Audio Art: Week 8 Omnibus
Impressions of Times Square
It's beautiful, first of all. Unexpected. I've walked past or through that part of Times Square a hundred times without noticing it, or maybe noticing it but not finding it unusual.
Having the secret knowledge of its presence is magical. I stood over the sound for a while, with a bit of bliss in my expression, and passers-by gave me a strange look: the kind of look, I think, that you'd give to a shaman, or someone on hallucinogens. Someone who is able to perceive something that you can't.
Some people seemed to make the connection between my behavior (and the behavior of several others that were obviously there specifically to enjoy the piece) and the sound. The connection, I imagine, took one of two forms. They must have thought either (a) that I had found this sound of the natural urban environment so compelling that I had decided to stop going about my everyday business in order to experience it or (b) that the sound was intentionally placed there for public to enjoy. In either case, I felt like I was showing a friend a secret level in a video game. A warp zone. Something hidden and wonderful.
Times Square is also commentary on its environment. LaBelle draws a parallel between Neuhaus' work (Times Square in particular) and the overtly architectural work of Gordon Matta-Clark. Both "[surprise] architecture with an altogether different order, one based on an appropriation and subsequent reworking of form" (p. 161). It's an apt comparison, I think, and it draws attention to the politics of Times Square. In the process of augmenting the public space of Times Square, Neuhaus draws attention to the site's status quo, and implicitly argues that things could be different from the way they currently are. (Another point of reference is Wodiczko’s building projections.)
Times Square is about as site-specific as you can get, and to me the piece is more about space, architecture and the city than it is about sound. La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela's Dream House is the polar opposite of this. Let me explain.
I had been wanting to go to Dream House for some time, and this week's assignment provided the perfect opportunity. I expected a strange experience and my expectations were filled, and then some. Here's how it works. You're conducted into the room by a volunteer who petitions you to remove your shoes; the room is thickly carpeted. There are light filters over the windows that let only magenta light pass through. There are pillows on the floor. There are 35 pure sine tones loudly booming from speakers in the corners.
The sine tones are designed to combine in complex ways, and the tones you perceive are quite different depending on where you're standing in the room. (Here's an accessible description of the technical details of the piece.) In this sense, there is an engagement with the concept of space, and I spent a lot of time moving around the room to experience the effects of proximity to the different speakers, the walls, the narrow space of the hallway, and so forth. (Although the presence of pillows encourage you to lie down, I found that the carpet significantly deadened the sound when your ears were close to it.)
But then I discovered that even more dramatic effects could be obtained simply by holding my hands close to my ears: the resulting resonance chamber even enabled me to "play" simple melodies (audible, of course, only to me). It was then that I realized that the Dream House isn't about space at all: it's about the perception of sound. It experiments with the boundary between the physical apparatus of auditory perception and the conventional expectations for "music." The space is there purely to provide a sterile environment for this experimentation.
So even though the sound of Dream House and Times Square are superficially similar—sustained, pure drones—the content, and politics, are very different. Neuhaus uses sound to augment space; Young uses space to augment sound.
Dream House isn't as accessible as Times Square, but it has its own kind of beauty. Several of my House-mates were blissfully spread-eagled on the floor in meditation. I, however, found it to be an unforgiving and brutal experience. It made me very much aware of the fact that I am little more than a bipedal sack of watery guts. After a while I couldn't hear music anymore; I could only hear the sound of taut skin and tiny bones frantically vibrating in my inner ear. That's when I decided to leave.