Sound Art and Modernity

fortypartmotet

Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet at MoMA PS1 in 2012 (image courtesy of Britta Frahm; made available via Creative Commons license)

Maybe you’re like me: you’re a fairly sensitive person who tears up at sad movies or at the endings of tragic novels. Those reactions are guided by specific cues–that of resonance with a character’s plight or the visual impact of someone crying on screen. We can see or feel the emotion, and our brains react to it; there’s a cause-and-effect that feels, at least to me, fairly straightforward. Music, however, provides an altogether different experience. The first few chords of an especially powerful song can make my eyes well up almost immediately. The chords bring on simultaneous feelings of transcendence, euphoria, and melancholy, and those feelings often seem uncoupled from the specificity of the emotion a particular song exudes. I cry just as easily at a powerful song, with booming notes and crushing cymbals, as I do at a mournful ballad played in a minor key.

Science supports the idea that music as an art form is uniquely able to produce a “frisson” , a sensation marked by a shiver, trembling and goosebumps. Unexpected, dramatic musical flourishes, especially those that violate our expectations and startle the nervous system, release dopamine to the brain, creating a similar response in a listener as one he or she might have to drugs and sex.  (Some frisson-inducing songs for me: The Shivers'”Beauty“; Nirvana’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night“; The Verve’s “Drugs Don’t Work“; DeVotchka’s “Charlotte Mittnacht (The Fabulous Destiny of…)“)

Sound is uniquely able to give us pleasure, but as an art form, it’s often overshadowed by other mediums. Yes, music is the clearest example of sound as art, but to define it as only music (as in: the kind that gets made by musicians) ignores the versatility of hearing as a sense and how manipulating it can play with our perceptions of reality in the best possible way (the dissonance of a nature recording played in the middle of Times Square, for example). Sound art isn’t just “music” in the same way that fine art isn’t just “painting.”

All of this is to say: I want more! There are sound artists doing amazing things, and museums are catching on, but the form isn’t nearly as widely recognized as older art forms. I’ve been intrigued by the medium ever since I experienced Janet Cardiff’s revelatory “The Forty Part Motet” at MoMA PS1 four years ago. Featuring 40 freestanding speakers that each play the unaccompanied voice of a specific singer, the piece builds momentum as the voices coalesce into the moving, reverential motet composed by 16th century Tudor composer Thomas Thallis. To walk and listen closely to each speaker is to marvel at the building blocks of music the way someone might marvel at the individual bricks of a soaring cathedral. It would be hard to overstate the emotional impact of the piece. (Listen to an excerpt here.)

I felt similarly moved when I viewed Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Black is the Color” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Though not strictly “sound art,” the video installation manipulates sound to give the museum goer an entirely new perspective on the piece of music he or she is hearing. By looping dozens of old televisions showing a Nina Simone performance of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a turn-of-the-20th-century Scottish folk song, the artist creates a haunting round that highlights only the words “Black is the color.” These four words are played on endless repeat–their power amplified by the booming, reverberating quality of Simone’s voice, and the effect is chilling.

Sound art may be the art form most suited to our modern world. It has the ability to completely transport us, to engage with us in a wholly unique way, especially at a time when our attention is pulled in many directions by so much disruptive sound: clicking, beeping, buzzing, honking, jack-hammering. Nowadays, when everyone is looking for something real, something that moves us, something human, perhaps it is sound art that can save us.

 

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