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. In 2019, I made two other word/sound/image pieces: “In the Anthropocene,” and “Unforgettable,” which I continued to revise in 2020. The latter is by far the most ambitious work of this kind I’ve made to date.

Since early 2020, most of the sound and image work I’ve made has had to do with the way it feels to live through this period. That feeling, of course, has not remained the same. Constantly, from hour to hour, hope comes and goes, giving way to resignation or despair; resilience waxes and wanes. The situation does not end, does not resolve, does not have a destination. We can’t get off the train.

Various pieces have had quite different goals. “If This Goes On” is specifically historical, about the first few weeks of crisis in March-April 2020, when it hit home to Americans that Covid was happening here and now. By contrast, “Where Were You This Time Last Year” and “Ordinary Time” are not so clearly about the pandemic, but were efforts to create aesthetically pleasing experiences at a time when we deeply needed them. “This Line Has Been Drawn” is a response to the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021; “Done Broke Down” is about our relationship with the living world around us. “Slava Ukrayini [Glory to Ukraine]” is my way of expressing some of the psychic effects of the war in Ukraine.

In all of the work, whatever its subject, I keep trying to make room for a dream-like awareness in which at any moment, the literal can become metaphorical.

As I continue to work with sound, or sound and video, I plan to keep on linking the new work here.

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.

To play a sound or video piece, click its title, or the link to “More” that follows the introduction to that piece on this page. This will lead you to a Soundcloud or Vimeo link that you can play.

Slava Ukrayini [Glory to Ukraine] (2022)

A response to the war in Ukraine, in two parts. The first is about watching terrible events unfold from a great distance; as it proceeds, there is less and less distance until detachment becomes impossible. The second part is about flight into exile and being haunted by memories of the life that has been snatched away. The piece is focused on women and girls, on the grief, loss and resilience of those who are not combatants, who are also struggling to save what makes life worth living, in a world where every day the future becomes harder to imagine.
I began work on this piece about a month into the Russian invasion. Much of the video is footage found on the internet, shot in Ukraine; the Ukrainian cities glimpsed in the second part are Kyiv and Kharkiv.

Done Broke Down (2021)

Memory, time, loss, the philosophical voice of Lightnin’ Hopkins, lines about heartbreak from an art song by Robert Schumann (how often do these two artists appear in the same work?) . . . Fauré’s Elegy, Pharaoh Sanders . . . Is this piece about what happens on the most intimate, personal scale, or is it about what’s happening to all of us because we live on the Earth now? Yes. The more I worked on it, the more I thought: this piece is about the loss of something dear and irreplaceable — a beloved person, our relationship with the living world around us. Yet making art at all implies that there is hope.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? (2021)

This sound/video piece is akin to a poem, in my mind; it is entirely about the inner life. For this work, I created an installation and inhabited it as a way of evoking the isolation and loneliness that suddenly became our reality in March 2020. The piece begins in a bunker of memory and heartache, passes through some kind of ambiguous ceremony of transformation, and ends by gesturing toward some fleeting form of release, even if only in a world of memory. Hope is never entirely lost.

This Line Has Been Drawn (2021)

A sound and video response to the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. The through-line of the piece is words spoken by Representative Mikie Sherrill, of New Jersey, in a message to her constituents describing the events of that day and what has to happen next. Rep. Sherrill’s words are layered with sound from news reports on the riot, and Duke Ellington’s music — “In My Solitude,” with Duke himself on piano.

As I worked on this piece, it became more and more evident that it’s important to preserve the way that day actually felt, so that the memory isn’t buried under subsequent events and the inevitable rationalizations and propaganda.

Days Before the Wreck (2020)

“Something changed in the world. Not too long ago, it changed, and we know it. We don’t know how to explain it yet, but I think we can all feel it, somewhere deep in our gut or in our brain circuits. We feel time differently. No one has quite been able to capture what is happening or say why. Perhaps it’s just that we sense an absence of future, because the present has become too overwhelming. And without future, time feels only like an accumulation. An accumulation of months, days, natural disasters, television series, terrorist attacks, divorces, mass migrations, birthdays, photographs, sunrises. We haven’t understood the exact way we are now experiencing time.” — Valeria Luiselli, Lost Children Archive.

This piece tries to translate that experience into sound. The hearer’s point of view is a partially distorted perception; most of the sounds pulsate in a way that is intimate and abstract, trying to get closer to an inner life that is not couched in words. Amidst the weirdness, there are still some sensual and spiritual pleasures, both natural and man-made; but it feels more and more as though one is on a train that is ruthlessly accelerating, heading toward something cataclysmic. There’s no way to know exactly what it will be or when it will come, but it’s coming. This soundpiece was completed on October 31, 2020, just days before the presidential election.

Remnants (2020)

I would like to imagine that this piece is a kind of poem about the situation we find ourselves in now. The blues supplies an emotional tone that underpins everything, and other emotional coloration is provided by the images. Feeling drives the choices.
You could call this the very first stage of a tour of the ruins. Evidences of the gone world that collapsed the week before last, the day before yesterday, six months ago, tomorrow. The artifacts of the past persist, and because they do, the past itself seems to carry forward into this new reality, but that’s an illusion. We’re surrounded by remnants, a zombie version of the world we knew. A disembodied awareness floats through the ruins and leftovers, alone. Some people have been living in the ruins while the rest of us didn’t see collapse coming, and they leave us messages in the form of graffiti. We don’t know how to read them. Maybe we’ll slowly learn.

Where Were You This Time Last Year (2020)

David Hockney said that even in the most ordinary scene (in his case, a country lane in Yorkshire), “there’s a lot to see. There’s a lot to look at. . . . if you show the world better, it’s more beautiful, a lot more beautiful. The process of looking is the beauty.”

This thought is like what I mean when I say that every journey is rewarded. What’s already there is perfect if you can see it. There really is a lot to see, and there’s a lot to hear, as well.

I believe that attention is stored in an artwork for anyone to share. This piece tries to access the infinite variation within each passing moment. I hope you enjoy it.

Ordinary Time (2020)

I made this soundpiece with a simple purpose in mind: to help time pass pleasantly.

Time has become weird; it crawls forward, yet weeks vanish before we know it. The familiar is strange. We have too much that we have to pay attention to, and not enough that we want to take in. We live in a mediated world – and already did, before the pandemic began – where images, voices, stimuli of all kinds bombard us, competing for our attention, coercing us to pay attention to somebody else’s agenda. Too many inputs strong-arm our minds into a kind of work for which we never signed up and are never rewarded – or else we constantly must work at withholding our attention, to save some remnants of sanity.
The point of this soundpiece is to take time off from those kinds of work. The paradoxical frame around it is that you don’t have to pay attention to it. Here is what I suggest: whether you’re using headphones or a speaker system of some kind, adjust the volume so that the bird calls at the beginning (starting about 9 seconds in) are clear and distinct, but not piercingly loud. Then let the piece play and forget about it. If your attention is attracted to it, notice it for however long, and when your attention slips away as it will, let it. If you want to let the piece play on a loop as a kind of sonic wallpaper, that’s good too. Whatever you do with this, don’t let listening to it become a chore. We have enough demands to deal with already. This piece, I hope, can occupy your space with you, making no demands, taking care of itself and in some way improving the passing moments.

If This Goes On (2020)

A sound and video poem about how it felt during the first few weeks of the pandemic here in the US — the period when for the first time it sank in, and one began to think “This is real.” I’m posting this on June 1, 2020; this piece is about the period from mid-March to early April of this year. Already the experience of the pandemic has moved on into a new chapter called reopening, with new uncertainties, and now it is almost overshadowed by the crisis over America’s systemic racism that has been triggered by the murder of George Floyd. As in the piece itself, the train is accelerating. The trip is far from over.

Unforgettable (2020)

A word/sound/image piece begun in 2019 and completed in 2020.
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.

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 from the piece:
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

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.

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.

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, which came into being July 1, 1867. The images were made in Newfoundland, which is both totally Canadian and totally itself.

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.