Sonic art festival Expo takes the art of listening to Leeds

By Culture24 Staff | 24 September 2009
A picture of a stage lit by dark red lights with a microphone in the centre

Festival: Expo Leeds, various venues, Leeds, September 25-28 2009

If you're looking for sonic art, you could do worse than moving to Scandinavia. "In Norway there's a law that says 20% of a new building budget must be spent on art," explains Robert Worby.

"In Oslo airport they've had sound showers in place since 2000. Local authorities are already becoming more aware of their acoustic environment. It used to be called noise pollution, and the solution was to fix it. But eventually planners will actively plan areas that are designed for the ears."

A classically-trained musician who has been obsessed with electronic compositions since the 1970s, Worby hosts his own show on Radio 3 when he's not recording dog howls or extolling the virtues of booming loudspeakers in newspaper columns.

A Director of cutting edge public sound alliance the Sonic Arts Network, he's heavily involved in Expo, the sound art festival which starts in Leeds this Friday (September 25 2009).

A picture of two people standing on top of a van

Audio-visual artist Blipvert makes music via a series of MIDI triggers linked to projected moving and still images

It features interactive bell ringing at the City Museum, performances by artists including Northern Art Prize winner Paul Rooney, installations chosen from an open call of 300 entries and, if you fancy a change from the high street, a headphone-led "electrical walk" through a shopping centre.

"These are sound artists who are interested in environments where you walk in and simply listen," says Worby. For an audience used to more accessible sounds, he's aware it's something of a grower.

"Many people don't listen to music – they have it playing, it's background noise, it's part of their life, but they're not engaging with it," he suggests, pointing to the 16-second average the National Gallery recorded when they monitored the attention span most visitors had for pictures.

"That suggests they weren't really engaging with the art, but were there because it's a pleasant social activity, a nice building, an interesting place to be in. The problem with sonic art is that to engage with it you have to listen. It's just not something people are used to doing."

A picture of a museum lit by luminous light

Musician Mira Calix is working with young people to make experimental sonic works at Leeds City Museum

Sue Ball, the Programme Director for Expo this year, had to persuade planners the genre was worth showcasing in Leeds.

Nine years ago she invited Bill Fontana, an American "sound sculptor" whose work has appeared at the Venice Biennale and Tate Modern, to respond to the shifting architecture of the Yorkshire city, convincing funders along the way.

"I was attracted by his sense of scale and the spectacular," she recalls. "He produced a piece of work, Sound Island at the Arc de Triomphe, to commemorate the D-Day landings.

"He streamed the sounds of waves crashing on Normandy beaches into Paris through a series of speakers around the Arc. It brought history, memory and geography together in a very open reading of the events.

"When we brought him to Leeds I was interested to see how he might respond to the city as a composer of space."

A picture of a man staring up at the ceiling in a church

Lewis Sykes is part of an interactive multimedia installation at the City Museum. Taking sounds from local churches, it invites audiences to play with the traditions of bell ringing

Fontana spent two years developing a piece of sound art for the City Art Gallery, finding inspiration in the waterways, railway tracks and dark arches of the surrounding streets.

"Bill was able to articulate how sound would tell the story he was interested in," says Ball.

"His work helped people think differently about what was commonly perceived to be a dark and unfriendly space. At Expo, people will be able to dip in and out of these places as they choose.

"I don't think people will understand it as art, and they don't have to. What I'd like is for them to view those spaces in a different way as a result."

A picture of a red organ-shaped bespoke instrument

Vasco Alvo is exhibiting one of his homemade instruments, the FMkbrd

Worby reckons the revolution is well underway. "No-one called themselves a sound artist before the 1990s, it was just considered very pretentious, and if you were working on sonic art in the 1970s you would struggle to find funding. That's changing now," he observes.

"It's getting easier and easier, because the technology is much more readily available and anyone can record sounds and play with them on a computer. I think there's going to be an explosion of activity.

"I can see a situation where you get people to engage with sound in many more commercial situations. When you put your card into a cash machine, your card will make a unique sound, like a ringtone."

A picture of a group of people walking through a city centre while wearing headphones

German artist Christina Kubisch has created an "electrical walk" through The Light shopping centre, revealing "a soundscape not audible to the naked ear"

Worby puts his own passion for sound art down to John Cage, the pioneering 20th century experimental composer best known for 4"33, a controversial 1952 movement in which no notes were played in an attempt to attune listeners to the sound of the background.

When Cage turned up at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 1989, Worby abandoned his band to go and work with him for 10 days.

"John Cage liberated the listener," he says.

"Traditionally the composer is in his or her ivory tower – they hand the music to the performers and then we listen, waiting for crumbs off the table. Cage said the composer, performer and listener all have things to do. Listening isn't a passive thing."

Visit the festival website for more details and the full programme.

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