Soundtracks at SFMOMA

Greetings, and happy third night of Hannukah! Today we look at the Soundtracks exhibition currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through the end of the year. It is also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

The exhibition explores the intersection of sound, visualization, and space, and features over 20 artists. There are a variety of interpretations and methods of making sound, from acoustic to mechanical to electronic. None of the sound installations are overpowering, but many do arrest ones attention. Upon arriving at the 7th floor for the exhibition, one is created by Anri Sala’s Moth in B-Flat, which features a mechanically triggered snare drum hanging inverted from the ceiling.

Anri Sala - Moth in B-Flat, 2015
[Anri Sala. Moth in B-Flat (2015_]

The electro-mechanical theme continues with O Grivo’s Cantilena, which includes several motorized sound-making sculptures primary made of wood.

O Grivo - Cantilena, 2017
[O Grivo. Cantilena (2017)]

These were fun to watch, and I found myself wanting to make one myself (we shall see if that actually occurs).

Simplicity reigned in Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s clinamen v.3. A large shallow pool of water contained floating ceramic bowls. The frequent collisions of the bowls created a music that was very captivating.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot - clinamen v.3, 2012–ongoing
[Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. clinamen v.3 (2012–ongoing)]

This piece was deeply calming, and I found myself zeroing in on groups of bowls as they collided and separated to form rhythms and harmonies.

Ambient soundscapes were also the heart of an installation by Brian Eno, New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal,”, with a darker tone and more complex technology.

Brian Eno - New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal,” 2001
[Brian Eno.New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal” (2001)]

One is free to wander the darkened space amidst the moving columns of LED lights. Every once in a while, the light increases and one gets glimpses of shadowy figures on the wall. The sounds ranged from small percussive synth hits to trumpets to electronic noise.

Electronic noise was also at the heart of Christina Kubisch’s installation Cloud. Kubish’s work explores sonification of data and electricity. The mass of red electrical wires emits electromagnetic radiation, which was interpreted as sound using customized headphone devices.


[Christina Kubisch. Cloud (2011/2017)]

Of all the installations, this was the among the most challenging to take in sensually or to document. I love the concept, and I think it really needs an extended period of time alone to experience fully.

From the large to the small. We had fun with Sphere Packing by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which featured several spherical speaker arrays made from those ubiquitous white Apple earbuds.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer - Sphere Packing, 2013 and 2014
[Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Sphere Packing (2013 and 2014)]

Each was playing a different selection of classical music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, rearranged and diffused asynchronously through the speakers. Lozano-Hemmer also had an installation Last Breath that included a recording of breathing by the late Pauline Oliveros.

We conclude with another project visualized as a sphere. Lyota Yagi’s Sound sphere featured a sphere wrapped in cassette tape that freely rotated and revolved. Customized pickups rendered the sound from the tape, which is chopped, looped and distorted based on the chaotic motion of the sphere.

Lyota Yagi - Sound Sphere, 2011
[Lyota Yagi. Sound Sphere (2011)]

All of these pieces were inspiring for my own work, as I want to do more sound installation in the coming year. There were more in the main the exhibit and spread around the museum, but beyond what I can cover in this article. We do encourage you to check out our video to hear how some of these pieces sound. And if you are in the Bay Area, we strongly recommend checking the exhibition out before it closes on January 1, 2018.

CatSynth pic: Brian Eno Purina ad

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Yes, Brian Eno and his cat starred in a Purina cat-food ad (presumably from the 1970s). Reported by Xeni Jardin on Boing Boing, and submitted to us by reader Karen Martakos via our Facebook page.