Hearing in Sound: Part II

Reflecting on several installation works presented at last month’s MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art), this post will consider works by Susan Philipsz, Robin Fox, and Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann in terms of ‘hearing in sound’. In my previous post, I introduced Tim Ingold’s proposition that the listener is positioned ‘in sound’. This experience of being ‘in sound’ problematises soundscape because, like the viewer who beholds landscape, the listener is positioned outside soundscape. According to Walter Ong, “Sight isolates, sound incorporates” in that auditory worlds are enveloping and immersive.

Robin Fox’s Giant Theremin was set up in the forecourt of the MONA FOMA venue, Princes Wharf on Hobart’s once industrial waterfront. Standing at seven metres, the Giant Theremin (YouTube video here) is sculptural and material in the form of a pyramid made of oxidised steel with a long mast protruding from the tip on which sensors were mounted. As a musical instrument, with an industrial aesthetic, it is played by movement around it. Play multiplies through wordplay: playing an instrument playfully. As interaction triggers diverse sounds, strangely reminiscent of other sounds like whale song, other musical instruments and electronic pulses, there is a concomitant change in the surrounds and the people who use it. In a joyous feedback loop, laughter among its users is one of the sounds that the theremin generously generates. As people dance, step and jump around it, sometimes trying to sneak up on it, the calls of the Giant Theremin ululate through and around the waterfront, distinct yet interlaced with the sounds of traffic and shipping. For those accustomed to the auditory environment of the waterfront, there is something new and strange here, a calling out or announcement of difference.

On the mezzanine level of Princes Wharf, Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann’s Synchronic Lines provides a distinct experience of enclosure. Geometric sound pods enclose listeners in a unique and intimate auditory space of their own making. Users can shape the auditory space using a console to alter pitch and tempo of electronic sounds. Stepping out of the larger space of the wharf into these cocoons of sound is like stepping into an ‘other’ inner world of nuance. Without the cocoons, as small architectures, the sound of Synchronic Lines would dissipate and the listener would be straining to find them among the rattling cacophonies of the cavernous warehouse structure. When in the darkness of the pods, the listener is immersed in sound. Through their reliance on instrumentation, sculpture or architecture, Ong’s divide of “sight isolates, sound incorporates” becomes apparent. Occupying the pod or playing the theremin, as physical objects, is not incorporation. Sound touches.


At Glenorchy, out of town on the way to MONA, an arts sculpture park has recently been opened along a stretch of regenerated waterfront. Susan Philipsz’ The Waters Twine (Vimeo video here) is the first commission at GASP! Based on a 1929 recording of James Joyce reading Finegan’s Wake, the strains of this multichannel work drift along a recently built boardwalk that spans the bay, emphasising its tidal flows. Composer Hazel Felman set the Joyce recording to music having been guided by the pitch of his voice. This sonification of the spoken word and poetic language, using a vibraphone, results in a gentle motion of watery sound that merges with the surrounding speed and hum of traffic from the nearby highway and the lapping of water in this littoral zone. The large black swans seem lulled by it as they flock and rest on the glassy waters within earshot of the speakers. As footsteps mark their own tempo along the boardwalk the listener is more aware of their presence. The listener is welcomed into the fold of listening openly and carefully: to be present and to experience sound in its plurality. (See also this YouTube video of Philipsz’ Turner Prize winning work, Lowlands.)

The auditory worlds created by each of these installations merges with and disrupts other auditory worlds, and the listener not only explores their listening in sound, but sound within sound. This becomes more acute as sound based works are introduced into spaces and places in ways that alter them, encouraging other ways of interacting with and experiencing those spaces and places.

Hearing in Sound: Part I

Despite a flowering, of sorts, in public art practice, policy and debate, publicly situated sound works seem rare. It’s perhaps because, as noted in an earlier post, our thinking about the practices that constitute public space tend to prioritise visual experiences rather than auditory ones. For some, sound is regarded as intrusive because an auditory ecology, often significantly comprised of sounds introduced into places, is already at play. However, the previous post made clear that such a hierarchy of senses doesn’t do places justice. Thinking about and designing sound needs to be integral to our approaches to placemaking and public space.

In Brisbane, Queensland, Super Critical Mass was presented in the city’s central civic space, King George Square. This was an immersive and meditative sound installation developed by Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste and Janet McKay. Super Critical Mass develops performances composed of ‘masses’ of musicians playing identical instruments, spatialised within public places.

Featuring Brisbane Bells, the performers of many ages sounded brass bells as they slowly moved through one of Brisbane’s busiest public spaces from 5pm for an hour. The arrangements of people and sounds altered the social, temporal and acoustic experience of space. Starting from the Ann Street side of the Square, the participants slowly moved towards Adelaide Street following the patterning of the granite paving, then back. The tempo of the soundings changed during the walk, seemingly improvised, creating accidental arrangements and assemblages as paths criss-crossed and overlapped.


As a Christmas event, the installation stood in stark contrast to the seasonal urban spectacle surrounding us, inviting participation in a resonant yet slower experience. A child walks up to one of the bell ringers and asks “Canivago?” (translates as “Can I have a go?”). At the end of the working week, pedestrians rush through the Square, some oblivious to the alternative pace and sounds as they talk on phones and navigate obstacles. Others arrange themselves on seats, watching like an audience. Others move around the performers, tuning into and seeking varying intensities. Punctuating the performance, City Hall’s clock tower bell sounds every quarter hour marking time in its ordered and reliable way.

Such work invites us to experience not just sound and space, but spatialised sound, in ways that seem to align with Tim Ingold’s ideas about sound in his essay ‘Against Soundscape’. Written as a response to R. Murray Schafer’s seminal work on soundscape, Ingold argues that sound can be compared to light. It is experiential – not an ‘object of perception’. This notion of experiencing sound was at play during MONA FOMA (Festival of Music and Art) held last month in Hobart, Tasmania. In particular installation works by Robin Fox, Susan Phillipz, and Vicky Browne and Darren Seltmann enabled very different auditory and compositional experiences that positioned the listener ‘in sound’. Ingold argues that sound is “not the object but the medium of our perception. lt is what we hear in.” There are intensities and affinities at play in this approach to sound.

Part II will explore the works presented at MONA FOMA as instances of hearing in sound.

Linda Carroli
Brisbane, Australia

Chicago Phonography concert and soundwalk at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

The Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology and World Listening Project continues its partnership with the National Park Service and Sixth Annual Chicago Calling Arts Festival to host a concert by Chicago Phonography and a Miller Woods soundwalk on Saturday, October 8 at the Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Location: Paul H. Douglas Center for Environmental Education
100 N. Lake Street, Gary IN 46439.
(Admission Free)
Time: 1–3 p. m. (Central Time), Saturday, Oct. 8


Ranger Julianne Larsen, Telephone: (219) 395-1821 (Tuesday – Saturday)

MSAE contact, Eric Leonardson info@mwsae.org
Chicago Phonography, contact Chad Clark chadearly@gmail.com
Explore the natural soundscape of Miller Woods Trail with a soundwalk led by the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology. Enjoy a surprising concert of environmental sounds by Chicago Phonography, a collective of artists who gather audio recordings of Chicago and Gary soundscapes. Using a four-channel playback system, Chicago Phonography members collectively mix their recordings in live, improvisational performances. In a sense, Chicago Phonography substitutes microphones and field recordings for musical instruments to create new and dramatic soundscapes that surround and engage listeners in surprising ways; using only real world sounds. Chicago Phonography will host an “open mic” session for new members. As a part of the Sixth Annual Chicago Calling Arts Festival, sounds collected by the National Park Service will be featured: whale sounds in Glacier Bay, the dawn chorus of Isle Royale in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and forests of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Useful Websites:

Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology (MSAE) http://mwsae.org
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore http://www.nps.gov/indu/

South Shore Line/Northern Indiana Commuter Train http://www.nictd.com
MSAE Google Map (driving directions and useful locations) http://tinyurl.com/3ucgquw


The Douglas Center is located just a short five block (approx. 15 minute) walk along Lake Street north from the Miller train station. The ride from Millennium Station in downtown Chicago to Miller takes one hour and eight minutes. A limited amount of car parking is available across the street from the Douglas Center. For driving directions and useful locations visit the MSAE Google Map.
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