The Garden of Sonic Delights
By Harry Weil
Exactly how sound art became central to avant-garde art practices is debatable, a debate further complicated by the uncertainty of what exactly it is. Max Neuhaus, percussionist, composer, and early sound artist, explains that it “seems to be a category which can include anything which has or makes sound and even, in some cases, things which don't.” Such a broad definition, however, doesn’t always sit well with the white cube of the gallery or museum, institutions that have historically tried to create determinable labels and lineages (think of the current craze to systematize performance art by way of Marina Abramovic). But the sleek style, long explanatory texts and plush leather settees that define the atmosphere of these institutions have never really been conducive to sound art. Such presentations are sterilized and closed-off; they bracket sound from how we actually experience it in the natural world amid a collection of other things. Whether it is the rhythm of the urban jungle or the stillness of a bucolic landscape, sound is not limited to a solitary existence.
Sound art evolved alongside other renegade practices like installation and conceptual art practices as a counterpoint to the established market. It was not necessarily meant to overthrow the cultural order, but rather to act as an alternative to it. More often than not, this meant taking sound out of concert halls and exhibition spaces, and focusing on incorporating it into specific places, whereby the sound that is created cannot be divorced from its location. With this freedom, Neuhaus writes, and “with our now unbounded means to shape sound, there are, of course, an infinite number of possibilities to cultivate the vast potential of this medium in ways which do go beyond the limits of music and, in fact, to develop new art forms.” Such a sentiment is at the heart of The Garden of Sonic Delights, an exhibition of site-specific sound works curated by Stephan Moore, taking place at six venues throughout Westchester, New York. The main hub of activity, Caramoor, an early 20th century Italianate villa and estate, is the focus of my discussion.
The exhibition’s title is adapted from Bosch’s infamous painting of humanity fully immersed in pleasures of the flesh - bestiality, gluttony, and sodomy amongst other things. The figures proudly parade around naked in an idyllic landscape of rolling hills and exotic birds. While the suburbs of New York are not nearly as enticing (or perverse), Moore suggests that he wanted to engage with the landscape, to present it “with new creations both strange and wonderful.” What really seemed strange at first was the choice of venue. Caramoor, a stuffy holdover from a bygone era with its well manicured gardens and antique architectural references hardly seemed an appropriate setting for an exhibition of cutting-edge art. My apprehensions were proven wrong, however, when I discovered that a former resident of the estate, Lucie Rosen, was, by all accounts, an accomplished thereminist. The theremin, an early electronic musical instrument first developed in 1919 by Léon Theremin (who later had some financial assistance from Lucie and her husband Walter), is peculiar in that it is played without any physical contact. Instead, performers control pitch and volume by gracefully moving their hands between two antennae, thus manipulating a low-level electromagnetic field.
In a short welcome statement, Moore argues that the Rosens' commitment to art and philanthropy provides an appropriate backdrop for the exhibition, given that each of the artists is working with or manipulating technology in some way to produce their work. He recommends “casually strolling,” taking the time to fully immerse oneself in each of the works dispersed along paths and niches throughout the property. This is especially appropriate for Annea Lockwood and Bob Bielecki’s Wild Energy. Speakers hidden among shrubs and trees project normally inaudible ultra and infra frequencies from a range of sources that includes tremors in Hawaii and the shockwaves of bats, as well as auroral kilmetric radiation waves and hydrothermal vents. The artists explain their interest in wanting to provide listeners access to things that “affect us fundamentally, but which are beyond our audio perception.” Yet, by listening, we “can feel the energies generated, not as concepts but as energy-fields moving through one’s body.” The fifty-minute looped recording is intended to be heard in the context of the surrounding area, so that the pitter patter of critters running about or airplanes flying overhead are all part of the listening experience. The multi-layer soundtrack has a calming, almost meditative effect even though the noises themselves have a bizarre, otherworldly feel. Two large hammocks provide respite for further reflection. Lying there, gazing at the treetops blowing in the summer wind, I couldn’t pull myself away as fifteen minutes turned to forty-five, then to an hour and a half.
Equally immersive, but in a much different way, is Betsey Biggs’ Sunken Gardens. In a quiet corner of the estate just beyond Wild Energy, viewers are required to use receivers - provided in a case just outside the bounds of the installation - fitted with telecoils to hear what is labeled a “large musical score.” Transmitters with different frequencies are hidden throughout, so that what you hear in one corner is different from what you hear in another. As such, the narrative of an underwater world, partially inspired by the artist’s reading of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, is literally sunken, broken apart into many different pieces, and scattered. The bubbling of ocean waves heard throughout most of the work stands in stark contrast to the fully blooming hydrangea and buzzing bees of the garden. The voices and sounds that come in and out of focus are never fully discernible, as if they are succumbing to the waves. Where you begin and end this story is of no consequence. It is without order, intended to be explored spatially “rather than temporally.” I maintained a slow speed, wandering from one spot to another, and then back again, wanting to decipher as much as possible. I couldn’t help but feel like an archaeologist trying to make sense of a lost world of which only the faintest of traces survives.
The exhibition is not without whimsy. Scott Smallwood’s Coronium 3500 (Lucie’s Halo) is a collection of solar-powered devices located in a large grassy patch. Each is attached to a pole about five feet high and driven into the ground; collectively, they form a circle around a tree stump. The “voices,” as the artist describes them, emanating from the small boxes are completely reliant on the sun to be audible, so much so that that what visitors hear will vary depending on the time of day or weather conditions. It was cloudless and sunny when I visited. The whole piece was alive with fast beat beeping and screeching sounds, almost like a dial up modem. It had the feel of tricorders from the original Star Trek series. Stand or sit with it for a while and you might be tempted, as I was, to shout, “Beam me up, Scotty!” Just as quirky is Trimpin’s The Pianohouse, a viewer activated installation resembling a dilapidated shack. It is made primarily of deconstructed antique pianos where various tools like saws and hammers are animated to hit the strings (this is described in the catalog as “kinetic electro-mechanical actuators”). From a distance, it doesn't look like much (perhaps a cast away Edward Kienholz) , especially as it graces the front lawn of the villa. But once you press the button, the whole thing comes alive with a chorus of thumping and clanging sounds. The installation requires you to move around to see how each of the sounds is made. By the time I visited Caramor, it had been on view for over a month, and was already aged by the sun and rain. Trimpin, however, assures that his intention is for the work to “deconstruct itself,” which will ultimately change the quality of the sound. Like Smallwood, Trimpin cedes control over the work to the point where sounds result solely from the actions of natural elements. This is reiterated in the press release for the exhibition, which encourages that the changes in the season from summer to fall will merit “many return visits.”
After nearly four hours, I finally had to leave Caramoor. Not out of boredom, but because I fell down the rabbit hole. I couldn’t pull myself away from the work. Each one is seemingly simple or playful, but on closer inspection required me to stay a little longer, to listen a little longer. And the more I listened, the more I felt caught up in something truly special. Too often, I am rushing through exhibitions, frustrated by crowds and coarsely written wall text, taking giants strides from one room to the next until I am out the door. It is a manic pace I have performed many times before, as I try to take everything in as quickly and efficiently as possible. But here, it was different. The Garden of Sonic Delights invites viewers to immerse themselves in both the sound and the space that the sound is occupying. As I retraced my footsteps back through each of the installations, it was if I was hearing everything for the first time. I was manic now in a different way. I wanted to be present. And with the flowers and trees in full bloom, and birds chirping, all I needed to do was listen, just listen.
This essay is a project of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.
Harry J. Weil lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.
In the Garden of Sonic Delights runs through 2 November 2014 at Caramoor.
All photos courtesy of Caramoor.
Betsey Biggs, Sunken Gardens (Photo: Michael Sarff)
Francisco Lopez, The [Music] Room
Ranjit Bhatnagar, Stone Song
Trimpin, The Pianohouse