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Sound In Space: Adventures in Australian Sound Art (1995)

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Location: Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Sound In Space: Adventures in Australian Sound Art was an exhibition presented by the MCA on 26 May - 22 August, 1995. The exhibition was curated by Rebecca Coyle. The following text is a reprint of Coyle's essay from the exhibition catalogue. Reprinted with kind permission of the MCA and Rebecca Coyle.


Sound in Space: a curatorial perspective

Rebecca Coyle, Curator

SOUND IN SPACE comprises an exhibition, performances, talks and screenings exploring the elusive medium of sound. The core of this series of programs is an exhibition of installations positioned in and around the Museum of Contemporary Art. The works are designed to invite listeners into the space, call for attention, engage aural and visual senses, and stimulate the intellect. They range from those which integrate sound with a visual component, to purely aural forms which evoke visual images and sensations by audio triggers. Visitors to the installations become participants in the artists' conceptual explorations as they interact with these various components. In creating a depth of sensory experience, the selected works encourage audiences to move beyond the general perception of sound as being transitory and intangible (and thus insignificant).

The exhibition's title 'Sound in Space' in one way states the obvious. All sound occurs in space, since sound, as a physical phenomenon is simply vibrations in air. These vibrations are transmitted to the ear, where the eardrum responds with its own vibrations, stimulating nerve ends which send messages to the brain. The physical definition of sound, however, cannot encompass the powerfully affective qualities of aural experience - the sound of a lover's voice, fingernails scraping chalkboard, hypnotic rhythms and riffs. Sound in Space attempts to understand the subjective, as well as the objective characteristics of sound, thereby characterising a medium, which communicates beyond the physical and physiological. The works in the show occur in particular spaces-ranging from created sculptural spaces within the gallery to auditory space claiming listeners' attention. All the works can be described by their mode of production, use of sound technology' and sound phenomena, but these parameters cannot describe the subjective experience of the works on emotional and sensory levels. It is the interconnection and mingling of so-called objective and subjective sound characteristics that is explored in Sound in Space and in this essay.

Sound in Space also attempts to analyse and explore a space' for sound art itself. The exhibition challenges perceived definitions of sound an (as merely experimental music or performance, for example), through presenting a variety of contemporary engagements with this art form. In Australia, sound art practice reaches into fields of multi-media an, sculpture, experimental and new music, performance, sound poetry, radiophony, and sound design. But sound art offers a dimension of experience inadequately described by these labels. The primary conceptual motivation in any sound artwork is the sound. Neither visual nor tactile, allusive rather than expository or descriptive, sound art requires the visitor to listen rather than merely hear, and to 'read' allusions from a series of sonic signifiers and sensations. Sound artworks therefore represent the original 'virtual' medium, regardless of their links to visual components.

In this essay, I discuss my curatorial approach in developing Sound in Space, referring to the local contexts and conditions that gave rise to the exhibition. I will draw directly on works by Australians-particularly installations in the exhibition-and comments solicited from artists themselves, to generate debate1. Thus I will not be considering Australian sound artworks and practices as the result of key international projects and influences. I also discuss sound an as a concept and as a set of practices. Any exhibition of Australian sound aft necessitates debates about the nature of sound an, the defining features of Australian practice and, indeed, whether or not such discussions are at all valuable. These debates comprise the subject of what follows.


Sound in Space is an attempt not only to represent the diverse and wide-ranging fields from which sound art arises but also to reflect the development of practices and artists in Australia. The interrelated events that make up Sound in Space attempt to enhance and consolidate the recognition of sound an as a distinct and particular set of practices with specific histories and relationships to a range of artforms. Sound art has had a place in Australian galleries and museums for some years. But much of the exhibition and performance of sound artworks has been marginal and ad hoc. This situation has stemmed from a confused interpretation of the nature of sound artworks where the integrity of a work rests with its sound-as well as from the practical difficulties of exhibiting them.

Nevertheless, some venues have actively supported sound an as a form and set of practices. Sydney's The Performance Space in particular has developed and continues to foster Australian sound artists and experimental sound art events. Some of its projects have attracted international attention. In 1992, building on earlier sound aft activities, it helped initiate and provided the venue for the first in a series of international sound an festivals, called SoundCulture, held in Pacific Rim countries biennially. This event also inspired the first overseas exhibition of locally produced work: Australian SoundArt MERIDIAN in Kobe, Japan, in 1993.

Other centres have also contributed to Australian sound art. These include Melbourne's Clifton Hill Music Centre which opened in the late 1970s and played a crucial role in spawning a community of artists which developed experimental music performance and composition in the 1980s. In Sydney, venues such as ICE (Institute of Contemporary Events, 1979-1983) and Art Unit (1982-1985) were equally instrumental in promoting new music/sound events and radical performance art. More recently, the Contemporary Music Events Company hosted Earwitness for Experimenta in 1994. In Perth, musical innovation has been encouraged through Evos Music, and the Australian Music Centre in Sydney has a preliminary archive about sound artists.

Informally constituted groups such as Contemporary Sound Arts based in Sydney also have served to initiate occasional events and publications like Essays in Sound. Key educational institutions, mostly where a sound artist or musician teaches, have encouraged the development, exhibition and performance of sound works. Some events and teaching around sound art have been supported by critical debate in associated publications (see page 16 under 'Further reading'). In addition, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's innovative audio art programs-most notably, their ABC FM program 'The Listening Room'-have provided outlets for radiophonic artworks to a national audience.

All of the artists represented in Sound in Space are Australian-born or resident here. But to designate an exhibition as Australian raises the question of how the Australian-ness of an artwork may be defined. The location of artists within a geographically-confined place does seem to bear some correlation to the work they produce. Just as a number of painters, photographers and holographers working here have argued that the quality of light in Australia affects the content and production of their work, so in sound art certain sounds of the Australian landscape and everyday life are unique to the location and trigger associated memories. The unique calls of Australian birds, for example, are recurring motifs-cockatoo screeches at daybreak, currawong quarrels across vast distances, kookaburra chuckles in the bush. There are also elements that might identify a broad national style. Sound artist Ros Bandt suggests that this 'style' arises from artists' practices and is reflected in a 'rugged individualist experimental drive derived from necessity of [working in and across] large spaces and making do.' As composer Warren Burt argues, there is a 'vaguely intuited thing' that characterises much sound art by Australians:

....a lot of Australian sound art (at least stuff made by my friends) has a certain irreverence, a certain improvisational quality, a certain sense of simultaneous belonging and alienation, a certain EDGE, that I mostly don't find in work by other people or from other places.

Andrew McLennan, senior producer for ABC Radio's The Listening Room, concurs with the view that Australian practice and production techniques inform the content of sound art produced in Australia. He argues that:

One quality that makes (acoustic art) typically Australian is its need to overcome the tyrannies of distance and isolation, and the impromptu nature of the solution to this problem. This sense of 'making do' with the materials available still characterises much of the work of sound artists working in Australia today2.

Sound in Space focuses on the specific contribution of Australian artists within the international field of sound art. This is neither a parochial 'navel-gazing' approach nor a 'cultural cringe' reaction. Rather than discovering an Australian 'character' by comparison with overseas artworks and practices, the exhibition suggests that the defining marks of Australian-ness, if any, may be perceived from a concentrated grouping of works by local artists. Composer Ashley Scott says:

There is certainly a tradition or body of works which constitute an 'Australian sound art' But since the means of comparing one production with another is totally anecdotal or informal at present (there is no adequate theory regarding the medium) there are no solid grounds from which to discuss their 'distinct' qualities-outside of a careful exegesis.

This exhibition constitutes just such an exegesis.


Sound in Space features both new and extant works. The exhibition aims to present exemplary moments from the history of Australian sound art and from within contemporary practice. The work by Rainer Linz called 'dis(continuous)', for example, was first devised in 1979 and was followed by a taped version published on audio cassette to accompany the second issue of New Music Articles, a Melbourne-based journal which challenged accepted musical compositional conventions and practices during the 1980s. Several works directly develop artists' earlier ideas and explorations. Joyce Hinterding's The Oscillators is the latest representation from her artistic project (spanning several years) concerning auditory space and instability. Another work, Sherre De Lys' and Joan Grounds' Ceci n'est pas une pipe, installed in the Royal Botanic Gardens' Tropical Centre, is one manifestation of a larger ongoing project which commenced in a Melbourne glasshouse in 1994 and is intended to be further developed in similar sites abroad.

Two abiding concerns are central to the exhibition. One is the production and reproduction of sound, from sound generated mechanically and kinetically to sound manipulated by analogue and digital technologies. A second major concern is ambient sound, the sounds ever-present in the internal and external spaces of the body and the environments of everyday life.

The manner in which the integral element of a work-the sound-is produced and reproduced is of primary importance to all artists in the exhibition. Sound can be recorded on and sourced from grainy (and increasingly redundant) analogue equipment or from high definition digital samplers and effects units. Joan Brassil is a sculptor who records subtle sounds from the environment to replay in her works. In her Randomly-Now and Then installation these sounds occur in an environment created from gravel, paving stones, a printed poem, and electronics. The sounds emit from speakers and replay the 'singing' of cores of diorite rock which hang from microphone stands. To create this sound, rock cores were extracted from deep in the earth, and the sound of their vibrating crystalline structures is electronically amplified. Brassil has commented that 'a new dimension was added to space installation with the advent of electronic sound, being used as process or context, in making philosophical or experimental relationships with space.'

The exhibition also foregrounds artists who construct sound-producing objects. Australian composers, computer programmers and sound artists have designed and built a series of innovative 'instruments', from Sarah Hopkins' whirly instruments and Warren Burt's tuning forks, to the technical development of Fairlight equipment and Greg Schiemer's MIDI Tool Box. Nola Farman's and Anna Gibbs' The Braille Book produces and reproduces sound in another way. The work invites us to look and to feel, and responds to our touch with subtle sounds connected with the often private act of reading. The Braille serves as a form of translated written language, as distinct from vocalised utterances. The text (written by Anna Gibbs) is about reading the written word, although the sounds themselves include sighs and gasps. The open book is overlaid with biblical connotations, a reminder of a central reference point for Christian believers that 'in the beginning was the Word...'.

The complex technologies of sound storage, sound reproduction and post-production, which have been available for a relatively brief period, continue to be used by artists. The distinctive quality of recorded sound is that it cannot reproduce sound as it actually occurs in space. The technology used for sound storage and reproduction is neither culturally neutral nor able to meaningfully interpret and reflect sound in the environment. Recorded sound-even more than processed sound-can only represent and interpret 'live' sound. So sound recording (like film and video recording) involves numerous decisions about which elements of the sound are required to be stored and reproduced and in what manner. Recorded and post-produced sound is therefore an entity in its own right. The recording artist selects those sounds that have significance to their work and that combine to create the desired effect, abandoning many of the extraneous sounds of everyday life. Furthermore, artists such as Rik Rue who work with sampled and pre-recorded sounds to remix and post-produce sound, are creating entirely new works a further step removed from the original or 'live' sound. The audiotheque presents a selection of recorded works (and extracts of works) in which artists have explored the recording possibilities of sound and sound technologies as a necessary pan of the content of the work. Stephen Adam's Chromophany is a composition in which human voice recordings are radically transformed to create variations of vocal 'colourings'. Other works, created by recording sound from installations in the exhibition, are featured on the compact disc which accompanies this catalogue. These are intended to be heard both as representations of another work and as independently recorded and composed works with their own integrity.

A further exploration of sound production and reproduction occurs in the work of artists who use sound in the environment and sounds made by people in the environment. In 1985, Ros Bandt published her book Sounds in Space in which she discussed her approach to sound composition and production and argued for a more sensitive placement of sounds to improve our living environments. She performed several compositions that explored the spatial and acoustic qualities of particular locations (for example, wheat silos, tip sites and the sand dunes of Lake Mungo). These works incorporate environmental elements-the cries of fauna, the sound (and recording interference) of wind, urban 'noise', and so on. Over some years, Ernie Althoff has produced sound sculptures from material gathered from the environment and combined with sound reproduction components and technology (such as turntables). The technology moves and impels other objects to sou move, causing sound and creating the sound composition. His work for Sound in Space deals more directly with movement. See Breezes uses oscillating electric tint fans to cause a plastic curtain to flap and wind chimes oft to intone. Movement activates sound, a causal (often inevitable) connection between sound and movement Cal that is usually disregarded except by sound artists and designers. Sonia Leber's short film included in the son screenings program, Ear Witness, also documents and analyses the relationship between movement and sound through work designed by architecture students at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (such as sound-producing swinging bridges).

Ambient sound, the sound ever-present in the enfolding spaces of the body and the environment, is the second major concern for artists in the Sound in Space exhibition. A particular sound can rarely be totally the isolated as a separate phenomenon (apart from in scientific experiments) since it is always combined with other sounds occurring at the same time. But we are able to aurally distinguish the sounds we wish to by hear from those we wish to reject. Psycho-acousticians call this the 'cocktail party effect' and, as illustration, sot note how parents will differentiate and respond to the particular sound uttered by their own child amidst a host of competing sounds. In terms of recorded sound, an this process of selective auditory attention is complicated by the way recording combines many variables of 'live' sound into a single undifferentiated representation3. Some ethno-musicologists approach the recording of sound by isolating it from its performative context, from the surrounding 'background' sound, in an attempt to capture 'pure' musical tones. But once divorced from their context, sounds lose much of their meaning and musical 'life'. Some recordings have recognised that contextual sound deeply influences and changes the sound performance itself. Hawaiian steel guitarists, for example, in the early years of playing this instrument, tried to make it sound like the sea. The cultural connection between their playing and the background sound of the sea in live performances on the sea-shore was emphasised in broadcasts of the long-running 'Hawaii Calls' radio program.

In the context of a large mixed show, a variety of sounds become part of the general ambience and need to he considered in the selection and installation so that each work can operate effectively in its own space and within the exhibition as a whole. The variety and volume of sounds entering the MCA from Sydney's central transport point, Circular Quay, and the hum of air-conditioning within the galleries, had an impact on the installation of the exhibition.

In his 1961 hook titled Silence4 John Cage discusses the way that silence is generally considered by composers to refer to gaps in music -music being the sound intentionally produced by musicians. Cage himself interpreted 'silence' as 'the whole world of sound. Life.'5 by writing compositions such as the oft-cited 4'33". The performance for this work involved 'hearing' the sounds unintentionally produced in and intruding into the concert hall while the pianist sat silently at the keyboard. Cage's composition emphasises the 'performance' of ambient sounds rather than the specific and prescribed performance by musicians. The sight of the pianist set up an expectation that triggered auditory memories of pianist performances and piano music. Ion Pearce's keyboard installation also highlights the relationship between sound, silence, auditory expectation and memory. His mobile-without-mobility appears as a small silent and unplayable keyboard. Behind the thirty keys, hammers and the workings of the instrument, various items collected by the artist can be seen. The objects (such as a feather, train ticket and a bell) are set up to stimulate auditory memory and to suggest the way that objects and sounds can metaphorically 'strike a chord'. They provide clues that allow us to trace the auditory experiences of the artist as he collected these objects.

An emphasis on ambient sound recalls the early work of soundscape designer R. Murray Schafer, who introduced ear-cleaning exercises' to his students, which involved them in gathering and exploring everyday sounds6. Schafer's exercises encouraged students to conduct a series of experiments with their hearing, to recall sensations and phenomena that are often forgotten or ignored in visually orientated adulthood. In Sound in Space, Rainer Linz's '(dis)continuous' emits occasional bursts of noise, drawing attention to our awareness of an ambient sound, questioning our dismissal of it as mere disruption and our perception that it signifies dysfunction. A dislike of ambient sound can provoke the construction of a personalised 'sonic territory', created by whistling, humming or playing music on a domestic system, for example. But while we feel free to utter and create some sounds, others are limited by the constraints of acceptable social mores. We are socialised to modify our voices and embarrassed by bodily noises. For example in the history of women giving birth, the cries and screams of labouring women have been variously approved and muffled. Greg Schiemer's Improvising Machine invites the visitor to make any kinds of sounds and listen to their reproduction by the machine. Rather than merely triggering pre-processed sound, the improviser can work with raw sound to create their own sound events. This encourages the listener to experiment with sound and become aware of the sounds they can make. Schiemer's 'Machine' is designed around an A4 Audio Signal Processing chip developed by the CSIRO's Division of Radio Physics for the instantaneous modification of audio signals. The particular power of vocal reception and utterance is the conceptual basis for Nigel Helyer's Oracle. He argues that:

I am situating myself within a field in which sound is directly linked to the prosaic operations of power (Sound is Power and, inevitably, Power is Sound...). As a sculptor, sound is indexically linked to the 'real'-our sensible link to dynamic systems. Sound presents and supports both 'Virtual' and 'Actual' worlds as an agency which engulfs oar physical bodies, enters and resonates oar perceptual mechanisms to literally re-create the pressure field of oar environment with[in] us. Metaphysically sound is the bridge which links concept (thought), agency (action) and eventuality or actuality-its metaphor is the voice!!!

As discussed in the above paragraphs, both ambient sound and the means of producing and reproducing sound are of central importance to the works in the exhibition. Several of them adopt a phenomenological approach to sound, interweaving broad conceptual ideas with explorations of sonic and acoustic phenomena. Others integrate sound into examinations of spoken or written language. While the works use different sound technologies and formal qualities of sound, they are oriented to a sensory experience of sound itself.


Sound art defies categorisation by virtue of its multiple histories. Indeed, produced sound is defined by its reference to the different roots from which it stems: electronic music, sound/concrete poetry, art installations and sculpture, sound design, radio an, and performance. Attempts to define sound art as a distinct form arise from attempts to trace one history or a single historical progression of ideas and practices. In fact, as Sound in Space demonstrates, there is a multiplicity of such ideas and practices in Australian sound an today. In Melbourne, there has been an emphasis on New Music arising from the key institutions that encourage sound artworks (including the presence of the Percy Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne housing his 'free music' sound machines and archive material.) Melbourne's sculptural sound and is supported by artist and writer Ros Bandt (who will shortly publish her book on sound sculpture in Australia) and the Sculpture Triennial in which sound artworks are regularly represented. In Perth and Adelaide, works are influenced by the tyranny of distance (such as Ross Bolleter's synchronous performances involving performers in different cities7) and engage with sound in the environment (such as Alan Lamb's 'wire music'8). In Tasmania, the influence of the twentieth-century avant-garde (such as in Leigh Hobba's examination of John Cage's ideas) and the use of natural ambient sounds have predominated. However it is in Sydney that the term sound art has been most commonly used, here standing for the object-less sound installation. In the 1970s, Bill Fontana encouraged the work of environmental sound artists with his recordings and reworkings of the sounds of familiar Sydney locations (such as in his well-known 1976 work Kirribilli Wharf). Non-object forms also have been showcased on ABC Radio, initially with programs like '360 Shift', 'Scratching the Surface' and 'Surface Tension' and later with 'The Listening Room', and on other occasional feature programs such as 'In The Mix'. Programs on public radio stations such as Sydney stations 2MBS-FM and 2SER-FM also feature many forms of experimental music and 'radio art'. Some of these programs have raised the question as to what makes a work radio rather than sound art. Certainly radio as a medium offers its own structures within which the artist must operate, for example, the broadcast sound work is modified by the hiss and compression of transmission (despite frequency modulation), and the audience reception of radiophonic sound art is necessarily affected by radio listening habits.

More general roots of sound an are to be found in the avant-garde an movements of the twentieth century, a series of histories documented in Doug Kahn's and Gregory Whitehead's anthology Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, as well as in numerous other more specific studies9. These histories trace white Western concerns with sound experimentation. Sound and music production by indigenous populations and people from other cultures have-so far-been left for anthropologists and ethno-musicologists to record and document. Most histories of sound art ignore the indigenous influences on sound art.

In a culture where sound is an integral 'organic' element, the specificity of 'sound art' (or even 'music') is reductive. In Australia, the self-definition of sound artists has meant that many indigenous cultural producers fall outside such a defined group and are commonly not included in sound art shows. This is not to say that indigenous sound art practices do not exist, but that they are not easily accessible. The traditions of music and dance ceremonies like corroborees, and oral recording of law and heritage, are histories of sonic engagements. These are rarely represented on tape or video as art in their own right but rather as documentation. In any case, these recordings cannot reflect the totality of performative experience. However, live events and community activities are possible influences on recorded works in various forms, such as Aboriginal popular music, poetry and radiophonic performances and explorations. Indigenous broadcasting, for example, often manifests a particular form of radiophony, one in which direct address, intimacy and pauses are especially marked, reflecting a non-Western attitude to the mediating technology. Yurabirong (in Iyora language meaning 'people of the region'10), a work commissioned by the ABC's 'The Listening Room' program and featured (as an extract) in the audiotheque and CD, touches on issues of cultural difference. Brenda Croft and Derek Kreckler attempt to map two subjectively flavoured histories of the Circular Quay area around the MCA, representing the original inhabitants of the locality and the white settlement which now dominates it.


All definitions of sound art-and there can never be one-presuppose a pre-existing definition of art. While a discussion of art on a broad level is not within the realm of this essay, there are some distinctions which can be drawn between the most literal uses of sound (in many popular films and music, for example) and more imaginative uses of sound. But such distinctions are not always easy to make. New music/sound art is often seen to be separate and distinct from so-called popular music. But as the theorist of popular music Philip Hayward argues, this perception may be problematic:

'Popular' music has multiplied and diversified so much in the last twenty years, shooting off into exotic variants such as dub, techno, ambient and jungle, that it has moved into sound territories formerly claimed by the ('un-popular') avant-garde. Its presence in these territories has not been formally recognised however and arbitrary divisions remain.

Artists have remarked on such problematic distinctions in relation to curatorial selection for various events, noting the different circumstances in which their work is shown and the 'label' applied to their work in different contexts. In these circumstances sound art can become the victim of narrow definitions.

Questions of definition continue a debate which has occurred in musical circles over much of this century about the difference between sound and music and noise. Indeed, Dan Lander argues that this philosophical dilemma has thwarted a definition of sound an. He claims that 'it is difficult to identify an art of sound precisely because of its historical attachment to music. Although music is sound, the tendency has been to designate the entire range of sonic phenomena to the realm of music.'11 A dictionary definition of music seems in the first instance to perfectly accommodate the wealth of sounds that can be interpreted as music. Music is defined as 'an art form consisting of sequences of sounds in time'. However, this umbrella definition is modified by the following phrase: ',Te(Bsp. tones of definite pitch organised melodically, harmonically and rhythmically.' This coda represents the basic distinction for many sound artists (including musicians) between their practices and that of many musicians. Composer Ernie Althoff has criticised this arbitrary division, claiming that:

The name 'Sound Art'; along with 'Sound Work', 'Audio Art' and others, is an example of lax factionalisation by workers seemingly either misconstruing or ignorant of their position under the intellectual umbrella provided by the development of music in the twentieth century.

Nola Farman also argues that sound art has strong connections with music:

In one way sound art seeks to avoid codes (via rhythm and structure) which make music music. In other ways, sound art might consciously contextualise musical extracts to make a point about and/ or via the codes themselves. As soon as the sound artist considers embarking on the act of composition s/he is positioned at the crossover point between music and the fugitive.

Rainer Linz argues that while the terms sound art and music were once interchangeable, today 'interchanging the two terms serves only to create confusion and points to a certain futility in offering hard definitions.' He continues by exploring how sound art now sets itself apart from music:

If it's possible to refer to the conceptual framework of an art practice, then that of music might be described as essentially internal; referring to its own inner workings and processes, its history and technology Sound art on the other hand often refers to a broader and more diverse range of interdisciplinary ideas and relationships which may be both internal and external to the work. Whether sound art can and should encourage a different mode of listening-especially with hindsight to the various experimental musical traditions of this century- remains a moot point. But one thing seems clear. If sound art is to establish itself as an alternative sound practice it must do so by distancing itself more and more from what we consider to be music.

Linz goes on to argue that sound practice in Australia 'is characterised by an ambivalence' to the defining features of music and sound art and claims that any multi-disciplinary framework ignores the implications of musical practice at its own peril'. Ultimately for many artists the deciding factor is the listener and the mode of listening required by sound art. Ashley Scott contends that sound art can be defined 'by its general mode: something intended for the ear of another' and notes that his compositional approach 'follows a practice of thinking sound.' Warren Burt states that:

The essential element of sound art is listening, in some real or imaginary sense. 'Listening' as Ben Borerz writes, 'is primal composition.' And 'a composer', Herbert Bran writes, 'is someone who brings about that which could not happen without them.' A 'Sound Artist' then is someone who provides as with the means to have a listening experience. TRUE 'sound' 'art' is what WE the listeners make, with whatever means we have at our disposal.

The need for discussion about the nature of sound art is tempered by the gradual breakdown of labels and categories within contemporary art generally. Terms like performance and installation are now used to encompass the multi/inter-disciplinary approach taken by artists. Nevertheless, in the context of developing a sound an exhibition, it is necessary to ask 'what is sound art?' Rather than presenting a definitive answer to this question, Sound in Space is inclusive and expansive, reflecting the pluralist approaches to the practice of sound art in Australia.

The works in Sound in Space often comprise more than just sound-not only do they create images in the viewer's mind, but they often incorporate a strong visual component. Joyce Hinterding's The Oscillators, for instance, uses electro-acoustic components to sonically 'map' a series of graphite drawings which represent a circuit diagram of an oscillator. Any discussion of the visual as distinct from the audio is spurious in relation to such a work, as the senses of sight and sound operate in the (often confused) realm of sensory experience rather than as separate entities. It is the interconnection between the senses that is important.

Each work conveys very specific ideas through aural and visual means. Artists often stan with commonplace sounds-the human voice, classic sound 'effects', standard musical tones and techniques-and modify, manipulate and mould them to explore intellectual (oncerns and subjective experiences. Deborah Vaughan's Dora's Feet explores how technical and scientific discoveries can he implicated in (psychoanalytic) communication, and refers to Sigmund Freud's treatment of the hysteria experienced by his client Dora. Vaughan's recently exhibited works, Phones, Atopia and Scripsit, also investigated issues of listening, language and writing. Through its manipulation of recorded incidental dialogue, linguistic slippages and ambient sound Dora's Feet attempts a more complex and contrived compositional approach to these themes.

Other artists work with subtle and 'buried' sounds, their works revealing sounds previously unheard or ignored. In his explorations of the internal operations the body and the encroaching technologisation of it, Stelarc has recorded, amplified and replayed sounds produced by his inner visceral workings.12 Joan Brassil's 'Randomly-Now and Then' allows the viewer to experience several subtle and contemplative sonic layers: the 'singing' of diorite rock cores, and the sounds created by the participant in the work as s/he walks on slightly unstable paving stones through the installation. Panos Couros and Wayne Stamp in 'A Noise of Worms' bring various sounds-from internal body noises to sonar signals-to the listener's attention, exploring the dichotomies between heaven and hell, good and evil, the earthiness of the body and the airiness of theoretical flights of fancy. In his 'Oracle', Nigel Helyer enables participants to interact with speaker-like structures which emit cinematic or radiophonic sound effect rumbles combined with oracular pronouncements by Nostradamus. Derek Kreckler's 'boo!' combines elements of linguistic play-referring to childhood explorations with language and surprise-with an ironic stance on the connection between what you hear and what you see.

Time and space are intricately interwoven in sound works. The visitor's response to an installation is linked to the way it defines these dimensions of experience. The most obvious use of time as a parameter in a sound artwork is in duration-the time it takes to 'bear' or 'play' the work. But time may be manipulated to contribute to the sensory experience of a work. Once the 'boo!' of Derek Kreckler's work is heard, listening for the next 'boo!' involves anticipation and the consequent loss of surprise.

Joan Brassil has noted that 'The sonic exploration of space by timing and direction of random placements or measured responses, places the audio/viewer within the metaphor of the sound/space as an instrument of art.' Artists use spatial characteristics of sound and sound recording devices to define certain physical and perceptual dimensions. The overall size of a particular space can be defined by reverberation, its length by echo or delay, its width by stereo separation and sonic movement, its 'height' by frequency distribution (the highs and lows in the sound). But the work is defined also by the listener/hearer's reception of it. Sound can be constrained or isolated by headphones, 'interrupted' by intruding noise, or complicated by its addition to the ever-present internal body sounds of which we are barely aware, such as breathing, gurgling and rumbling. Densil Cabrera and Robert Britton devised their deeply resonating work 'Pipes and Bells' to remind us of the connection of our bones to the voice. Just as we hear our voice differently to the way that others hear it-because we hear it resonating through the mandible and skull bones-so the sounds emitted by Pipes and Bells resonate through the body and we feel some of the low frequencies more acutely than we consciously hear them. The visitor experiences this and other works in Sound in Space within the parameters of both time and space.


The work and histories of sound artists and practices in Australia has been only sparsely documented and critically studied. This reflects the limitations on critical writing imposed by definitions of practices such as sound, music and performance as much as it comments on the relative dearth of serious critical writing in Australia. Critical writing about sound art and thorough documentation of sound art events are still at a preliminary stage. It is often left to artists to write about their work, and debates about works and events are kept at the level of personal conversation and published interviews rather than developed through in-depth writing. Sound art writing needs to cover the diversity of elements with which works engage: social/political/historical references, notions around sound as a medium, the operational methods and technologies used in production of the work, as well as philosophical and conceptual explorations. The interrelated parts of Sound in Space are attempts to advance the consideration of these issues. While references to avant-garde and other art movements and to philosophical theory are commonly accepted ways of discussing sound art, an over-emphasis on these approaches can mystify and reify sound art forms and practices. Sound in Space attempts to make such forms and practices accessible to a broad general public. Sound artist Densil Cabrera argues that:

A sound art lives between object and process, language and music, body and surface, separation and surroundedness, sight and touch, time and space. Sound-through the wideness of its extremes and its ambiguity-presents a common ground where otherwise opposing modalities find communion.

Drawing on such a fluid, complex model, sculptor Nigel Helyer claims that there is no such phenomenon as 'sound art' as a separate entity, while Ros Bandt states that sound an is simply 'an art practice which designs and crafts sound as its primary medium.' The most inclusive-but unproductive-definition is to say that sound art is sound used by artists. Another approach to sound art may he derived from looking at what it is not-not music in the widely recognised sense, not radio that uses familiar programming techniques and approaches, not visually dominant performance and installation, and so on. However, Sound in Space focuses on carving out a more positive vision for sound art, positing it as a set of practices accreting precisely from this wealth of different disciplines. It represents sound an as a continuum of events, whether these are contextualised as music, poetry, film soundtrack, performance or sculpture. Sound in Space delineates three broad characteristics from which a profile of Australian sound an may emerge: first, a multiplicity of practices using sound; second, particular sounds and uses of them associated with Australia as a location; and third, a range of sources, histories and technologies arising from and informing local sound an practices. These characteristics constitute the form and content of the works represented in Sound in Space.


1. In December 1994, I approached aratists, critics and other interested parties to write brief comments on Australian sound art
2. 'A Brief Topography of Australian Sound Art and Experimental Broadcasting' in Continium v8 n1 1994 (special issue 'Electronic Arts in Australia' ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg), p303
3. The term 'the cocktail party problem' is usually attributed to Colin Cherry. See his On Human Communication. A Review, A Survey, And A Criticism London: Whiley, 1957
4. John Cage Silence Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961
5. Jill Johnston 'Thereis No Silence Now', in Richard Kostelanetz John Cage London: Penguin, 1968, p146
6. R. Murray Schafer 'The Soundscape Designer' in Helmi Jarviluouma (ed) Soundscapes. Essays on Vroom and Moo Tampere, Finland: Department of Folk Tradition/Institute of Rhythm Music, Tampere University, 1994, p14.
7. See Ross Bolleter and Rowan Hammond 'Improvising with synchronistic experiences in New Music Articles 9, 1991, pp31-40
8. see Alan Lamb 'Metaphysics of wire music' in New Music Articles 9, 1991, pp3-6 & 30
9. see, for example, Suzanne Delehanty's 'Soundings' in Dan Lander and Micah Lexier (eds) Sound by Artists, Banff/Toronto: Walter Philips Gallery/Art Metropole, 1990, pp20-38
10. lyora refers to the original Aboriginal inhabitants of the Sydney region and their language. It has previously often been written as 'Eora'
11. 'Introduction' in Dan Lander and Micah Lexier, ibid., p10
12. Stelarc is not represernted in Sound in Space. For one description of his current work, see Stelarc's notes in his article 'Event for Amplified Body, Laser Eyes and Third Hand' in Dan Lander and Micah Lexier (eds) ibid., pp284-288.


Altman, Rick Sound Theory Sound Practice New York: Routledge, 1992

Applebaum, David Voice, State of New York Press, 1990

Atherton, Michael Australian made ... Australian Played, Sydney: University of NSW Press, 1990

Attali, Jacques Noise: the Political Economy of Music Manchester: Manchester Uninersity Press, 1994

Augaitis, Diana & Lander, Dan, Radio Rethink. Art, Sound and Transmission. Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1994

Balough, Teresa A Musical Genius from Australia: Selected Writings by and about Percy Grainger, Department of Music, University of Western Australia, 1992

Broadstock, Brenton (ed) Sound Ideas: Australian Composers born since 1950, a guide to their music and ideas Sydney: Australian Music Centre, 1995

Carter, Paul The Sound In-Between: Voice, Space and Performance, Sydney:
NSW University Press & New Endeavour Press, 1992

Eisenberg. The Recording Angel: Music Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa London: Picador, 1988

Feld, Stephen, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1992

Grayson, John (ed) Sound Sculpture: A collection of essays by artists surveying the techniques, applications, and future directions of sound sculpture. Vancouver: ARC, 1975
Jarviluoma, Helmi (ed) Soundscapes: Essays on Vroom and Moo Tampere Finland): Department of Folk Tradition, Institute of Rhythm Music, 1994

Jenkins, John 22 Contemporary Australian Composers Melbourne: NMA Publications, 1999

Kahn, Douglas and Whitehead, Gregory Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992

Lander, Dan and Lexier, Micah, Sound By Artists, Banff: Art Metropole & Walter Phillips Gallery, 1999

Schafer, R Murray The Tuning of the World, New York: Knopf, 1977

Weis, Elisabeth and Belton, John (eds.) Film Sound: Theory and Practice, New York: Colombia University Press, 1985

Selected periodicals

Contemporary Sound Arts, Essays in Sound, Sydney: CSA, 1992

Earshot Sydney: Third Degree Publications

Studio International, Nov/Dec 1976, special issue 'Art and Esperimental Music'

Recorded Materials

Recorded works hone been self-published by sound artists in collections associated with published papers and journals, and by recording companies under specific labels. Further information can be provided by the Australian Music Centre (through its store 'Sounds Australian' in The Rocks, Sydney), and ARC Enterprises (through ABC Shops).

Related Entries for Sound In Space: Adventures in Australian Sound Art





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Prepared by: Iain Mott
Created: 21 August 2003

Published by The University of Melbourne
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: i.mott@unimelb.edu.au
Prepared by: Acknowledgements
Updated: 18 January 2007

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