Issue 1 January 2011

Resonates Well With Others

Recent Sound Art Collaborations

by E. Maude Haak-Frendscho

I make the call. A recording of a female British voice responds with her lines on the other side:

*Hello, Welcome to Drift/Net, a collaborative sound work by artist Yann Novak and you, the caller. From Oct. 12 – Nov. 15, 323 Projects will be collecting environmental recordings via telephone on behalf of the artist to be later incorporated into a larger compositional work. If you wish to contribute to this project, please pay attention to the following instructions: Record the sounds around you, whatever they may be, for up to one minute. If you wish to remain anonymous, simply disconnect the call at the end of your contribution. Thank you in advance for your participation. You may begin recording in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…[1] *

Suddenly I hear the world all around me. My chair is squeaky. Not a single floorboard is silent. Even the door has something to say. My writing area is my environment, the site of my everyday experience of the world. It produces more sounds than I had previously realized. I am playing my part in a public collaborative sound piece mediated by phone.

323 Projects is an exhibition space that only exists over the phone and on the web. Founded by LA artist, curator, and writer Tucker Neel earlier this year, 323 Projects intends to be a venue for artists who “provide, create, or perform works that can be appreciated in bits and pieces, and at more than one time, in both public and private spaces, by an unseen, yet omnipresent, local and international audience.”[2] In Yann Novak’s most recent piece for 323 Projects, developed in collaboration with the public over the phone, the disjointed nature of the collaboration reveals the conditions set by Neel. The interaction is completely mediated and the transmission feels independent and anonymous. Even though I know Yann from past projects, I cannot imagine him on the other end of this line; it isn’t even his voice. I am compelled to participate, but feel betrayed by the loneliness in this mechanically distant and distancing collaboration.

But the history of sound art is intimately tied to technological development. Italian futurist Luigi Rossolo developed instruments meant to mimic the sounds of the industrial world beginning in 1913.[3] Noise, as cultural indicator, chimed in a new era of production, including sound production. Since Rossolo, experimental composition and sound art have maintained a relationship to culture at-large, responding to and working with the sounds of everyday experience.

Everyday experience is shared experience, and so is the production of its sounds. The soundscape of contemporary place is a cacophony of natural, intentional, and incidental sonic contributions. Since John Cage’s seminal 4’33” (1952), the space for noticing and validating ambient sound has been opened. It is intended as a democratized realm, wherein all sounds are given a fair shake at being heard.[4]

But what are our contemporary everyday social spaces, and what do they sound like? More and more, social encounter is disembodied and dematerialized. Technological interfaces and social media, whether older technology like the telephone or something as new-fangled as networked computers, contribute to an interesting phenomenon: relationships forged by transmission.

Whereas Novak’s Drift/Net can be read as a critique of the alienating effects of sociality mediated by technology, the participatory sound project Autopoetics III posits a more ideal use of technologically produced sound collaborations:

At Southern Exposure, composer and sound artist Ted Coffey presents an installation performance of his Autopoetics III. Autopoetics III is an open work for any number of networked laptops in which continuously evolving electronic music and video are produced through collective play. The ensemble shares real-time control over streams of complexly enveloped sounds of the classic synthesis variety. Players create, transform, delete, and reorder these events, determine their pace and pitch language, and the logic of their sequencing.[5]

I arrived – without laptop – to the sounds of spare blips, echoey whooshes, synthetic string bowing, and electronic water drops. The main space of the Southern Exposure gallery is arranged with ‘laptopistes’ sitting in a round. Each player made visible their glowing MacBook tops, downcast eyes engaged in personal screens, and a set of speakers projecting one forward and one behind. Having taken the time to figure out the software, the players began to engage more seriously. They began to operate like experienced improv artists, able to listen, manipulate and play simultaneously. The whirring of computers and synthetic electronic sounds evidenced their play as it was performed live over a network, and experienced live within the physical gallery space.

There was a point of crescendo late in the afternoon; the group was pulsing together, some taking high frequencies, some holding a loose rhythm, and others repeating low tones that sounded like a synthesized cello. After about fifteen minutes it began to fall apart. They were either too bored or too playfully experimental to hold the riff. They laughed at each other across the room as they stole each other’s sounds, manipulating them through the programmed variables. They gave appreciative nods when someone developed the stream in an interesting new direction.

Other times the distortions were performed physically by moving the laptop itself; the program is synched with the MacBook’s internal gyroscope to respond to spatial directional changes in the sound output. As a listener and viewer, I was only privy to the collective sound of the streams and the visual impact of the participants’ non-verbal communications across the room. Although the sonic result by this self-selected group of ‘laptopistes’ was interesting, the experience of being in the space with them as it was improvised was essential for understanding their collaboration.

Participants in the Autopoetics III piece necessarily shared physical space in order to hear the output of their collaborative streams, even as the site of their collaboration was in virtual space. This interdependence of physical and virtual space for the collaborative production of sound presents an extra-dimensional new mode of working, one that is, perhaps, more reflective of our contemporary and future conditions. It posits an interdependence of site with non-site, digital with material, and perhaps, the global with the local, as a productive development in tools for communication and artistic collaboration.

Whether used as a critical tool or a potent new mode, participatory experiments in sound art are viable forms for articulating contemporary culture and its production. Yann Novak and Ted Coffey’s recent participatory sound art pieces orient us to the circulation of relationships within an increasingly tech-oriented social landscape. We have yet to fully realize the complex relationships between digitized and physical social spaces, but these two artists problematize and hypothesize in ways that are productive toward our on-going negotiations.

Since the initial writing of this piece, Yann Novak has progressed in the post-production work for his piece, Drift/Net. He contributed this update:

It’s now three weeks since the closing of Drift/Net. The response to the project was a bit overwhelming and it became a daily ritual for me to wake up and preview, download and catalog the previous days’ recordings with my morning coffee. Because this was such an intensive and habitual process, I decided it would be a good idea to give myself some space from the recordings before I took them into the studio for conceptual analysis or composition of the final piece, which will be called The Sounds Around Us.

Yann Novak – December 7, 2010

[1] Yann Novak’s text, as read by the receiving voice, can be heard at 323.843.4652 or read online at (accessed Oct 27 and Nov 6, 2010).

[2] “Mission,” (accessed Nov 6, 2010).

[3] Brandon LaBelle, “The Sound of Music: Contemporary Sound-Art and the Phenomenal World,” in Art Papers 23, no 2 (March/April 1999), 36.

[4] Sally Banes, “Equality Celebrates the Ordinary,” in Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 11-24; reprinted in Stephen Johnstone, ed., The Everyday (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 113.

[5] (accessed Nov 6, 2010). The event was performed on Saturday, Oct 16, 2010.