Site and Sound: Acousmatic Spaces and Sonic Environments

Site and Sound (68)Review by Bee Hughes, 23 January 2014

I have recently become acutely aware of the pervasive and inescapable nature of sound. It’s everywhere. Even the supposedly ‘quiet’ room where I am writing this is invaded by the tap of the keyboard, the whisper of the laptop’s hard drive, the muted workings of the central heating and some distant telly noises from another room. Even within my own head, I perceive noise; my own thoughts, distractions, the noise of trying to concentrate. These things don’t create a sound, but they are loud.

I review this exhibition with more than a little trepidation. My usual ‘thing’ is very much visual, tangible – and my experiences of producing and enjoying sound art are both new-found and limited. So it is in a reflective mood that I make my way to the Hanover Project, curious as to the potential of sound to alter spaces and wondering if what Kostelanetz described as the ‘artistically enhanced’ space described is indeed something I can find.

The gallery is tucked away from the main road, a campus cul-de-sac – although also the main entrance way to the Hanover Building. The space itself is light, white and not quite a cube. The tall ceiling fitted with white-glazed windows imbues it with an airy, welcoming atmosphere many galleries do not achieve. Playing through the main multi-speaker system is the barely undulating drone of Colin Fallows’ Tonement I (which builds upon his Colourfield for Strings work). Fallows has described his sound work as a ‘righteous noise’, and the sounds piped into the room evoke a sense of the droning chords of early religious music. Looking up to the ceiling, I am tricked into thinking I could be in a church, not a gallery. The calm, yet densely layered sound juxtaposes the occasional interjections of everyday life that waft through the building. Someone walks through speaking on the phone, another pops out for a ciggie, returns… All the while the sound undulates on, blending in and out of the noise of drills from the adjoining workshop and with the fan above the door – it could have been playing forever, and might carry on doing so indefinitely yet.

The multi-speaker system plays Fallows’ piece on three separate CDs, at three different intervals. So instead of a single immersive piece, the sound shifts as you walk around the gallery. This provides an interesting listening experience, one that is active, not passive, and the piece moves and fluctuates with the listener’s individual journey in space. The listening stations for the other pieces are equally spaced along the gallery wall. The headphones rest on simple wooden stands, the cables trailing down to the individual and mismatched players, placed on the floor. There’s nothing fancy or pretentious about the presentation of the pieces, neither is there any trickery – the source of the sounds is there, simple and unpretentious.

Heading to the far end, the transition from Tonement I  to David Toop’s The Smell of Human Life takes me by surprise. The shift in physical space, from the openness of the main space, to the end corner is made more acute by the sudden closing in of space and sound – both literally as you put on the headphones and metaphorically as the noise shifts from calm to something more fractured, or in flux. The drone from outside is echoed by a new quieter one in Toop’s piece, it sounds darker. Perhaps it’s my move to the corner, or the unwelcome memories of public transport conjured by the title, or maybe the piece itself but I don’t feel as settled here. I gaze to the adjoining studio and clock a students’ sculpture of a misshapen, headless body made of hosiery – did it move? – and think it might be time to plug out.

Owl Project’s Flow documents aspects of their tide mill built on the River Tyne, partly documenting the machinery and partly recording the sounds produced. The dripping water, mingling with a clockwork-esque, soft mechanical sound is reassuring, and nostalgic. There’s a sense of being transported in time and space, both being fluid as the water in the machine. When the synth sounds start, they feel familiar, less harsh than those produced by the wizardry of electronic currents.

The balance of sounds within the exhibition is managed well, although the main speakers do intrude slightly on some of the ‘quieter’ pieces. This isn’t necessarily a terrible occurrence, and for the most part creates an intriguing layering of sonic experience. However I did find myself tune in consciously  to be fully immersed in the pieces by Lianray Pienaar, John Campbell and Leanne Cunningham. Each of these evokes a sense of place – specific or varied – to different degrees, Pienaar and Campbell both conjuring intriguing snippets of places unknown.

There is certainly no problem in fully hearing Richard Skelton’s Noon Hill Wood. As the headphones clamp down the sound is inescapable: mournful, full and shuddering notes mingling with others strangled and strained. You are thrust into the sound of mourning, of being lost and yet anchored to one particular place. This is the only piece in the exhibition to be accompanied by a physical object – a book. Although conceptually and emotionally connected with the work, I would argue that in the context of this exhibition it is not a necessary addition. The book is something that needs to be taken home and explored, not an object that can be fully taken in on a gallery visit. Perhaps an extract or shorter wall text would have sufficed if any verbal accompaniment is needed –the immediacy of experience and emotion created by each sound work is more than enough explanation in itself.

I’ve visited the gallery before, but on entering and listening it was immediately obvious that the space had indeed been ‘artistically enhanced’. Fallows’ piece in the main and then each pocket of sound you step into in turn elevate the space from ordinary to extraordinary. The high ceiling takes on a new dimension with its acoustic installation – this white space is not a vacuum, it is transformed from emptiness to the oscillating fullness of sound. From piece to piece with each putting-on and taking-off of the softly cushioned headphones I have stepped in and out of places, real and imagined. The exhibition has succeeded in its play on site and sound – I’ve been on a journey without leaving the room.