Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
A new exhibition highlights the curious potential of sounds that are tempting to ignore.
For many urban dwellers, tussling with a wall of urban noise is a zero-sum game: Either submit to the discordant city orchestra of bleating horns and wailing sirens or, as Jamie Lauren Keiles suggested in the New York Times Magazine, stock up on disposable foam earplugs in an effort to seal a membrane between self and sound. With little nubs stuffed in your ears, she wrote, “everything is the same as before except thrillingly dampened.” Faced with the prospect of some muddied, disorienting medley (even below decibel levels at which it is baldly dangerous), the more appealing choice—maybe even the only way to think clearly—is to hear nothing at all.
A new exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan takes issue with that premise. First, it distinguishes between hearing and listening—the involuntary fluttering of the eardrum and a band of tiny bones, versus something sustained and mindful. Then it imagines listening as restorative as opposed to exhausting, and proposes that deep listening connects us to traditions and to each other.
“The World Is Sound,” opening June 16, showcases work by more than 20 audio artists, presented in conversation with works from the institution’s collection of Tibetan Buddhist objects. The exhibition circles the museum’s basement level and top floor; connecting them is a sonic spine that hugs the central spiral staircase. That site-specific work, “Le Corps Sonore,” by the artists Laetitia Sonami, Bob Bielecki, and Éliane Radigue, loops drone sounds that trail up and down the stairs to underscore the themes of change and impermanence—central tenets of Buddhist philosophy. As visitors wind through the galleries, they encounter ritual texts with musical annotations, an immersive chamber playing recordings of thousands of visitors chanting “om,” and an ensemble of cymbals, conch-shell trumpets, bronze gongs, and other instruments used in Buddhist rituals.
Out in the urban world, sounds are inflicted on the body. The exhibition, on the other hand, has assembled a specific and generous aural architecture, confining sound to certain corners, highlighting or muffling it in turn. Visitors can choose how to engage with it. Some pieces are cued by motion-activated triggers; others are immersive rooms that visitors can choose to enter or bypass; still others are open speakers or corridors where listeners can congregate, explains the curator, Risha Lee.
At various points along the trip up and down the stairscase, the sounds swell to a rumble akin to the sonic melee of a street scene, where it’s tricky to parse the composite noises. Uncomfortable though they may be, those pesky walls of sound have a delayed benefit, says artist Sonami. She draws a parallel to a block where a barreling vehicle deafens everything in its vicinity. Then, when it recedes, everything else comes into sharper focus. “As it moves out, the other stuff is coming in,” she says.
But, she adds, listeners have to allow ourselves to contemplate the sounds we hear—and that’s something we’re not very good at. “It’s almost like you have to block a lot of other inputs, because we don’t really do it naturally,” Sonami says.
Many of the show’s installations address that sensory mismatch: In cases where there was nothing much to look at, my imagination populated the soundscapes with vivid images I’d conjured up. Bob Bielecki’s piece “…from a distance” is fashioned from hundreds of hours of field recordings in India and Nepal. From those recordings, he pulled background sounds—wind, the sound of water lapping at the sides of a boat on the Ganges river, music drifting from nearby temples—to the forefront. The sounds felt like they had a shape and a weight to them; when I closed my eyes, I could picture water dripping off oars as the boat launched across the river.
The trouble is, with its darkened corners and funneled sounds, the museum sculpts optimal conditions for muting some senses and sharpening others. It’s also hard to protect that sense of wonder, patience, and curiosity once you abandon the gallery—tuned specifically for those purposes—and tiptoe back into the raucous world that always barges in.
Above: A reel from students in the Columbia Sound Arts MFA Program. (Danielle Dobkin, “OSCILLATION/BEYOND TIME”; Ethan Edwards, “CREANTEM”; Yingjia Lemon Guo with physics consulting by Liting Xiao, “UNTITLED”; Geronimo Mercado, “MEMORIAL TO THE SOUND GHOST
(in Memory of Pauline Oliveros.”) Audio installations courtesy of Rubin Museum of Art and the artists. Image: A rendering of "The World Is Sound" exhibition, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.)
I asked the artists for suggestions about how to be a more engaged consumer of sound out on a busy block. To zero in on the individual sounds in your city, Sonami suggests starting with a narrow depth of field. Years ago, in Corsica, she would sit outside and keep a diary of passing sounds—planes, dogs, wind. In some cases, “you have to consciously stop moving,” she says. “It’s too hard to do everything at once.” This is a good project next time you’re stuck at a bus stop, where you’re a captive audience.
Being more aware of sound is an oft-neglected part of urban planning, too, as the artist Hildegard Westerkamp, also represented in the show, has noted. She champions soundwalks—quiet ambles in which participants audit a route’s aural ecology—for both policy-makers and residents. The strolls sometimes highlight sounds for which a city is famous: clanging bells, maybe, or drifting music; other times, they’re punctuated by surprises. A soundwalk could include anything from riding the subway to sitting in a café—the key ingredient is careful listening. By paying attention to whatever strikes the naked ear, Westerkamp writes, planners, architects, and engineers could make ever-more-precise decisions about zoning and building. Everyone, regardless of expertise, can meditate on the way that the environment shapes inner commentary, too. Sound can both anchor and transport you, Bielecki says. But, he adds, “you have to let it.”
“The World Is Sound” is on view at the Rubin Museum beginning June 16, 2017.