sounding architecture

by Fionn Meade nyfa website, 2006

The Brooklyn Bridge, singing. An empty hallway in an Italian office building, suspiciously effusing the clamor of human activity. Artists representing a variety of disciplines and approaches are increasingly embedding music, noise, and ambient sound into architectural structures, often completely unexpectedly. Here, writer and curator Fionn Meade discusses the work of Bill Fontana and Steve Roden, two quite different artists who are both fusing sound and site.

From Andrea Zittel’s experiments with sound works for her pre-fab modular housing units in the Joshua Tree high desert to Bill Fontana’s Harmonic Bridge, currently playing in Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, sonic architecture is increasingly being engaged by artists with and without backgrounds in sound and in both prominent and obscure locales. Fontana—a pioneering figure that has made monuments like the Brooklyn Bridge and Arc de Triomphe seem to sing—represents a grand strain of sound work that hears structures out and broadcasts their resonance. His current project outfits London’s Millennium Bridge with a system of eight accelerometers—live vibration sensors—that allow Fontana to then score a series of short spatial compositions for 11 loudspeakers inside Turbine Hall, effectively playing the bridge as an instrument. In short, Fontana’s is a dramatic and technological approach to sound, suitable for monumental sites.

The work of Los Angeles artist Steve Roden, by contrast, is a more situational practice. To find latent hymns in a modernist Italian office building or to situate an original sound composition within so revered a structure as a James Turrell Skyspace requires a balance of confidence and humility. And there’s perhaps no more precise yet playful guide to navigating sites through sound than Roden. Extending from his ongoing studio practice as an abstract painter, Roden often begins his projects—which can expand to include interrelated drawing, film, performance, sculpture, and sound—by finding or inventing scores that open up formal possibilities through rule-based formulas, and then gathers texts, objects, and other source materials to be explored via the score’s given logic. His practice teases out tensions and connections, allowing for unexpected turns and even misreadings to make their way in; this playful rigor is Roden’s signature.

A performance last fall in London at the Serpentine Gallery’s summer pavilion exemplified Roden’s ability to conflate calculated whimsy with the improvisation necessary to craft a sound work for a specific venue. Invited to create a site-specific work for the carapace-like structure, he collected more than 30 processed loops of field recordings made during the pavilion’s construction as well as audio from an on-site lecture by Eduardo Souto de Mora (who co-designed the pavilion along with Alvaro Siza and Cecil Balmond) and layered these with untreated sounds from the site recorded the day of the performance, including rain falling on the surface of the pavilion. Playing throughout the space, these loops were then accompanied by the live performance of a series of prepared scores that used only the simple notes available on a child’s glockenspiel. The scores were played by the artist along with employees of the Serpentine Gallery—non-musicians—who were inserted into the audience areas. It is this willing back and forth—from constriction to improvisation, from structure to happenstance—that typifies Roden’s equal embrace of conceptual and intuitive strategies.

Similarly, Roden’s recently-installed work for an entryway to a former office of the Olivetti typewriter company in Ivrea, Italy, weds field recordings from the building—the workers’ bustling presence as well as their resonant absence—with the acoustic possibilities of the artist’s old Olivetti Lettera 22. The piece encourages a “listening in” to what Roden, after Rilke’s, calls the “inconsiderable things” of everyday life. Placed directly below a large window that stretches along one of the building’s many corridors, the composition encourages listeners to slow down and perhaps even note the view as they make their way between meetings. Commissioned as part of Eco e Narciso, a current exhibition that aurally activates different sites throughout Turin, Roden was matched with the former Olivetti headquarters known as Palazzo Uffici, the centerpiece to more than 200 buildings in Ivrea directly or indirectly linked to the company’s original experiment—begun in the 1930s and continued in fits and starts through the 1950s—at building a corporative utopia. Now known and recognized under the auspice of the Ivrea Open-Air Museum of Modern Architecture, Roden’s composition for Olivetti’s headquarters hangs in the air as you enter, discretely inviting listeners to pause and listen in to the space.

But perhaps the boldest of Roden’s current sound works is day ring, night ring—a pair of compositions for the James Turrell Skyspace at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. In response to this meditative and measured space, Roden has adopted a far more performative stance than in previous installations. day ring incorporates violin along with the layered field recordings that Roden is known for, but moves away from looped immersion. Rather than placing a composition to be discovered within the structure, Roden’s 40-minute composition meets the cinematic nature of Turrell’s design and plays twice daily, slipping into the chamber to hover, entice, and pass—a mirror to the vantage of sky and clouds the space affords. The closest to a musical score of all his current site-specific works, day ring embraces the definition of the Skyspace while night ring emerges quietly during off-hours to inhabit the plaza adjacent to the sculpture. Roden’s is subtle, pure work wrung from self-imposed complications—ever-shifting but honed for entry.