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.

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