The power of sound is undeniable. Through familiarity it has the ability to comfort, through obscurity it disturbs and disorientates. As the causal effect of an action, the very existence of sound is inextricably tied to the visual, but can it play an autonomous role in art? It’s this question that forms the basis of “A Thing Heard”, the collaborative project by four UK sound artists united in a fervent belief in the potential of sound. Conceived by artists Jordan Edge, Joseph Higgins, Joshua Legallienne and Charles Pender, the touring exhibition comprises four individual works of sound installation which aim to relocate sound into the context of art.
“With sound, you’re literally moving the air around people. There’s something so physical about that” – Joseph Higgins
Edge speaks candidly about the misunderstood nature of sound in art: “if you speak to English people about what we practise you don’t receive any sort of understanding about it”. This much is undeniable — sound art is a minority of the art world, vastly unrepresented across contemporary art institutions. “People don’t know how to understand it,” Joseph Higgins tells SLEEK, “they just see it as music.” Addressing a need to expand the parameters of sonic understanding, the exhibition aims to present “four ways of listening”, focusing on the experiential and sensory capabilities of sound. “Sound is just another sense”, Higgins affirms — “with sound, you’re literally moving the air around people, and there’s something so physical about that.”
The tradition of understanding sound as music is significant for these artists, all of whom come from musical backgrounds. Pender explains, “We’re fundamentally musicians, or producers, but we’ve recently started delving into the realms of sound art, or installation art with sound as the primary medium.” Pender and Edge both make concept sound, or “high art music” as Higgins classifies it. Higgins is better known under electronic music aliases Metrist and L.SAE, with releases on Opal Tapes (UK), Fifth Wall (US), Parachute Records (IT), and Osiris Music (UK). All three cite Joshua Legallienne’s influence as instrumental in their movement towards sound art. Legallienne, also the founder of vinyl-only label pppp., has been working as a sound artist for years — “He’s been trying to graft a movement, and he’s gained recognition within the field,” says Pender. “The tour was his idea”, adds Higgins.
Legallienne’s practice demonstrates performative and sculptural tendencies, focusing on the creation of high-fidelity sound without the use of conventional electronics or loudspeakers. Honing in on the fragilities of sound, Legallienne explores the sonic medium in all its subtlety, specifically interested in the transformative relationship of environmental phenomena and physical properties of raw materials.
Higgins describes his influences, charting his interest in electro-acoustic, music-concrète and the productions surfacing in the 70s and 80s that were almost scientific in process. His discovery of Trevor Wishart and his mutilation of the voice into something unrecognisable as itself aligned with his reading of a T.S. Eliot poem about the sea having a languageless voice. From that point of departure, Higgins’ work took shape, pushing the boundaries of the voice through manipulation. Although it wasn’t that simple, “this sound’s like it’s all just fallen into place at once, but it didn’t — it took months.”
Literature also forms the basis of Charles Pender’s process. “My work is heavily based on literature and philosophy,” he explains. “I read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’, a 19th century novel explaining of a Norwegian fisherman getting dragged into a whirlpool and this moment of being between life and death.” Pender’s work seeks to actualise this sensation. “I created a big installation exploring the physicality of sound through metal sheets that were kind of replicating the soul’s descent into the maelström.”
Jordan Edge’s contribution to the project is the award-winning installation, “Acclimate”, inspired by noise in architecture. Interested in the mind’s ability to subconsciously dismiss constant sound, Edge aims to explore the physical and psychological effects of sound on the body. Through the use of industrial fans, Edge’s work accentuates the acclimatisation experienced in response to the droning sounds of everyday life. Edge acknowledges: “humans constantly have the need to feel comfortable in a space — if you’re in a building and you feel cold, you’re unhappy. Everything stems down to keeping people happy, but there are a lot of design flaws in doing that.”
“A Thing Heard” significantly comes to a close in Berlin, a city making its mark in the realm of sound art. “I can’t stress how big it is in Berlin,” explains Higgins. “The scene doesn’t cultivate here [in the UK] because sound artists are moving to Berlin”. The four installations will be shown at Spektrum, one of the most prestigious sound art galleries in the world, and experimental art space, Modular+.