As part of Bachtrack’s Contemporary Music Month, Rebecca Lentjes writes about the vibrant world of sound installations and immmersive musical experiences in New York City.

“It’s like a womb in there” is a surprisingly common reaction from visitors to La Monte Young’s and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, especially in the winter. Visitors exit the sound and light installation as if being born into a cruel world, bewildered and bleary-eyed. Often they have been dozing on the floor, or contorting their bodies into yoga positions, or simply moving around the space, absorbing the audio and visual experience. The Dream House has existed in various (and sometimes simultaneous) locales, including the Ruine der Künste in Berlin, for over 50 years, and it has been located above Young’s and Zazeela’s Church Street apartment since 1993. Since then, sound enthusiasts and adventurous tourists have tromped up the stairs on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons and evenings. On the third floor landing, a volunteer instructs them to take off their shoes before entering the space, and they are then free to explore the two rooms. These rooms, connected via a narrow hallway, glow warmly due to a lack of air conditioning and the purple-ish tint of Zazeela’s visual installation, which includes the lighting as well as the “minimalist” sculptures mounted to the walls and hanging from the ceilings. The rooms themselves are furnished only with white carpet and matching white pillows, on which people can lean back and get bombarded by the sine waves emanating from the speakers standing in each corner of the main room. An extreme exercise in stasis, the frequencies have been the same for all five decades.

Ongoing installations like the Dream House offer a unique experience that can overwhelm the senses. With the addition of visual elements – and in the case of the incense perpetually burning at the Dream House, scents – the installations of contemporary artists and composers are all-encompassing when compared to the average concert. Performances are often engaging and even engrossing, but rarely would one compare a traditional classical concert to a womb. There is something to be said for being inside a work rather than just watching it. Not only that, but sound installations enable a rare freedom in listening; the spatial dimension allows one to hear the sounds from all angles. In the Dream House, every footstep and turn of the head alters the length of the sound waves: rather than being confined to an assigned seat, one can wander closer to and further from the sound sources. Even though the sounds have been the same for decades, one’s perception is constantly changing.

Not all sound installations are as static as the Dream House. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s recent Voice Tunnel, located in the Park Avenue Tunnel, functions in such a way that “the content of the piece is constantly changing”. The tunnel, several blocks long, hosted 150 speakers, each murmuring with a different voice as the corresponding spotlights above flickered and flashed. The voices were those of the visitors themselves, who could choose to line up and speak or sing or squawk into an intercom in the middle of the tunnel: “As new participants speak into the intercom, older recordings get pushed away by one position down the array of light fixtures until they leave the tunnel”. The brightness of the lights were proportional to the volume of the speakers, so that the arches and floor bellowed and burst for seconds at a time, with slight variations in intensity. After each brief segment of cacophony, the tunnel went dark and silent except for the chattering of the participants. The lights and speakers would then quite suddenly splinter at the seams with a new batch of voices and a new round of flickering and flashing. Unlike the Dream House, nobody brought pajamas to the Voice Tunnel, but the interaction of sounds was just as fascinating as those from La Monte Young’s Rayna interval synthesizer. You could walk through once or twice or, as I did, plop yourself on the concrete ground for an hour and a half.

Janet Cardiff’s installations (usually co-created with her husband George Bures Miller) are another contrast among the sound art genre. Works such as Storm Room and FOREST (for a thousand years...) are immersive and sometimes eerie, creating effective and distinct atmospheres. Last year at the Park Avenue Armory, Cardiff and Miller’s powerful Murder of the Crows sucked visitors into the jagged, jumbled world of dreams via a flock of 98 speakers scattered throughout the armory: “One soundscape moves into another with an electronic dreamscape composition shifting into sound effects such as factory noises, crashing waves or birds wings and then into a guitar and strings composition then into a choir sequence and marching band.” During the piece, Cardiff’s voice floats through the space, relating her disjointed dreams in a calm but almost groggy voice. At various junctures her voice is joined by the sound effects listed above, so that one truly lives the dreams – seeing images and scenes that only exist in the mind’s eye, feeling the emotions in a detached way. The dream, about 30 minutes long, was on loop, so that visitors at the armory could sit through as many repetitions as desirable after the initial shock of the first telling.

Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, which in its latest incarnation exists in the Fuentidueña Chapel at the Cloisters in New York, also consists of voices on a hypnotic loop, allowing one to take time to absorb the intricacies of the overlapping tones. This installation is comprised of 40 speakers arranged in an oval, each emanating one of the voices in Thomas Tallis’ 1573 motet Spem in Alium. Cardiff notes: “Enabling the audience to move throughout the space allows them to be intimately connected with the voices. It also reveals the piece of music as a changing construct. As well I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.” Walking through the symphony of speakers feels like a religious experience in a church of sound. One can sit or stand in the middle of the oval, surrounded by the voices, or one can wander among and around them, hearing the sum broken down into its parts. As with the Voice Tunnel, the voices bleed together and swallow the listener whole – unless one picks an individual speaker to on which to focus. With Cardiff’s emphasis on choice, each visitor constructs their own musical experience: one can leave during the silence between an ending and beginning, or in the middle of a repetition. One can even choose what to hear – whether all the voices or only a soprano.

Sound installations, whether static for decades or constantly fluctuating, seem to be gaining steam as a genre in the contemporary classical scene. “Soundings”, a new ongoing exhibition at MoMA, is the museum’s “first major exhibition of sound art”, placing 16 different works on display. Many of mini-installations were inspired by sound art pioneers like John Cage and Alvin Lucier, and while none of them is as immersive as a major installation, they give visitors an overview of living composers and artists experimenting with the genre. These glances at different types of installations at least demonstrate how much more exploration can be done. During “normal” classical concerts, sound exists on a trajectory with a fixed starting and ending point. But in works in which the audio serves as an ongoing element, sound becomes all-consuming and can be explored at one’s own pace. Whether in a church, museum, tunnel, or SoHo apartment, sound installations present listeners with the choice of how long to listen as well as how deeply to listen. Each listener essentially writes their own personal version of the piece when given the freedom of what to hear.

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