Space/place, sound and performance
 This paper considers aural perception in a predominantly visual culture and the notion of listening as an under valued and under appreciated sense, especially in relation to space/spaces.
Although we might be quite confident about how a built space is perceived, we are far less aware of how it ‘sounds’, yet can still have an innate knowledge whether entering a cathedral or a caravan, as to the likely sonic properties each will have.  Our reactions in these spaces are affected by a complex combination of the structural architectural properties of proportions, materials and the mysteries of acoustic reflection or absorption, so much so that perhaps we take for granted our own contributing sonic position in space. A resonant hall seems to echo when empty but changes completely when inhabited by an audience: bodies are great absorbers of sound in space. We have far more words to describe what we see and trust our eyes more readily than we do our ears in gauging the properties of a space.
Brian Blesser, in ‘Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?’, considers auditory spatial awareness from the perspective of both user and listener within the space, whether architect, acoustic engineer, composer or audience, reminding us that each will have their own agenda for and expectations of the space in which sounds are heard. [i]
He writes about what he calls ‘aural architecture’, [ii] calling architecture an art form for daily activities and observes that we are quite capable of navigating spaces without the assistance of sight purely by hearing sound waves reflecting off surfaces. Walls are therefore given an audible manifestation, though the wall itself of course, emits no sound. Consider the aural formality of the marble interior for example, perhaps activated by footsteps, as compared to the aural intimacy and silenced footsteps of the deep pile carpet.
Marshall McLuhan states in his late 1970s essay, ‘Visual and Acoustic Space’:
“ We, who live in the world of reflected light, in visual space, may also be said to be in a state of hypnosis. Ever since the collapse of the oral tradition in early Greece, before the age of Parmenides, Western civilization has been mesmerised by a picture of the universe as a limited container in which all things are arranged according to the vanishing point, in linear geometric order. The intensity of this conception is such that it actually leads to the abnormal suppression of hearing..such is the power of Euclidean or visual space that we can’t live with a circle unless we square it.” [iii]
In other words, he maintains, the visuality of our essentially carpentered built surroundings dominates the senses.
Author and artist, Salomé Voegelin describes a seminal sound work, which explores the phenomenon of sounds experienced in a room within a room:
“A great number of sound artists have produced and manipulated rooms. In 1970 Alvin Lucier sits in a room and records himself telling us ‘I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice.’ He records this voice and plays it back into the room exploiting the distant resonances of that room he is sitting in to erase slowly, through repetition, the semantic meaning of the words that tell us of his location. And with the expunging of his voice’s semantic function, the symbolic function of the room is eroded too. The repetitions erase its architectural certainty rather than stabilizing it. In the end he is not sitting in a room at all anymore. Instead he is sitting in pure sound; the reverb and repetition having performed an acousmatic reduction to the core of sonic timespace: that of his enunciation and that of my listening.” [iv]
She rightly observes that the physical properties of the room itself can be heard within the recording of the recording via our innate ability to sense the nature of a space through sound.
As contemporary sound artist Peter Cusack reminds us, our visual space is often different from our aural space. [v] In a lecture room for example, the two are comparatively synonymous. The limit of the sound is bound by the limit of the space but in another type of space altogether such as the built up environment of a city, and he cites Jerusalem as being of particular significance here, the seen area is far smaller than the heard area that is to say, the nature of the city’s layout and the tall buildings of resonant stone tend to channel sounds down narrow streets where although views are restricted, a greater variety of sounds can be heard from a wider number of sources. He describes a cough from an unseen inhabitant behind a door, the distant whine of an electric drill, the clatter of crockery, the screeching of a caged bird, alongside sounds from further afield, the sources of which are all unseen and possibly, in some cases, unknown. Private and public spaces overlap in this context, becoming confused. Hearing consequently becomes more useful and meaningful than sight. Cusack suggests and demonstrates in his sound works that every city has its own unique aural architecture. We could perhaps, as intense listeners, be said to be the architects of our own aural experiences within each of them.
Henri Lefebvre muses on social space as a product of something, which is produced materially, contending that there is no such thing as inert space but that spaces are all conceptualised in some way. [vi] The space of the planners, the scientist and our own lived spaces are all differently experienced. It could be suggested that sound too should be considered as a material means of giving agency to space.
How we process sound and the meanings we take from them are of course, memory dependant. As Henri Bergson reminds us in Matter and Memory, “there is no perception that is not full of memories;” [vii] memory being defined by him as the survival of past (mental) images but also, less obviously one might contend, in combination with auditory mental ‘images’.
Bergson elaborates:
“Beyond the walls of your room, which you perceive at this moment, there are the adjoining rooms, then the rest of the house, finally the street and the town in which you live,” continuing: “perception is the master of space in the exact measure as action is the master of time.” [viii]
Both Alvin Lucier and Peter Cusack address and explore these ideas in their own sound pieces by testing our limits of perceptions of space in terms of sound layers and the comprehension of implied meanings.
Do we listen enough? How can we listen differently? How do we process and make sense of what we hear?  Michel Chion, in ‘Audio Vision, Sound on Screen,’ suggests dividing listening up into three different approaches:
 Causal listening:
listening for the purpose of gaining information about the sound’s source.
 Semantic listening:
listening for the purpose of gaining information about what is communicated (usually language).
 Reduced listening:
listening for the purpose of focusing on the qualities of the sound itself (pitch, timbre, grain etc.) independent of its source or meaning (my italics).[ix]
What we hear also produces a different emotional response to what we see. In trying to disentangle the processes involved in performance it is worth turning to J.J.Nattiez in his publication ‘Music and Discourse, Toward a Semiology of Music,’ [x] and his device of using Peircian semiotics to consider theories of meaning in sound.
Take for example, the well rehearsed semiological convention of:  the producermessagereceiver, or put another way, the addresser (or the act of making – i.e. the labour), message (the trace) – addressee – or alternatively, (in Pierce’s terms) sign/ representamen, object and interpretant. The latter, Nattiez maintains, unique to Peirce, becomes a sign in its own right thus causing the process of referring effected by the sign to be an infinite one.[xi] This interpretant in relation to sounds in space is the result of the act of experiencing and assimilating the sounds in a given context, the infinite qualities of which are aptly demonstrated by Lucier’s ‘I am sitting in a room’.
My own performative practice, that of live, site-specific, improvised performance, encompasses many of the challenges and dilemmas already mentioned and attempts to rearrange and contribute to the experience of sounds in spaces. I undertake this by using a traditional instrument, the violin, (acknowledging but trying to relinquish the associated baggage of tradition, technique and the conventions of playing) alongside a digital looping device (an infinite sign perhaps?) that records sounds and replays them live, thereby perpetuating the recorded sounds indefinitely. The work develops via the gradual deconstruction of a hitherto trained approach to expectations of tuning, use of bow (or not), exploration of ‘rehearsed’ improvisation and by embracing the lack of a need for formal notation or score as a prop. By taking the instrument beyond the conventions of the concert hall and into alternative spaces, other forces come into play. The expectations of the space are questioned by both performer and listener.
Brian Blesser reminds us that musical space is considered as an extension of the musical instrument (consider the origins of the term ‘chamber’ music) and thereby becomes another tool to be utilised. [xii] Taking this a step further, the space of the extended or prepared instrument has also been explored in my recent performances, with a nod to John Cage’s prepared piano compromise of 1940 [xiii] (on an occasion when the accompaniment to a planned dance performance for percussion had to be re-thought at short notice for the piano only). Cage’s use of objects such as metal bolts and insulation material wedged between the strings to ‘stop’ them, significantly altered the expected piano sound and became a device he came to use deliberately. This would suggest a double extension; of instrument, by virtue of the new unconventional space(s) it can inhabit and of instrument through ‘preparation’.
A number of objects have been used in preparation to ‘activate’ the instrument in recent performances: a ‘hacksaw,’ pieces of metal piping (inspired by the notion of architectural tubing used for audio surveillance in Bentham’s Panoptic prison design), a hoop used in a schoolroom, a piece of string, a feather and bones. Latterly the use of a contact mic, (a microphone that is physically attached to an object), has enabled me to activate physical spaces more directly allowing them to have something of their own voice, the performance becoming more a duet between performer and place. As Merleau Ponty quotes in The Phenomenology of Perception, in the chapter titled as ‘Space’:
“Our understandings of space emerge from action, indeed space is to be defined as a certain possession of the world by my body.” [xiv]
For ‘possession,’ ‘inhabit’ could be substituted, suggesting a borrowed space more than an owned one, albeit temporarily.
The ‘actions’, as the performances could be described, tend to vary according to the given physical site, and are that of an ‘intervention’ (in the sense of an unexpected circumstance) of a guerilla event, as a planned and timetabled happening or an installatory piece. Most crucially devising sounds that could be considered both abstract and representational, I seek to rethink how a performer can be an intermediary in a specific space: player as performer/labour, resultant sounds as trace/message and both player and receiver (if only via the document of the recording) as interpreter/interpretant.
These performances have taken the practice into many different situations; from the vaulted galleries of the V&A cast court to a domestic bedroom, from a stone staircase in Edinburgh University to a gantry overlooking a creek in Deptford, from a sterile gallery space at Chelsea college of art to a busy thoroughfare in a university corridor, and from a bustling market arcade in Brixton to an old ragged schoolroom in a South London gallery. Each site has required a unique approach but shares the requirement to allow the approach to be triggered by the nature of that site. 
To elaborate on the most recent intervention ‘seaNOISEsea’ which took place on the gun platform roof of a WWII Seafort, six nautical miles out at sea from the North Kent coastline as part of the Whitstable Biennale Satellite Programme June/July 2010, the press release states:
“The performer will be responding to the site activated by using live recordings and an electric violin to layer sound in the haunting atmosphere of the derelict fort. Ideally this will ‘give to the location a voice through found vibrations and activated acoustics. Sounding the fort with a violin, walking around the space to discover what it has to reveal from hidden secrets of the inside to the immensity of the sea outside.” (Antoine Bertin, sound collaborator) [xv]
In this context I was able initially to both ‘activate’ and ‘play’ the building, (a massive iron structure), the instrument complementing the sounds already heard whilst the notion of isolation at sea suggested by the sounds of the wind, a distant bell on a buoy and the ever present seagulls each became a part of the total aural experience.
Within the performative practice, sites are approached and treated differently according to the histories and associations inherent in each of the spaces and the nature of the fabric of the buildings. Reactions and responses have been documented anecdotally and are supported by documentary sound files and videos. 
In questioning the role of the site/space in relation to specific sounds made, the sites could be argued to be considered as impromptu studio spaces, places of contemplation, action, interaction and production. Sound could legitimately be considered as an object within that space, just as any other artistic practice involving deliberation, planning and execution might produce a three dimensional object, say, or a work on canvas. The sounds experienced could also be a trigger for memory ‘images’ as originally suggested by Bergson.
An observation on my practice made by artist Susan Trangmar that the resulting sounds were like ‘sculptures in space’ prompted thoughts on the nature of the tangibility of sound, of meaning and associations in a space and whether this can be defined or harnessed. John Baldessari, interviewed by Jessica Morgan for Tate magazine  muses on his ability to tap into what he calls other people’s built in ‘image banks’, formed through experience and memories. [xvi]  Could such an equivalent in sound be said to exist as a kind of ‘audio bank’ and is it as easily tapped, mined and referenced in live performance as the ‘image bank’ is with the visual? How is this audio bank enhanced by particular spaces?   
The dilemma then remains as to what to do with this new object, this intangible sound-thing and where to take it. Within the practice, the sounds could either remain on site, briefly inhabiting the space, alongside, yet at one remove from the producer, or be recorded and re-presented at one remove from the original site (ie as documentation). In either scenario there is a sense of loss or a missing part to the equation and always a compromise in terms of acoustic source, qualities of the sounds and what is communicated, in the combined experience of aural and visual in space. How to elicit, collect and analyse meaning, if possible, and if only anecdotally, is another dilemma of performative research to be taken further. The (sound) object in space thereby shifts to being a (sound) object in a new, virtual space; that of the imagination.
My aim continues to be the questioning of spaces through the ‘animation’ of that space by the widest possible definition of a word I have been contemplating recently: the word ‘excite’ in order to elicit perhaps one or two of the following:
1.) to cause somebody to feel enjoyment or pleasurable anticipation
2.) to make a person or animal feel nervous apprehension or an unpleasant state of heightened emotion
4.) to cause somebody to feel a particular emotion or reaction
5.) to raise a particle or system of particles, for example, an electron, atom, atomic nucleus, or molecule, above its lowest energy level (ground state) to a higher energy level
9.) to apply an electrical signal that will cause a device, such as a transistor, to operate
6.) to cause a memory, thought, or other response to form in the mind. [xvii]
[i] Barry Blesser & Linda-Ruth Salter, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?  (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2007).
[ii] Ibid, p. 2.
[iii] Marshall McLuhan, ‘Visual and Acoustic Space,’ in Christopher Cox & Daniel Warner (eds.) Audio Culture, Readings in Modern Music, (New York: Continuum Books, 2004), p. 67.
[iv] Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence, Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (London: Continuum, Books, 2010), p. 127.
[v] Peter Cusack, Lecture given at LCC, UAL, as part of Sonic Approaches to Place, Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art series ‘in conversation’ with Salomé Voeglin, (June 29th 2010),
[vi] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Donald Nicholson-Smith (trans.) (Oxford & Cambridge: Blackwell, 1998).
[vii] Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (trans.) (New York: Dover Philosophical Classics, 2004), p. 24.
[viii] Ibid, p. 183.
[ix] Michel Chion, Audio Vision, Sound on Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990) pp. 25-28.
[x] Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Music and Discourse, Toward a Semiology of Music (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990).
[xi] Ibid, p. 7
[xii] Barry Blesser & Linda-Ruth Salter, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? (Cambridge & London: MIT Press, 2007).
[xiii] John Cage,, (viewed June 15 2010)
[xiv] Merleau Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 283.
[xv] Whitstable Biennale link: and video link for seaports performance:, viewed July 18 2010; Antoine Bertin (assistant, collaborator and sound artist).
[xvi] Jessica Morgan, ‘Somebody to Talk To: Interview with John Baldessari,’ Tate etc., issue 17, Autumn 2009, London, p. 83.
[xvii] ‘Excite’ definition from Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation.