By Nekoro Gomes
45 years ago Alvin Lucier’s 1969 work I am sitting in a room presented a conception of sound as an artistic medium in and of itself. Where painting or sculpture is most likely created in a place separate from its exhibition, and site-specific installation is designed for a particular venue, the steadily disembodied presence of Lucier’s voice in I am sitting in a room forced the listener to consider sound as a work of art singularly designed by the venue where it is heard.
MoMa recently acquired Lucier’s piece, making it fitting that MoMA PS1 hosted the Sound/Source electro-acoustic music showcase for the October 19th installment of Sunday Sessions. The event was co-curated by the MoMA in collaboration with composer Daniel Wohl and New Amsterdam Records’ label manager Michael Hammond.
Upon heading past the foyer of the museum and into the grand courtyard space, attendees were greeted by a giant, two-story white dome structure that served as the headquarters for the day’s festivities. Heading into the darkened space of the dome was not unlike heading into a planetarium for the ears.
Santino Lo, a Development Associate with New Amsterdam Records, said that the showcase was spawned in part by the difficulty that comes with finding an appropriate public space for the non-genre specific music that New Amsterdam Records champions. With this in mind, the Igloo-like structure served as the perfect temporary home for the featured performances as the structure endorsed echoes with a subtle melding of sounds from the outside world.
Composer and performer Olga Bell’s re-imagining of Alvin Lucier’s performance kicked off the proceedings. Where Lucier relied on the warped repetition of his voice to form his work, Bell eschewed the form of the voice entirely, preferring instead to let the sound of her reverb-laden composition pulsate throughout the space with varying intensity. Seated in the center of the space in a black Patagonia jacket, Bell was not unlike the many attendees sitting and contemplating the sounds of her composition, staring laconically at nothing in particular as an array of throbs, buzzes, chimes and hums echoed around her.
Pianist Vicky Chow’s rousing showcase of an album-length composition created by composer Tristan Perich left no doubt as to the source of the sounds being created. Performing on her piano and a 40-channel 1-bit electronics set-up that she coordinated with the help of an iPad, Chow didn’t really “perform” her designated instruments so much as rebel against them, pushing the limits of what she could do both acoustically and electronically in an hour-long set that was both dizzying and arresting to watch.
Martha Culver, Caroline Shaw, Eric Dudley and Cameron Beauchamp of the eight-person voice band Roomful of Teeth were up next, performing selections from legendary computer-music composer Paul Lansky’s groundbreaking 1985 and 1988 works Idle Chatter and Notjustmoreidlechatter. The form of human speech is rarely given an opportunity of its own to weigh-in. In this way, the inclusion of Roomful of Teeth demonstrated the similarly dexterous precision a classically trained voice performer can call forth..
In yet another masterstroke of thoughtful curating, the Sound/Source organizers followed Roomful of Teeth with another interpretation of Lansky’s work by San Francisco-based sound artist and musician Holly Herndon. Herndon’s 2012 electronic album Movement forced the question of whether or not the laptop could be considered a bona fide musical instrument. For Sound/Source, however, she submitted an 8-channel piece that collected snippets of her own recorded conversations, deepening “idle chatter” to an age of acknowledged government surveillance and NSA wire-tapping.
“It’s as if we’re creating a theater of sound and using the power of music to make it threatening,” chanted ominously from Herndon’s piece.
New York-based performer and former Battles singer Tyondai Braxton closed out the night with a live set of his own that was thankfully a little more fun and engrossing to watch and take in. His wild arrangement of different orchestrated loops and off-the-wall samples got the crowd off the bean bag chairs and on their feet. Braxton’s set was a perfect segue to the after-party at the nearby Print Shop, which featured danceable sets by ShadowBox, Huerco S. and Awesome Tapes from Africa to bring the Sound/Source showcase to a close.
Alongside the sounds were mixed-media installations and performances. Artists Lesley Flanigan, Maria Chavez and MV Carbon collaborated on a cello and Moog synthesizer piece in the space usually reserved for Warm Up DJs. On the roof was a mixed media installation that combined the music of Olga Bell, Daniel Wohl and Caroline Shaw within a two-channel video featuring a flock of birds on one screen and what appeared to be a ritualized dance of Middle Eastern men in the other.
Sound/Source was a rare feast for the ears in lieu of the eyes, which should no doubt force more interventions for artists making sound for sound’s sake.