White Noise
Made in White City

The Trouble With Sound Is That It's Invisible

The trouble with sound is that it's invisible. You can't stick Big Ben's boom on a postcard or the squeal of taxi wheels on Instagram. But as we finish off our Sound of the City theme, here are six artists mixing noise and the visible world.

WORDS - Liz Ann Bennett

Tourists and train lines alike struggle to reach Ravenglass, a seaside hamlet on the edge of the eastern half of the Lake District. Here, gazing out to sea across its expanse of mud flats, I felt as if history had tiptoed away. This is normal, the silence seemed to say; cities and their noise are the exceptions. 

Our Sound of the City series revelled in the racousness of these exceptions and celebrated the invisible urbanism of sound.

Try finding a picture of the London Eye, as Cities and Memory's Stuart Fowkes suggests, then try looking for a recording of its sounds. These ubiquitous and elusive pieces of urban heritage are vulnerable to rogue stomach rumbles or even the sound of breathing, both of which can mar a recording. Better do what Ian Rawes from the London Sound Survey advises, and imitate a human statue. Sound is inseparable from our experience of cities, argues Darran Anderson, “Urban spaces are not just noisy, they are noise.”

Meanwhile, artist Robin the Fog has been taking a razor to mixtapes he made from pirate radio stations over two decades ago, and Luke Turner took a musical trip through London's exhilarating and transgressive underbelly. In White City, the Royal College Art occupied White City Place for four eclectic weeks as students used sound art to question the role of creativity in the digital world.

Read, listen and immerse yourself in these pieces and many more here.

Yet all series, we've wrestled with how to portray sound visually. So to complete the theme, here are six pieces or exhibitions that do exactly that, with thanks to Helen Frosi of SoundFjord and Robert Barry of The Quietus for their suggestions. 

Anat Ben-David Kairos V&A sound art

Anat Ben-David Kairos V&A sound art

1. & 2. Kairos is a theatrical song-cycle by artist Anat Ben-David that collides opera, experimental composition and futuristic staging. The work will respond to the unique architectural spaces of the V&A on July 5th as part of the gallery's week-long Reveal festival.

repose yann novak

Yann Novak repose sound art

3. & 4. With sound “comprised of purely synthetic timbres” and a light projection that shifts without ceasing through seven colours, Yann Novak's Repose installation is a meditative experience that remarks on context and perception. Photos: Christopher Wormald.

Otto Dix Street Noise

5. This German Expressionist wood-cut is appropriately named Street Noise (Otto Dix, 1920). Urbanist Darran Anderson recommended the piece: “We often take cities to be complete, finite, singular things when, as this woodcut reminds us, they are actually plural, transient, multi-directional, and subjective. We see ourselves journeying through them when really they are cascading through us. The truest tower to humanity was not a spire or minaret or skyscraper but Babel, always being built, always tumbling and always creating soundtracks.” 

Semispecific Truedat

Semispecific Truedat

6. & 7. Semispecific is a club night, but it's so much more. Artists Charlie Knox and Euan McKenzie have created what's been described as “an engulfing multisensory experience in which the whole room seemed to come to life in time to the music,” designed to overwhelmn and unmoor its audience from their sense of time and place.

John Grzinich Bothnia

John Grzinich Bothnia

 8. & 9. In residency in the frozen Bay of Bothnia in Finland, sound artist John Grzinich used sound, photos and moving images to capture an environment that appears static but “over time reveals its ever dynamic nature in constant flux.”

WHitechapel gallery

10. The Trickle-Down Syndrome is a new show at the Whitechapel Gallery by Benedict Drew. It takes visitors on a sensory journey over five rooms, using vividly-coloured screens, experimental compositions and an audio narrative.

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