Home Chapter 11 Aural Environments

Site Search


Chinese (Simplified) French German Italian Portuguese Russian Spanish
Aural Environments

There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.
~ John Cage, (1912-1992) avant-garde composer

Question: Is there a method of adding emotion and voice to works of art and invention?

Humans have been using sound in rituals and performances long before written history. The San Bushmen in the Kalahari region in southern Africa are some of Africa's oldest inhabitants, having lived in the region for 25, 000 years.

The San people are nomadic hunter/gatherers and they make their own instruments. They tie the wet skin of a Springbok's thigh over the mouth of a pot and use a sinew to hold it in place, which allows them to pull the surface of the drum tight. They create rattles from the Springboks’ ears and tie these to their feet for dancing. For the San people, music and drumming rituals are a part of life and provide a place for dance, ritual, and celebration. [1]

Sound connects to a primordial element of the human animal that reaches back, before language. In the contemporary world of media art, sound has become is an important component and is used as feedback in devices, as central elements in installations, or as a platform for experimentation with new forms of instruments and in sculptural and sound narratives. There is now a very large community of experimental sound artists, as well as those creating unique instruments. In this chapter, we will look at a few of the artists exploring the field and then move into some lessons on how to apply and control sound. In the closing of this chapter, other resources will be explored.

John Cage (1912-92) is well known for his experimental music, particularly the piece 4'33", where the performer walks onto the stage and is silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, allowing the listeners to hear the ambient sounds of the room and perhaps meditate on their own personal states. Cage is also known to modify instruments to change their pitch and timbre. He has performed songs on a piano with erasers, nuts, and bolts placed on the strings in order to change the sound into something completely different. He was the precursor to a host of conceptual artists who would think more about the ambient and experimental possibilities for reconfiguring the notion of sound and its relations to music and installation. [2]

In Nigel Helyer’s work Ariel, the eight laser-cut acrylic forms have digital Theremin circuits with amplifiers and speakers. Each form acts as an antennae and senses human proximity and varies the sound accordingly.


ARIEL by Nigel Helyer. 2003. In recounting his childhood Nigel Helyer says:” My childhood village contained two significant buildings, significant not for their formal qualities, they were both simple cottages, but because one had been the home of Halley, the astronomer and the other the home of William Blake the poet. Without being conscious of the fact, I grew up in a cosmos in which the arts and science were intertwined, it has marked my endeavors ever since.”


These creatures were inspired by marine life, particularly the primitive and microscopic Radiolarians, the fossil forms of which are found in abundance in the crust of the Earth. Each object responds individually to viewers as they approach, but they also operate as a “‘swarm’ through a form of electromagnetic coupling—producing clouds of audio ‘turbulence’ as a visitor approaches the installation”. [3]

Maywa Denki is an art company that was formed in 1993 by Nobumichi Tosa and his brother Masamichi. Since the formation of their company, the two have created unconventional artworks that they refer to as “products” and installations and performances they refer to as “product demonstrations”. Maywa Denki describes their activities over the past eleven years as “The Nonsense Machines”, which aptly describes their Dadaistic approach to art-making, commenting on Japanese corporation and industry in much the same way Duchamp commented on a Western industry.


Singing Robots Betty and Clara by Nobumichi Tosa. Prix Ars Electronica 2003.  Sabine Starmayr The right to reprint is reserved for the press; no royalties will be due only with proper copyright attribution. Fishbone-shaped xylophone, which lights a bulb for each key, you hit with 100V electric sticks. Equipped with a circuit breaker.


Nobumichi has attained true pop star status in Japan with his development of new types of musical instruments and his absurd music constructions, whereby mechanical instruments are played by electromagnets and motors. Maywa Denki was the name of his father’s company and Nobumichi is known for wearing the typical, blue-collar working uniform worn in Japanese electric stores. Maywa Denki mass produces and sells small, affordable robots, ironically supporting the artist while making subversive comments about ubiquitous Japanese corporation and industry. [4]