To us, machines are a part of our day-to-day existence and environment, but way back in the 19th century their presence wasn’t quite so prominent and their arrival into people’s lives was just beginning. Naturally they were treated with suspicion and intrigue. This sense of unease and burgeoning fascination with the emergence of technology is what sound artist Aura Satz explores in her sculptural pieces that utilize the physicalities of old technologies to look at our relationship to music and sound.
The idea of visualizing sound is prevalent in her work, whether she’s using the geometries of Chladni patterns like in Onomatopoeic Alphabet, the theremin, fire, or phonograph grooves, her pieces expore how sounds can be given a materiality, or a physical presence. In Ventriloqua the musician Anna Piva played Satz’s pregnant belly by capturing the electromagnetic waves with a theremin.
As well as visualizing sound in unusual ways, other aspects of her work like Automamusic, which you can watch here, explore the idea of autonomous sound devices, self-playing instruments that unsettle and astound with their mechanical music. Her work has a haunting, sorrowful quality that’s emphasized through the use of obsolete technology. We fired off some questions to Satz to find out a bit more about her work.
The Creators Project: What themes and ideas does your sound work explore?
Aura Satz: I am interested in using the perceptual synchronicity of an image responding to sound or vice versa, and how this can be used to destabilize and open up questions around abstraction, decipherability, codes, and language. The sound patterns I explore are often traces of sound as vibration, but this ‘moving writing’ seems to offer a potential new visual language that can be read as an open score. Many of my recent works have involved acoustic audio-visualization devices, or obsolete technologies involving sound, such as a Ruben’s tube [Vocal Flame] to visualize sound as a row of flames, a 16mm and 35mm optical sound camera which modulates sound as a light strip, or the squiggly lines of phonograph grooves [Sound Seam], etc.
Sound Seam which “explores sound inscription, encryption, decoding and the material quality of memory.”
You work has a kind of Victorian feel to it. Did this period of history influence you?
Yes, very much so. The Victorian period was a crucial time for the study of acoustics and developments of sound reproduction technology, and the investigations of otology and the invention of sound technologies were profoundly interconnected. People like Helmholtz, Bell, and Edison were mapping unchartered territory in their explorations of the ear and sound devices modelled on its anatomy. I am particularly attracted to the material and sculptural qualities of these devices and technologies, how they relate to yearning and mourning.
Some of your work explores older music technologies and how they affected culture and society. How do you think modern music technology is affecting present culture?
I think there are many people who could give a better account of this than myself, such as the scholar Jonathan Sterne who has written extensively about the MP3 format. I suppose the main effect is the portability of music and its interchangeable material support. I haven’t yet dedicated much time to thinking through what the greater aesthetic or philosophical implications might be.
Aura Satz, Ventriloqua, 2003-4, with Anna Piva – Photo: Karni Arieli
In what ways does your work explore sound as an intangible force made physical? And what interests you about doing this?
I love the notion of sound as an invisible vibration that affects matter, giving rise to strange geometries that seem to suggest a language of sorts, a Rorschach alphabet that is at once a supposedly true image of sound and at the same time open to interpretation, unstable in its reading, constantly shape-shifting and alive. I’m also fascinated by the way sound is a marker of presence, of some kind of a body emitting that sound, and yet it is constantly performing a disappearance act. The different material manifestations of sound and sound reproduction interest me as a way of making presence linger, a resistance to the vanishing, a resurrection of sorts.
What do you think about the way the physicality of music in the past has given way to the physical invisibility of music as a format in our own age?
Despite the supposed immateriality or invisibility of digital sound, it still requires its own material support of sorts (iPod, CD, laptop, etc.), even if it can be copied and moved between the various formats. I suppose the lack of a fixed ‘body,’ so to speak, enables a very convenient way to distribute, access and sample music. But perhaps the reason I am so fascinated by older, less compact, and more physical, heavy material supports of music is because of the sense of tactility, a feeling that a hand still lingers somewhere in the trace of those technologies. I am inspired by their sculptural feel. The gramophone needle, like an inverted pen, implies a direct point of contact, with one surface providing a code and the other a reading and translating back into sound. I am drawn to ways in which these technologies enabled new understandings of writing, authenticity, authorship and presence. Magnetic tape, for example, played a fascinating role in shifting concepts of linearity, loops, narrative, cuts, and echoes.
How do you think it’s affected our relationship to music?
It’s much more ubiquitous and accessible. It’s not just that it’s portable, it has also permeated our bodies in such a way that it inhabits a space inside us. I’m intrigued by the culture of inner listening, hearing through headphones and in an isolated/isolating manner (as opposed to loud-speaker sound experiences). Of course there have been headphones since the invention of the phonograph, but with the increased portability of music, close-up sounds exist in our heads as much as in a social space.