Archives for the month of: April, 2014








A section of Dido’s Lament from the English Baroque opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’, by Henry Purcell:

– sung FORWARDS (listen).

– sung BACKWARDS (listen).

Retrograde (adjective):

1. of, concerning, or denoting a melody or part that is played backwards,

2. tending towards an earlier reverse condition

3. apparent reverse motion of celestial bodies

4. tending to degenerate

4. another word for retreat







Detail of artist’s own cast work ‘Held’ 2013

All recorded sound, as it is played back, is the realisation of a copy. To take the metaphor of casting, the recording is the mould through which the copy of the original is produced. That makes the original the sound that was made ‘live’ in the first instance.

The value of a cast depends on the quality of the mould, the number of issues made and on the perceived qualities of its original master. So too the value of a reproduced sound.

But, a cast is never its master, only an approximate facsimile at a moment in time after which both cast and master travel along different paths to  different destinations.  It may become the master of another cast, not the duplicate of the original master but a flawed facsimile twice removed – the replica of a replica – the print of a negative taken from a print – a diminishing echo.

The casting stops and the room is silent, when the value of the original has lost its meaning.







I’ve been messing around, digitally manipulating body sounds and odd domestic sounds – but, so far, it feels cold, and calculated. Predictable.

But there is one audio track I manipulated that stands out:

– it is the Innocent Tunnel track, in reverse (listen).

It is not simply because the voices are reversed, but the reverberation is reversed too. There is a feeling, for me, of moving backwards through a space. It’s perhaps an interesting sound to play back out of context – maybe from within a tightly confined space, or from under floorboards.

It has also got me thinking about making sounds backwards – not recording them, but creating them in reverse direction.

Like the sounds and smells captured in the reverse narrative of Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow.

innocent tunnel





Innocent Railway Tunnel, now a cycle-way.

We have an innate understanding of the relationship between sound and architectural and natural spaces. Whatever the source of the sound (live or pre-recorded), we have understood that our experience of it depends on our physical position relative to the source and on the reverberant qualities of the surrounding space.

Last summer, I listened to the entire Radio 4 series, Noise a Human History. It begins with pre-history and the idea that ancient people’s carved and painted on the walls of caves and canyons where echoes were most reverberant, most startling. Archaeologists believe this sensitivity towards the sonic qualities of space carried over into early monumental building, and from there into the cavernous religious buildings we know today. I believe, our experience of sound, including the sounds we make ourselves within physical structures, holds as much emotional charge for us today as ever before. Hearing the human voice echoed back within a physical space is deeply emotive and compelling.

It was with this in mind that I began my simple vocal experiments in less obvious places including (listen):

 In a multi-storey car park – Castle Terrace car park

Under a viaduct – King Stables Road

In an old stone quarry – Traprain Law quarry

By a reservoir – Bonaly

In a corridor – Edinburgh College of Art (ECA)

In a large main stairwell – ECA

In a large two-storey enclosed (sculpture) court – ECA

For reverberation, the best location, yet, has been the disused Innocent Railway Tunnel, where I shared my experiments with passing cyclists and dog walkers. Recalling my initial ideas for sustaining a continuous note, I brought along a second vocalist. We came up with the following (listen):

Duo in Innocent Railway Tunnel

Today we associate such reverberation with church music. The use of spatiality in Western music goes back to the C16th, when composers were beginning to write works to be performed by multiple choirs and, on occasion, more than one organ. Sonic composition was intimately bound up with our relationship with space such that, by the C17th the relationship between architecture and music was intimately entwined. Baroque composers structured music to capture not only the spacial reverberations, but to articulate the very form and detail of the architectural components themselves – the formal arches, colonnades and decorative detailing of the neo-classical buildings in which sculptural forms and structural forms were, themselves, wholly integrated.

The introduction of recording technology, in severing the link between the sources of sound and where we hear them, has given composers and sound artist an almost limitless means to play with the spatial element of sound encounters. Some, where the sound is entirely out of its original spacial context are without historic precedent. These include, for example,  where the industrial or urban is switched with the natural, or the large concert hall switched with a humble corridor.

Using Audacity software I have experimented with simple duplication and repetition (overlaying) of my voice, and reversals and speed changes. Examples include:

Solo hums on ECA main stairwell – duplicated and overlayed

Duet in Innocent Railway Tunnel – reversed

Equally, they may echo older ideas previously realised through the physical dispersal of singers and musicians. By playing groups of sounds through individual speakers dispersed in such a way as to create a multitude of sound encounters for the visitor as they move through the space, a similar spacial effect is achieved.









Tannoys under George V Bridge, Glasgow

Lowlands, Susan Philipsz

Assuming the pre-recorded sound is the work (or part of it) and not simply documentation of a work that was previously made, the use of pre-recorded audio permits superhuman duration of a work whether it’s in a gallery or elsewhere. To perform so as to make a sound, vocal or otherwise, is to set a durational limit on a work. If this is not the intent, then the technology of recording and playing audio has to be embraced – so inevitably  altering the work if that was not the original intent. At the very least, there is the question of speakers, power, amplifiers etc. A host of objects to be positively embraced when the idea had been of sound. It’s like having to include the machines that make the paint when producing a work on canvas.

There is an assumption, perhaps, that if you like sound, you must equally be in love with the kit.

I like the aesthetic of tannoys.

But, sometimes, it really is only about the sound.

All audio recording has the same effect,  whether on a wax disc or a micro SD card and whether it’s re-played through a gramophone or via a mobile phone, it untethers the relationship between the listener and the sound’s source. The potential, artistically, is enormous. While there are many artists working with sound, performed or otherwise, that is generated wholly in the moment by objects, performers and/or the audience – such as Max Eastley’s ‘aeolian harp’ structures or Sean Dower’s live performances – the majority use sound that is partially or entirely pre-recorded.



Music for forgotten places, is a public installation work by Oliver Blank. In vacant and abandoned lots he installs signs with a telephone number. Dial up, and you hear an audio work composed for each site. It’s effectively a pop-up audio walk with music.

Pierre Schaeffer pioneered audio manipulation in the 40s. Using techniques of editing, speed changes and other effects he established a new type of experimental music called musique concrete. Schaeffer’s ambition was to manipulate a recorded sound to such an extent that it bore no connection to its original source. It’s an ambition, he believed, he never fully realised. But his approach has been inspirational to artists exploring the limits of  pre-recorded sound.

In the world of experimental music, Steve Reich then went on to pioneer minimal music with Philip Glass in the 1960s – using tape loops to create phasing as well as repetitive figures, slow harmonic rhythms and canons. Steve Reich is a genius at understanding rules and breaking them to phenomenal effect. He draws on non-western conventions in rhythms and in sound making, using clapping and so on.

Music for pieces of wood, 1972 is an example of his early work (uses phasing and developed from his clapping works).

Reich has worked with film and video in his very early work It’s Gonna Rain and, later, Different Trains. The relationship between manipulated pre-recorded audio and film is now an obvious one, but it’s potential is often underused with predictable (blockbuster) effect. The collaboration between film-maker Peter Greenaway and composer Michael Nyman – on films including  Z and Two Noughts, Belly of an Architect, The Draughtsman’s Contract – brought techniques originally pioneered by Reich into popular public consciousness. Through Nyman’s music the link was also made between the modern compositional techniques and those associated with period classical music – the former echoing the latter.

Brian Eno combined Reich’s techniques with the newly emerging digital technology, in the early 1980s, to create ambient music. He also composes  TV drama and film audio tracks- not music in the traditional film-score sense. There’s a great (but rather long) interview with him at the Red Bull Academy in New York in 2013, that’s utterly inspiring. He describes his audio tracks(for film or video) as a second movie and not an illustration of the movie shot on film. So when you put the two together – something entirely new is created from the combination of the two.

Wherever audio is combined with visual – whether that be a video, an object, or even the location of a performance – the audio should never simply be a subservient illustration of the visual. Audio should be recognised for having its own, highly specific, qualities and, most importantly, its unique ability to tap directly into the deep, sensual imagination of the listener.





Janet Cardiff (originally a printmaker and photographer) is perhaps best know for her pre-recorded choral work Forty Part Motet 2001, based on a re-working of ‘Spem in Alium’ by Thomas Tallis (1573), see above. The parts are played through a ring of speakers on stands – such that nothing about the source of the pre-recorded performance is contrived. I have not experienced it live, but it’s simplicity and minimalist aesthetic is appealing. It’s a beautiful, pre-recorded performance, the experience of which, I am sure, depends upon the space in which it is played back.

But, most of Cardiff’s work is in collaboration with George Bures Miller, and includes mainly large installations and some smaller works. The partnership is prolific and successful. However, I find myself writing about it because of what doesn’t work, for me.

All of Cardiff and Bures work makes use of digital audio and computer control technology to create immersive and/or interactive environments. A few examples:




Ship O’ Fools, 2010, is an immersive experience within a salvaged junk boat based on the allegory of the ship of fools.





Storm Room2009, is an immersive experience of a storm complete with thunder, rain and tremors.





Killing Machine, 2007, is a mixed media audio installation with pneumatics and robotics inspired in part by the works of Franz Kafka.






The Cabinet of Curiosities, 2010, is a smaller installation in which different sounds are triggered from each of the 20 drawers of an old cabinet as they are opened.


There is something of the Hollywood theme park about these integrated and immersive works, something of the spectacle for the engagement and entertainment of an audience. The computer-controlled technology is too sophisticated, the subject matter too narrative for the works to be taken as ironic.  Rather, they are immersive, durational illustrations of an idea of an event – pre-programmed and endlessly repeatable, like the dinosaur experience at the Natural History Museum.




Cardiff and Bures smaller works have, for me, a little more appeal – such as Lullaby for a travelling man, 2004, (Suitcase, megaphone, audio speaker with 2 minute loop of Cardiff singing a lullaby) and Dreams – telephone series, 2008-10 (vintage telephones, iPods with Cardiff recounting dreams). I’m more inclined towards their simpler, diminutive aesthetic, and the use of evocative, vintage objects.

But the visual metaphors, of cabinets and suitcases etc, combined with the sound of a song sung or words spoken, remain too obvious. Too much like theatrical props. I keep thinking of the circus. There is the ritual of expectation fulfilled.

There is no subversion, no transformation.

In total contrast is an amazing work, called Recorded Delivery 7, 1995,  by Janek Schaeffer, one of many sound artists with a background and passion for musical performance, composition and audio technology.  For this work, he sent himself a sound-reactive dictaphone by recorded delivery. Beautifully simple, in idea and execution, this was an intervention about sound, using recordable sound, that is totally dependent on the accidental vagaries of a postal journey and the incidental noises along the way that, themselves, become the subject of the work.


Experimental work by the artist: Cupboards in corridor from which a quiet voice can be heard saying the word ‘sorry’ (listen)

Sound cannot be divorced from space

What we hear within the quality of a sound is a description of a space – whether it is large or small, hollow or filled, narrow or wide. The correlation between sound and space is an interesting field of research for artists – particularly for those with a performance and/or recording perspective. The sonic ambience of an ordinary room, for example, can, through repeated playback and re-recording, become a work.

For me, things get interesting when the sound encountered relative to its context creates some form of disjunction – where the sound and its source step out of kilter with the usual order of things as we perceive them. Always, somewhere in the mix there is some reference, however, oblique, to the social – the norms of language and of audio and visual cues.

Recently, I’ve been placing recognisable sounds within objects that are in some way unexpected. The sounds have been, mainly, of human origin, breathing, coughing, sneezing, a pulse, words of speech. Always, the sound/s place initiate some form of relationship between the object from which they emanate and the individual viewer that experiences them. The ordinary objects – a cupboard, a paper bag, a bundle of straw – are deliberately unimposing. They are objects of utility on the verge of invisibility – until the sound emerges – conveying the possibility of another whose presence transforms our relationships within the space.

The objects and the sounds they convey are purposefully understated. As Max Neuhaus has said, ‘I never do a piece where I am not sure that 50% of the people who come across it will walk right through it without hearing it.’ For, me. the tone and delivery is suggestive, and it is for the audience to hear, or not, and react or not.  Mine are deliberately minor sonic interventions that may transform an individual’s cognitive and emotional response to an environment.

As ever, with sonic works, there is a direct parallel with painting. The success of a work on canvas is not in direct proportion to the volume of its visual noise.

Repeatedly, I am drawn back to consider the early works of the performance artist Bruce Nauman, with his emphasis on psychological states, social codes and language.

Sound plays a central role in his installation works, regardless of whether the works involve sound or are silent. Where there are objects, these are not an end in themselves, but incidental players in a process.

See Bruce Nauman’s:

nauman pageWtzMTC

– sound work Days at the ICA in 2012

VIOLINS VIOLENCE SILENCE 1981-2 by Bruce Nauman born 1941

– neon work Violins Violence Silence 1980/1



Whether we are thinking or reading about it, viewing or making it, we do so always in the presence of sound – simple vibrations in the audible range. Sounds may be intentional and orchestrated. They may be unintentional and incidental. But they are always there.

Sound is intimately bound up with the environment in which we experience it, and specifically within the cultural conventions of architecture. The conventions associated with modern art gave rise to the visual metaphor of the White Cube, as the quintessential environment in which to appreciate art free of the visual noise – the colour, patterns and paraphenalia – of the traditional interior with its wainscots, architraves and decorative flourishes.

But what of the auditory?

It is the elephant in the gallery, large and cumbersome, which convention requires us to ignore. Sheer flat surfaces give the visual austerity upon which the art can be offset, but they also provide the amplification and complex acoustics of an echo-chamber. Within the tradition of the gallery, contemplation of the visual involves the convention of actively not listening to the audible sounds we cannot help but hear – the footsteps, the comments, the chatter… It involves the curators spatially compartmentalizing sound within headphones or beyond the gallery to the unwanted margins of a building, or compartmentalizing it temporally to the acceptable duration of a traditional audio performance.

Unquestionably, this state of affairs arises from the dominance of the visual over all other sensory media in fine art. It is a dominance that is exacerbated by the artificial delineation between the visual and the auditory in the demarcation of space through the architecture of the visual (galleries) and the auditory (auditoriums).

In fine art, sound is perceived first and foremost as an environmental pollutant. But, as Mary Douglas would argue, pollution is cultural. It is simply matter out of place.

Perhaps the question of sound is really about the power to define the parameters of space.