Susan Philipsz “Study for Strings” (2012) (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Museum of Modern Art’s first foray into a group exhibition of sound art, Soundings: A Contemporary Score succeeds in delivering a heterogenous — if uneven — perspective on a challenging medium. The show ranges widely in its approach to sound, veering haphazardly from intelligent and deeply felt manipulations to the more formulaic reaches of techno-mechanical play. And perhaps paradoxically, Soundings found its greatest strengths with works preoccupied not with sound but its absence, bringing to bear the sonic imprint of silences, voids, and subtle murmurs.

The exhibition encompasses a number of objects scattered throughout the museum, but the show’s primary space, the special exhibitions gallery on the third floor, is where the most substantive contributions are to be found. The many installation rooms built for this show — already situated in an exhibition space at the end of a long hallway — force a somewhat labyrinthine layout, and on both of my visits the crowds were demonstrably thinner than in the rest of the museum. This was not unanticipated — after all, there’s a reason why the show is, as the museum notes, among “the first of its kind” in New York. Sound is a difficult medium to exhibit on nearly every front, the sort of thing that tends to be limited to durational performances or experimental spaces.


Richard Garet, “Before Me” (2012)

And yet, despite these limitations, bringing sound to New York’s escalator-cored art mall par excellence, with its hordes of impatient tourists and fetish for celebrity, is a daring gesture, and one that was sorely overdue. Organized by MoMA Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art Barbara London, Soundings includes a range of work, a buckshot strategy of something-for-everyone compromise that nevertheless manages to sneak in several significant artworks.

Hong-Kai Wang’s “Music While We Work” (2011) is a sensitive look at a sugar refinery near the Taiwanese artist’s hometown. Comprised of a two-channel video projection and what appears to be stereo sound (the number of audio channels, strangely enough, is omitted in the wall text of several works where such information is salient), the piece documents a project undertaken by the artist whereby she tasked factory retirees with “painting a world composed by their listening” with hand-held audio recording equipment. (In the projected video we only see one female figure holding a short-boom handheld microphone.) I remain generally unclear on what constitutes social practice art, but the end product, an overlaying of machine noises with the quotidian gestures and movements of the human workforce, is a poignant illustration of the cognitive dissonance — and assonance — of factory labor. At the end of the piece, a long shot of a scooter traveling up a dusty road is paired with footage of the factory’s slum-like environs, a reminder of sound’s indelible link to place.


Hong-Kai Wang, “Music While We Work” (2011)

Two other multi-channel sound works intelligently elaborate this site-specificity of sonic experience: Jana Winderen’s “Ultrafield” (2013) and Susan Philipsz’s “Study for Strings” (2012). The first delivers, in a darkened room with four cushioned cube seats illuminated by a center spotlight, a lush, sixteen-channel work of ultrasonic noise, the recorded communicative transmissions of bats, fish, and underwater insects adjusted for human ears. The effect is nearly Amazonian, a field of sound distinctly familiar to anyone who has watched a rainforest documentary or camped in a dense forest. Like the lost recordings of a transcendentally gifted naturalist, Winderen’s elaborately constructed sound embodies the slippage between those noises that are biological and ubiquitous, if overlooked, and the roar that overwhelms us in the earth’s remote places. This, more than any other room-based installation in the show, seemed to be the most attended.

Philipsz’s “Study for Strings” issues from eight wall-mounted speaker cones, an unusually compelling visual arrangement that harmonizes a tragically fractured composition: Pavel Haas‘s 1943 orchestral piece of the same name. Philipsz takes Haas’s score, which he composed for 24 instruments while in a Nazi concentration camp, and “deconstructs” it in a multi-channel recording played back through the mismatched speakers. By preserving only  the viola and cello tracks of Haas’ piece, a powerful comment is achieved on the tragic intersubjective absences — of musicians and instruments — in the original. The work is sonically compelling, a triumph of concept and execution that orients the serious pursuit of music and art to an altogether more abstract, and universal, ideal.


Haroon Mirza, Frame for a Painting (1972)

There are several other works of interest, including Christine Sun Kim’s Scores and Transcripts series, comprised of two-dimensional renderings of the deaf artist’s impressions of sound, music, and language — an important and variegated act of synesthesia. But distractions also abound:  minimally thought-provoking baubles, like Richard Garet’s “Before Me” (2012) or Camille Norment’s “Triplight” (2008), trade in more modish notions of “sound”; the former is a record player with a marble on its revolving tray, the latter a 1955 Shure microphone on a stand with a light inside of it. Similarly, Haroon Mirza’s “Frame for a Painting” (1972) — an acoustic foam hallway for a Mondrian painting framed with LED lights, replete with a small side table upon which sit a blinking bicycle light and two small Audioengine speakers — feels both underproduced and needlessly elaborate. Even compared with the rest of the show, it’s a slip from MoMA’s generally high production values: the piece is shoehorned into an awkward corner, and human traffic had, by the time of my last visit this past Sunday, worn away the acoustic foam in the corner nearest the entry point. Patrons crowded in the tight, L-shaped space like cattle to slaughter, in a perpetual state of entrance-exit anxiety — a real disservice to a nice little Mondrian.


Jacob Kirkegaard, “AION” (2006)


Jacob Kirkegaard, “AION” (2006)

But if a single piece redeems the entire exhibition, it’s Jacob Kirkegaard’s “AION” (2006), a nearly hourlong sound-and-video piece that takes as its animating premise the recursive recording technique made famous by Alvin Lucier’s “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1970). Kirkegaard, who recorded the work in four spaces within Chernobyl’s exclusion zone — an Eastern Orthodox church, a pool, a concert hall, and a gymnasium — repeatedly recorded then replayed the ambient noise of each location. He then achieves a haunting parallax between video and sound by over- and under-exposing the video recording, pairing these fluctuations with mere noise re-recorded to the point of orchestral crescendo. It’s a weird comparison, but one might say that Kirkegaard is a thinking generation’s response to Paul Horn, that flutist who attained a New Age celebrity by recording in such “mystical” locales as the great Pyramid, the Taj Mahal, and Tibet. Chernobyl is decidedly not New Age, though it was the harbinger of one — and it is this historical paroxysm whose consequences Kirkegaard considers with remarkable fluency. Unfortunately, given the piece’s cadence and duration, I didn’t observe a single patron linger for much longer than a few minutes.

Soundings: A Contemporary Score continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd St, Midtown, Manhattan) through November 3. Hyperallergic has previously discussed, in interviews, two artists in this show: Tristan Perich (of the “Microtonal Wall”) and Jacob Kirkegaard (of “AION”).

Correction, 11/4: An earlier version of this review incorrectly stated that the artist Hong-Kai Wang appears in the video component of “Music While We Work” (2011). 

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.