TOP 10: Sonic Arts Events of the Last Two Years

As the world of Sonic Arts evolves to define itself, sound artists the world over are pushing the boundaries of creativity. This challenges us in simply categorizing their works as Sonic Art, as the broad scope includes Albums, gallery installations, computer software and the hyper-progress of technology. These 10 selections represent for me the most important and interesting events in Sonic Art since 2009.

It is not a judgment or critical breakdown of the quality of these works, as the artists are too diverse to compare within such a list. This is purely a reflection of my own taste for sound art that has had an impact on global culture. It is certainly a global perspective, from Beijing to Montreal, San Francisco to Reykjavik, and London to Mexico City. The Top 10 Events are loosely placed in chronological order.


1. Ben Frost’s Album By The Throat Released November 2009

In 2009 Ben Frost released his darkly cinematic work By The Throat, which gathered wide acclaim. Geography can have an immense influence on musicians and Iceland, particularly Reykjavik, has a notable presence in the ethereal sounds of artists like Björk and bands like Sigur Rós. This comes through in Frost having released By The Throat after his relocation to Reykjavik from his native Melbourne. This is only Frost’s second solo album since breaking onto the scene in 2001, but his collaborative body of work is extensive. It was collaborations with Icelandic artists such as Valgeir Sigurðsson and Björk that transplanted him to Reykjavik.

Growling electronics and the piercing sounds of processed guitars structure By The Throat, but the ambience of howling wolves and ghostly voices set the icy moods. The album features contributions from a number of interesting artists, including the drummer from Arcade Fire – Jeremy Gara, New York City composer Nico Muhly, Swedish metal band Crowpath, and the Icelandic experimental string quartet Amiina. The album received praise from  David Stubbs of the BBC, who said, “(It) reaches right out of the thought bubble and punches you out of your skin.” Additional to the album being selected on a number of Best of 2009 lists, it contributed to Frost being chosen as Brian Eno’s protégé in 2010.


2. Madame White Snake Awarded Pulitzer Prize –  February 2010

In April of 2010, The Pulitzer Prize for Music was awarded to Chinese composer Zhou Long for his Opera Madame White Snake. Zhou emerged as a promising young Beijing music student in the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution. Three decades later he has had a major influence on contemporary American classic music along with Chinese composers like Tan Dun and Chen Yi, who is also Zhou’s wife.

The Opera’s librettist and creator is Cerise Lim Jacobs, and Zhou’s music beautifully captures the mythological overtones of the story. The “Legend of the White Snake” is deeply important in the mythologies of China, and Zhou is one of the few composers who could be trusted to convey its significance. Zhou’s music carries the legacy of adaptations reaching back centuries in China, but also introduces his own cross-cultural re-imagining in the grand symphonic style of western operas. Radio WGBH Boston has an extensive program with music clips and interviews from the Opera Boston performance.


3. Susan Philipsz’s “Lowlands Away” Wins Turner Prize – December 2010

The Turner Prize is not an award one would expect to read about in discussion of Sonic Arts, but Scottish vocalist and sculptor Susan Philipsz changed that in late 2010. Awarded by Britain’s premiere art gallery, the Tate, it is a highly publicized honor that often comes with spats of controversy. Such controversy surrounded Philipsz for being the first sound artist to win what was exclusively an award for visual artists. The prize is so named for the English romantic painter, J.M.W. Turner. Student art groups staged a sit-in at the gallery, apparently appalled that a singer was awarded this prestigious prize of visual merit.

While a controversy for some, it was a breakthrough for Sonic Arts, as Philipsz’s installation was more than “just someone singing in an empty room,” as the student group complained to the BBC. Philipsz has been described as a “sound sculptor,” and her voice leaves a haunting impression in the gallery space. In the recording she sang the traditional Scottish folksong, “Lowlands Away,” performed solo under three different bridges in Glasgow. In a poetic sense Philipsz’s past as a sculptor, or a visual artist, was the bridge for her voice to be considered art to the judges of the Turner Prize. There is a full video with the sound recording within the End of Being write-up about Philipsz.


4. Ryoji Ikeda’s “The Transfinite” in New York. May-June 2011

Operating out of Paris, Japanese sound artist Ryoji Ikeda returned to New York City in 2011 and transfixed the Park Avenue Armory hall with “The Transfinite.” This unique performing arts space is a massive 55,000 square-foot hall that Ikeda engulfed in hypnotic visuals set to his trademark tonal sound waves and raw digital noise. Like Susan Philipsz’s sound installation at the Tate, Ikeda’s installation at the Armory was about space as much as it was about sound.

This immersive work captured the imagination of New York’s arts scene and numerous exhilarated tourists for a brief month. Its “sonic environment” synchronizes illusions of depth perception, light and shadow, with rhythmic pulses of tone. It creates a visceral experience of our modern society’s information overload. There are a number of video clips of the actual projections and soundtrack, as well as behind the scenes footage of the gallery installation at the Armory Park site.  Ikeda is often linked to the German music label Raster Noton, which has corralled several sound artists into the Glitch sub-genre of Electronic Music.


5. Yannis Kyriakides Releases Antichamber 

Released on his own label, Unsounds, classical composer and sound artist Yannis Kyriakides compiled 13 years of electroacoustic chamber works. Kyriakides’ shows an ambitious collection of compositions, refined with minimalism and subtly creative production. Antechamber was awarded the 2011 Qwartz Award in the Experimentation/Research category.

Kyriakides’ artistry can be regarded as a research into non-traditional ideas of chamber compositions. He often layers this experimentation of instruments with technological playfulness. Bob Gilmore called the album, “the chamber music of a new century.” In an album review from Julian Cowley in The Wire, he called Kyriakides’ musical voice, “exhilaratingly different.” In Ingvar Nordin’s review in Sonoloco, he writes, “Kyriakides’ sound art is…I do not hesitate… unparalleled.” Antichamber consists of 10 pieces on a double disc release; the Album’s opening track, “Telegraphic” can be heard on the Unsounds site.


6. MUTEK Festival Celebrates 12th Year – 1-6th June 2011.

As the largest Northern American gathering of Electronic musicians, sound artists, and industry movers and shakers, MUTEK held its 12th annual festival in Montreal. Since 2000, the Montreal centered event, has expanded showcases to South America, including Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Columbia and Mexico City. Though, MUTEK has also sent delegations to European events and the first of its kind for electronic artists in China.

Festival organizers have focused on creating a communal atmosphere that successfully engages shared ideas through panels, showcases and performances. Everyone attending is there for a shared passion of digital platforms and electronic arts. It has featured artists such as Andrew Weatherall, Modeselektor, Richie Hawtin (Plastikman), Tim Hecker and Kid Koala to name just a small sampling of hundreds of attending artists. It was founded by Alain Mongeau, who described the name MUTEK as “the connection between MUsic and TEKnology…but also the underlying notion of Mutations that drives it.”


7. A Retrospective of Composer Eliane Radigue – 12-26th June 2011.

The Producers at Sound & Music in England staged a retrospective of composer Eliane Radigue, virtually unknown before, who is now considered one of the most celebrated and influential living composers. The Paris born artist had been composing since the 1960s, but discovered a blossoming apprenticeship under electronic pioneers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry.     

Radigue’s technical tastes began to stray from Schaeffer and Henry’s style, and she grew into unique explorations influenced by Buddhist meditation. Consistently composing and releasing works over decades, in 2006 Radigue was awarded the revered Golden Nica in Digital Music from the Ars Electronica organization. She has since returned into composing works for traditional orchestration, while also creating and performing digital pieces with the collective group,  The Lappetites.


8. Oneohtrix Point Never: Returnal Album Release – May 2010.

While Eliane Radigue worked with traditional compositions for some time, her work with The Lappetites was a return to synth pieces. Many critics praised this trend of electronic artists bolstering a synth-revival, and while Radigue is a veteran, there are fresh voices like Brooklyn Based Daniel Lopatain, under the moniker Oneohtrix Point Never. 2012 marks Lopatain’s 4th album release, Returnal on the indie label Editions Mego.     

The 8 tracks on Returnal trace a spectrum of moods, from exhilarating rhythms of noise to meditative drones. Pitchfork placed the album on their Best of 2010 list, saying, “Oneohtrix Point Never’s music is in love with technology, but finds it nevertheless a source of sadness, anxiety, and gleaming fatigue, as well as redemption.” Therein is the emotional spectrum of Returnal, where Lopatain uses a sound nostalgic for synths to reach new heights as a sonic auteur.


9. Jana Winderen Wins Golden Nica – September 2011.

In 2011, London Born, Oslo based artist Jana Winderen won the Golden Nica for her album Energy Field. Her works are more than just explorations of sound, but field trips into the natural world. She recorded the unusual aqua–acoustics of Greenland and Norway, including glacial movements, windy plains, and the resilient animal life on land and sea. Winderen composes these wondrous natural discoveries of sound into ambient soundscapes.

It’s not your typical nature CD, as her label Touch explains: “Winderen studies and records wild places which have a particular importance in our understanding of the complexity and fragility of marine ecosystems. The result is a powerful, mesmeric journey into the unseen audio world of the frozen north.” Winning the Golden Nica, she was recognized for her ecological sensitivity, but also for the intricate recording and digital layering she mixes in the studio.


10. Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings 

Over 6 years, legendary composer and producer Brian Eno, has released various versions and upgrades of his transmedia experience, 77 Million Paintings. Born from the artist’s fascination of the harmonious interplay between sound and light, the work extends from the Lumen Gallery in London to an interactive Software/DVD package that sells for about $30 (U.S.). It is an example of Procedural generation, where media is randomly generated by algorithms.

Eno’s installation has toured several galleries from Venice, Milan, Tokyo and South Africa and San Francisco. It showcases a seemingly boundless number of combinations between visuals and ambient sound, using generative software. In actuality, the software contains nearly 300 original art works, which can be manipulated and juxtaposed to an ambient soundscape that is also randomly generated. With the software, Eno has put this power of creation into the hands of users all over the world. Just like keys on a piano or colors on a palate, the notes and tones are finite, but the combinations are infinite.


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