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.


Resonance I






Resonance I, 2014

On Thursday 13th February 2014, a group of 14 vocalists performed my first vocal work at the opening of an exhibition. The performance, which took place in the cavernous, neo-classical Sculpture Court of the Edinburgh College of Art, was unannounced and lasted just over six minutes. The performers, appearing to be regular visitors to the opening, were distributed randomly. The beginning of the performance involved my vocalising a sustained, single note mechanically amplified through a simple, hand-held speaker cone. The performers, joined in, holding the same note over an extended period before continuing with their own choice of sustained notes judged at all times as a response to the other performers and the auditory quality of the work as it evolved within the space. The work is a gradual, non-linear evolution, of shifting harmonies and dis-harmonies, resonances, dissipations and flowings.

It is a collective drawing of sculptural space through sound.

It is at the edge of order – propelled by chance and the relationship between the individual and the other/s.

It is the reverberation of a moment passed,

an articulation of perceived presence in time and space.

Listen to first performance.


Artist’s recent work in development – with straw,  chair and rope and the sound of restful breathing (listen).

I’ve been busy listening to, recording and creating sounds while, at the same time, juxtaposing these with objects – the same objects (and spaces) that make the sounds and others that don’t. This extension of my practice is good. It’s fundamentally changing the way I think about objects – a totally unexpected consequence of this shift towards an auditory perspective.

My efforts have become a series of experimental encounters with combinations and resonant juxtapositions. Subtlety works. Clichés abound.

Recording  (listen) of artist’s own involuntary body sounds – heartbeat, sneeze, stomach and breath.

The obvious, such as heartbeats, are over-loaded with prescribed meanings that dominate our reading of the visual field. While we live in a world of incidental, real-time unmediated sounds, we are also immersed in the time-based, mediated world of manipulated audio. Working with sound in sculpture has to involve an understanding and navigation of these two states of learned sound experience.

Anticipation and the expectation of its specific fulfillment is fertile ground for sound. We respond to certain sensory stimuli by filling in the sensory gaps. With respect to the object and the image of the object, the visual impression of an occurrence, such as a falling cup, causes us to anticipate the auditory consequence, i.e. the sound of a smash. Likewise, auditory stimuli causes us to anticipate a visual impression of the likely event that just occurred but did not see.


Moving beyond images of assumed reality, we arrive at the visual field of symbols and the written word. From a traditional point of view this strays into the realms of print-making, painting and poetry, but is, I believe, especially interesting with respect to instructional works. 

Balloon & Pin instruction

Projected slide from experimental instructional work involving audience participation (each member of the audience having been given a deflated balloon and a pin.)

Finally, the visual-to-auditory relationship comes full circle and we end up at the sound of the written word as spoken. This time the sound is tapping into the language centers of the brain such that the effect of the sound of the word is wholly different (obviously) from that of the sound of the subject that is being spoken of. Because the sound is identifiable as language, the effect on the listener is culturally contingent.

Straw box inside

Straw I, 2013 (detail)

To date, I have experimented with spoken word in just one sculpture. In Straw I, 2013, the audience encounters a dark projection room in which there is a thick layer of straw into which they must walk in order to experience the work. A close-up video of the skin, moving, on the side of my face as I speak is projected onto the wall while a continuous audio track of me slowly reciting the names of wild animals commonly found in captivity.

While the straw and moving image remained contained within the projection room, the sound of my voice reciting the animal names carried through the gallery space beyond. The effect of this created a divided response from the audience. Clearly, the handling of the audio element of a work needs to take into account the proximity, nature and ownership of the surrounding works in the gallery. However, there can be no doubt that an audio element can affect the audience’s response to all the works within earshot, on a range of levels – from aggressively interruptive to subtle and subversive.

No matter the immateriality of sound, it is a profoundly affecting and effective medium that needs to be handled with consideration and subtlety.

I have this idea of creating a wave of vocal resonance – of filling a spacious architectural volume with a continuous human tone. It feels like an exploration of space and containment through human sound.

 IMG_4830 IMG_4866

I’ve imagined it, and I’ve started playing with it. That feeling of opening up and filling your mouth and throat and chest with air, then releasing it back out with energy from the edges of my body. That first note released in privacy (that clandestine singing in the bathroom, kitchen etc) – now perpetually echoing from a vaulted space.

It would be performed live, with the performers randomly dispersed among the standing audience. Inconspicuous. Natural and unpredictable.

The idea is for one performer to begin to ‘project’ a tone – in a clear, steady voice. Continuous. Then another voice, quiet at first, joins in, supporting the first, then another as the first voice fades, and gradually reappears. Thus the performers maintain the clear tone……without a pause in the tone for breath.

Alternatively, the voice performers begin as above, then, very gradually introduce one harmonic tonal variation…. And, then, very slowly, another.  The performance is not specifically scripted, such that the performers only respond as and when they choose – to their environment and their fellow performer’s sounds.

For a building with an internal circular route – through corridor, atrium, hall, corridor etc – the performers could be dispersed along the route. The intention of the performance would now be for a locus of sound to travel along the route of stationary performers – ringing its way constantly round and round the route.

The experiments to date are promising. Especially those with the Rhubaba choir whom I’ve begun to work with. Early recordings include (listen):

Vocals in circle – ordered

Vocals in circle – random

I’m realising I instinctively approach this vocalisation with the ‘A’ note – as the primary sound. I realise the importance of the performers practicing together to build ease and control, although the performances themselves will be unscripted and utterly in the moment. While the performers need the breathing and vocal control of choral singers, the intention and desired effect is not to achieve the sound of a choir emitting a singular, unified voice.

The sound dictates the performance.

Listening is at the heart of sound-making.

Sound-making is a response to listening.

I’ve found this installation piece, Stay Tuned by sound artist Rutger Zuydervelt, for which he collected recordings of orchestras tuning up – 150 musicians in total. They create the familiar ‘A’ I’ve been singing.

It’s the ‘A’ of anticipation – the drawing together of focus before the performance.

This work is a rich, dense river of sound in which individual instruments appear and disappear.

Listen to a Stay Tuned recording.

I love the sound, but I’m not keen on the installation itself. He positioned speakers on trees and played different recordings through each. This introduces an element of interactivity as the audience’s experience of the sound installation depends on their relative position to the individual trees with their individual recordings.


How the audience encounters sound is as important as the sound itself. I think there is a pressure for sonic works to be placed in a physical setting in order for them to achieve recognition as an ‘art work’. The physical setting can, therefore, appear as an after-thought and not an integral component to have emerged from an evolving work.

Perception of the visual and auditory are mutually interdependent.



Out of the blue, I record my voice, alone. 

I scream as loud as I can. Scream

It is done and I feel good. I play it in the studio, on a busy day. It’s met with shock, surprise and humour. Not rejection, which is curious.

Out of the blue, I record my voice, alone.

This time I vocalise an ‘A’ as I remember it from school choir. Sing

I try it out in different spaces, marveling at the resonance and response of the sound. It feels great. And I am not done.

I record my voice in the corridors and atriums of other buildings.

I replicate and overlay my voice.

The sound becomes continuous. Sing + sing + sing

I add other voices – repeating and overlaying mine.

I want to create a continuous tonal wave of human voice – a perpetual wave that travels and resonates through space – a radiating journey of voices emanating from the bodies that produce them – vibrating through every miniscule volume of a space. Through resonance becoming a signature of the space – a composition between humans and architecture.

I experiment with a Women’s Choir.

They try out the vocal performance I suggest. I record their quick rehearsal. Women’s choir

Listening back, I realize what I am creating.

The absence of breath.

A continuous, vocal human sound without breath.

Sound in the anticipation of silence.