Materiality of Sound

In Kaffe Matthews, “Sonic Bed Laboratory Furniture, Music by Christopher Cox”-

And since the scientific discoveries of Hemholtz, Hertz, Edison and Tesla we have been taught to think of sound and music no longer as immaterial forces but as vibrating matter carried along on electromagnetic currents. The body and music then, are one. All is energy and vibration.

The reflection of sound as medium then can be though of sound as material, and therefore spaces that are at once geographically immersive and performative. Sound becomes a platform of interface with which to engage environment as opposed to consumption in the a very two dimensional sense.

I wanted to explore this aspect of sound this week, in choosing case studies. First the materiality of sound which is at its root electrical currents and electromagnetic waves that interact with the spaces they inhabit. There is no exception to this rule, for even listening to music in headphones is a physical interaction between waves and the channels in the ear.

Listening as we like to call it then is actually the first hand witnessing of a performance between energy and space. And it is always immediate and it is always situated, and it is always a performative act.

We are witness to these performances all the time, (As Douglas Kahn mentions, ears have no eyelids), but where media artists come in is when these performances are made intentional.

We could see this in a few of the readings first with the Sonic Bed Laboratory as an exploration of mapping the sonic vibrations of the brain and the body, and then through Christina Kubisch’s Electronic Walks which drew on existing electromagnetic fields within a certain physical environment.

Indeed we can look at the New Horspiel in Weimer Germany, and the projects such as Schallspielstudie as an example of what happened when people began exploring the unique properties of the materials producing sound, and sound as a material  in and of itself as opposed to a representation of text.

I trade the desk of an author for the studio of a sound engineer, my new syntax  is the cut, my product is recorded over microphones, mixers, and filters, on magnetic tape, the principle of montage creates a playful composition out of hundreds of particles


Regarding this context, I would like to bring up a couple examples that I feel explore this topic of sound as material and the situated performative aspect of a couple sound installations.

Maryanne Amacher, and her project Sound Characters  explores the phenomena of otoacoustic emission where the ears act as sound generating devices. 05 Dense Boogie 1 by LaraHeintz

Then there are cases where sonic waves are made to interact in actual physical spaces outside the body where the individual becomes immersed in site specific performance.

Again Maryanne Amacher and her 1980 exhibition Living Sound which was engineered to fit the contours of a specific exhibition space.

Last year a sound artist, Blake Carrington, did an interesting appropriation of the acoustic spaces of cathedrals, and virtually scanned the architectural space of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry St. making compositions based on those spaces and played back into the cathedral.

max Neuhaus has also done quite a few situated sound installations, one of the most famous being, his installation in Times Square, whose acoustics are meant to work with the underground gutter it is situated in, and blend into its surrounding environment.


Communion with sound has always been bound by time. Meaning in speech and music appears only as their sound events unfold word by word, phrase by phrase, from
moment to moment.

My Place works share a
different fundamental idea –
that of removing sound
from time and setting it,
instead, in place.


Radio Net (1977)

On going back to the idea of sound as something that is material and therefore something the body can physiologically interact with I’d like to finally bring up “Sonic Cradle”, an project by Jay Vidyarthi who looked to sound to create an immersive meditative environment with the purpose of relieving stress and inducing meditation- where breath patterns inform soundscape.

Categories: Case Studies


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