An ear for design

Acoustic elements are becoming increasingly integral to both art and design works. Oliver Bennett examines the ideas raised by an exhibition of sonic art, while Mike Dempsey looks at the growing discipline of sound design

By Oliver Bennett

The theremin – the eccentric Russian-derived electric musical instrument best known for its cameo on the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations – is soon to have a rare outing in east London. Indeed, the grand total of two theremins can be seen and played at Soundwaves, an exhibition of sonic art, opening shortly at the Kinetica Museum in Spitalfields.

One is a ‘phonetic’ theremin that synthesizes the player’s voice, made by artist Michael Markert; the other is a life-size theremin created by artist Dianne Harris – also the exhibition’s curator – in which you can make the eerie theremin sound by moving your whole body. ‘It’s an instrument that everyone can play,’ says Harris.

The exhibition is a fascinating glimpse of a sector in the arts that has a long history, but which has remained somewhat marginal, perhaps due to its hybrid nature – is it visual art, boffin design, or music? ‘I’d characterise sound art as art works that make sound, rather than instruments that are visual,’ says Harris. With 15 artists and four new commissions, Soundwaves crystallises today’s sonic art sphere which, if not a genre as such, certainly appears to be a thriving area of creative activity.

Among the other exhibits is Pierre Bastien’s Mecanology. ‘He has made an orchestra out of household elements like toothbrushes, and has got multiple rhythms out of them,’ says Harris. ‘It’s a kind of automatic orchestra.’ Meanwhile, Peter Vogel’s sculptures are made out of electrical circuit parts that include sensors. ‘Move your hand in front of them and the shadows cast make a sound,’ adds Harris. In addition, Rob Mullender shows a ‘photophonic sound synthesizer’ which turns light into sound, originally created by Soviet scientist Yevgeny Murzin.

All this will be familiar material to visitors to the Sonic Boom exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2000, curated by David Toop. One of the artists in Soundwaves is Max Eastley, who also exhibited at Sonic Boom, and who remains a veteran – at Kinetica, he will be showing a piece that graphically represents sound using wire and paper. Has anything changed since the Sonic Boom show? ‘Artists are going for interactivity more now,’ says Eastley. ‘They use technology a lot more.’ That’s not surprising, given that almost everyone today carries a small musical instrument in the form of a mobile phone.

Moreover, the idea of sound as an area of artistic and cultural enquiry has gained credence. ‘There’s more research now into the perception of sound,’ he says. ‘People have been talking about the evolution of language – now they’re talking about the evolution of sound.’

All of this might seem obscure in design terms. But, as ever, cross-pollination is occurring. At Designersblock, part of the recent Milan furniture fair, Matthew Plummer Fernandez showed his new SoundChair, which is designed according to the notation of sound waves. ‘The goal was to graph sound mathematically and translate it into three dimensions so that the sound waves would take the form of the chair,’ says Plummer Fernandez, who has made two prototypes and is continuing to make sound chairs from polyurethane foam, which will be sold through his website from July.

Also coming from the design community is Matt Pyke, of Sheffield-based group Universal Everything, who is now working a lot with sound, and is making Advanced Beauty, an HD DVD to be released in October, that takes a ‘sound sculpture approach’. ‘It’s not like an MTV thing, more a video-based audio-visual environment,’ says Pyke. He is also to make a gallery show in New York this summer, in which the space will be interactive, to the extent that when visitors make a noise, it will be represented on the wall. This summer, it seems, sound design is making a noise.

Soundwaves, runs from 18 May to 29 June at the Kinetica Museum, Old Spitalfields Market, London E1, in association with the Cybersonica festival

Advanced Beauty will be previewed during Sheffield’s Lovebytes festival on 19 May, at the Showroom Cinema, Paternoster Row, Sheffield S1 2BXBy

By Mike Dempsey

Last month, cosseted in one of my favourite places, the cinema, I sat through David Lynch’s latest movie Inland Empire – a three-hour extravagant journey into the depths of Lynch’s idiosyncratic imagination. I found the experience exhilarating, both visually and, more importantly, aurally. Lynch has long been an enthusiastic supporter and user of sound design as part of the creative mix that is the cinematic experience, but in an innovative way.

Cut to me at the National Theatre last week, watching Martin Crimp’s play Attempts on Her Life – an extremely ambitious production that relied far too heavily on digital technology. But at least the sound design, by Gareth Fry, did heighten some moments in this otherwise chaotic performance.

Lying in my garden, gently nodding in the sunshine to the sound of my iPod with Björk’s voice drifting through the eerily, crackling, layered soundscape she has created for Vespertine, I pondered the connections between developments in cinema, theatre and art. There is a convergence: sound is an integral part of the 21st century creative agenda. The discipline is a supremely creative area but woefully neglected in its own right, with few awards dished out. Inventive uses of sound are all around us, in many media, but few bother to tune in.

The Brothers Quay have been making highly individual animated films since the 1980s, and put as much emphasis on sound design as on the visual aspect, often joining forces with Larry Sider – co-founder and curator of the annual School of Sound symposium.

Another evangelist of sound design is Martyn Ware – yes, he of the late-1970s electro bands Human League and Heaven 17. Through his organisation The Illustrious Company, he stages Future of Sound – a programme of events showcasing innovations in the growing world of sound experimentation. Ware was also involved in last month’s Cybersonica event at Tate Britain, where he installed a 3D immersive sound system. Ware, along with partner Vince Clarke of Erasure, has made a significant creative contribution to sound design – or, as Ware prefers to call it, ‘sonic architecture’ – working on collaborations with museum designers, architects and fine artists. A sell-out Future of Sound road show ended its three-month tour in London last month – more dates are planned. Next week sees Soundwaves at the Kinetica Museum. Open your ears and get on down.

Mike Dempsey is founding partner at CDT Design and Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers

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