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First exhibition at MoMA wholly dedicated to sound as a form of artistic expression opens
Installation view of the exhibition Soundings: A Contemporary Score. August 10–November 3, 2013. © 2013 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Museum of Modern Art presents Soundings: A Contemporary Score, the first group exhibition at MoMA to single out sound as a form of artistic expression, and one of the first of its kind in New York. The exhibition is on view from August 10 to November 3, 2013, in the third-floor Special Exhibitions Gallery and other locations around the Museum. Soundings features the work of 16 contemporary artists working with sound, from the United States, Uruguay, Norway, Denmark, England, Scotland, Germany, Australia, Japan, and Taiwan. With a broad understanding of art, architecture, performance, telecommunications, philosophy, and music, these artists move comfortably among mediums, while listening and hearing remain central to their practice. Soundings is organized by Barbara London, Associate Curator, with Leora Morinis, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Media and Performance Art, MoMA.

At a time when the experience of sound is increasingly private—delivered through earbuds and headphones—Soundings is a communal exploration of how and what we hear, and what we might make of it. Sound art, still a relatively undefined territory, satisfies artists’ urge to pioneer new forms. They inventively link sound both to the other human senses and to a variety of rich metaphysical and philosophical projects, and their works run the gamut from immersive tuned environments to sound-emitting objects to conceptual schematics on paper. The works include architectural interventions, visualizations of otherwise inaudible sound, an exploration of how sound ricochets within a gallery, and a range of field recordings of everything from bats to abandoned buildings in Chernobyl to 59 bells in New York City to a factory in Taiwan.

On view in The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden is A Bell for Every Minute (2010) by Stephen Vitiello (American, b. 1964). For this work, Vitiello recorded a number of bells around New York. Here, 59 of them play, one every minute, including the New York Stock Exchange bell, the United Nations Peace Bell, bike bells, bells on cats’ collars, and alarm bells. At the top of each hour they all chime together.

Soundings resumes in a space outside the Special Exhibitions Gallery with Sergei Tcherepnin’s (American, b. 1981) Motor-Matter Bench (2013). For this work, Tcherepnin transformed a wooden subway bench into an audio speaker. When a visitor sits on the bench, music plays through the bench and the visitor’s body. Tcherepnin has stated, “I am attempting to expand aural dimensions by orchestrating flexible listening situations, which draw attention to the materiality and variation of sound as filtered through these objects.”

Within the corridor of the Special Exhibitions Gallery, the first work on view is Microtonal Wall (2011), by Tristan Perich (American, b. 1982). This large-scale work is made up of 1,500 one-bit speakers, individually tuned to create an intricately varied continuum of pitch, rendering this 25-foot wall a spectrum of sound. Perich has explained, “Each listener's exploration of that aural space shapes what they hear, from the totality of white noise (from a distance), to the single frequency of each speaker (up close).”

At the end of the corridor is Triplight (2008) by Camille Norment (American, b. 1970). For this work, Norment started with a 1955 Shure microphone, the model used by Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and other legendary jazz singers. Norment removed its original parts and replaced them with a small flickering light. This light casts a shadow, projecting onto the wall what appears to be a luminescent rib cage, evocative of an absent performer.

Ten additional works are spread throughout, including the installation Ridges on the Horizontal Plane (2011) by Luke Fowler (Scottish, b. 1978) and Toshiya Tsunoda (Japanese, b. 1964). This work features fans producing a gust that make a fabric screen billow. Projected on the screen is a slideshow of landscapes distorted by the wind gusts; pulled taut across the screen are piano strings, which create noise when the screen brushes up against them. Quite literally, the artists have made sound and image collide.

Marco Fusinato’s (Australian, b. 1964) Mass Black Implosion (Iannis Xenakis, Shaar) (2012) consists of five drawings in which Fusinato chose a single note on the page of a musical score as a focal point, then painstakingly connected it to every other note, seeming to suggest that all the notes should be played at once. This ongoing series, initiated in 2007, draws upon the scores of pioneering avant-garde composers such as Iannis Xenakis, whose scores are on view here.

Before Me (2012), by Richard Garet (American, b. Uruguay 1972), is a sculptural assemblage of outmoded technologies. The work’s centerpiece is an old record player with its platter upside down, and running at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. A marble placed at the upturned edge of the platter can advance only slightly before its momentum is overridden and it rolls back to its starting point. This action continues endlessly, suggesting the plight of Sisyphus.

In her series Scores and Transcripts (2012), Christine Sun Kim (American, b. 1980) who was born deaf—combines and transforms the various types of notation that shape her understanding and communication: American Sign Language, musical notation, spoken English, and body language. In these drawings, these grammars and languages rub up against each other, allowing for the examination of their overlaps and differences and shifting her personal relationship to them.

Jacob Kirkegaard’s (Danish, b. 1975) AION (2006) builds upon an earlier work by the artist Alvin Lucier who recorded and re-recorded a single phrase over and over. Kirkegaard expanded this idea by placing recording equipment in four abandoned spaces inside the exclusion area near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site, and then rerecording the results. In the final recordings, each of these ostensibly silent, empty spaces takes on a distinct resonance. In effect, Kirkegaard has recorded the voices of rooms.

In Wellenwanne lfo (2000/2012), a work that features sound waves traveling through water, Carsten Nicolai (German, b. 1965) demonstrates the impossibility of achieving true silence. Rippling through the piece are visualizations of inaudible, low-frequency sound waves. Through the shifting, concentric patterns on the water’s surface, the piece renders visible what would otherwise exist beyond our range of perception.

Susan Philipsz’s (Scottish, b. 1965) Study for Strings is a contemporary interpretation of an eponymous 1943 orchestral work by Pavel Haas, who composed the score for 24 instruments while imprisoned in a concentration camp. For her 2012 reworking, Philipsz has isolated only the viola and cello parts. Recorded onto multiple channels, the piece is a note-by-note deconstruction of the original composition, replete with fraught silence. These absences call attention to the fact that other instruments—and the musicians who played them—are absent.

Haroon Mirza’s Frame for a Painting (1972) literally revolves around Piet Mondrian's Composition in Yellow, Blue, and White, I (1937), a painting in MoMA's collection. Mirza’s "framing" devices are many: not only does he physically frame the chosen painting in shifting LED lights and a synced electronic soundtrack, but he also ensconces it in a conceptually and temporally nuanced situation, juxtaposed with a modernist Danish side table. Mirza’s reframing serves to honor themes already evident in Mondrian's painting. The result is a profound and celebratory study of the particularities of color, material, and rhythm—that underscores the distinct pleasures and idiosyncrasies of sensory interplay.

For Music while We Work (2011), Hong-Kai Wang (Taiwanese, b. 1971) assembled a group of retired workers from a Taiwanese sugar refinery. She and her collaborator, Chen Bo-We, led a series of recording workshops for the retirees and their spouses. They then returned to the factory, where Wang asked them to “paint a world composed by their listening.” The video installation is a document both of their collective learning process and of the resulting compositions.

To create Ultrafield (2013), Jana Winderen (Norwegian, b. 1965) worked with sounds in the ultrasound range—above human hearing capacity—in which many mammal and insect species communicate. The artist recorded the sounds made by certain species of bats, fish, and underwater insects, and pitched these transmissions down to the human range, allowing humans to experience sonic realities that are otherwise out of reach.

The exhibition concludes with Florian Hecker’s (German, b. 1975) Affordance (2013), on view in MoMA’s Bauhaus Staircase between the second and third floors. The work investigates the subjective dimensions of sound with a three-channel sound piece that shifts and varies depending on the listener, both in terms of their physical location and their personal biases and points of reference.

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