Sonic Boom

Sound isn't just noise or music - it's the raw material for a growing number of audio artists, and montreal is building a strong international reputation for this form of creative expression


Published: Saturday, January 13, 2007 in the Gazette


This is the latest instalment in the continuing series In Profile, which looks at a cross-section of art being produced on the island and the people who make it.

Diversity is a prominent feature of Montreal's current art scene. Previously dominated by the strong tradition of Quebec's modernist painters, the realm of artmaking has expanded beyond what is coyly called "the dirty arts" (painting, drawing and sculpture) to include photo and mixed-media, web-based installation, performance, sound, even smell.

This fourth edition of the In Profile series, Sonic Boom, examines four artists who are working in what could be called a booming field in the art world: sound, also called audio art or sound installation. To some it is just noise, albeit with banks of computers, high-tech speakers and jumbles of tangled wires, and playing to esoteric-looking crowds at performances in barns or obscure festivals.

But sound work, unlike video or web-based work, draws on a long history dating from the early 20th century. Artists in movements like Dada and the Italian Futurists - one of whom, Luigi Russolo, wrote the seminal 1913 sound manifesto, The Art of Noises - made the observation that the sound landscape of the modern age is entirely new, marked with a technological urbanism: the clangs, yelps, squeals and groans of machines. The first noise performances by early sound artists were received in confused silence - one dissatisfied Futurist compared it to "showing the first steam engine to a herd of cows."

But technologies - and the public - seem to have caught up to the concept. Desktop studios and trips to Radio Shack have increased the access to recording and editing. And as everyone knows, anything an artist can get his hands on is fair game. Montreal, in particular, has a strong reputation internationally. With yearly festivals like Mutek and Elektra, support from and access to such art centres as Quartier Ephemere, and ambitious installations like the Silophone, a disused grain silo in the Old Port that in 2000 was turned into a kind of musical instrument, sound in the city is booming.

With the visual getting most of the aesthetic coin in museums and galleries, it is easy to forget the other senses - or dismiss them as devoid of content serious enough for aesthetic investigation. Yet artists are increasingly exploring sound, smell and taste as vehicles for content.

During a stint as a bicycle courier in this city, I ran the usual range of adjustments to the haste, pace and danger of a job that is carried out in a panicky sensory jumble. One adjustment was particularly telling: since you can't swivel your head all the time to look out for traffic, you put your head down, stare fixedly ahead and listen hard. Your eyes are for steering, but your ears are for navigation, and they become the predominant tool for self-preservation.

"We use (sound) like a radar - we think we know where we are with the space in front of our eyes, but if you ever have an ear problem, it's amazing ... blind people walk with a stick, tapping it. It's not to feel out things, it's setting up echoes."

Steve Heimbecker is a thickset, methodical man in his 40s. He stares - as most sound artists necessarily do during interviews - into a computer screen, going through DVDs of his work. Heimbecker explores, among other things, the sculptural dimensions of sound. His work with what he calls "acoustic mapping" situates the observer in a multi-channel sound environment.

In The Acoustic Line as the Crow Listens, the artist plotted a mile through the landscape and recorded simultaneously at eight sites placed about 200 metres equidistant. For the resulting installation, speakers are placed together in a line that compresses the mile into 64 feet. The result is a time-warped stereo experience: environmental sounds that travel a mile, like a car horn, move and fade rapidly in a squished sonic environment, bending perception.

"So conceptually, if you walk really fast, you would be travelling faster than the speed of sound," the artist says.

He fabricates most of his installations himself; his studio is a jumble of speaker boxes built to spec for his next show. His work travels widely to sound festivals and galleries in Europe and North America.

A Saskatchewan native recently transplanted to Montreal, Heimbecker is most known for his sound work with the Silophone and a 2003 installation titled Wind Array Cascade Machine, where a field of 64 wheat-like stalks of electronic sensors bent with the wind on the roof of the

Ex-Centris building on St. Laurent Blvd. The data stream from the rooftop sensors was transmitted to galleries in Toronto and Europe, where other installations, called Pods, translated the data into rows of upright LED readouts on poles, reinterpreting the wind as a field of oscillating lights in the gallery.

"I realized that the wave patterns of a wheat field caused by the wind were exactly how the sine wave works ... so it's a metaphorically perfect thing."

If music is, as American composer John Cage said, "organized sound," then Heimbecker displays how sound, transcribed by technology, can be made into an aesthetic replication of experience: not music, but something altogether new. Heimbecker's eyes light up at the elegant idea: "So the wind in Quebec was blowing in Toronto ..."

"I don't really work with data like Steve does. Steve is really more into programming, how data inputs and then outputs differently. It's totally another way of working ..."

Jean-Pierre Gauthier, preparing for his exhibition at the Musee d'art contemporain de Montreal in February, is distracted and intense, with a furrowed brow, constantly looking elsewhere. A maker of sound-producing kinetic installations, Gauthier starts up a piece that's waiting to be shipped from his east-end studio: a piano with wires running from the keys to a swarm of more wires, switches and sensors stuffed into the seat.

The piece is activated by motion sensors. As the viewer moves, the piano twitches into action, plucked notes sputter here and there, initially startling me into thinking that I had stepped on something accidentally.

'There are three microprocessors. I program the sequence. (The computer) chooses randomly the note ... Each sequence is tripped by motion sensors."

The effect is unsettling and twitchy at first. As you move, the volume of notes gains mass, cascading into a nervous symphony.

"I like it to be random, so at one point I lose control of the result. ... The composition gets free, like this one - I select the notes ... but the rest is out of my control. To me, the 'order' of this is about trying to get the work free from my control."

Gauthier, represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, was the 2004 winner of the Sobey Art Award, a $50,000 award given to Canadian artists under 40. Gauthier's noisy, kinetic installations have received lots of notice and justifiable acclaim.

Usually working with everyday objects like skis, mirrors or hammers, Gauthier fashions these into robotic instruments that sing: "Basically the objects are quite insignificant, they're quite normal - but the sound they can make is quite amazing," he says. "(They're) just amplified, no (added) effect. I use as much as possible the pure sound of the object, and (try) to find an object that has its own colour."

In his 2002 installation Echotriste, Gauthier combined mirrors with dangling industrial coils that scored the mirrors' surfaces to create ethereal sounds suggesting an eerie human chorus - home-made music that gives a nod to the Futurists themselves, who encouraged artists to create their own instruments.

"I loved electronics when I was a kid - I had a Radio Shack electronic kit. The work brought me to this. It was quite natural for me to do this."

"Jean-Pierre (Gauthier) and (I) have the same background - we both did our master's at UQAM - a real visual art background. When I think about Pierre, he's a craftsman: He builds stuff."

Jean-Pierre Aube started as a photographer, but instead of visual images now captures sound. "There's not a big difference. ... I go around in the woods with my VLF receiver and bring something back with a technology device - the camera is a radio receiver for me (now)."

Aube is a tall, gregarious man who works out of his home in the north end. The interview is occasionally accented by the staccato wails of his new baby in the other room. Leaning back on a thrift-store couch, we watch a video projection of a performance piece he did at the Quartier Ephemere this past summer. A huge mass of giant speakers sits in the middle of a room. Titled Save the Waves, the system - built out of plywood, old computers and scrap material - showed that he is not averse to building stuff, either.

"A critic wrote that the exhibition isn't really about the object, it was more about the sound - which surprised me a little bit because those speakers weighed 3,000 pounds ..."

Aube often works with a VLF (very low frequency) receiver that he makes himself:

"It's basically (like) a hula hoop with 300 feet of cable, ... a simple radio receiver that allows you to grab all natural electromagnetic phenomena."

Very low frequency was inadvertently discovered in the 1800s when it became apparent that telegraph lines picked up signals from atmospheric phenomena like the aurora borealis. VLF receivers also pick up what Aube considers to be the frequency of modernity: "60 hertz is the soundtrack of domestic life, because 60 hertz is everywhere. Your fridge hums at 60 hertz."

Save the Waves is a reflection on Aube's difficulty with getting far enough away from the interference of 60hz electrical lines to record the aurora himself. In the piece, a series of receivers pick up all electromagnetic signals in and around the building, while a performer runs a hand-held receiver over various appliances: a fluorescent light, a sound board, the computers themselves. The effect is an eerie accidental modulation coming from the giant speakers, like a mass of chanting Buddhist monks, all produced by our own electromagnetic pollution.

Aube, a darling of the electronic festival circuit, has shown his work in such far-flung places as Latvia, France, the Philippines and Germany. Sound art, like a lot of technology-based work, seems to have more of a receptive audience outside North America:

"Let me put it this way: (on this continent) I've never shown my work outside of Quebec, but I've shown 20 times in Europe in the past few years." He adds: "Montreal has a big scene. ... Mutek - it's huge and known all around the world."

"Sound is big nowadays."

Christof Migone agrees. But while the audience is growing for such work, he, like a lot of others, finds that more traditional museums and galleries are taking time to adjust to the medium: "Some galleries are starting (to show more sound work) ... but it's also not an ideal space ... they've done shows, but the result is a cacophony - they just don't take into account that it's a radically different medium."

Migone - tall, slight, and reticent - sits at the kitchen table in his modest Little Italy apartment. He displays a more multidisciplinary bent in his work, but sound is his base: After starting in radio at CKUT in the 1990s with his show Danger in Paradise, he pushed the envelope of experimentation with recording and broadcasting, and has written extensively on the subject of audio art.

"I think sound is something I keep returning to, I guess because I have a certain level of skill. Once I get an idea it often translates into sound, because I guess I can sort of see how it can materialize."

In his work Crackers, Migone solicited volunteer performers through radio and print ads, seeking individuals who were willing to make cracking sounds with various parts of their bodies. Some were more than willing, cracking necks, wrists, toes and jaws - and providing Migone with enough recording material for years. Crackers started as a sound installation in 1998, but was redone in performances and installations in Paris, Geneva and Los Angeles and as recently as this fall in Montreal at UQAM's gallery.

One of the recordings was a string of cracks from various parts of the body, edited closely together, bristling and alive with varying notes and textures: the music of wet popcorn, and strangely compelling to listen to.

"When presented in artists' talks or things like that, people have a dual reaction. Some kind of wince, and other people start cracking," he says. "What interests me is also the 'uncontrollable-ness' of that action. When you crack, it's a habit, it's a compulsion."

Some of his other work displays a penchant for recording obsessive-compulsive behaviours and bodily functions - like P, where the artist recorded 1,000 moments of urination while saying "P."

"Crackers really helped me focus, and I did a fart record afterwards which kind of applied the same kind of restrictions and focus."

Creating with a blend of old-fashioned microphone recording and software editing, Migone keeps the technology simple to focus on the product and the idea.

"I try to downplay sound, in a sense, because (the work) gets pigeonholed. Most of the time it's not necessarily about the medium. I'm much more interested in the initial idea."

Steve Heimbecker agrees: "I think a lot of sound artists are really involved in the process as much or more than the outcome. ... Many of the ideas themselves are based on expanding technologies, (and) sometimes result in a piece that's interesting, sometimes not. ... The big discussion now is, 'What is the content?', because the technology's kind of flatlined - everything you can do with it has been imagined. "

But with the plethora of noise in our world, and since part of the artist's job description is to absorb and reflect human experience, the genre is constantly brushing up against the definition of music.

"(John) Cage thought everything was music," Migone says. "There's no such thing as silence - and he incorporated everything into music. And that's dangerous for sound art, because how does it carve out its own territory outside of (music)?"

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2007

Jean-Pierre Aube: "For some artists working with technology, the more shiny it is, the more it looks professional. When we look at Star Trek, everything looks so smooth: it's like a bourgeois living room."

Jean-Pierre Aube: "For some artists working with technology, the more shiny it is, the more it looks professional. When we look at Star Trek, everything looks so smooth: it's like a bourgeois living room."