The Wire: Adventures in Modern Music, January 2015, Rewind issue

Paper Cut (not Papering over the Cuts)

While nothing is truly new now and everything has happened before, within these recycles of goods and ideas, processes and materials there are slight shifts of terrain, triggering minor tremors that make cracks appear in the foundations just big enough to let a bit of new light through. In 2014 one such terrain was the curation and publication of sound art. There were conferences and panel discussions, journal issues and articles dedicated to the problem: how to present, how to play and how to listen?

All of this took place after almost two decades of sound online: the web having offered sonic works a different publishing environment, a certain autonomy and ease of distribution embraced by most, at least as a secondary platform. Perhaps as a result of its very openness, the effortless connecting and democratic nature of the web is offset, however, by a lack of curatorial direction and an abundance of never-listened-to works.

Vimeo, YouTube and SoundCloud, as well as artists’ own websites, are archives and repositories of work rather than contexts for listening. They are suitable for researchers who know what they want to hear and understand the misshaping of the work by the computer, its hardware design, software interface and poor quality speakers. They have less to offer for a listener in search of a sonic experience.

While sites such as and attempt a published look and a curatorial intent to create and frame an experience, the source of their sound is inescapable, the platform too abused by other tasks and aims: work, shopping, writing and holiday snaps, to make room for listening. By contrast the remote veneration of the gallery space and the concert hall, often maligned for its theological background and authoritarian overtones, creates an interruption in the flow of the everyday for art to provide not ease and immediacy, but the space to hear the demand of the material and engage in its concepts – an enticement which the computer has a hard time to achieve.

It was exciting then that throughout 2014 I was sent work not online but curated into self-published, often limited edition ‘CD-things’: field recordings, compositions, voice works that are paired with text and images, illustrations, maps and words. Presented in booklets, folders and boxes, these CD-things create a relationship between sound, image and material that does not explain and list but expand and add. Their different elements work as autonomous and equal partners to produce a quasi-sculptural piece. One such work is Cédric Maridet’s Bending The Air, Again. Made in collaboration with SoundPocket Hong Kong, it’s a carefully produced A5 sized booklet printed on textured white paper, which gives the sounds a tactility and presence denied by the net. Nothing is explained, nothing elaborated or listed and catalogued, only continued. The CD itself sits in a pouch cut from the same paper, like a sleeve that covers both but does not bind them. The rights remain with Maridet, who curates my listening experience through the careful intention of thick white paper. Another striking CD-thing is Lawrence English and Akio Suzuki’s boombana echoes by New York label winds measure recordings. Although it was initially produced in 2013 in an edition of 300, my copy reached me only this year on a wave of other such carefully designed things with sound: a 17x13 cm white paper pocket containing white drawings of cats doing all sorts, and black drawings of cats drawing what might be more cats, as well as maps sketched by hand with what must have been a sharp biro to produce depressed lines and dots, circles and names on white card. Both works present a limited edition DIY approach to publishing, producing not a sound but a concept album that animates my listening. Everything is carefully produced with a handcrafted appeal that makes me want to run my hands over its folds: to bend them, again. 

CD booklets have appeared before now, of course, but these contemporary editions step up and intensify the relationship between material, sound and words, producing multifarious things that at times might not even include sound anymore. Like Patrick Farmer’s Yew Grotesque. Produced as a limited edition of 200 for the Forestry Commission England, SARU (Sonic Arts Research Unit, Oxford Brookes University) and Sound And Music, it consists of drawings and text that carry the sonic sensibility of their lineage in the design, content and feel of the CD-thing rather than in actuality. Or Felicity Ford’s KNITSONIK, Stranded Colourwork Sourcebook, for which her “sound recorder is the basis for one of the designs (…) and another design is based on the same road about which I once made a radio show”. An album in response to the knitting manual is in progress: KNITSONIK Audible Textures Resource, bringing to the manual on knitting a manual on listening.

These works are not immediate, or just a quick MP3 download away. The piece by English and Suzuki came in the post from Australia, Maridet’s travelled all the way from Hong Kong. The wait and expectation, the specificity of production and the localism of my listening, savouring the material and the time of our distance, give them a collective feel and participatory impetus. I want to read Maridet’s text aloud while listening to his tracks; I feel like drawing with a sharp biro when I hear English and Suzuki’s pieces; and I might even go on to start knitting when hearing Ford’s album.

This performative quality is accelerated and increased in other DIY concept albums of sound art by Mark Peter Wright and Rui Chavez, which do not only engage you implicitly but give you direct instructions of how to listen, where to be, what to do. Wright’s title Tasked To Hear clarifies this intention. Published with Corbel Stone Press, you could call it a hybrid: the physical element is an A4 journal type thing presenting images, descriptions and data, as well as the weight of his endeavour; while a download code is given on a separate card with an invitation to “transfer this sound file onto a media player, go to a familiar place, sit or stand and listen using headphones”. Self-published in an edition of four, Chavez’s work Paraty is a book-shaped, hard-covered black thing with gold lettering whose first question, “Could you read and listen?” spells out his expectations. This is followed by five CDs, carefully embedded in the book and juxtaposed with instructions and poetic texts, telling us at one stage “you should cook and eat this recipe while listening to this CD on repeat”.

Both artists replace the authorial voice of the concert hall and the gallery with a more dialogical lead. They ask us to interrupt our everyday habits to obey instructions that tease us away from the computer screen. Between the implicit prompts in the work of English and Suzuki, Maridet and Ford, and the very explicit instructions given by Wright and Chavez, a curatorial and publishing strategy emerges where listening to sound art becomes performative, the curation now being less a matter of staging work and more about provoking a practice.

This development is exciting, revealing potential futures for sound publishing and distribution away from the download culture and immediacy of the worldwide archive of sound towards a more personal interaction delivered by post and performed by the listener. Thus the future of sound curation, so hotly debated this year, could lie in sculptural works of sound, texts and images that entice participation and instruct my listening through a tangible materiality and a physical presence.

In this jouissance of the material thing, there’s the danger of fetishism: that as we abandon the repository online we might start an archive of objects offline instead, their beautiful feel and touch requiring not my listening but my visual appreciation that remains unperformed and mute. But if we keep on performing what we hear, see and read, and engage with the aesthetic of the craft by crafting a listening response, we might just avert this fate and instead fast forward to a future where work is savoured in its materiality by performing its process while touching and singing its words.