Sound Sculpture Sings September 13, 1976

‘Sound sculpture’ refers to a wide variety of acoustical sound-producing devices. The category ranges from simple wind chimes and tin-can devices to lavishly complex instruments, all of which make music in one fashion or another, and many of which are visually interesting at the same time. Even in New York it is difficult to experience much sound sculpture firsthand, but I am discovering that there is a lot of it around.

There is a practically interesting drawing of ‘Whispering Busts,’ from a book by Athanasius Kircher, published in 1560, which depicts sound ‘sculpture’ in a particularly literal sense and which places the whole category into historical perspective. Kircher’s drawing lays out a plan for constructing sound-carrying ducts from various plazas so that everyday sounds can be heard emanating from traditional sculptured busts. Kircher was probably never allowed to install such a system, but the idea is charming. It might even work.

A 19th-century book by John Tyndall, ‘The science of sound,’ describes a number of fascinating sound-producing devices, including one in which a vibrating gas flame produces a loud pitched tone. Tyndall was basically an acoustician, and he would not have dared to present such things as music in Victorian England, but by current definitions his ‘singing flame’ is certainly a valid musical instrument, one which would seem to have fascinating potential.

Aside from the late Harry Partch, whose unique percussion and stringed instruments are relatively well-known, the two Parisian brothers François and Bernard Baschet are perhaps the most prominent sound sculptors of our time. In the early ’60s I heard them present a concert of their ‘Structures Sonores’ in New York. The instruments consisted largely of spectacular assemblages of steel prongs to be stroked and struck, and shapely aluminum sheets to act as resonators. The sounds were extremely mellow and pleasant, but the music struck me as banal, and much of it would probably have been just as acceptable in a piano arrangement. Apparently the Baschets have moved a long ways since then, however. More recent works include large outdoor constructions which can be played by gallery visitors directing water jets at different parts of the sculpture. On one occasion the Baschets designed a sort of musical fountain for a grain company, in which grain was to fall onto oscillating buckets that would tilt onto vibrating bars when filled.

A number of other sound sculptors are dealt with in the recent book ‘Sound Sculpture,’ edited by John Grayson. One of them is Reinhold Pieper Marxhausen, a man in his fifties who serves as chairman of the art department at Concordia Teachers’ College in Seward Nebraska. Most of the Marxhausen’s sculptures are small metallic object studded with spines or prongs in various arrangements. The objects have foreboding appearance, but they no doubt yield extraordinary sounds when held to the ear and plucked, as the sculptor intends. In a less formal outdoor vein, Marxhausen also likes to tune picket fences, to be played by running along with a stick, and he likes to place tin cans under the leaves of a roof, to be stimulated during rainstorms.

Luis Frangella carried his latter principle a bit further in his ‘Rain Music’ series. This Argentine artist, who has been working at MIT’s center of Advanced Visual Studies, allows rain to fall on large assemblages of tuned drums. Wind and rain also stimulate moving elements, which can slap onto the drums like flexible sticks. Frangella’s installations create solid roofs, so that the listeners can remain dry underneath.

Harry Bertoia, an older man working near Bally, Pennsylvania, constructs large bunches of metallic spines, which can be stimulated by gallery visitors with their hands. If one can believe recordings of such things, Bertoia’s rich conglomerations of metallic rustlings must be a spectacular aural experience.

Stephan Von Huene, of the California Institute of the Arts, has a more mechanical approach, often utilizing punched tape similar to piano rolls, hooked up to pneumatic devices and organ pipes. These instruments play themselves, and might almost be considered music boxes.

David Jacobs, of the fine arts department at Hofstra University, also devises machines that drive air into pipes, and he obtains deep rich sonorities. Some of his instruments, called ‘Wahs, wahs,’ also employ large rubber tubes constructed from inner tubes, which sprawl around the floor like giant worms.

And then, of course, there are New York composers such as Jim Burton, Skip La Plante, Yoshimasa Wada, and Carole Weber, whose sound sculptures I have written about before, and there are countless others who do similar things with electronic devices, and whose work somehow seems to belong in another category.

Of course, the musical value of sound sculpture cannot be judged without physically experiencing the actual works, and it is likely that some of the works I have described would not be as interesting to hear as they are to hear about. But I have experienced many successes in this genre, and I have little doubt that there is some good sculpture tucked away in corners of Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and other out-of-the-way places. Hopefully, some enterprising museum or concert producer will someday bring it all together so that we can experience such things first hand.