Sound and Video

I got interested in making sound art on a summer evening in 2012, while sitting in a park around the corner from our house. People were doing park things – playing basketball, sitting on park benches chatting, walking by on the sidewalk – and for some unknown reason, what people were spontaneously doing started to look and sound like something created, something artistically ordered: no longer random life, but a theater piece. The experience made me want to create a sound and image artwork that would try to match this vision. Later, when I attempted to carry this out, I realized that sound by itself is totally engrossing, and that it powerfully, inevitably engages the imagination.

This is partly due to the power of representation, which is a mysterious thing. The experience of a hearing a sound that has been recorded and played back, even without any editing, is completely different from the experience of hearing it in real time, in life. The sound is framed by the act of recording and playback; it has become a representation of experience, even when nothing else has been done to it, and that changes it fundamentally.

I believe that human consciousness is more than being awake and alert; consciousness is awareness of being aware. And for me, that’s also what a soundpiece is about. It makes you hyper-aware of being aware. The recorder, the microphone, is an awareness-extender situated somewhere in space. It magically transports your awareness to that place, that situation, which you then have to imagine and create for yourself, and this makes you aware of the action of mind. In this way listening to the piece is like mindfulness meditation: following your thoughts with your attention.

After making three pure sound pieces that I viewed as successful, in the spring of 2018 I co-taught a learning community called “word + image,” in which the final project was to make a word-and-image artwork. I couldn’t resist trying to do what my students were working on; the result eventually became the sound-and-image piece “Metropolitan Lives.” The first version of it had spoken words as part of its soundtrack, but as the piece evolved, the words turned out to be superfluous and went away. This was not the case in “Canada 150” (2018), where written words became an integral part of the finished work. Since then, I’ve made two other word/sound/image pieces: “In the Anthropocene,” and “Unforgettable.” The latter is by far the most ambitious work of this kind I’ve made to date.

Most of the sound in my pieces was recorded with binaural microphones; the way to get the full first-person immersive experience is to listen on headphones. With good headphones, moreover, you can hear a level of detail in the sound that is not likely to be heard on speakers. The specific equipment you use to play these pieces will inevitably alter the final effect in ways beyond my control.

Unforgettable (2020)

A word/sound/image piece that has been in the works since early 2019.
The seed of this piece was planted when I recorded an unusually talented singer doing the Nat King Cole song “Unforgettable” in a Boston subway station; it ended up growing far beyond anything I ever anticipated. It became a love story whose characters are as alive in my mind as those in my more traditional fiction.

Much is left to the imagination, to the viewer’s inner life. We don’t see the characters, there is no acting occurring, the correspondences are seldom one to one. From moment to moment, the viewer is collaborating in the act of making art by bringing the elements together in synergy.

Till the Ending Ends (2020)

Over twenty years ago, a student of mine wrote: “End the end so the beginning can begin.” These words seemed to sum up our situation then, and they feel even more pointedly applicable now. Whether a new world can be born out of the ruins of the old is far from clear today, but the urgency of the situation is beyond doubt. Indirectly, that’s what this soundpiece is trying to evoke.

Wallace Stevens said, in “The Necessary Angel,” that there is “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation.” That is the spirit of this piece: a sort of hand-to-hand combat for the preservation of the inner life, against ever more powerful, insidious forces that seek to crush it.

As usual, listening on headphones makes a significant difference in the experience of this piece.

Other Places, Other Days (2017)

Sound recorded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Berkeley, California. The matrix of the piece is a walk up a very steep Berkeley hill and back down. The essence of it, perhaps, is the shifting and focusing of attention, the mind reaching for meaning at each moment, creating an order or letting go of one, watching itself attend as something rises above or sinks below the threshold of being perceivable. There is never just one thing in your field of attention, or in your mind, or in your space. There is never true silence, but there is sometimes quiet. Attention is also creation; the mind latches onto what it’s hearing and tries to complete it.

The forward movement is intruded upon by certain episodes that don’t have to do with the immediate environment. There are these glimpses of another reality overlaid on, or interrupting, the one that’s in the foreground; they’re like passing thoughts that come and go, suggested by sound. They might be memories or dreams that cross the mind, glimpses of a different place on a different day.

Moonlight in a Bucket (2014)

Imagine that a movie is playing in the next room and you are hearing the soundtrack . . .
The title refers to Yoko Ono’s instructions, in “Grapefruit,” to “capture moonlight on water in a bucket.”

Sounds from O’Fallon, Illinois; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Prince Edward Island, Canada; and other locations. The street musicians were recorded in Harvard Square. There is a kind of interplay or journey between disparate spaces, times, situations, experienced by a protagonist who is not identified. The hearer becomes the protagonist, moving from ambience to ambience, through space, through seasons, back and forth between city life and the natural world. Magically the listener is able to step from one kind of day to another, one weather to another, by climbing stairs or opening a door – secret passageways between different subjective worlds.

This piece was exhibited in 2015 at ROOM Gallery, 83 Spring St., Watertown, Massachusetts.

In the Anthropocene (2019)

A word/sound/image piece about life in these times on planet Earth. An unsentimental journey through a landscape on the brink, or existing in an aftermath. Do we know it too well, or is recognition still an arm’s length to our left?

An excerpt:

in the Anthropocene
twilight I came to the shore
& she said this isn’t where it used to be
the shore, I mean
Are you sure? I said, and she said no
Gulls flew by, and pelicans, followed by F-14’s
we didn’t know what to do with the remaining time
except to make certain modifications
intended to prolong survival or fend off madness
though they may not have worked as intended
— what does —
and picking up the pieces we wandered inland
wondering where to go next

Metropolitan Lives (2018)

In the metropolis there are many lives ongoing.
A sound and image piece about the human relationship with the natural world, the other life that’s all around us, and that we are a part of, whether we pay attention to it or not.

Canada 150 (2018)

A word/sound/image meditation on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the nation of Canada. The images were made in Newfoundland.

Boundary (2012)

The boundary, or dialectic, is that between the humanly created world (Harvard Square, mostly) and the other life that creates and orders itself around us (much of it in Prince Edward Island). A journey in two worlds, the result of an exceedingly steep learning curve: this was the first soundpiece I completed.

Journey to the Underworld (2018)

The quiet jazz piano heard in the first half of this piece is playing a tune titled “There Is No Greater Love.” The words continue, “. . . than what I feel for you.” The other songs on the soundtrack speak, or shout, for themselves in a very different tone.