Category Archives: sound art

Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed Drones (2016)


Saint Mark’s chapel in Kemptown has been throbbing for five days straight. That is what you get from this piece, a relentless pulse of skuzzy, kilowatt-heavy hum which envelops you.

Where’s the band? You might ask, if you are keen on music of this persuasion. Well, they’ve left behind some eight unmanned guitars leaning on a similar number of vintage amps.

Rather than a performer, we have a soundman, who is putting in these marathon stretches in which he orchestrates the oscillations. ‘Here come the waves,’ as Lou Reed himself once sang.

Yes, this is the much anticipated installation piece by artist and musician Laurie Anderson in which several of her late husband’s guitars are set to feedback in deafening harmony.

It’s a warm bath, which may explain why the crowd in here are dwelling for long minutes at a time. They sit on risers. They lie on the stone floor. One guy in shades has hands clasped in prayer.

But the stained glass cannot compete with the lighting rig and the spots of light which flit around the room like a murmuration of fireflies. Yes, there is a glitter ball. It hangs in the air like a quoted lyric.

This attempt to raise the dead, within the safe confines of an Anglican chapel, feels like a partial success. Lou Reed is surely working his caustic, sonic way into the heart of the assembled crowd.

We have dry ice instead of incense, to remind us that rock rituals have frequently been about the mysteries of faith and the incarnation of rebel angels.

To complain that this gig-like event is not Art, would be churlishness turned up to eleven on the volume dial. The categories hardly matter, because Reed deserves this encore.

Lou Reed Drones had its UK premier between May 13 and 17 as part of the Brighton Festival 2016, guest curated by Laurie Anderson.

Photodiary: Whitstable Biennale 2014

whitstabke biennale

Last Saturday I spent eight or so intense hours hot footing it around a coastal town in South East England in search of the many artworks which make up Whitstable Biennale.

mark aerial waller

The coach dropped us at the Horsebridge Arts Centre, in which could be seen a wry excavation of 35-year-old television drama ,Sapphire and Steel, in a diverting film by Mark Aerial Waller.

rachel ruepke

Not so far away, in a sea cadet hall, Rachel Reupke had dramatised the power dynamics in a set of complaint letters. It was a mysterious if not completely opaque bit of performance art.

john walter

In a psychedelic beach hut on a westerly beach, John Walter was entertaining guest after guest with G&T plus gypsy tarts. I had no idea if the sun was past the yard arm, but oh well.

laura wilson

On the South Quay I found this sculpture by local stevedores working on behalf of Laura Wilson. Her accompanying film was a poetic slice of everyday life in an industrial zone.


This may look like a scene from Abu Ghraib but in fact it’s a church hall and these hooded figures are art lovers taking in bit of cosmic sound art from The Arka Group. It was hot under there.

jeremy millar

In the nearby postal delivery office, Jeremy Millar had built a screening room from fire blankets. The film itself followed a day in the life of a troubled man alone in a stunning marsh landscape.

rosa ainley

A community centre called Umbrella Hall was the location for a piece of sound art by Rosa Ainley. It treated the rise and fall of a local Pfizer building and was described, not by me, as a Greek chorus.

das hund

Seven pm and the sun was still up. Das Hund played a gig in a boat shed. I guess any old singer can carry a tune, so Samuel Levack’s atonal delivery was all the more impressive.

fish and chips

Forgive the gastroporn but, not having eaten since breakfast, fish and chips on Whitstable beach was just the ticket. It’s a fantastic event and if you can go next weekend, do.

Whitstable Biennale 2014 runs until June 15.

Chris Watson and Iain Pate, HRAFN; Conversations with Odin (2013)

Two myths converge in an evocative piece by a sound recordist and a producer. The first myth concerns the most powerful Norse god and the second myth could concern you.

HRAFN will be staged in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, with support from the Forestry Commission. The artists reveal that Odin owned two pet ravens: Huginn and Muninn.

These two tame harbingers would sally forth at daybreak and observe goings on in the wider world, much like a pair of spy drones would do in this day and age.

Upon their return they would sit on Odin’s shoulders and tell him all that they had seen and heard. It intrigues me that such a major god was not already omniscient.

The ravens were web-like prosthetics. Huginn related to thought; Muninn to memory. Odin once said: “For Huginn I fear lest he return not home, but I am more anxious for Muninn”.

Chris Watson and Iain Pate have also been waiting for ravens. They’ve been waiting for the birds to return to roost on the site of a forest in the North East. The birds predate the trees.

The duo will take a group of art and nature lovers away from the car park, over a stone bridge portal and into the heart of the forest where they promise 2,000 of the birds.

But this is myth number two. Inspired perhaps by Loki, the god of mischief, the team are to engineer a 21st c. raven-based hack to achieve their desired effect.

And so, hidden speakers will pipe the birds’ cawing down from a canopy, from the vault of abundant conifers which have been compared to columns in the hall of Valhalla.

The birds will arrive with the darkness, a situation which has been restaged to disorienting effect at Jerwood Space, when the film comprising their proposal blacks out.

Now you wait, blind and anxious, until you hear the ravens arrive. There is a mood of conversation between these birds, both palpable and comforting.

You can even imagine, in the polyphonic soundscape, that you have a bird on either shoulder: one of them helping you think; one of them helping you remember.

For your benefit, I made the sound recording below. If you’re interested in the amazing work of Chris Watson, try this documentary about his work with David Attenborough.

This work together with pieces by Semiconductor, Amanda Loomes, Adam James and Juan Delgado can be seen in Jerwood Open Forest, Jerwood Space, London, until February 23.

BREAKING: Since writing, I’ve been told that the film was just a proposal. So congratulations to Chris and Ian who, along with Semiconductor, have won a commission from the Jerwood Open Forest initiative. Their project will now take place in September 2014.

Kaffe Matthews and Mandy McIntosh, Yird Muin Starn, 2013


Given the vast technological resources made available to those who wish to explore outer space, an analogue vinyl album seems like a less than adequate way to respond to the cosmos.

But in fact Yird Muin Starn is comprehensive in its dealings with such matters as star constellations, the Apollo missions, lunar cycles, the Pioneer probe and supersonic air travel.

The LP opens with a spoken word account of the landing of the Possil meteorite, which fell on the outskirts of Glasgow in 1804. So space cannot be ignored even if you were a 19th century Scot.

Other standout tracks include an Old Scots poem called Tae the Moon, which reads brilliantly even if a bit incomprehensible at time. Yird Muin Starn transates as Earth, Moon, Stars.

Flying to the Sun is just as witty. McIntosh’s vocal gets out of sync until Matthew’s drops a stalking bassline on the track. This underpins the humorous narrative of an eight year voyage to the sun.

Elsewhere vocals take a back seat to make way for instrumental tracks such as Betelgeuse to Rigel, Star Stream or Seven Sisters. These sound improvised or generative, whether they be or no.

Penetrating tones, solar wind interference, electrons rattling in a tube, re-entry static, early home computing tones, liquid silver: these are all the impressions which Yird Muin Starn leaves you with.

The album may be challenging at times, but it is never without humour and interest. You can learn much from this collaboration between artists Matthews and McIntosh.

You may not have been aware that the moon is slowly working its way free of our orbit; or that the woman on the pioneer plaque is missing an intimate part of her anatomy. I hope both facts are true.

But when you’re strapped for cash, you need a bit humour to explore outer space with. Yird Muin Starn also gives its name to a public artwork by the duo in Galloway Forest.

This site is Europe’s first Sky Park, with zero light polution and reclining Sky gazers where you can sit back and voyage to your hearts content. There are even space suits you can book out.

It sounds like the most fun you could have with someone else’s clothes on. Were this blog not composed in South East England, I’d be there like a shot, with headphones rather than a telescope.

Yird Moon Starn, the album is available from the Annette Works label. More info on the project can be found here.

Martin Creed, Work No. 1197 (2012)

It is not clear what Work No. 1197 set out to achieve. But few could misunderstand just what it was they had to do, or what happened.

At inestimable numbers of people came together to ring all manner of bells. They met in churches, galleries, schools and theatres. You could even try this at home.

At Fabrica gallery Brighton some thirty volunteers and staff formed a spontaneous circle, an effortless slipping into the role of bellringers.

The chiming began and before long an additional sound could be heard. That was, if not mistaken, an unofficial resonance, a music of the spheres, something not signed off at LOCOG.

Few artists come across as material minded as artist Martin Creed. But in that spooky extra vibration, there was something perhaps mystical despite the early hour.

It made me think of Abbie Hoffman’s efforts to levitate the Pentagon. The Yippie founder also wanted to turn the building orange and end the war in Vietnam.

By all reports, Whitehall is still on terra firma and retains the colour of stone. But hey, Jeremy Hunt’s bell broke, so perhaps it worked.

The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport joined proceedings on the deck of HMS Belfast, a suitable target for our peace-loving energies.

New age readings aside, this was still a remarkable event. The diversity of bells in use was itself an exhaustive expression of difference and conceptual sameness.

Top prize in my limited experience goes to the chap in Brighton with a cloche jar and an official Olympics bouncy ball on the end of a chop stick. Everyone is an artist, after all.

Following a very quick three minutes of something approximating joy, the ringing ceased and a round of applause swept the room.

It died down and the only sound left was a smartphone on the stage, pulsing with an official All The Bells ringtone. But since 815am, can anything else still be heard?

Trainofthoughts @ The Horse Hospital

You might think it’s a first world problem or a high class issue, but just how does a human being get through a seven hour traffic jam?

Such was the predicament of Micheál O’Connell, aka Mocksim, snarled up on the M25 in what it soon emerged would be a history-making tailback.

But while his phone ran out of battery, his digital SLR had enough charge for him to shoot apocalyptic scenes of stranded traffic through his windshield.

On his car stereo was a sound piece by Stace Constantinou, with which he was planning to work. So Mocksim timed shutter clicks to coincide with moments in the composition.

Constantinou’s piece was already a response to a nightmare journey: a once daily and claustrophobia-inducing commute from North Lambeth to Morden.

But this had been displaced in his imagination by what sounds like a raid on the BBC radiophonic workshop. Field recordings from the tube mix with scripted actors.

His protagonist does eventually reach the far side of a river thanks to a ferryperson and we learn that this place is called, with grim inevitability, Mord.

Mocksim meanwhile cut holes in each of his shots, animated and stacked them to make a virtual tunnel which the viewer can finally fly through to freedom.

The two works combine in a dryly amusing way at the Horse Hospital, itself once a pit stop for London cabbies. A place for breakdowns and delays.

So the travel issues just pile up. The UK road and rail infrastructure is not one of the great themes of western culture, but it’s still a pain in the ass. Why not make art about it?

Trainsofthought ran last weekend in London. Visit or to find out more about the artists’ work. 

Kaffe Matthews, ‘You might come out of the water every time singing’ (2012)

(c) Kaffe Matthews. Courtesy the Bluecoat, Liverpool

“Okay, we’re 30m underwater on a ley line and we’re heading for some squid,” or words to that effect. Such is my greeting from artist Kaffe Matthews.

My response is helpless excitement. I lie on my back on the shark platform and look up at the murky green light. You can well imagine the hammerheads are up there.

Oscillators pump out a generative soundscape. Tremors pass through me from the matted platform. And it feels as if we are really travelling at speed.

Matthews is a diver as well as a composer. And she has really swum with hammerheads so has really earned a right to the data which drives this piece.

The raw materials for this music are the topographies of the ocean floor and the depths, speeds, and directions of six tagged shark specimens.

And here is where it gets cosmic: hammerheads navigate using electromagnetic fields. So as this piece follows them, it recreates on dry land the invisible forces which bind oceans in place.

As a result it is hard to get off the mat again, hard to break free from its magnetic pull. It is thrilling, yet as free from danger as Matthews’ dives must have been fraught. whatever she says.

Up until now, one might have figured that Damien Hirst was responsible for the world’s most badass shark art. But his pickled tiger now has a serious contender.

And surely everyone will come out of the water here singing the praises of this art, not to mention the joy of sharing minutes of your life with some prehistoric fish.

This piece can be seen in the exhibition Galápagos at the Bluecoat, Liverpool, until July 1. See gallery website for more details and read my interview with Matthews on Culture24.

Fedora Romita, For Informational Purposes Only (2010/11)

In all the guidebooks available to Berlin, you are unlikely to find one which recommends making audio recordings of your journeys on the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn.

But that is the method used by Fedora Romita to orientate herself in a new city. And this results in one CD for each of the five lines U1, U7, U8, S1 and S42.

The beauty of the work is its minimalism. It was exhibited at the Meter Room with just discmans, headphones, lists of stations, plus a couple of print outs of the network.

Plugging in to the rumble, PA and chatter of public transport in Berlin and looking down at Midlands buses in the rain, it was easy to imagine yourself 600 miles away.

(And as a local friend points out sometime later, it so happens bomb-scarred Coventry and the onetime German capital have got some history between them.)

It comes as a surprise to find that sound provides such a strong sense of orientation. So what appears as a somewhat whimsical exercise is really quite effective.

Those lacking in imagination or unwilling to suspend disbelief might claim that Romita is just pretending to use scientific method, or doing make believe geography.

It works though, so you would have to go further and say perhaps this is real geography, or even science, which always requires such an element of fantasy. Without it, information is quite useless.

This work was seen in The Mobility Project at The Meter Room, Coventry. Show closed Sunday. Check out Romita’s website for sample tracks.

Liliane Lijn, Moonmeme (1992-2011)

Installation view at FACT as part of Republic of the Moon Photographer: Brian Slater

Investigations have taken place as to the feasibility of projecting a single word onto the surface of the moon. But Liliane Lijn is still waiting for a technical solution.

In the meantime, we can make do with a simulation. And the word which appears on the virtual moon, both online and at FACT Liverpool, is simply “SHE”. What else?

At time of writing, moonmeme is in near total darkness. So right now it works like a sound piece, the word ‘she’ breaking in layers of foamy sibilance.

Lijn and a co-conspirator take turns to utter the three letter word. It is purred, growled, sang, said any which way which reminds us of the essential strangeness of language.

Every 26 hours the piece updates to reveal a different phase of the moon. When it is full we can read the moon’s gender writ large across her face.

But when it is two thirds full we can read, ‘HE’ or even ‘SH’. It is curious that a male pronoun is contained in the female, stranger still it contains a prescription of silence.

Our creeping shadow (it is the Earth after all) connects moonmeme to earlier works by Lijn in which she made experiments with spinning words and kinetic texts.

The tidal motion of the soundtrack and the lunar motion of the visuals put the meaning of this tiny word into reserve. The feminine principle is everywhere, but nowhere.

Here we find only the reflection of reason, as we find ourselves washed ashore with only moonbeams to guide us. Moonmeme is as bewildering as a birth.

This work can be seen in Republic of the Moon at FACT, Liverpool, until Feburary 26 2012. See gallery website for more details. Alternatively, you can experience the project online, in realtime at

Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (2001)

When a gallery is a deconsecrated church and the artwork is a piece of religious music, walking in is a hair’s breadth from turning up for Sunday worship. It’s humbling, even humiliating.

The early choral work, Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, is drawing people in off the street, nevertheless. This is one church that’s full. The only people lacking are clergy and choristers.

Instead 40 state of the art speakers surround the ad hoc congregation. They are placed at person height and a different voice from Salisbury Cathedral Choir can be heard on each.

Were this a live performance, it would feel even less like art. Empassioned song fills the gallery, but the singers are absent. Their lack of presence is the most engaging aspect of the piece.

The choir is an effect of technology so perhaps God is just an effect of such choirs. He and they are both here and not here. It depends whether or not you close your eyes.

But the voices are in layers, so there is something fathomless about that question. And the several parts of the composition can surprise you. Phrases come at you from different angles.

Cardiff has said she wants this to work to explore the ways in which sound can structure a space. It can certainly dominate a place and resonate with a building’s original function.

So, walking in is strange. And as notes here point out, the experience is intimate. We are, one supposes, naked under the eyes of God. Hence a bit of embarrassment.

There’s little choice but to join the flock and accept the embrace of this work. But getting out of church is still a relief. Weddings, funerals, ecclesiastical art shows, you name it.

There are plenty more voices offering counterpoint to this. Classical music blog An Overgrown Path has specced out the audio equipment. Todd Gibson on From the Floor found it emotional.

Dugal McKinnon’s blog, meanwhile, offers a compelling analysis which spells out the transcendental qualities of the work and goes much further on the theme of presence and absence.

The current show at Fabrica runs until 30 May 2011.  See website for more details.