‘Sound in Space, Sound in Place’ highlights the beauty of audio

I have been writing art criticism for almost twelve years. The vast majority of my reviews have focused on the work of painters, sculptors, printmakers, photographers, fabric artists, ceramicists, furniture makers, and the occasional video artist. All share a common trait, in that whether the work is contemplative, utilitarian or decorative or some mix thereof, they all exist in a primarily visual sphere.

That said, I have been asked to review theatrical and musical performances, comedy shows, ballet and other dance. I have always declined those requests as they fall, with a resounding thump, outside of my wheelhouse.

I once reviewed a three-person exhibition that included a dress on a mannequin and approached it as I would a painting. I considered composition, color, and narrative, concluding that I didn’t really understand a dress unless it was on a woman. And maybe not always then.

So what was I to do with ”Sound in Space, Sound in Place,” the audiocentric exhibition at the New Bedford Art Museum? My first thought was to dodge it and stay in my art school comfort zone. And then I took a deep breath.

"Cluster Fields," by John Driscoll  and Phil Edelstein (speaker detail).

“Cluster Fields,” by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein (speaker detail).

The centerpiece of the show is “Cluster Fields” by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein. The collaborative installation features sounds gathered from a myriad of sources, both biological and not, including those that emanated from seals and whales, courtesy of the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

"Cluster Fields," by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein (detail).

“Cluster Fields,” by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein (detail).

The installation traverses through interconnected rooms. Black plastic tubes as thick as boa constrictors merge with cantilevered globes of glass and curved shapes that look something like a pterodactyl or a nun’s stiff wimble, all suspended from the ceiling. The unique sound system culminates with a series of long horns right out of a Dr. Suess book.

The resulting deep throb cacophony is initially disorienting but it slowly becomes soothing as one becomes accustomed to it, like the snoring of a loving partner.

"Whirly Chorus Composition No. 4," by Tess Oldfield.

“Whirly Chorus Composition No. 4,” by Tess Oldfield.

Tess Oldfield’s “Whirly Chorus, Composition No.4” is a trio of motorized boxes which spin fluorescent blue, pink and yellow corrugated plastic tubes, attempting to replicate the human vocal tract as air passes through them. The resulting noise manages to reverberate with the familiar while pushing away from the edge of the everyday.

“The New Bedford Soundscape” is a series of short snippets crowdsourced recordings by New Bedford residents that became (and will continue to become) a documentation of the sounds of the city, both pleasant (songbird melodies, wind chimes) and the unpleasant (leaf blowers, cars revving at a redlight).

Musician Scott Bishop (who performs and records as Scapeghost) uses sound snippets (the buzz of traffic on MacArthur Drive, seagull cries, his daughters playing air hockey at Play Arcade) and heavily processes them, transforming them into synths and rhythmic elements.

"NBWaves," by Scapeghost (CD cover).

“NBWaves,” by Scapeghost (CD cover).

With the support of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and assistance of drummer Denis Saulnier, drum engineer Eric Salt and mixer Pete Weiss, Bishop put out “NBWaves,” a six song EP (available for free from the NBAM store.)

"Polaroid Dreams" (flowers), by Scott Bishop.

“Polaroid Dreams” (flowers), by Scott Bishop.

“Party On, Darth,” Bishop’s  referencing both “Star Wars” and “Wayne’s World,” succeeds as a funky stormtrooper’s march.  “MacArthur Drive” is rave danceable, as the reconsidered sounds of vehicles zipping down the eponymous road form the backbone of the song.

"Polaroid Dreams" (photographs), by Scott Bishop.

“Polaroid Dreams” (photographs), by Scott Bishop.

The highlight of the EP is “Polaroid Dreams,” which almost starts a dirge before the vocals kick in, revealing both a pop sensibility and a romantic’s sensitivity. Check out these lyrics:

“Shake the image, the milky hue

Slowly turn the dream to fact

Held on so long to your picture

Never thought I’d see you fade”


“The image starts to fill the square

A gray haze and you’re suddenly there

In every crack and every seam of my Polaroid dream

A fine film of atmosphere

A vivid color that leaves a smear of life that falls

In between the borders of my Polaroid dream.”

Forget Outkast’s “Hey Ya!”  This is the best song ever to mention Polaroid.

Bring on the noise.

“Sound in Space, Sound in Place” is on display at the New Bedford Art Museum, 608 Pleasant St., New Bedford, until June 4.

This article originally appeared on The Herald News: Art Beat visits ‘Sound in Space, Sound in Place’ at NBAM

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