Q: In the Garden of Sonic Delights is bringing together 16 of today’s most innovative sound artists to create 15 site-specific artworks at six major Hudson Valley cultural organizations. How will this exhibition forward the conversation about sound art?
SM: My aim is that we contribute to the conversation by showing what is possible through innovation and risk-taking in the way sound art is curated. First and foremost, all of the works in this exhibition are commissions — the exhibition will be 100% new work. By commissioning these works, we have been able to ask our artists for site-specific pieces. The ability to work with a specific site is a big deal for sound artists, because working in sound means being in constant collaboration with the piece’s environment. Sound is just vibrating air. The shape and character of the surfaces that border that air determine how sound will travel, whether it will echo or reverberate, and how clearly it will be heard. When the site is known, it can be explored, experimented with, and plumbed for its function and history. When sound-based artwork has a home, the artists are allowed to fully unfold their imagination and practice into it. I am very proud to play a role in an exhibition that values this relationship so highly.
Finally, all of these pieces (except one) are outdoor pieces, which means they are subject to the uncertainties of weather and the natural environment — requiring careful planning and maintenance. The artworks will experience, and be experienced within, the shifts from day to night to day. And because the exhibition is open for five months, the artworks will also exist through the gradual progressive shift in environment, from spring to summer to autumn. Leaves that are budding during the set-up of these pieces will have fallen by the time the exhibition ends. I am excited as an audience member to be able to return to these pieces at different times of day and across the months, to see what these new contexts have to offer.
Q: Knowing this project has been in-development for more than five years, what was the process for selecting specific artists and how did those artists choose their locations?
SM: Some of the artists I’d had the pleasure of working with before, while some I knew only through their work. Some were chosen because, for me, they had a resonance with a particular site, while others were chosen because they had an interesting attitude or approach to natural sound and settings. I wanted to balance established artists with emerging artists, and I didn’t want any two artists to have an approach to making work that was overly similar.
Q: How does this exhibition compare with other recent major sound art exhibitions?
SM: Looking just at the greater New York City area in the past year, there have been a number of exciting sound-oriented exhibitions and a lot of great work shown. The arts community in this region is truly engaging itself in the larger global dialogue about what sound art is and how we think about it, and with great results.
To my knowledge, Sonic Delights is the only sound art exhibition of this scale that is composed of all newly commissioned work, and focuses on outdoor sound artworks, open to the outside air. I feel like we are breaking new ground here, and I hope that these factors, along with the artwork itself, will make a substantial contribution to that larger dialogue about sound art.
Q: Is sound art a recent artistic movement or development? If not, why does it feel that today’s technology is making it possible?
SM: Sound art, depending on how you look at it, is around a century old at this point, though it wasn’t being called sound art back then. Today’s wave of sound art finds its origins in the work of a handful of pioneering artists, such as Max Neuhaus, Phill Niblock, Annea Lockwood and Alvin Lucier, who began their explorations of the form in the 1960s. The factors that have led us to today’s explosion of sound art are many, and they are mostly quite familiar: a culture that continually immerses us in sound and media, audio recording and playback technology that is increasingly lower cost for higher quality, the portability and disposability of sonic experiences through the internet and our “gadget culture,” the continual rise and ubiquity of urban and industrial noise, a growing awareness that silence has become a commodity, the recent jump in interest and research into all forms of human perception and cognition — especially auditory systems, not to mention sound-focused artist-led movements such as Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening and R. Murray Schafer’s Acoustic Ecology.
Wherever one looks today, sound is playing a central role in our culture. We can either drown in it, or, in a turnabout borrowed from John Cage, we can choose to think of the sounds around us as the music of our lives. More and more people are making that intuitive leap. When we think about, say, the ubiquitous drone of air conditioners in summer as an aesthetic experience, suddenly there’s a lot to think about, and a lot to make art about!
SM: I have enjoyed watching audiences show up early for concerts, unpacking their picnic baskets on the lawn and enjoying the beautiful surroundings. Sonic Delights will imbue those surroundings with new mysteries and discoveries — with sonic delights, in fact! — and make the Caramoor experience even more singular and fantastic. We already know that Caramoor audiences are astute and intelligent listeners. This exhibition is an invitation to apply that listening in new places and in new situations. With In the Garden of Sonic Delights, more than ever, Caramoor becomes a thoroughgoing playground for the ears.
In the Garden of Sonic Delights is open from June 7 – November 2, 2014. This Sunday, July 20, we will present the Sonic Delights Festival, a day of activities including a lecture, panel discussion, and concert. Please visit Caramoor.org for more information.