Sound Art Forum

> Daniel Brożek
The Sound Art Forum curator


The river and its immediate urban surroundings are a natural place for gathering thoughts, concentration, reverie, a temporary escape from the hubbub of the street. Do we have a chance to focus on what and how we hear on the riverside? What acoustic properties, if any, differentiate the river soundscape 11 Raymond Murray Schafer, The Tuning of the World. New York: Knopf; Toronto, McClelland and Steward Ltd., 1977. ↩︎ from the rest of the city? What noise pollution do we encounter there?

You could not step twice into the same river, as the saying goes. When we see a river, we should think about the passing time. Is sound, which in film theory is responsible for the sense of time 22 Michel Chion, Audio-vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. ↩︎, capable of altering our perception of time when emitted near the river?

The year 2012 marked the festive and varied celebrations of the centenary anniversary of John Cage’s birth, who revolutionised our thinking about music by postulating, among other things, that composers work with the noises of the environment 33 John Cage, Manifesto [in:] Silence: Lectures and Writings, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961. ↩︎. Are we brave enough to develop this thought, venturing further than this pianist and avid amateur mycologist?

Last but not least, is a space as obvious as a river capable of arousing the interest of sound artists, who are used to ever more acoustically challenging situations (as demonstrated by the struggle of our compatriots in the Polish Pavilion during the last Venice Biennial 44 Works by Katarzyna Krakowiak: Making the Walls Quake as if They Were Dilating with the Secret Knowledge of Great Powers (2012), and Konrad Smoleński: Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More (2013), presented in the Polonia Pavilion in Venice. ↩︎)? Taking into consideration the cognitive difficulties of both the recipients of these works and the critics, do we really think about what we listen to and how, if at all? Do we know how to do it?

These were some of the issues which constituted the point of departure for preparing the programme of the Sound Art Forum of the 11th edition of the SURVIVAL Art Review. We wanted to pose a challenge to both the theories and practices of listening, to broaden the auditory field, develop a sensitivity to sound and its ecology, also – have a go at working with a new acoustic sphere. Our guests had to strain their ears, face new acoustic phenomena, become conscious recipients and creators of their cities’ soundscapes. We actively listened to the Oder during field recording workshops, we enriched its soundscape by sound projections from the river, we discussed what we had heard, what sound ecology means to us and what the acoustic revitalization of Wrocław may look like. As opposed to other SURVIVAL’s actions, we did not perceive the Oder as a source of inspiration or a starting point for critical discourse; instead, it was part and parcel of our actions, the main building block of our sonic compositions.

Annea Lockwood, a pioneer of using field recording in sound art, in the 1960s initiated her utopian idea of the River Archive on reels and cassettes “for the special state of mind and body which the sounds of moving water create when one listens intently to the complex mesh of rhythms and pitches” 55 Julian Cowley, Annea Lockwood – Beating Against the Current, The Wire, June 2012. ↩︎. In the 1980s, she embarked on her project to document the complexity and variety of sonic textures of the Hudson River 66 Annea Lockwood, A Sound Map of the Hudson River (CD), Lovely Music, 1982. ↩︎. Field and underwater recordings of the Danube in the years 2001 – 2004 were used to create a sonic composition and multimedia installations, which convey the impression of deep and conscious participation in that acoustic space.

During the field recording workshops ran by Olga Kaniewska and Andrzej Koper, creators of Wrocław Sound Map 77 (accessed on 1 August 2013). ↩︎, we intended to make a database of sounds that could be used to create a sound map of the Oder and provide inspiration for artists to begin their own experiments with sound, not necessarily in this field. The proposal was met with considerable interest – among the participants were visual and conceptual artists, composers, musicologists as well as people in no way connected with sound art who simply wanted to experience something new. The participants were presented with basic sound recording techniques, which they could later use during a boat cruise on the Oder to record sounds above on, and under the water. Later, the effect of their work became part of Wrocław Sound Map 88 (accessed on 1 August 2013) ↩︎.

What was striking was the enthusiasm of all the participants of the workshops. As soon as they could use a stereophonic microphone and hear the high-sensitivity high-definition sound environment, an amazing feeling of rediscovering the seemingly well-known and familiar world swept them over. During the first recording session, each participant could notice the basic sound of the city – the low droning noise of the traffic, which we do not hear in our everyday lives. The microphone enhances the world of sounds and the sensations connected with it. It amplifies the noises ignored by our perception, thus becoming a perfect tool in sound ecology practices and noise abatement, as postulated by Raymond Murray Shafer. Media studies 99 Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT, 2001. ↩︎ draw our attention to cinematography’s ability to enhance our visual perception and awareness of details by means of close-ups and image blow-ups. Sound art is not yet as popular as cinematography; however, music genres connected with it (sonorism, electro-acoustic improvisation) are used in art-house productions with increased frequency. It is also the essence of new music, which bases the dialogue with the listener on the elements of sonic texture, where composers emphasise the building blocks of sounds and subject them to unusual transformations. The sound has become a legitimate element of contemporary music.

Against this background, the second element of the Sound Art Forum’s programme was developed – sound projections from a riverboat on the Oder. We invited sound artists who are aware of the importance of sound to compose pieces which would enter into a dialogue with the soundscape of the Oder in Wrocław. The effects of their work would sometimes slightly widen the natural environment of the river, at other times – radically disturb the harmony, but most often they became part of the sonic chaos of the city. The point of the actions was to pose a challenge to both random and prepared listeners, to direct their attention to the existence of the urban soundscape and its elements, to encourage reflection, provide a moment of enlightenment, or at least to generate interest.

Working with a space as huge as the surface of the Oder and its exposed banks was highly demanding on the invited artists, but it also provided an unusual source of inspiration. Rarely do artists get a chance to work in a space like that, and even more rarely do they operate on a mobile source of sound. Due to financial considerations, there was no possibility to rehearse beforehand. Moreover, unfavourable weather conditions could result in additional acoustic difficulties. The project carried substantial risks due to its experimental nature, but it tempted with a thrilling vision of omnipresent music, permeating the river and its banks, parks and squares.

Paweł Kulczyński, known for his numerous projects in acoustically challenging spaces 1010 (accessed on 1 August 2013). ↩︎, in his composition A Not Particularly Wounding Source of Distraction 1111 (accessed on 1 August 2013). ↩︎ focused on using the natural sounds of a river and its surroundings. Elongated sound passages and intermittent disturbances floated freely in Xawery Dunikowski Boulevard and the neighbouring park, highlighting the vastness of the space and its acoustic properties, virtually devoid of sound distortions and reflections. A recurrent conclusion in the subsequent discussions about the performance was that we managed to find the perfect concert hall for Wrocław, seriously competing with the 300-million zlotys National Forum of Music, which is painfully being built at the moment.

Wojciech Kucharczyk created a radio drama based on those fragments of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that refer to rivers (including the Oder 1212 “I can tell from here by their eau de Colo and the scent of her oder they’re Mrs Magrath’s”. The eighth chapter contains several references to river names. ↩︎), and on travel memoirs of Marco Polo and Jan Stanisław Kubara. Music-wise, the mighty basses and electronic abstractions, which brought to mind the 1960s radiophone experiments, emphasised the exoticism of the narrative, arranging themselves in a kaleidoscopic mosaic of seemingly distant landscapes, fragrances and flavours, connected by the curiosity of a traveler-discoverer and a listener on the lookout for something new.

In between the sound boat cruises, Marek Brandt from the Aquamediale Review (SURVIVAL’s partner event) performed his electroacoustic composition Music for Birds. Loudspeakers mounted on a tree emitted sound whose frequency was audible to animals, which was supposed to provoke their participation in the sound installation. This play on our hearing habits emphasised the presence (and variety) of birds in the urban soundscape.

Gaap Kvlt’s set turned out to be a concrete continuation of Kucharczyk’s tale. Based on ethnic motives from the Middle East accompanied by dark electronics and slow rhythms, which brought to mind the style of the most progressive labels of the recent years (e.g. Modern Love, Opal Tapes, UNO, Blackest Ever Black), the artist succeeded in creating an oneiric impressionistic piece about the unobvious, smooth combinations of traditional and modern music. These combinations are full of atonal scales, messy arrangements and exotic rhythms, which define the colourful popular music from the slums and favelas of the contemporary global village.

Gerard Lebik presented his composition Ton von Odra Tiefen, in which various sonic textures of underwater recordings of unidentified mechanical devices were arranged in a composition-simulation of an anxiety-provoking event that included cries for help, harmonic dissonances and complex sound spaces. Form-wise, it was the most complex piece of that evening, which due to its high dynamics intrigued many passers-by and compelled them to follow the sonic spectacle.

Paweł Kowzan and Konrad Gmurek based their work on the conception of a sonic background to random and spontaneous events happening during the lazy summer evening. Wave movement detectors attached to the bottom of the boat generated thick, wavy, ambient sounds, which triggered associations with creating suspense in a cinema room, heralding a change in the emotional mood. The artists described their work in the following way: “Close listening does not guarantee (full) reception – there is an interesting tension between the desire to consume the work and the feeling of excluding oneself from the pleasure of discovering it by chance”, drawing attention to the limbo state of reception of the sounds emitted from disco boats sailing on the Oder.

This comment may well refer to all the works presented during the sound projections from the boat. In spite of the clearly visible source of the sounds in the middle of the river, listeners automatically tried to connect the situation to the familiar sounds of tourist boats, which are common on the river at this time of the year. However, the abstract sonic structures forced them to reflect on the entire situation, which sometimes resulted in angry reactions. Although the volume of the sound was not higher than that of speedboats or the abundant church bells, and the compositions were devoid of aggressive sounds, as soon as 10 minutes after the beginning of the first projection, the telephones from anxious or outraged citizens in police stations, offices of the coast guard and the Curia started ringing.

Our actions were concluded by a panel discussion about urban soundscape. The participants of the workshops, the invited artists and experts in issues connected with the soundscape (Robert Losiak and his collaborators from the Soundscape Research Studio of the University of Wrocław 1313 (accessed on 1 August 2013). ↩︎, Tomasz Sielicki and Krzysztof Marciniak 1414 (accessed on 1 August 2013). ↩︎) debated the key aspects of contemporary sound perception, the possibilities of influencing it, the issues of sonic revitalization, the future of acoustic ecology, and the place of art in the process of shaping sound awareness. The multitude of threads in our discussion as well as the heated response to our sonic actions in the public space clearly showed that ignoring the issues in question, so common in the public discourse, leads to serious negligence and often irreversible changes in the awareness of city dwellers who use the public soundscape.