Listen Up!

The newest contemporary art exhibits are heard, not seen.


Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, Photo By Wilson Santiago Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sound installations are a growing trend in the contemporary art world.

Some attribute their popularity to the globalization of music through the internet. As Mark IJzerman, a sound artist/composer and writer for Everyday Listening, a website that posts various sound and art installations, sees it, “[The internet] makes way for music that uses sounds in different ways, which is why people’s ears are open to a wider variety. Sound is all around us, but we’re often not truly aware of it in the same way as the things we see because sound is temporal, fleeting. Learning how to focus on ‘active listening’ takes time and concentration, maybe more than looking at a painting, for example.”

Garnering recent attention was Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, presented at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s The Cloisters. This exhibit was The Cloisters’ entrée into contemporary art, and it was a first for Cardiff as well, since the exhibit was previously shown only in stark, modern rooms; this time, the backdrop was the beautiful Fuentidueña Chapel.

Associate curator Anne Strauss referred to the work as “a contemporary artist deconstructing a renowned 16th century piece of music, transforming it into her own masterwork presented in a 12th-century setting.”

The exhibit was breathtaking: 40 speakers set up in an ovular shape each played the recording of a singular voice from a member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir. Together, the voices sang the 40-part motet Spem in alium numquam habui by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. The 11-minute performance opened with a verbal introduction by the artist and played continuously during the museum’s operating hours.

Guests were encouraged to walk around the room and listen to each speaker—separately and collectively—to gain the overall sensory experience.

Soundings: A Contemporary Score at New York City’s MoMA, Photo By Jonathan Muzikar Copyright 2013 The Museum of Modern Art

New York’s Museum of Modern Art also featured an exhibit in this emerging genre last year. Soundings: A Contemporary Score was MoMA’s first major exhibition of sound art and featured the work of 16 contemporary artists. The museum’s website described the exhibit: “These artistic responses range from architectural interventions, to visualizations of otherwise inaudible sound, to an exploration of how sound ricochets within a gallery, to a range of field recordings—including echolocating bats, abandoned buildings in Chernobyl, 59 bells in New York City, and a sugar factory in Taiwan…. The exhibition posits something specific: that how we listen determines what we hear.”

Like art, sound installations can be exhibited in various forms. As IJzerman says, “It can be a sculpture in which sound is a dominant factor, or a knitted sculpture which reacts with sound when you touch it. Sound installation art is very much intertwined with both the exploration of music and sounds, but also sculptures and interactive systems.”