Last night, with our friends Jenny and Josef (sorry if I misspelled that) we ventured out to dinner at L’Etranger and then to “Noises From the Dark IV”, an event put on by Studio 303, where we met David and Bronwen. Bronwen, it turns out, had my friend Greg Dimitriadis as an external examiner for her thesis. It is indeed a small world.
The event was indeed held in a pitched-black room . I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The show was a series of short pieces over an hour. Several interesting things happened:
1. I was surprised at how spatial the show was. Most of the pieces used stereo and/or moved around the space depending on whether they were electronic or “live” or both. Without sight, the spatiality of the sound was even more enhanced. this made me get all Rudolf Arnheim with myself (he argues that radio’s aesthetic power comes from the subtraction of sight from sensory experience).
2. The best piece was the last one, which involved a cello and a very weird choir (they get extra points for singing those low chords I’d only ever heard sung by Tibetan monks). It had dynamics, style, playfulness and subtlety. A few of the others were clever, interesting or striking — one sounded like the narrative of a stomach’s desire, another used doors slamming to create a sort of industrial vibe.
3. But there was a surprising amount of stuff that sounded like a neurotic tuning a radio or just sort of random noises. Despite the fact that the room was stone dark and the audience was extremely quiet, many of the electronic pieces were quite loud. Their use of dynamics was extremely limited. and I’m always shocked that given the capabilities of digital audio technologies, artists do so little with them. I know what the technology can do, and I know what the principles are. I am continually surprised by how un-creative electroacoustic sound art is. Most of it is not nearly as conceptual as it thinks it is (as one of my students put it last week “is it still experimental if you’ve been trying the same experiment for 50 years?”) and it’s gear-headed to boot. While claiming to challenge the audience these kinds of pieces offer no significant challenge; they also avoid any kind of emotional dimension. this kind of sound art is, in a word, anaesthetic instead of aesthetic.
4. This didn’t affect my enjoyment as much as it sounds like, since I accept that in performance art situations, you get spectacular successes and spectacular failures and not much inbetween. Which is better, in my opinion, than dressing up and hitting the opera or a polished play, where you’ll get “good” to “great” but less often fantastic or terrible. Plus, we had a wonderfully social dinner before and drink after (though we had to try several bars before we could find one with an available table and where we could all hear one another).
5. I cannot overstate how cool it was to sit in the dark and listen. I would like to do that more often. Though if the room wasn’t quite as hot that would be okay.
I was discussing the third point with my sound studies class on Weds, and learned a few things, including that there’s an important essay on the conceptual in art that I need to go read to better understand the culture of sound artists. I need to think about it more. But it seems like there is really something missing in the academic and art-critical accounts of sound art — what it is and what it’s supposed to do.