I am an audio and video artist and conduct practice-based research as part of the faculty at Edinburgh Napier University’s School of Arts and Creative Industries. Much of my audio work exploits the phenomenological “doubt” that is, according to Voegelin (2010), central to the act of hearing sound art. In contrast to the apparent objective certainty of image-based works, sonic art, with its disjunct between the sound (played though speakers) and the visually absent causation of that sound (voice or other kind of source), impels the viewer/listener into an active role in the creation of meaning in the work.
In 2017 I produced a sound sculpture, entitled “Storm Piece." This work combines multiple vocal sources that merge into an abstract sonic melange, setting up a dialectic between, in the words of Epley (2017), its material and conceptual qualities - that is the words that make it up and the more abstract sound that they combine to produce.
The work engages with the huge oceanic swells that hit the western European coast and bring visitors from all over the world to experience the surfing. These breakers have their origins in Atlantic storms on the Eastern seaboard of North America and in the Caribbean. The weather systems create waves which combine together as they travel, gaining in size, speed and energy, until they make landfall thousands of miles to the east.
In the piece, an array of twenty speakers commands the floor of the exhibition space. Each speaker emits a discrete sound: a vocal recording by myself of the weather forecasts from different maritime locales along the American east coast. As the gallery-goer moves among and between the speakers, their active role compels them to extrapolate meaning from the particular sounds of the individual speakers to that of the general sound, or, as Bjornsten (2012) puts it, from signal to noise.
The listener’s active participation in the creation of meaning is applied imaginatively too. Cox (2009) writes of the Leibnizian process by which “The sound of the sea is derived from an infinity of small perceptions (the sound of all the individual waves)...[and T]he differential result of these minute perceptions that manifests itself as the ocean’s roar." So it is with this piece: As with the wave-forms themselves, the words - clear and meaningful when heard in isolation - combine in a swell of sound, an undulating hiss that fills the space like the distant sound of breaking waves.
Bjørnsten, T. (2012) Sound [signal] noise: significant effects in contemporary sonic art practices, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, 4:1, 1-8.
Cox, C. (2009) Sound Art and the Sonic Unconscious, Organised Sound, 14:1, 19-26.
Eppley, C. (2017) Beyond Cage: On Sonic Art History & Historiography, Parallax 23:3 342-360.
Voegelin, S. (2010) Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. London, Bloomsbury