Issue 1/2012 - Net section

The ambiguous materiality of sound

Rahma Khazam

»There's an ambiguous materiality about sound which connects strongly to the visual universe, yet has qualities that are quite distinct,«1 notes composer and writer David Toop. Materiality may not be a word that's commonly associated with sound, but in the contemporary sonic arts, it is coming to the fore. Take for instance, the newly–published anthology »Site of Sound #2«, edited by Brandon LaBelle and Cláudia Martinho. It features a number of artists' projects in which sound challenges perceptual givens – by taking on qualities such as density, mass and physicality.

»Site of Sound #2« spans projects from the past ten years, however attempts to materialize sound vibrations, whether by conferring on them object–like qualities or transposing them into visual manifestations, go back much further in time. As Raviv Ganchrow points out : »›Seeing vibration‹ played an important role in the historic epistemology of sound. From the enigmatic Chladni figures [formed by drawing a violin bow across the rim of a metal plate strewn with sand] [...] to the bore–bristle waveform registrations of the ›phonoautograph‹ – the visibility of acoustics continually underlined the ›dimensional‹ characteristics of sound.«”2
More recent examples include the work of Austrian artist Bernhard Leitner, which has been predicated, since the late 1960s, on containing, ordering and channelling the physicality of sound.

Today such projects are on the increase. Yet the more they attempt to pin sound down, the more they misrepresent its fundamental elusiveness. »It would seem that to deliver sound into a world of appearances is also to give the intangible a name and a face, potentially fixing limits to a realm where there are none. Within vibrations themselves, there are no abrupt boundaries, no distinctive thresholds, only heterogeneous continuities afloat on a flux of becoming.«3 writes Raviv Ganchrow. However these projects nonetheless give us an inkling of what may lie beneath sound's hermetic impalpability. In a discussion with Bernhard Leitner on his »Sound Chair« (1975) – a chair fitted with speakers in which the listener is invited to recline – neuroscientist Detlef B. Linke pointed out that it caused the subject to experience a floating sensation, opening up a »new dimension of spatial awareness« in which »entirely new types of subjective sensations occur.«4 Meanwhile, the projects in »Site of Sound #2« that address sound's material aspects likewise engender alternative modes of perception, questioning the listener's relation to space. When Scott Arford and Randy Yau discuss their Infrasound project – which consists of immersing the audience in low frequency vibration – they highlight its »tangible vibrancy«, while evoking the idea of »solidifying the void«5 around the listener through sound. Equally disorientating is Edwin van der Heide's installation, in which sound seems to take on a tangible, circular form as it travels through a ring–shaped corridor back round to its point of origin. By means of this set–up, the piece materializes the speed of sound.

No less equivocal is sound's relationship to space. Sound is generally held to be immaterial and invisible, yet as Boris Groys suggests, it can also be said to induce a material sense of space. Defining the installation as a spatial volume, he points out that in a visual installation, the space around the objects appears »›immaterial‹, indeed, non–existent [...] As a consequence, the [visual] installation is misunderstood as a specific arrangement of objects within space.« On the other hand, »the wonder of sound consists in the fact that it fills space. For this reason, sound can best serve as an indicator of holistic space.«6

Metamorphosing between the immaterial and the object–like, the visible and the invisible, the tangible and the impalpable, sound deploys its ambiguous materiality, despite all efforts to pin it down.



1 David Toop in
2 Raviv Ganchrow, ›Hear and There: Notes on the Materiality of Sound‹, in »Immersed«, OASE #78, NAi Publishers, Rotterdam, 2009, p. 72.
3 Ibid., p.78.
4 Detlef B. Linke in ›Detlef B. Linke on »Sound Chair«‹, in Bernhard Leitner, ».P.U.L.S.E.«, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2008, p.80.
5 Scott Arford and Randy Yau, ›Filling the Void: The Infrasound Series‹, in Brandon
6 Scott Arford and Randy Yau, ›Filling the Void: The Infrasound Series‹, in Brandon LaBelle and Cláudia Martinho (eds), »Site of Sound #2: Of Architecture and the Ear«, Errant Bodies Press, Berlin, 2011, pp. 195–197.
Boris Groys, ›On the Sound Installations of Bernhard Leitner‹, ».P.U.L.S.E.«, op.cit., pp.7–9.