Sound Art and Music Philosophy, Composition, Performance John Dack, Tansy Spinks, Adam Stanovic

Sound Art and Music

Chapter One

Introducing a Compositional Model 
for Live, Site-specific, Sound Art Performance

Tansy Spinks
Take a space, make a sound in it…
Cornelius Cardew

In this chapter I shall introduce a new way of approaching site specific sound art practices, by offering practitioners a strategic model to approach and expand the parameters of the compositional process. In introducing this concept, I will allude to a number of my own sound works, undertaken over the six-year period 2008 to 2014, that have been informed by my accumulated experiences as a practitioner of site-specific, sound-making in live performance.

The practitioner, in the sense of this essay, is taken to be a multi-disciplinary artist, a sound artist, a composer, an improvising musician or simply someone who experiments with the possibilities of live, performed sound in an art context. The site, can be considered as a place, a building, a social space perhaps, in which to encounter sounds heard, almost in passing: an abandoned or derelict space, an outdoors space, a liminal (un-prescribed), or ‘guerrilla’ space, (used without permission), an unorthodox place, in other words, to find art or performance.

The site itself might be ‘found’, presented or offered; as an inspiration, by invitation or by commission for an event. It may be deliberately selected by the practitioner, as a site to explore, to respond to and in which to provide sounds to be experienced by others. However, it is not a ‘white cube’ gallery space, a ‘black box’ rehearsal space or a ‘shoe box’ concert hall, with all the expectations that each venue might engender. This chosen site is another place altogether, encompassing aspects of social use, histories and narratives whose connotations are intangible and ephemeral.

How can this challenge be usefully approached? What are the essential elements to consider and how can a methodology of interrogation be best established to develop and steer the sound-making practices?

Arrived at through my own experiences, I now introduce a new tripartite model, to be employed as an aid or driver of this compositional process. This model identifies and clarifies the site-specific elements and opportunities within the given space, to enable a means of distinguishing between the distinct sonic and potential sonic properties of any site, and to establish the active role of the performer(s).

The model identifies three specific terms of engagement (referred to in this document as the three ‘A’s), and asks what we should work at in identifying the actual, the activated and the associative sounds of the site. I will expand on this in due course.

In addressing the proposed project, the practitioner will arrange an initial site visit, where possible. This not only gives a physical impression in identifying a certain spirit of place, but provides an opportunity to listen, make sound recordings, test the acoustic properties, walk around, photograph, sketch, list the sounds heard and talk to any of those people involved with the place; as custodians, workers or temporary occupants. It gives an opportunity to consider what happens in the space now and what has occurred in the past. The building or host site then becomes the locus and the source of the enquiry. By taking stock of the sonic properties and the materiality of these surroundings, possibilities for devising a performance begin to be formulated.

Time will be spent walking around the place and its environs. Aspects of the emerging discoveries may now require, beyond the inevitable google search, a visit to a local museum or a specific library. Materials forming the fabric of the site or objects from the site, may be identified as sound producers or as having sonic potential. Speculative emails will be sent out - following a hunch - wanting to know more from a conservation group perhaps, or a local historian, an amateur enthusiast or an expert in the field. Conversations may evolve – taking trains of thought into hitherto unexpected regions: with a librarian, sociologist, historian, geographer and perhaps with the work of other artists or composers. Contextual references are raided. Have any other artist-musicians produced something like this before? If so, how, and can this be built on?

read more of chapter one

Perpetuation as a Compositional and Metaphorical Device: Defining The Loop

At the still point of the turning world: the end is only a beginning.
TS Eliot The Four Quartets

A fundamental part of the practice as one of the tools of transcription, has been the use of a device used to perpetuate sounds. Positioned between the performer and the space itself, it has acted as an interface, recording via a built in microphone or by direct input and is used as a means of documenting the sounds produced and of seamlessly and instantly relaying those digitally recorded sounds back into the space. It also serves as a device that externalises and can make apparent the process of performance, whereby the iterative act of layered repetition has become a means or form of compositional process as a live event, whereby this recording is made live and played back live. It is an instant recording, both for the purposes of duplication and as way of conveying the indefinite perpetuation of the recorded sounds.

What constitutes the research? A reflection on how live site-specific soundwork projects have evolved in the practice, from idea to realisation.


On reflection and whilst midway through two recent projects, I notice patterns emerging as strategies in the course of different approaches to devising a soundwork. Some are planned, others evolve and rely significantly on communication with other people alongside research at the physical site, on the internet, in the studio and beyond.

The methodology, contextually indebted to the dialogues of site-specific art, performance and sound improvisation, has emerged as a multi-disciplinary one; fed and constantly tested by the need to respond to different sites for different projects and by a compulsion to convey something of the particularity of the site through sound by using relevant materials and, on occasion, with the assistance of others.

Conversations, my own and others' responses to a space, much deliberation, changing of mind, experiments in my studio at home, the useof photographs, recordings and plans, all develop gradually. Other, less expected inspirations are brought in. For example an improvisational session with sound artist Iris Garrelfs, that encouraged the value and importance in allowing for an unrehearsed improvisatory element and similarly being intrigued by the physical properties of objects in relation to the sonic properties they harbour and can reveal, once activated. I came to recognise also, the importance of the development of what has become a series of accompanying project files.

Once underway each discreet file gives credence to the new project idea whilst providing a small potential archive for what is evolving. In this physical file may rest the open call for submission or invitation to devise a site-specific soundwork, copies of email correspondence, images and plans of the space, initial material culled from the internet, sketches and hand-written notes, a copy of the 'programme note' (for want of a better term), fledgling instructional 'scores,' links to further documentation on Vimeo and Soundcloud and importantly, print-outs of any anecdotal responses and further analytical material. An inventory of instruments, objects and equipment will often feature, serving both as an appropriative device and to underpin the legitimacy of their usage. Not just a repository, the files act as an ongoing thought process providing proof and reminders, of potential and actualdocumentation, a charting of initial, abandoned and teased-out ideas, of false starts and eureka moments.

Sound as an Object in Space: Interpreting Space through Sound and Performance

This paper was written for Space - the Real and the Abstract PhD conference at the School of Art and Design, University of Wolverhampton, The Centre of Art, Design, Research and Experimentation (CADRE)
July 5th – 6th 2010

The paper will consider how sound can be experienced as an object in space and the possible roles of the performer as a creative interpreter of spaces. Touching on Alvin Lucier's seminal sound piece of 1969 'I am sitting in a room', reference will be made to histories, associations and memories, acoustic properties and the physicality of the space. The 'space' of the instrument will be considered and also the notion that the extended and prepared instrument as discussed by John Cage in 1940 can take the experience further.

With reference to Nattiez in Music and Discourse, Toward a Semiology of Music, and his use of Peircian semiotics to consider theories on meaning in sound, the particular spaces and sounds that have featured in my own performance practices will be elaborated upon.

How site-specific sound artworks can act as a compositional interface between experiencer and place – developing performative strategies

Presentation for the Darmstadt Global Composition conference
July 2012

This short paper takes an overview of a portfolio of sound works devised during a four year research period, 2008-2012 elaborating on my associative approach to the notion of a site, and the responses and processes employed as compositional methods for making a sound art work.

The concern in the practice, and in this paper is with the disquieting effects that are produced when site-specific artworks, especially those involving sound, are experienced outside of their expected contexts. At this relatively early stage in the development of sound art, one could ask: can sound art be said to have any 'expected context' at all? If, however, as Henri Lefebvre maintains, no space is neutral, then it follows that every space has some sort of an agenda that can be drawn on for the purposes of reflection and sonic production.

My own soundworks are actions or interventions that take place outside both the auditorium and Brian O' Doherty's so-called White Cube exhibition spaces, and attempt to challenge these expectations of contexts and spaces. An established example of this kind of sound work, as an interruption of a public space, is perhaps in the work of Max Neuhaus, although his work differs in his use of recordings from a site, as his working material, placed back into the site as a finished work. In Times Square, New York, 1977, for example, he takes his listeners by surprise with sounds emanating from a ventilation grill at a busy street crossing - involving them in questioning whether they are indeed, imagining or 'hearing things.'

The contexts for my work are many and varied. I draw on the site-specific in the visual arts, with roots in conceptual and performance art of the 1960s, on ideas of performing place, stemming from site-specific theatre, from event scores and musical compositions in alternative spaces and from discussions and descriptions about what constitutes sound art in space, as a relatively new form of practice.

Tansy Spinks