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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Sounds for Museums

Sound Art to Accompany Exhibits

One kind of recording that occasionally finds its way into my archives is audio art specifically intended to accompany a museum exhibit. In some cases, these recordings were made to be sold as a kind of audio catalogue for the exhibit. There are other cases where these sounds were actually used at the museum during the exhibition, either in the exhibit hall or some accompanying arrangement such as a listening room. They may represent sounds that were actually part of a sound installation. In all cases, these sounds serve as audio evidence of the exhibit and provide traces, if you will, of the museum-going experience.

I have found that when a museum is the gatekeeper for selecting audio art, they often make some surprising choices. Artists—literally artists—are treated as equally as musicians. The selection of works can be quite broad in style and appeal. I suppose this is because a museum has an obligation to appeal to the broader public when putting together an exhibition. This often results in a vastly surprising mix of sound works. The recordings heard in this podcast definitely have such variety. I selected highlights from these recordings that are more of the experimental type.

I also excluded certain categories of museum and artist-related recordings: live performances recorded at a museum comprise a category of their own as do recordings made by visual artists but not connected to an actual exhibit of their work.

This audio journey was in chronological order which gives us some idea of how sound artist kept pace with whatever technology was being used at the time. We listened to 29 tracks from 11 museum exhibits. The playlist below details each.


1. François Baschet, Bernard Baschet, and Jacques Lasry, “Sonatine (3 Mouvements)” from Structures for Sound (1965 BAM). The exhibition 'Structures For Sound-Musical Instruments' by François and Bernard Baschet was shown at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, from October 4 to December 5, 1965. Although not heard in the exhibit, this set of compositions was co-marketed by the museum and BAM and clearly intended as a takeaway souvenir. The recordings were made in France, and released there as Les Structures Sonores Lasry-Baschet, then repackaged for the US market and exhibit. The piece was written by Jacques Lasry.

2. Various Artists, Art By Telephone (1969 Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago). Artists were asked to phone-in instructions for a work of art to be exhibited at Art by Telephone, held at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The museum released a recording of the phone calls and sold it at the exhibit. Here are four excerpts by John Giorno, Dick Higgins, Sol Lewitt, Richard Serra, and Jack Burnham. In total, 38 artists provided instructions that were included on the album.

3. Audio Arts: Volume 3 No 4 Side A (1977 Audio Arts). Excerpts from a radio work by John Carson broadcast by Downtown Radio, Belfast in 1977. The program was a compilation of recordings made in June 1977 at Documenta VI, an international exhibition of contemporary art in Kassel, West Germany. We hear two excerpts, the first from artist Wolf Vostell which opens with the sound of bubbling water and the second a sound work by Achim Freyer. These audio works played in the exhibit. Other portions of the complete cassette recordings alternated between statements/interviews and sound environments/installations. Audio Arts was a magazine in continuous publication for 33 years and ran to 24 volumes, each of four issues.

4. Various artists, from Sound (1979 Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art). Four of the tracks from this collection are included: Terry Fox, “Labyrinth Scored For II Cats” (1979); Jim Gordon, “Piece For Synthesizers, Computers And Other Instruments” (1979); Doug Hollis, “Aeolian Harp” (1975-76), composed 1975-76 at the San Francisco Exploratorium; Bill Fontana, “Kirribilli Wharf” (1979). Album produced for SOUND. An exhibition of sound sculpture, instrument building and acoustically tuned spaces. Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art July 14-August 31, 1979. P.S.I. New York, September 30-November 18, 1979.

5. Jeff Gordon, “Everyone’s An Artist” (1984). Vocal Jeff Gordon and Mug Maruyama; Programming, Graham Hawthorne; Emulators/Keyboards, Jeff Gordon. Gordon produced Revolutions Per Minute (The Art Record), a collection of audio tracks by artists released as a double LP. This track by Gordon was not included in that release but I think was used for a traveling exhibition featuring sound, The RPM Touring Exhibitions, designed by Gordon and his wife Juanita, that toured the US and Europe for over four years, including The Tate Museum in London.

6. Laurie Anderson, “The telephone,” “The polaroid,” “The sheet,” “The wedding dress,” “The bathrobe” from La Visite Guidée (1994). Music: Laurie Anderson; Voice: Sophie Calle. Exhibition catalogue consisting of artist’s book and Audio CD published in conjunction with the show held March 27- 29, 1994. The work consisted of a total of 21 short compositions. We hear five consecutive tracks from the collection. This audio was provided on a cassette for the exhibit, which visitor’s played on a Sony Walkman while taking a guided tour of the Sophie Calle's exhibition Absent.

7. Steven Vitiello. World Trade Center Recordings: Open House Bounce (1999). A recording from the 91st floor of the World Trade Center, Tower One made with contact microphones placed on the inside of the windows. This recording was only published as part of a CDR sold at an Open House Exhibition in the fall of 1999. Various recordings were made during a 6-month residency. This one in particular picked up a number of passing planes and helicopters.

8. Various artists, Whitney Biennial 2002 (2002 Whitney Museum Of American Art). A CD was included with the 292-page hardcover catalogue "Whitney Biennial 2002" published for the same-titled exhibition at the Whitney Museum Of American Art, March 7-May 26, 2002. Four tracks are heard: Maryanne Amacher, “A Step Into It, Imagining 1001 Years Entering Ancient Rooms” (excerpt); Meredith Monk, “Eclipse,” with performers Ching Gonzalez, Katie Geissinger, Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann; Marina Rosenfeld, “Delusional Dub;” Tracie Morris, “Slave Sho' To Video A.k.a. Black But Beautiful.”

9. 33 RPM: Ten Hours of Sound From France (2003 235). Exhibition companion compilation to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Sept. 6-14, 2003, listening room program. 33 RPM consisted of ten one-hour segments that were played on a rotating schedule at the museum during the exhibition. This was the fourth installment of an ongoing series at the museum that presented sound art scene in a variety of countries. We include the following tracks from this compilation: Kasper T. Toeplitz, “PURR#2” (2003); Jean-Claude Risset, “Resonant Sound Spaces/Filters” (2002); Mimetic, “evolution” (2003); and Lionel Marchetti, “À rebours” (1989).

10. Jane Philbrick, "Voix/e" (2003-04 SW Harbor Songline). Installation two lightboxes, with color Duratrans (large-format backlit color transparency film), 48 x 24 x 6; two inset Alpine speakers, synthesized voice track, 9 1/2 mins. looped.; two companion LCD-screen DVDs. On view at Real Art Ways, Hartford, CT, and Consolidated Works, Seattle (2004). Audio work created by Jan Philbrick at the Center for Spoken Language Understanding, Oregon Graduate Institute. The piece consists of Philbrick’s reading of the "Song of Solomon," modified and edited using voice-gendered speech synthesis to speak bride, groom, and companion parts.

11. Marko Timlin, “Audible Light” (2017), Created by Marko Timlin, a Finnish sound artist whose work has frequently been integrated into museum installations. This installation, Audible Light, created sound directly out of light, “work inspired by Evgeny Sholpo's Variophone instrument developed in 1930.” Solo exhibition, Oksasenkatu 11 in Helsinki. Not to be confused with the 2000 museum exhibition called Audible Light at the Museum Of Modern Art, Oxford, to be featured in a future podcast.

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Jan 11, 2023

I did an audio only installation in the Jersey City Museum in 2005:



Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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