space and time. Peter Kiefer refers to these as the ‘Einstein parameters’ of sound. Projecting the four physical dimensions onto a two dimensional space-time grid provides an interesting means to intuitively position specific works involving sounds with respect to the weight given to the respective ‘coordinates’.
“Music compositions will be positioned primarily along the time-axis,” Kiefer explained. “They start, and they have an end: these are what we call ‘musical pieces’. Sound space compositions will be primarily positioned along the space-axis: you can walk in and walk out, there is no end and no beginning. As a listener you may yourself decide what are the bounds. In the lower left corner we place ‘signals’: very short sounds, with nearly no time or space. And in the upper right corner we would put, for example, surround music compositions: music which also involves space in its compositional process. Now basically all works of sound art can be positioned somewhere in this plane, between sound space composition and surround music composition.”
Time was flying that afternoon in the vast, old space of the Dominicanen church in Maastricht, where Peter took us on a dazzling tour of the many subjects and sound works discussed in Klangräume der Kunst. We heard music written for the Cologne town house carillon, Jens Brand explaining his Global Player (which uses the live-data of satellites in order to play back the earth’s surface as if it were a CD) and Christina Kubisch talking about her Electrical Walks (sounding the city and other public spaces via the omnipresent electromagnetic fields). We learned how thinking about sound spaces in architecture appears to be something of a forgotten knowledge, as witnessed for example by the acoustical vases that were used to manipulate the sound in churches and the brass vases that funcioned like amplifiers in amphitheaters, and that we only know about through written accounts of the different phases in sound construction in Greek theaters. We visited whispering galleries, saw how kings used the simple physical properties of the reflection and propagation of sound to eavesdrop on their guests, and learned that the very first transmissions of the live sound of concerts and performances (in 1881 in Paris) were, as a matter of fact, stereophonic.
Based upon a more abstract aesthetics are Xenakis’ architecture and music, derived from mathematical forms like the hyperbolic paraboloid. But also Traverse Frequenz, one of Peter Kiefer’s own works, an installation inside the Deutzer Brücke, a bridge in Cologne. In differently sized spaces within the concrete bridge he placed large wooden resonance sculptures, with a microphone inside. “The resonance frequency of the bridge is about 2.8 Hz,” Peter said. “You cannot hear it, but of course it is creating overtones and it’s creating octaves. The microphone is recording all the time the sounds which are resonating in the wooden resonating chamber inside the huge concrete resonance chamber of the bridge. If there would be no noise, you would hear nothing at all. But it is a bridge. There are cars going over, there are electric trams going over, which are continuously making sounds. These are then recorded and played back by speakers inside the bridge. This creates something like a feedback, which is only correlated to the dimensions of the space. It is creating a standing wave. That means that the wave in the space will have valleys: silent knots. And if you walk through the space, at some places you hear really nothing of the sound. But at other spots you will hear a very, very deep and impressive noise. It really sent a shiver through your entire body, and a lot of people had to walk out because they couldn’t stand it…”
Yes. Sound is physical. It not only acts on one’s brain. Sound acts on the whole of one’s body. This is why even the most abstract of music and sound art is able to (and should) evoke direct and intuitive reactions from whoever is present in its ‘sounding space’ to hear. This is not always, or merely, a matter of loudness or volume. One of the works that was part of Klangraum/Raumklang, the sound art exhibition in Cologne that was the basis for Klangräume der Kunst, was by Thomas Ankersmit. It was called Inverse. “In this piece Thomas was working only with the space,” Peter Kiefer told us. “He had just put a microphone in a space of a gallery. And then there was a computer system that was reversing the time. So this installation was a very pure installation. There was not really a lot to see and it was quite intellectual to grasp what precisely was going on there. At the end of the show, we had organized a small breakfast at the gallery on sunday morning. The people were sitting at the front, and the installation was running in the back. Now someone had brought a dog, and this dog was running in the space. He was barking, like wroe-wroe-wroe-wroe-wroefff. And when he did, of course he heard fffeorw-eorw-eorw-eorw-eorw. Backwards. Because Thomas Ankersmit’s installation was reversing the time. Now at first the dog was running completely like crazy, because he could not understand what was going on. But at some point, he suddenly got it. And he was going back and started to play with the time-reversed echo of his own barks. He was barking, listening, running out, going back again…”
Remembering the performing dog on that sunday morning in Cologne, almost seven years ago, brought a broad smile upon Peter’s face. “So, there you see,” he said. “The installation may have seemed to be something pretty much intellectual, but if even a dog can understand it, then the audience should have no problems at all…”