Sound in Space, Sound in Place

Sound art: a short primer

As a term, “sound art” is incredibly easy to define—it refers, most broadly, to artworks that incorporate sound in some way. However, it is not always easy to determine which art falls into that category, and curators, artists, and art historians have been drawing and re-drawing its boundaries for years. Some historical context helps: the descriptor “sound art” was first used with regularity in the early Eighties, when art institutions in the U.S. (and indeed, around the world) began mounting exhibitions celebrating fusions of music and the visual arts, and heralding the arrival of an entirely new medium bridging these two disciplinary worlds. These exhibitions were eclectic affairs: they exhibited graphically striking sheet music and record sleeves as visual artworks, featured resonant metal sculptures that doubled as playable instruments (or curious-looking instruments that doubled as sculptures), and highlighted paintings and drawings that somehow implied music or sound via their visual characteristics.

Sound art once again rocketed to the fore of the art world around the turn of the new millennium, when yet another spate of major exhibitions framed it as an exciting new frontier of artistic exploration; and the popularity and urgency of sound art has not abated over the past twenty years. Sound art is not without its detractors or skeptics: in 2010, the artist Susan Philipsz (b. 1965) won Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize for a sound installation—Lowlands—in which recordings of the artist singing three versions of a Scottish lament were played back simultaneously in an empty gallery space Artists associated with the Stuckist movement, known for their vociferous opposition to conceptual art (broadly defined), and for annual demonstrations against the Turner Prize, argued that Lowlands was not art, but music; “It’s just someone singing in an empty room,” a Stuckist spokesperson remarked. Often it is the “sound artists” themselves who take issue with the label: while some feel it is too broad and reductive to capture the complexities of their practices, others find it altogether unnecessary, observing that artists were fruitfully experimenting with sound for decades before their work was suddenly consolidated under a new name. Others, still, feel that the category was cynically manufactured by an art world hungry for marketing hooks; these critics note that the art world seems to “discover” sound art every ten years or so, drawing in crowds by giving it a halo of novelty.

But sound art, it’s quite clear, is here to stay. In February 2022, the artist Jana Winderen (b. 1965) filled the top-floor space of Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts with 28 speakers, treating listeners to a 360-degree experience of underwater recordings she had made around the world. This installation sought to foreground the precarious state of underwater ecosystems with sound alone. What is Winderen’s work, if not sound art? And sound art is evolving: few contemporary sound artists have worked to expand the parameters of the medium as much as Christine Sun Kim (b. 1980), who, born Deaf, uses her charcoal drawings, performances, and video works to interrogate the assumption that sound enjoys an exclusively auditory existence. Urgent and affecting, work such as Winderen’s and Kim’s provides ample evidence that sound art—an evolving, unfinished project—is richer with potential than ever before.

The New Bedford Soundscape

The New Bedford Art Museum has invited local New Bedford residents to submit short audio recordings documenting sounds that contribute to New Bedford’s sense of place—its “soundscape.” The composer R. Murray Schafer (1933–2021) coined the term “soundscape” in the Sixties, defining it as the “sonic environment.” Schafer believed that amidst rising noise pollution, it was more important than ever for people to listen to the sounds around them and to preserve those sounds that act as audible landmarks for towns, cities, and communities, helping to conjure a sense of home. Schafer’s idea of the soundscape remains valuable for thinking through the importance of sound to place-making and local character, even if Schafer’s distaste for technological noise is hard to swallow in an age when the sounds of industry, transportation, and Bluetooth speakers are as prevalent (and meaningful) as the sounds of birds and crashing surf. Listeners will be able to experience “The New Bedford Soundscape,” a collective portrait of New Bedford comprising resident contributions, in two ways: via a listening station in “Sound in Space, Sound in Place,” and via an online map scheduled launching in conjunction with the exhibition’s opening. View the map below:

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Cluster Fields

John Driscoll & Phil Edelstein
r Fields

The centerpiece of “Sound in Space, Sound in Place” is Cluster Fields (2018–2023), a collaborative installation by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein in which sculptural objects—snaking lengths of plastic tubing, cantilevered glass globes, and sheets of silvery mica, suspended from the ceiling overhead—are transformed into an unconventional sound-system. Conveying the vibrations and amplified sounds of various sound-generating devices, the objects hum, chatter, and vibrantly resonate. Arrayed throughout the exhibition space in clusters, they create focused sound fields that subtly shape-shift as visitors wander through them. As Driscoll and Edelstein write, the overall orchestration of Cluster Fields “allows the objects to sound both individually and together, offering a rich sonic space for audience exploration in and around the clusters.”

The recorded sounds used to activate the objects in Cluster Fields are drawn from a wide array of material and biological sources. Included among the sound sources for this staging of Cluster Fields are processed whale and seal sounds drawn from the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data.

Cluster Fields draws on ideas—concerning resonance and the dynamic movement of sound through space—that Driscoll and Edelstein have been pursuing for decades, both in the context of their own individual practices, and in their close collaboration with pioneering musician David Tudor (1926–1996). Driscoll and Edelstein played a critical role in the development of Tudor’s landmark sound installation Rainforest IV (1973), an intricate exploration of resonance and an influential prototype of sound art that celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year. Since Tudor’s passing, Driscoll, Edelstein, and other members of the performance group Composers Inside Electronics (CIE) have worked tirelessly to keep Rainforest, and the ideas it embodies, alive. Cluster Fields carries echoes of Rainforest forward just as it cultivates its own unique listening experience, modeling entirely new uses of sound as an artistic material.

John Driscoll is a composer/sound artist who is a founding member of Composers Inside Electronics and collaborated on David Tudor’s Rainforest IV project since its inception in 1973.  He has toured extensively in the US and Europe with: CIE, Douglas Dunn & Dancers, David Tudor, and as a solo performer. He has performed with Phil Edelstein, Ralph Jones, Tom Hamilton, Cecilia Lopez, David Tudor, Bill Viola, Yoshi Wada, and many others. His work involves robotic rotating loudspeakers, compositions and sound installations for unique architectural spaces, and music for dance with commissions by Douglas Dunn, Maida Withers, and Merce Cunningham. His Rainforest IV (variations) collaborations with Phil Edelstein have been acquired by MoMA (NY), Museum der Moderne (Salzburg), MAC (Lyon), and Arter Museum (Istanbul). He has created an extensive collection of unique ultrasonic instruments for performance, exhibition and workshops including exhibition at the Fridman Gallery (NY) and is collaborating with composer/sound artist Cecilia Lopez on a new installation work for exhibition in 2024. He is currently exhibiting a self-running sound installation Cluster Fields (a collaboration with Phil Edelstein).

His recordings Fishing for Sound and Composers Inside Electronics – From the Kitchen are available on iTunes, and Ghostly Agents” (double LP) on Slowscan Records. His work on Rainforest IV is available on Neuma Records.
Phil Edelstein is a sound and media artist. He is a founding member of eba in 1972 and then Composers Inside Electronics in 1973. With CIE, he has collaborated on David Tudor’s Rainforest IV performance environment since inception at New Music in New Hampshire and more recently with John Driscoll on the Rainforest V cycle.

His work is grounded in sound and software as physical sculptural expressive plastic media and objects seeding the theatre that arises between person, performers, and cybernetics. There is a recurring interest in interactive tactility and the transitions between transitory viewer, engaged observer and listener, participant, performer.

Recent performances and realizations have included: sound design for David Tudor’s Weatherings for the Lyon Opera Ballet’s production of Merce Cunningham’s Exchange, Pulsers with Michael Johnsen in Berlin and Paris, Pepscillator and Microphone with John Driscoll adapted from the E.A.T. Pavilion archives at GRI and the Tudor Wesleyan Instrument Collection; extended CIE ensemble for Forest Speech at MoMA and realizations with Stephen Petronio Dance Company Bloodlines project. New work in 2022 included Subject to Change, an audio-visual system performed with Jakob Edelstein, and interactive installation for 8 thumbs. A new work LocaleS3 with Michelle Jaffe and David Reeder is in development for September 2023 under auspices of a Harvestworks New Works Residency.

Whirly Chorus


Tess Oldfield
Whirly Chorus
Composition No.4
Whirly tube, arduino microcontroller, NEMA 34 stepper motor, stepper motor driver, power supply, plywood, acrylic 

Whirly Chorus is an instrumental series that combines a common children’s noise maker, Whirly Tube, with electronic interfaces. A whirly tube also known as a bugle resonator, Free-Ka or corrugaphone is an experimental instrument made of ribbed plastic tubing. Open at both of its ends, the faster the speed the higher the note it produces in a harmonic series. By combining this analog instrument with digital interfaces, Oldfield has been able to push the whirly tube beyond human limits. Oldfield is currently exploring music composition by designing multiple instruments using physical computing. The process of transforming found instruments into digital installations allows the work to engage with contemporary new media practices and experimental music composition. 

Tess Oldfield (b.1992) is a sonic/spatial transformer/synthesizer/ composer. She is currently exploring music composition by designing speculative acoustic digital instruments. By creating physical computing systems, she codes kinetic sound sculptures to create immersive three dimensional sound space. The process of transforming found instruments into digital installations allows the work to engage with contemporary new media practices and experimental music composition. Oldfield is graduating this spring with an MFA in Digital + Media from Rhode Island School of Design.

Sonic Textures of Place

“Sonic Textures of Place”: Experimental sound works by UMass Dartmouth students

This component of “Sound in Space, Sound in Place” proudly spotlights experimental sound works produced by students in co-curator Professor Walker Downey’s Spring 2023 seminar on sound-recording, audio-editing, and sound art. For their second major assignment, students in the class have been asked to produce two-to-five-minute compositions of recorded sound that strongly articulate the identity of a particular place and their feelings associated with it. Students were instructed that the place in question can be small in scale (for example, a room), or vast (an entire town or city), and they were permitted to use any sounds that they recorded themselves, as well as “found sounds” (scavenged from the internet or radio) and electronic tones and noise.


Scott Bishop

NBWaves, created with support from the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, is a six song EP that bakes the sonic DNA of New Bedford into the music using samples recorded around the city. These sounds were recorded on MacArthur Drive on New Bedford's working waterfront and on a Whaling City Expeditions tour boat in New Bedford Harbor; and at Buttonwood Park Zoo, Moby Dick Brewing, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and PLAY Arcade. The sounds were heavily processed and transformed into synths and rhythm elements in the process of writing and recording the songs. The material on the EP is as diverse as the places where the original sounds were recorded, moving from dream pop ("Polaroid Dreams") to punk protest ("No Country") to ambient ("The Gull Catcher").

Scott Bishop, aka Scapeghost performs his six-song EP, NBWaves, April 28, 6-8pm

Scott Bishop is a musician, songwriter, and sound sculptor creating music under the name Scapeghost. Born on a US Naval base in Newfoundland and raised in Keene, New Hampshire, Bishop picked up the guitar during his art school days in Savannah, Georgia, inspired by the blistering guitar rock of punk pioneer Bob Mould and the Byrds-tinged jangle of early R.E.M.

Bishop moved to Boston in 1996, forming his first band, Slippy Keane, with lifelong friend Sean Hennessey and drummer Josh Pickering. After a few more years fronting bands, Bishop released a solo record, New Lights, in 2009, highlighting both crunchy pop songs and introspective acoustic numbers.

Bishop returned from a hiatus in 2017 to perform as Scapeghost at two fundraisers he organized, Calling All Rides and Power of Three. He assembled the first Scapeghost record, Waves, in 2018, and since then, has explored a range of genres and guitar sounds across two full-length releases, three EPs, and numerous singles.

His latest EP is NBWaves, created with support from the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, and featuring samples created from sounds recorded at several New Bedford locations: Buttonwood Park Zoo, PLAY Arcade, Moby Dick Brewing, and the New Bedford Whaling Museum, to name a few.

Bishop also curates three ongoing music series: The Seaport Sessions for AHA! New Bedford; FriYAY at the New Bedford Art Museum; and Unexpected Music. He lives in New Bedford with his wife Margo and daughters Perri and Dezzi.