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Seeking the Source of Sound in Space at MoMA PS1

Last Sunday, experimental musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never, Holly Herndon and Huerco S turned MoMA PS1 into a theater of sounds.
October 21, 2014, 7:12pm

Last Sunday, I took a particularly sonically-active subway ride (of the notorious "It's show time!" breakdancing variety) to MoMA PS1 in Long Island City. Descending the staircase, I entered a woozy penumbra of sonic drift and polyrhythmic spillover pulsing from a quite different sort of sonic "show time:" Sound/Source—a day of audiovisual and sound installations at MoMA PS1 from the likes of Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never), Huerco S, Olga Bell of The Dirty Projectors, MOOG demonstrations, and perhaps most intriguingly, a "remote remix" by Holly Herndon.

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Not unlike the Public Enemy/Bomb Squad-soundtracked junior acrobatic realness I just witnessed on the subway, I could hear Sound/Source coming from quite a distance, and it gave me no choice about experiencing it either way. In both instances, I was thrown into the noisy, resonant thick of it all before I could even cognitively notice—much less prepare—for it.

Bob and Roberta Smith's Art Amnesty project in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 (via @momaps1)

Following the logic of the event's title, when considering the concepts of "sound" and "source" simultaneously, one might notice that sound often in excess of its source. In ordered and dense environments like urban cities, sound seems to become even more diffuse and deeper-reaching. It rings through entire bodies, buildings and neighborhoods, exploding from its source in the process.

This theme was explored in depth by Sound/Source. On the terrace, MOOG chatter combined with the industrial sludge, vinyl chirps, and electric cello improvisations from sound artists Lesley Flanigan, Maria Chavez and MV Carbon. Meanwhile, the sound installation by Daniel Wohl, Caroline Shaw and Olga Bell poured from the Richard Serra Room out onto the roof and into the atmosphere like the flocks of birds vortexing from the accompanying video installation by Lily Morris and Lily Fang.

Indeed, Sound/Source turned PS1 into a resonant sonic object, taking site specificity to a whole new level. In the (actual) boiler room, Oneohtrix Point Never deconstructed the crumbling concrete and bronze pipes that allow the museum to run. A bubbly elevator-music installation by Los Angeles band Lucky Dragons recalled similar experiments by James Ferraro, who took over the museum's elevator, on-hold phone-line, and website last year with his installation 100%.

However, the day's big bill performances took place in PS1's courtyard geodesic dome. Former Battles frontman Tyondai Braxton (son of Anthony) experimented with live electroacoustic looping. Vicky Chow performed Tristan Perich's Surface Image, using 40 hanging 1-bit speakers to fill the dome with what at times could sound like a choir of alarm clocks waking Philip Glass from a fever dream.

Members of vocal group Roomful of Teeth performed the prosodic, fricative vocal-micro-sampling of Paul Lansky's Idle Chatter, a series that's been in progress from the mid-80s. Lansky's work received a noteworthy update from future PS1 artist-in-residence Holly Herndon in the form of Idle Chatter response. Amidst a dome awash in searchlights, sirens, and anxiogenic low drones, Herndon sampled sentimental voicemail messages, glitches, excerpts of sound theory text, and garbled communications. This "theatre of sounds" thus re-contextualized Lansky's notion of "chatter" for the hyper-networked, hyper-capitalist, hyper-precarious historical present.

Perhaps the most captivating work of the day, however, was the first one: a site-specific performance by The Dirty Projector's Olga Bell of Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room—a 1969 sound art piece recently acquired by MoMA's Department of Media and Performance Art.

More so than other performances, I am sitting in a room focused less on sound's extensiveness, and more on its intensity. The original piece begins with Lucier reading a script describing his actions and project, recording his speech, playing it back into a room, recording this recording, and repeating this until we are able to hear, in his words, "the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech." Bell only changed one piece of this script, stating, "I am sitting in a room, the same one you are in now" as opposed to Lucier's original "different room." This tweak highlights how we all participate in the creation of sound in space; the dome, microphones, amplifiers, performer, and audience become sonic-source in a very Cagean way.

MoMA PS1's geodesic dome (via @momaps1)

Compared to Lucier's original room, the PS1 dome accommodates much longer sound waves and lower resonances, as well as more registers and tones of feedback. It also brought in the sounds of wind seeping in, turning the dome itself into a resonant object. Bell's voice was quickly overtaken by sharp hallow sound waves which teetered on the edge of collapsing into a vortex of undular feedback.

This was truly special—a performance of echo-location that used abstract feedback resonance to reveal the geodesic dome as not only space but also source of sound. Bell induced the space to sound its own sound before serving as the host for the rest of the day's sound. Security guards and the uninitiated hovered around the exits with their ears half-plugged, ready to run but unable to leave, because it afforded us all the chance to hear not only myriad forms of sound constructing, resonating from, and ultimately exploding their source; but also, more subtle, sound becoming source and source becoming sound in a way that was much more affective, immediate, performative, and understandable than this requisite summary of them could ever possibly be.

Nick Bazzano is a Ph.D. candidate in performance studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He is also a free jazz musician and experimental music producer based in Harlem.