Where, There or Here?

September 30, 1998 00:00 | Categories:

Michael Brewster

An essay about sound as sculpture – 1998

You can't make sound become hard and solid; but you can make it seem to stand still, as if hovering in place, so that you can walk around inside its acoustic structures. Sustained sound in a room with good echo can appear to us as an archipelago of audial sensations of space. Standing still, sound is a dimensional substance you can move through without hitting your head on any thing. Its a real good material for sculpture.

Sound has properties beyond its considerable powers of evocation that are actual spacial physical things we can feel and locate with our ears, sometimes with our bodies. Sound has physical size, actual dimensions in feet or meters, as well as density, vibrancy, rhythms and textures. Walking through it in its resonant state provides an experience similar to perusing a landscape but from the inside, with all of your body instead of from the outside with just your eyes. It shows us the "near field". Like a solid it has volumes, edges, planes, fullnesses, flatnesses, roundnesses, and hollows: the works. It comes "fully equipped" to elaborate our experience sculpturally.

Hearing is well suited to the tasks of sculpture. It occurs in the round, sensing all directions and dimensions simultaneously, unlike Seeing which is frontal and singular in its attention. It is difficult to see a sculpture fully, its always a bunch of sequenced frontalizations. If sculpture is to achieve its potential it ought to occur in the round, all around you, simultaneously.

My means is sound, especially its effects; but my issues are sculptural, not musical . Sculpture, in its most expanded sense, is the mode of experience that I find truest. I like to think about what an expanded sculptural experience could be: a full bodied bunch of sensations "around" being here, in the realm of the actual, the physical, in this multi-dimensional world. I'm trying to expand the sculptural experience by addressing, if not celebrating, our own existence as spacial, physical entities inhabiting all our dimensions. Sculpture should be a category of Experience, not a just a category of physical objects for us to "stand back and behold".

I've always deplored that empty distance between the viewer "beholding" and our objects of attention. That conventional art-viewing posture has always imposed a distancing of the viewed. There is always that removal from the experience. Our every glance is seasoned by the separation. That "in between" distance weakens the brew, dilutes the stuff of the encounter. I want to have more sensations with the sculpture I go "see". I want a thicker broth. Art should be more of a meal and less of a snack.

Unfortunately, you can't get close enough, the object of desire is always over there, away, no matter how close in we bring it. Even when touching there is an awayness. Although it is a closer "looking in" it is still from an out side that we are touching / looking. The mind can build distance all too well, even when something is pressing close on its skin.

Our awareness separates us from our world. Our experience is taxed by our knowledge of that distance. I've wanted to try to collapse the distance, to eliminate the tax. The spaces of acoustic sound are a way to bring the experience over Here, to wrap it around the viewer, almost tax-free.
Sustained sound gives me a way to actually press the object of attention around the viewer in a way that does not restrict their presence or movement, while locating, dislocating, and relocating their awarenesses of the place they occupy.

I started making sculpture with sound waves in 1971. I'd been working with clicking sounds before that, making sound pieces that I regard as drawings. I was amazed and captivated by the sculptural potential of the standing waves that appear when sounds are sustained. In the resulting fields we are caught inside volumes of sound, listening to the very spaces we inhabit. This is as close-in as I can get us. Usually we listen from afar, like we see, always at a distance. Our attention expands outward from here to over there. In these acoustic spaces we can hear only here, from in here. The scope of our attention implodes. The where of the experience happens here instead of there.

Like I've said, when sustained, sound allows you to examine it not as a communication of a thought or an event; but as a spacial thing, a quasi-object / quasi-landscape, spacious thing that you can inhabit. Sound's physicality is so seemingly abstract, at first it is difficult to know where or what you are in. The spaces sound so full but look so empty. Over time I have learned to feel these volumes as physical entities. On some rare occasions I have sensed in them what could pass for anima, a life presence. Early on I didn't anticipate how this would lead to an expanded expectation of sculpturality. Then as now, I was looking for different qualities of spacial experience in the acoustic harmonics and artifacts that happen when a sound bounces around inside a place.

I like to work with sounds that resonate naturally in the site, the ones that fit the place. The sounds I choose are usually three to nine feet long, and very full and rounded. I think of them as being of human scale. I used to work only with pure tones but now I'm using more complex sounds, working with the phasing overlap of wavelengths of several sustained sounds,finding "expressive" beats and patterns in the harmonics that result from their "natural" recombinations. I don't write playlists. I don't control. I cajole and condition. I "sound" out the space, probing it for its capabilities. I respond. I work with the resonant frequencies of the site, with its inherent vibratory time. I cater to its resonances. Mostly I search for the sounds that fit, the ones that make the best standing waves in the place where I'm doing the work. Playing into the echo produces a sound field that seems to emanate from all around us.

These days, these actual, physical sculptures usually come wrapped in a pair of illusions: I like to make the sound fields seem to drop into the site, to hover and enfold before going away. All around sound fields allow me to close that lonely distance between the perceived and the perceiver. It seems so much more hospitable to bring the viewer in, into the perceived. Nearly closing the distance, it both confuses and clarifies our understanding of which is which, viewer versus viewed, here versus there, alternately turning us in on ourselves, then back out to the pressures of the closely surrounding sensations. Our sense of Here, so central to our many awarenesses, is a wavering consciouness , always changing size and focus.

Michael Brewster
copyright October '98

"Where, There or Here" was published in"Site of Sound: of Architecture and the Ear", edited by Brandon LaBelle and Steve Roden,Errant Bodies Press in Association with Smart Art Press, 1999     ISBN 0-9655570-2-2

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