John Kannenberg: A Sound Map of The Art Institute Of Chicago

Martin Kay: All Things Metal

Australia-based sound artist Martin Kay's self-expressed intention for All Things Metal (200 copies) is to “highlight the unique ability that metal possesses in abstracting, transforming, and reconfiguring a given landscape—propelling the listener to reconsider their emotional and psychological connections to familiar urban environments.” The listener certainly comes away from the recording newly sensitized to how pervasive metal's presence is within our urban environments (the fact that the settings were recorded in different locales, among them Tokyo and Australia, implies a global pervasiveness, too). But more importantly, the fifty-minute recording, whose twelve pieces Kay produced over a five-year span, prompts us to reconsider how metal's sound properties can translate into listening experiences that allow us to experience physical phenomena with fresh ears; that he generally leaves the recorded audio-montages in an un-mixed and un-edited form only serves to heighten that impression. Kay, to cite one example, shows that source material as mundane as a metal wheel rolling along a concrete floor (“Dumbbell Rolling”) can turn into an engrossing vignette of spindly micro-noise.

Listening to “Stadium Support Pillar,” no one would conclude that its muffled and softly clangorous sounds are actually recordings two contact microphones made of the vibrations of a football crowd leaving the stadium after a game. Similarly, the creaking noise within “Rolling Out the Pool Cover” could pass for a beginning violinist's tentative scrape with a bow as much as the sound of a pool cover's wheel being rotated by hand. Deprived of the track title, one would guess that the clatter rumbling through “Two Storage Boxes” could have been generated by any number of possible objects, though in this case it was two iron boxes underneath whose lids Kay positioned microphones to record vibrations generated by wind, birds, dogs, and children. In like manner, what sounds elsewhere like a furious percussion duel turns out to be rain striking an iron gutter. That the track titles Kay uses are so direct and prosaic suggests a conviction that the material is interesting enough on its own terms that clever titles aren't necessary, and one comes away from the recording reminded that elaborate processing and editing treatments aren't necessarily required for the alien character of the created world to be brought forth.

American sound artist John Kannenberg also appears to have selected the most straightforward of titles for his A Sound Map of The Art Institute Of Chicago (200 copies), the second installment in an ongoing series of psychogeographic sound maps of museums, but things are not entirely as they seem in this case. Were one to simply listen to the recording without reviewing the booklet details, one would presume that what is being presented is an hour-long tour through the architectural site that begins outside on Michigan Avenue and concludes with the visitor exiting onto Monroe Street. But after studying the floorplans and the sound map timecodes provided by Kannenberg, one soon realizes that the presentation, while it convincingly creates an impression of seamless movement through the building, breaks away from linear travel and includes a number of jump cuts that in physical terms are impossible. Often a transition will occur that seems to suggest the movement from one room to the one next to it but is actually a movement that sees the listener transported in one second to a different floor at the opposite side of the building. Twenty minutes into the recording, for example, we're viewing African art in Gallery 137 on a southern wing on the first floor and then a moment later are transported to Gallery 213 on a west wing on the second floor where we're admiring Dutch art whilst eavesdropping on a father-daughter conversation.

Not only that, the sound map, whose contents Kannenberg recorded using an Olympus LS-10 portable digital recorder, draws upon material collected on multiple dates, specifically six days between May and July in 2013, and so once again the initial impression of a real-time visit is shown to be mistaken. As Kannenberg himself writes, the hours of secretly captured source recordings were edited to create a “highly composed, but unprocessed, hour-long impossible journey through the Art Institute of Chicago's original building and its 2009 Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing addition.”

It's interesting that the presentation exemplifies both order and chaos, order in the general structure that comes from framing the visit with an entrance and exit and chaos in the non-linear flow that occurs within the building. Obviously Kannenberg isn't interested in creating a sound map reflecting a visitor's literal movement through the space; instead, he works with his components much as a composer sequences smaller cells into a satisfying whole. Stated otherwise, one might think of Kannenberg as a composer who works with field recording details rather than musical notation and instrument sounds.

A stereophonic exercise in constant stimulation, the sound map is punctuated with many interesting details, among them sirens, bucket drummers, and a saxophone player (outside), admonitions from security guards, crowd babble, and commentaries by lecturers, plus sounds sourced from an escalator, exhaust fan, buzzing fluorescent sign, an artwork-carrying lift (uncannily similar to a dental drill), Kannenberg's footsteps, and even those of Fleetwood Mac's Lindsay Buckingham walking by. The ebb and flow of crowd noise as well as footsteps strengthens the impression of movement from one gallery to another, and one comes way from the recording dazzled by the abundance of panoramic sound detail the visitor to the institute would expect to experience on any given day. Though the recording wasn't created to promote the institution necessarily, it ends up doing so in making the idea of visiting it and viewing its collection (Seurat, Kandinsky, Hockney, Richter, etc.) so appealing.

August-September 2014