Time and Space in Sound Installations

sound installation

A quote from LaBelle (2006, p. 162) accurately summarises the aim of this text: “Overlapping and at times drawing from musical culture, the practice of sound art pursues more active relations to spatial presentations, durational structures beyond the concert experience, and within more general public environments that often engage other media, inciting the auditory imagination.”

Time in sound installations: calendars instead of clocks

jem finer longplayer sound art

The duration of musical works can be counted in time units that clocks operate with – seconds, minutes, and hours at most. It is rare for musical works to extend this into time periods even larger than a few hours, although during the XX century there have been a growing number of examples, like the music of Morton Feldman, some of whose works last over 4 hours; during the World Expo in Osaka, Stockhausen’s compositions were played for 183 days, for five and a half hours each day, and before the 2nd World War. Piet Mondrian could be said to have foreseen this: “people could come and go freely without missing anything because the compositions would be repeated just like in movie theatres” (quoted in Kahn, 1999, p. 43). With the emergence of sound art we can clearly observe this change – with sound installations operating without interruption for days, weeks, and years. However, what can be said about most of these works is that they are usually based on repetition, if only they are not interactive. For the purposes of this text—and my practice—these types of works are of secondary interest, the primary being works that are unique at any given moment.

One of the first people to explicitly work with extended durations was La Monte Young, who specifically created works that were meant to be played for long periods of time—The Theatre of Eternal Music—an ensemble under the direction of Young that played from 1962 to 1965, and was the vehicle used by Young to perform many of his compositions.

The world of music composition, especially in the USA in the 1960’s has deep connections with spirituality, many composers were influenced and inspired by music and spirituality of the East (primarily India, China, Japan). The use of drones and extended durations is perhaps the most obvious result of this interaction – “The Theatre of Eternal Music delved fully into the acoustical universe of single sustained tones, compounding their deeply droning sound with extended duration, bringing each performer into a unified state” (LaBelle, 2006, p.71), also, about Young – “His music, in a sense, strives for the actualisation of the very perceptual tones, loud volumes, extended durations, harmonic frequencies, all encompass and overarching sonic commitment that seeks to make sound an experiential event beyond the human limits of time and space, exploiting the ear as a physiological device and the mind in its moment of perception of sound stimuli.”, and “Duration for Young is not a question of minutes and hours, but days and years. As Philip Glass proposes – “This music is not characterised by argument and development. It has disposed of traditional concepts that were closely linked to real time, clock-time…” (p. 73)

An interesting specificity of sound is noted by Kahn, (1999, p. 232) talking about Young’s Composition 1960 #7 and X for Henry Flynt, he says – “By subjecting the sounds completely to time, both pieces attempt to pull sounds out of time, to hold them still within time, so that the acoustical intricacies might be perceived”. Composition 1960 #7 is the last out of his text scores, after which he focused on playing microtones in the Theatre of Eternal Music project. This has in turn resulted into the Dream House – an ongoing installation in lower Manhattan. “The Dream House’s exceedingly long, ideally never-ending drones continue regardless of the presence or absence of listeners… Dispensing with the need for listeners, it posits sound as an organism with its own reason for being.” (Kim-Cohen, 2009, p. 137), “Dream Houses will allow music which, after a year, ten years, a hundred years or more of constant sound, would not only be a real living organism with a life and tradition all its own but one with a capacity to propel itself by its own momentum.” (Young, 1971).

There are a number of compositions that are meant to be performed over extended periods of time. One example is the Sound Box that was a project presented in the Swiss Pavilion at the Expo 2000. Its music was composed by Daniel Ott, he writes about this work in Ott, 2003 – “Music is a non-stop feature of the Sound Box, involving some three hundred fifty musicians from all around the world. All cultural regions of Switzerland are represented. Twelve musicians work in three-hour shifts from 9:30am to 9:30pm… Through the use of infinitely variable elements, the basic sound responds to the principle of variation that underlies the architecture of the Sound Box”. Also – “Daniel Ott wanted to find a method that would allow him to prolong the actual composing of the music over a long period of time – permitting frequent interruptions in order to manage the sounds and contact musicians to discuss this amazing project… The resulting Sound Box music consists of heterogeneous building blocks that can be reconfigured daily during the 153-day performance.” Daniel Ott’s composition consists of 153 sounds and 23 “eruptions” which appear alternately in a shifting pattern, based on a different schedule every day, all other parts are improvised by the visiting musicians. The Sound Box is an example of a work that is meant to be performed over a long period of time by people, and this involvement of people (performers) for playing such long works (with interruptions) puts this project alongside with the performances of the Theater of the Eternal Music in the Dream House.

The other type of forms that are used to create sounds of extended duration are sound installations. There are a range of sources used for the sounds in the installations, from natural and computer generated, mixed, etc. An example of the use of natural phenomena to structure the installation and generate sounds for it is Rodney Verry’s I heard YOUR FOOTSTEPS (1994), he explains his installation in Bandt (2001): “I view it as a kind of ‘qualitative clock’, relating to the ways we perceive the qualities of the world from moment to moment. The sun’s energy is translated into vibrating columns of air in slow dialogue with the shifting of light and shadows of the space.” This is also an example of sound installations working with calendar time – in this case, day cycles. Tide (or wave) organs are also a good example of calendar based installations (or sound sculptures). The tide organ in Morecambe does not explicitly work with time, but the time it sounds depends on the coming and going of the tide, which depends on moon cycles. The same can be said about the identical Wave Organ in San Francisco, or in fact any other tidal organ.

A recent example of a permanent installation working with purely natural phenomena is Jem Finer’s Score for a Hole in the Ground, described in Dewar (2011, p. 77) as “an indeterminate musical composition of unknown duration set in a permanent installation” and, “In the heart of a forest in Kent, water dripping into a deep underground chamber strikes both tuned percussion and a pool at its bottom, the sounds rising up through a giant horn, standing 7 m above the ground.” The fact that Dewar considers this work a composition that is set in a permanent installation questions what is a composition. In this case, the composer’s input is limited to providing and placing a set of tuned instruments for water drops to play on. There have been a number of indeterminate musical compositions before, but they have mostly used people as performers, leaving the composer as someone who commands other people. But this is a different topic on its own, which is beyond the limits of this text. Dewar compares the Score for a Hole in the Ground to Finer’s earlier work, (or composition, as he says) – the Longplayer, and does note that their differences are so, that while they both ‘engage with time over long durations’, the Longplayer relies on a computer program for its existence, contrary to the Score for a Hole in the Ground. Dewar attractively describes the work: “In the forest, among the trees, the horn’s shape resembles the trumpet of an old gramophone or a giant lily, oxidised autumnal orange brown. The upright pipe is indistinguishable, from a distance, from the trunks of the surrounding beech trees. The sounds too blend with the forest, until the ear discerns something out of place and the eye resolves the horn as the sonic source. Weather changes the music. In a torrential downpour it reaches a crescendo, while drought renders it silent, save for the effects of the breeze gently brushing the instruments as it eddies around the chamber. It becomes one with the climatic forces of the forest. The chaotic nature of dripping water gives rise to complex variations in the composition, ranging from near silence to intricate shifting patterns running in and out of phase.”. Mentioning the Longplayer bring us to the previously talked about category of works where computers are used for the organisation and production of sound in installations. “Jem Finer’s Longplayer project aimed to be a ‘global entity’. Started in January 2000, Longplayer is essentially a musical composition to run for 1,000 years without repetition, echoing Brian Eno’s ‘generative music’ concepts by “simultaneously playing 6 sections [of the composition] each at a slightly different position and each at a different pitch…” (LaBelle, 2006, p.296).

Les Gilbert’s Half Measured Hallelujahs, 1981, was performed at the Sculpture Triennial 1981 at LaTrobe University, Melbourne. It created a virtual environment, through the use of 24-hidden speakers and several audience triggered sensors. What is relevant to this review is that “the event was designed to last the average time it took a person to walk from the first sensor-eye on the walkway to the inside of the building through the automatic doors. Within its planned duration cycle, the units changed relationships. Six audio cassette tapes, six of which were used at any one time, created a field of intermittent sound.”

Arne Nordheim’s permanent installation, Gilde at NTNU Gløshaugen “creates and alteration of the public environment while fully operating within its given functionality. The work is essentially a 24-channel audio system mounted throughout the open hallways and atriums of the building, amplifying a database of composed sounds according to different live parameters, such as the amount of people in the building, or weather and light conditions outside. Through digital sensing and computerised systems, the installation generates a continual sonic atmosphere, blending with the existing soundscape and environment.” (LaBelle, 2010, p. 198).

LaBelle (2010, p. 198) coins the main attractiveness of ‘long music’ in the context of what he is writing about – generative and algorithmic music. Writing about Eno’s Music for the Airports and Nordheim’s Gilde, he says that these works “push the listener… away from listening to something and toward reverie, fantasy, and distraction, as a listening that remains open and prone to wandering.” and offers “momentary distraction while functioning within the found structures and parameters of the educational institute… this poetics of distraction seems to suggest alternative itineraries for inhabiting space in which feedbacking of self and surrounding becomes concrete.”


Space in sound installations: influence of architecture and space on creation and Perception

Sound of Hallgrímskirkja church

This section will explore how space and architecture influence the perception of a sound installation, and how they shape the experience of a sound installation. It is first important to define what is a sound installation in relation to space. I feel that LaBelle’s perhaps lengthy definition gives us at least a partial answer to this question: “To encounter sound installation, one spends time within space, immersed in a listening that brings one to space through an acoustical unfolding wedded to movement and duration… The activation of perception through sound may draw attention to space, its material presence, and any perceptual phenomena, and it does so by activating our memory of spatial experience, of the event-space happening there, for sound installation is distinct by offering up information that is simultaneous and yet durational, present and passing: I glimpse the given installation as a set of information that is there all at once and yet that only comes to the fore through my movements, through my listening to, my attending to its evolution, as embedded within and conversant with space.” (2006, p. 163-164).

Sterken (2007, p. 40) says that the relation between architecture and music occurs on two levels: the intellectual and the phenomenological. To back up the latter he also cites Xenakis’ view on architecture’s conditioning capacity, i.e. that the buildings have an influence on the mental and corporeal behavior of the visitor, just as spaces have an impact on the events they host. Here it is important to offer the distinction between space and architecture. Architecture shapes space, but space embodies a broader set of elements including architecture. But the distinction that Xenakis is making, is that architecture is something that influences humans, and space is something that influences events. This comes in line with the previous notion – architecture is something focused and has a direct influence on the visitor, while space is something diffused and intangible and its influence can only be traced on through more general things, i.e. events occurring in that space. This is particularly important for sound installations, because space can be partially shaped by an installation, while architecture influences the visitor with or without the installation in its own significant way. It could also be said that not only architecture and space shape experiences, but that humans interact (live, work, etc.) with architecture and space and in turn shape them. Jean-Paul Thibaud (quoted in LaBelle, 2010, p. 199) says “Each ambience involves a specific mood expressed in the material presence of things and embodied in the way of being of city dwellers. Thus, ambience is both subjective and objective: it involves the lived experience of people as well as the built environment of the place.”

The spaces used for sound installations can also be categorised in a similar fashion to the previous section: from natural and found spaces, to environments built for specific or at least partial purposes of making sounds. The main difference between the two is the cultural obligations that built environments force onto the audience. There is a dichotomy between natural, found, and public places, mostly outdoor places, that leave the listener free to approach works “on their own terms”, and built environments that usually force a set of rules and conventions on to the audience, and on to the way the audience perceives the work. LaBelle, (2006, p. 154) through explaining Max Neuhaus’ transition from being a percussionist to a sound artist coins this difference – “Rather than situate the musical moment within a concert hall, determined by conventions of the proscenium stage and directed by the musical argument, Neuhaus sought to reach for a more public realm in which the experience of sound might surprise reception.”. In the same place he also cites Neuhaus himself – “The impetus for my first sound installation was an interest in working with the public at large. Inserting the works into their daily domain in such a way that people could find them in their own time and on their own terms. Disguising them within their environments in such a way that people discovered them for themselves and took possession of them, led by their curiosity into listening”.

Bringing the concert hall built during the World Expo in Osaka for Stockhausen as an example, (in this case also an example of a built environment) LaBelle (2003, p. 24) states that Stockhausen’s architectural requirements for that concert hall “reveal a sensitivity toward the concert hall as a determining space for musical experience: how sounds are performed and heard within space.” We can see here an example of a space built specifically for inhabiting sounds, and also a heightened perception of the idea that there is a certain way that sounds are “performed and heard” within a specific space. At the same time, along with the expanded view of the concert hall comes the ideas of making sound works and installations more accessible to the open public – “Following Neuhaus, sound installation is founded upon the idea of making a sound work more public, or rather, making the experimental strand of musical practice susceptible to a different set of conditions and questions.” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 155).

Since the topics of this review are mostly derived from my artistic practice, it will also be relevant to focus on built environments, sacred buildings, specifically churches. The reason for this is that the freedom of natural environments usually bring us closer to soundscapes which allow for the wide array of sounds to exist, while sound installations tend to focus on specific elements of sound. Religious architecture has perhaps been the only location sound had a special place in for a long time in Europe. It also could be argued that European architecture has been a shaping force behind the development of European music and changes in context of music brought changes in music. “The music of the cathedral is unseen; it rises vapor-like to fill a large resonant space, restricting harmonic and melodic mobility to produce a hazy wash of sound blending it the mystique of Christianity’s invisible God… Wherever one moves in the cathedral, he is alway in the middle of the sound” (Schafer, 2001, p.60-61). Mavash (2007) speaks of the medieval cathedrals as an example of a multisensory spatial experience which provides a very powerful sense of spirituality through harmonic manipulation of our sensory experiences. Religious and sacred architecture provide a space especially fit for sensory experiences.


From theory to practice

Silophone sound installation

To further the aims of this text, I will use this last section to review a number of important pieces of sound art and sound installations that are relevant to the previous parts, and the broader topic of the text in general.

La Monte Young’s Dream House is an ongoing sound and light installation, permanently situated in Young’s loft. “Taking the chordal structure of The Well-Tuned Piano, Young installed tone generators in each of the rooms of the building. Each room presented one set of frequencies, or chordal environment, along with Zazeela’s light installation The Magenta Lights… By moving through the different rooms, a visitor would create the composition: spending time in one room, sleeping in another, avoiding others… Young emphasises the movements of the individual to generate spatiality.” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 73-74). The movements of people in space become a part of how the work sounds. This provides us with an absolutely different way of listening to music, primarily because of what experience the specific space provides and allows. Comparing the Dream House to Stockhausen’s World Expo concert hall, we can say that even though both spaces are meant to bring a heightened experience or awareness of sound, the primary difference is the unregulated nature of the Dream House, and the still codified logic of the concert hall. The Dream House is perhaps one of the most important works in sound installations considering its approach to space, time and the physicality of sound, that defined and shaped sound art for decades to come

Michael Brewster’s exhibition See Hear Now operates with “prepared audio works (consisting of synthesised sound) amplified in a specially constructed room, acoustically specified in material and dimension… His created room specifically prolonged sounds’ propagation and added to their reflection, thereby immersing a listener inside intensified zones of sound that created material presence through the phenomenon of standing waves.” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 169) This is an example of an installation that not only used a specifically constructed room for its existence, but also physically framed the room acting as not just as something being there, but as a part of a room, like walls, or a ceiling.

Maryanne Amacher created has created “expansive sound environments specifically drawing upon architectural space”. Her works revealed a “potential of working with architecture, not only as a spatial outline of air-space, but as structure”. In Amacher’s own words – “sound shapes interact with structural characteristics of the rooms before reaching the listener.” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 172) In her Music for Sound Joined Rooms she used “the architecture of the building — an entire house, or rooms and other features of its spaces — to create sound structures.”; “Defined by the architecture, set designs and the music, Locations/Scene for each Episode become the basis for staging the expressive DIMENSIONS of the music I compose BETWEEN places of thematic focus in the space. The intent is to create a range of MUSICAL INTERACTIONS between thematic places – a form of music matter, where ARCHITECTURE MAGNIFIES THE EXPRESSIVE DIMENSIONS OF MUSIC.”; “The extraordinary expressive effects which can result are produced NO OTHER WAY. They cannot be produced through music alone.” (Amacher, 1985). The “magnification of the expressive dimension of music” is perhaps the central point of this installation, this “magnification” is a focal point of most sound installations – music or sound without relation to space cannot have the powerful effect as it was designed to have. It is interesting to note that in Brewster’s See Hear Now it works the other way around – sound magnifies architecture.

Max Neuhaus’ Three to one was installed in 1992, and continues operating today as a permanent installation. It is located in a health insurance building and exists on three floors simultaneously. Listeners move around the floors and the space of each floor, partially creating the work. The first floor is described as “full-bodied, vibrant note”, the second as ““filled to the brim” with sound”, and on the third floor the first two converge “seeming to become a whole open landscape of a space. While lacking the narrative of Amacher’s Music for Sound Joined Rooms, it still offers the use of architecture, this time in the connection between the floors, and as the visitor climbs higher he is perhaps offered a Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis in a form of a sound installation.

In a number of experiments in sound spatialisation in the 1970’s, “utilising multiple loudspeakers… Leitner was able to create geometric patterns of sonic movements: circular motions of one sound oscillating against a larger elliptical movement of sound; lines of sound that move from point to point, directing the ear across the room, crisscrossing against a second line of movement; sounds beating across the floor in X formations, or up a wall and back down again.” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 176). This can be compared to Amacher’s and Neuhaus’ work mentioned in the previous paragraphs, or Janet Cardiff’s walks, with a difference that Leitner’s work invites the ear for a journey like most sound spatialisation works, while the mentioned works of Amacher and Cardiff require the movement of the whole body.

The Silophone is a “hybrid between a virtual network and a physical object”. It can be accessed in four ways, none of which include physical presence – either through “The Sonic Observatory”, a telephone exchange, a website, and a number of artists were asked to perform and compose for the Silophone instrument. This is an exceptionally interesting work considering its use of architecture as its main feature on one hand, and the impossibility of physically being in this place on the other. This installation is solely accessible through communications, and while the sound the space makes is of primary importance, we cannot see the inside of this space and appreciate its spatial qualities in its natural habitation.

Bandt’s A Garden for Percy’s Delight, 1997, “was a multi-channel flexible sound installation environment which changed in relation to itself and the listener over the twelve-week exhibition”, what is relevant is that “the continuous shifting counterpoint was programmed on computer and going from one suspended parabolic speaker to another in a complex design. “The six overhead parabolic speakers dispersed the sound from overhead, while the four hidden ground speakers reflected the sound off the ground to the surrounding brick walls of the courtyard”. (Bandt, 2001, p. 273)

Francisco López’s Buildings performed in the Judson Church in New York. It is acousmatic, meaning that the only sounding object are loudspeakers. It does not play for any exceptionally long duration, but it is interesting to note Lopez’s disregard for the place he performs in. His performance also includes turning down the lights and giving out blindfolds to the audience. Lopez is known for focusing only on sound and trying to avoid anything that he perceives as distracting from sound: Cox in (Kim-Cohen, 2009, p. 125) says “López… is critical of what he calls the “dissipative agents” of music, which is anything that distracts attention from the pure matter of sound: language, text, image, referentiality, musical form and structure, technique and process, instrumental virtuosity, etc.”. In this case of Buildings, the choice of place seems arbitrary and without regard to the fact that any place, imposes its own, and in the case of a church, very specific ambience. Once López has realised this, he tried to disconnect his music from a loaded site, by putting blindfolds on the audience.


Bringing it Together

Using the work of Brian Eno, Markus Popp, and Achim Wollscheid as an example of generative music, LaBelle (2006, p. 287) suggests their works (he mentions only Eno’s Generative Music I, and Popp’s Ovalprocess) as evidence for the “ultimate completion of sound’s journey from point of origin (as in the work of John Cage) to its relational proximity (in Minimalism) onward to performative voices (with Alvin Lucier and Vito Acconci) to sound installation (Max Neuhaus) and body-related events with architecture (Bernhard Leitner and Maryanne Amacher) and toward environmental and geographic, locational work (Hildegard Westerkamp and Bill Fontana), to arrive at network, interpersonal space and generative streams that locate sound in its actual generation and distribution rather than objectness and immediate experience… Like society itself, sound no longer explodes through its propagation, its performance, or its radiophonic broadcast, but implodes being everywhere at once. Sound no longer needs to appear here, as a particular event with specific locatable details, but rather it disappears in its own system of production that may in the end complete its journey, from the here and now to a virtual projection of future manifestations in which it is always already everywhere”

We have gone from the traditional setting of a concert hall, through a number of built and found spaces, to a non-existence of space through the location of sound in its generation and distribution, and for an overall conclusion it can be said that both time and space have experienced a considerable evolution, primarily through the medium of the sound installation. The change in duration of works has only become possible once the location of works changed from concert halls to a variety of other spaces. Even though music and sound have been, and are still considered art forms that exist in time, the shift on the spatial in music over the course of the last decades, has been having steadily growing – where something sounds is now at least as important as what sounds. With the introduction of terms like timespace (Voegelin, 2010, p. 126), signifying the unity between the two categories, it is now impossible to ignore the spatial aspect of sound and music, even of previous decades and centuries.

In regard to my own work, an extension of this text is necessary, one that will explore the technical possibilities of manifesting time and space through music technology, specifically algorithmic and generative systems, and sound spatialisation.



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Published on January 14, 2015
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