Through Acousmatic Art, Luke Fowler sets out on an exploration of the relationship between looking and listening, and thus questions the ways in which to develop new and meaningful dialogues between sound and film. Acousmatic sound is sound one hears without seeing an originating cause — an invisible sound source.
In A Grammar for Listening, the audience is presented with moving images that are superposed with sounds; the two are unexpectedly disconnected, lacking any apparent synchronicity. Arranged in three parts, Fowler’s absorbing works are set up in separate, neatly arranged rooms of the idiosyncratic Modern Institute Building on Robertson Street. In each small dark room, the tape of a 16mm projector continuously reels away overhead, while large black speakers on either side of the screen cast a series of uninterrupted sounds. These range from soothing to ominous, the latter effect perhaps triggered especially by the noises’ inexplicable and unidentifiable origins. Part two, made in collaboration with Parisian-based composer Eric La Casa, offers pictures such as the elegant movements of the wind on a rippled lake in beautiful and (presumably) quiet, peaceful landscapes that are starkly contrasted with scenes from warehouses, motorways and busy traffic on city streets. We expect to hear sounds that are in accordance with the pictures that are being shown to us. When we discover this is not the case, we suddenly find ourselves paying attention to different elements in new ways.
Fowler’s exhibition thus also represents deep ties with the use of silence, an important theme for experimental film of the 1960s, which would dismiss sound or musical accompaniment as illustrative or manipulative. In an attempt to both avoid such distraction and encourage reflection upon the complexities between film and sound, Fowler draws important parallels with even earlier crucial and highly influential sonic experiments. Developed in the 1940s by the French composer Pierre Schaeffer, the notion of Musique Concrète — an avant-garde style of music that relies on natural environmental sounds and other non-inherently-musical noises to create music — later lead to many an artwork reflecting on both the production and usage of sound, including for example John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33, a piece in which the performer(s) remain utterly silent onstage for that amount of time. Placed within such a background of sonic experimentation, A Grammar for Listening indeed follows this practice of removing sound from its context, and Fowler allows us to understand and concentrate solely on the sonic properties of the experience.
Part three of Fowler’s exhibition looks at Field Recording in collaboration with Toshiya Tsunoda, known for his use of environmental sounds as a motif. Field Recording is a means of capturing the audible illustration of an environment that is produced outside of a recording studio; originally a technique used for collecting data in natural and social science studies, its usage has since expanded to that of evocative art in itself. Fowler and Tsunoda’s film captures two figures contemplating a handful of landmarks in London, with the sounds of both the environment around them as well as the vibrations of each person’s temple muscles (recorded using a highly individual method involving a stethoscope with built-in microphones wrapped around the person’s head). This too raises interesting questions about sounds, their sources and the assumptions and expectation bound up in these, but also the nature of contemplating, the choice of a particular focal point within an environment and the artist’s reasons for choosing such a place and the emotional responses involved in such a choice.
An overall intensely thought-provoking and challenging piece of work, that both relates and further stimulates long-standing traditions of visual and audio recordings.