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A Dialogue Between the Seen and the Heard

The use of sound as a sculptural material and sculpture as a sound instrument in “Cuboid”

Cuboid is a multi-media artwork that combines a physical sculpture and an 8-channel sound art composition. Performed live and in real time, it uses the physical sculpture as a musical instrument, which is played as percussion. The sound from performing with the sculpture is processed, manipulated and diffused in space by the use of a laptop and MIDI controller. The resulting sound explores physicality and is used as a sculptural material. The sculpture is also used as compositional stimuli for the work.

Sound As Sculpture

In attempting to use sound as a sculptural material, I have identified two key aspects that are needed to be present for something to be sculptural: space and physicality. Below I will specify the works exploring these aspects, which were influential in Cuboid’s creation. 

Space As Sculpture

An early example of space as an artistic material comes from Naum Gabo, a pioneering sculptor originating from Russia. He is famed for his sculptures, as well as for establishing constructivist art, and in 1920, along with his brother Antoine Pevsner, for publishing the Realistic Manifesto. The manifesto announced that space and time should be fundamental aspects explored in art, by stating: “Space and time are the only forms on which life is built and hence art must be constructed” (Gabo and Peysner 1920). This is shown in his work, Model for “Rotating Fountain” (1925), in which he used transparent materials to invite the space behind the work to become a part of the piece and created a kinetic element to the piece that will change over time (Treves 2000).

A second example of space can be found in his 1969 piece Construction in Space with Rose Marble Carving (Variation No. 1). The work features a piece of rose marble that has a pierced centre, allowing the viewer to see through it. It explores “the relationship between void and solid, mass and space through carving.”

From another art movement and time era comes Richard Serra, a renowned and celebrated sculptor with a career spanning over forty years and a particular influence on this research. Serra’s work is concerned with architecture, balance, movement and time. He is perhaps most known for his works which involve very large metal forms, for example Strike: To Roberta and Rudy (1969), Snake (Sugea) (1994) and Intersection II (1992). However, the focus of these works is not the metal structures themselves, but on the spaces created in between them. The viewer is invited to travel through the space in the work and experience a “psychological feeling of different spaces” (MoMA 2007). The way the metal forms lean, taper or angle can give the viewer a sense of openness, weight or confinement. Serra uses these large steel sheets to frame space and cut out certain shapes from the wider installation location.

Video 1 (3:38). Walkthrough of Richard Serra’s sculpture Intersection II (1992). YouTube video “Richard Serra at MoMA — Intersection II (1992)” (3:38) posted by “The Museum of Modern Art” on 8 June 2007.

Serra works with a relationship with the human body in mind, using his own as a template. He aims to create work that the body can physically register and interact with. He explains this in a video that guides the viewer through his 1992 work Intersection II (Video 1):

I decided the height in relation to my body movement. At a certain point, if [the] work becomes too high, you look up [and] the physical space won’t be registered with your body. It just becomes like a building. (Serra 2007)

From this it is clear that Serra thinks about the relationship with the human body in his work and aims to create works in which the viewer can physically interact.

Dan Flavin’s work also takes the focus away from the materials used and utilises space as a creative medium. Flavin dedicated his entire career to working with the artistic potential of light, focusing mostly on using neon tubes. In his 1963 work Pink out of a Corner (to Jasper Johns) he activates space by illuminating “what is, by convention, a darkened area of the installation space. Invigorating ‘dead space’ with light became a powerful technique of the artist” (National Gallery of Art 2004). Flavin manages to engulf the installation space through light and bring awareness to a space that is often seen as empty, nothingness or a void. Similar to the works of Serra, the space is used by the artist to produce psychological effects on human perception through connotations linked with colour, shade and intensity.

Both Flavin and Serra use boundaries in their work to define the space that is to be experienced by the viewer. By defining a shape in space, they are giving what is often seen as a void or nothingness a certain physicality. They create works that use space as an experience and focus on how that experience changes as the viewer moves through the space. This allows the viewer to engage with, navigate and understand space in new and original ways.

The use of space in this way has also been explored by some sound artists. Brandon LaBelle, for example, writes on this subject:

Activating space through implementing and inserting auditory features shifts architectural understanding. Fusing listening with spatial narratives, audition with inhabitation, and movements of time and body as dramas of discovery, sound installation heralds new forms of embodiment. (Labelle 2006)

Other artists have focussed on space as a parameter: for example, Alvin Lucier’s works I Am Sitting in a Room (1969) and Quasimodo The Great Lover (1970). These pieces look at how space can colour sound, however, my own work is concerned with the use of sound to change or activate a space in new and unique ways. Cuboid, in particular, is concerned with the human experience of space and new ways to engage with it. (This work is discussed in more detail below.)

Another artist working with sound to activate space is the sound artist John Wynne, who is perhaps best known for his work Installation for 300 Speakers, Pianola and Vacuum Cleaner (2009), which was the first sound art piece to be added to the Saatchi collection. Wynne’s work Installation No. 3 for High and Low Frequencies, exhibited in 2014at Gazelli Art House in London, was tuned to the venue’s acoustic properties in order to allow the building to “participate” in the work. Wynne particularly mentions the physical and sonic effects gained from the tin roof resonating when it was presented with certain low frequency materials (Wynne 2011). Wynne used the building as an instrument that merges sound and architecture and gives the sonic piece a sculptural presence.

The technique of tuning sound to a room or place is also used by Michael Brewster, a Californian artist who has been working on what he terms “acoustic sculpture” since 1970 (Brewster n.d.). Brewster, whose background and education are in sculpture and visual arts, works with sound to extract its sculptural capabilities. He often uses standing waves and nodes in the location to allow sound to become almost solid, and give it a tangible and materialistic form. In his 2001 exhibition “See Hear Now” at the Los Angeles Contemporary Gallery, Brewster’s work not only looked at how to use sound, but also how to use space to better equip sound to become acoustic sculpture. Brewster himself constructed the physical space in which the sonic compositions would play in an attempt to bring out certain aspects of the sound that might otherwise not be realised. He is not interested in the musical applications of sound and re-thought his approach when his work started to become “too musical” (LA Artstream 2014). Brewster is interested in how different sounds can be used to draw different lines in space, even calling some of his works “sonic drawings”. The manner in which sound can draw was asserted in the press materials from the exhibition:

Each portion of the [sound] spectrum exhibits unique qualities and behaviours. Low frequency sounds, for instance, which have long wavelengths, are omnidirectional and volumetric. High frequency sounds have short wavelengths and are monodirectional and linear. (Brewster, cited in LaBelle 2006)

In his work allAROUNDyou, he presents pockets of palpable sonic space using short and linear sounds. These ideas of sound as definable and definite pockets of space give rise again to the idea of boundaries which the artist is using to choose which part of the space is to be engaged with by the gallery participant.

Physicality in Sound

As well as physicality coming from the defined space and the illusion of sound being solid, an artist can give a physical effect through interacting with human physiology or psychology. It can be difficult to imagine hearing as a physical phenomenon, leaving the most obvious method of achieving this to the use of low frequency sounds. These frequencies can be felt as well as heard, and resonate directly with the body. The sensation of feeling sound, such as this, was explored in the works of Bernhard Leitner. Of particular note is his Sound Chair (1975), in which a participant sits on a specially constructed chair with built-in speakers facing towards different locations on their body. Leitner has spoken about different parts of the body hearing and being receptacles to sound entering them (LaBelle 2006). He created the piece in such a way that different parts of the composition would play to different parts of the body. For example, low drones were played towards lower regions of the body and oscillated, moving to the upper torso (Ibid.).

Another of Leitner’s works, Sound Suit (1975), is intended to be worn by the participant. The suit houses several speakers that point towards the user’s body. Through this technique “a sound-space sculpture materialises, which accumulates and manifests itself in the body” (Leitner n.d.).

A perhaps less common way to involve human physiology is through “distortion product otoacoustic emissions” (DPOAEs). These are defined as:

[N]on-linear distortions that occur in the cochlea in response to simultaneously presented pairs of pure tones with a ratio between 1:1 and 1:3 and that activate the cochlea in the same region of the basilar membrane. (Haworth 2012)

Otoacoustic emissions were first shown by physicist David Kemp and occur as a sign of a healthy hearing system (Kemp 1978). They are now used universally in infant hearing testing by fitting a microphone into the ear canal and recording the response from the cochlea’s sensory hair cells when presented with the pure tones (Kemp 2002). However, this phenomenon can also be utilised for artistic means. The sonic response gives listeners the sensation of the sound originating in, or interacting with, the inside of their head, and has the effect of the ear becoming an instrument in itself.

With the explicit goal of achieving this effect, sound artist Maryanne Amacher has created a number of works in which she attempted to “release this music which is produced by the listener” (Amacher, cited in Lord 2012). She describes her use of, and experienced gained from DPOAEs on the album liner notes of her 1999 release Sound Characters (Making of the Third Ear):

When played at the right sound level, which is quite high and excited, the tones in the music will cause your ears to act as neurophonic instruments that emit sounds that will seem to be issuing directly from your head. In concerts, my audiences discover music streaming out from their head, popping out of their ears… and converging with the sound in the room.… There virtual tones are a natural and very real physical aspect of auditory perception, similar to the fusing of two images resulting in a third three-dimensional image in binocular perception. Produced interaurally, these virtual sounds and melodic patterns originate in ears and neuroanatomy… I believe such responses exist in all music, where they are registered subliminally and are certainly masked within more complex timbres. I want to release this music which is produced by the listener, bring it out of subliminal existence, make it an important sonic dimension of my music. (Amacher, cited in Lord 2012)

Her pieces Head Rhythm 1 and Plaything and Synaptic Island both involve sections where the only sounds heard are layered rhythms of these pure tones. The listener’s ear reacts to these sounds by presenting the DPOAEs, which add another layer of polyrhythmic material that is not present in the original work.

In Cuboid, the phenomenon of DPOAEs also works in another way. Along with the physical sensation, DPOAEs make the gallery participant’s movement through the space a heightened experience. As Christopher Haworth (2012) states: “When free to move your head, one can easily hear how the movement changes the intensity and localization of the tone.” Every movement of the audience’s head or body affects their perception of the sound. This makes the act of movement become an act of composition. As the listener moves around a space they can adjust the sound and sensation of the piece, and can therefore compose the sound piece and construct their own personal experience crafted from the sonic and spatial materials presented by the artist.

This effect has been used in other works, such as the aforementioned pieces where the room is tuned. In these installations, the artist will work with the space’s acoustic properties in order to discover resonant frequencies and nodes. Cuboid, however, uses DPOAEs and interacts directly with the cochlea, so it can be used in any space with no preproduction. The only requirement is that the sound is loud enough to fill the space and trigger the physiological effect. This work promotes an embodiment and aims to achieve a sculptural outcome where the viewer is not outside, looking at a sculpture but is rather part of the sculptural work, becoming unified with the sound, space and architecture of the installation. To achieve this immersion, Oliver Grau writes that sound should interact with many human senses:

It is envisaged that this kind of visual reality can be achieved through the interplay of hard- and software elements, which address as many senses as possible to the highest possible degree with illusionary information via a “natural,” “intuitive,” and “physically intimate” interface. According to this program of illusion techniques, simulated stereophonic sound, tactile and haptic impressions, and thermoreceptive and even kinæsthetic sensations will all combine to convey to the observer the illusion of being in a complex structured space of a natural world, producing the most intensive feeling of immersion possible. (Grau 2004)

By the addition of a bodily sensation, an experienced physicality and spatialization, sound becomes a phenomenon that is not only received aurally, but also experienced in an immersive and sculptural manner.

Physical Sculptural Objects As Sound Instruments

Another defining feature of this research is the origin of sonic materials, which are used to form the sculptures. Recordings of visual sculptures are used as sound sources to be manipulated and processed and are presented in the installation spaces for the spectator to see. The use of sculptural artworks as sound instruments connects together traditions in acoustic design, the self-built instrument and visual art, and explores the relationship between sound and sculpture.

Musique concrète — the manipulation and processing of recorded non-musical sounds to create a musical composition — was practised as early as 1948 in Schaeffer’s first piece, Étude aux chemins de fer. The piece is constructed entirely from recordings of trains and railway tracks and involved the editing of these recordings to create a musical composition. The works do not feature sculpture or instruments as such, but it is important to recognise the influence musique concrète has had on composing music using unconventional means, and how any material or object can be used as a musical source. The closing section of Pierre Schaeffer’s “Vers une musique expérimentale” 1[1. In “Pierre Schaeffer, 1953: Towards an Experimental Music,” Carlos Palombini analyses and comments on Schaeffer’s 1958 article, “Vers une musique expérimentale,” with extensive quotes from the original.] addresses the role of instruments in the context of emerging musical practices using electronic means:

All call into question the notion of the instrument. Sound can no longer be characterized by its causal element, it has to be characterized by the effect only. Hence it must be classed according to its particular morphology, rather than according to instrumental provenance. It must be considered in itself. The best proof of this: once the most interesting sonorities produced by the new techniques have been recorded on tape, it is impossible to say how, and by what ensemble of procedures or instruments, they have been produced. (Schaeffer, cited in Palombini 1993, 556)

From this excerpt, one gets a sense of Schaeffer’s feelings on how unimportant instruments or sound origins are. The focus, in Schaeffer’s opinion, rather lies in how the sound is manipulated or processed, or in “its particular morphology” (Schaeffer, cited in Palombini 1993).

Visual works, or physical objects, can also be approached as sonic objects. Composer, performer and instrument builder Hugh Davies built over one hundred instruments in his life that included acoustic, electroacoustic and found materials (Sadie 1984). The SHOZYG is one of Davies’ best-known instruments. The term “SHOZYG” was used for “any instrument, (usually an amplified one), built inside an unusual container” (Potter 2005). A particularly famous example involved a small amount of circuitry, including contact microphones, transducers and found objects, all of which could fit inside an encyclopaedia bookcase. This is in fact where the title originates from, as the particular bookcase used was the last volume in the series covering reference works beginning SHO to ZYG (Ibid.).

Davies considered his devices not only as musical instruments but also as visual artworks and they were often located in art spaces and galleries as much as in concert halls. An example is one of his many springboard instruments, Springboard Mk. 111 (1970), which was hung in exhibitions and also used with the ensemble Gentle Fire when performing the Karlheinz Stockhausen piece Aus den sieben Tagen (Toop 1974). Davies’ second link to visual art comes through his collaborative works with visual artist John Furnival. The “feelie boxes” built by the pair were tactile installations to be operated by the audience (Potter 2005). Davies regarded his self-built instruments as sound sculptures.

During the 1960s, Harry Bertoia created several works that are perhaps the best known sound sculptures, or “tonals” as he called them. As Bertoia worked and trained as a visual artist, his works inherently have a strong visual aspect. In this Soniambient series (1960–69), the artistic product is the sound that is created rather than the visual element exclusively. There is no intended link between the visual and sonic elements of the works except that of sound source. The sculptures involved long metal poles that, when pushed, collide into one another, resulting in a rich sonic texture. Using these sculptures and many other self-built items, Bertoia recorded eleven albums containing different performances from his acoustically treated barn.

Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) plays with what Dennis Smalley calls source bonding (1994), and with the relationship between sculpture and sound. This Robert Morris piece is a solitary wooden cube containing a speaker that plays a tape recording of Morris making the box. This includes the sounds of sawing, hammering and other noises associated with carpentry (Celent 2014). Through this relationship of visual and audio media, the audience is transported back in time by hearing the sound of the box being made, but not the sound it might make in its present form at the present time. The audience is not visually presented with any saws, hammers or carpentry materials but can imagine, with the use of the sonic aid, the construction of the sculpture.

The relationship between the visual and the sonic aspects of an object were also explored by Marcel Duchamp in With Hidden Noise 1916 (1963) — perhaps this work formed an influence on the Morris piece. This piece is made of two brass plates and a ball of twine. Duchamp asked his friend Walter Arensberg to insert an object in the centre of the twine which, when the sculpture was shaken, would make a sound (Celent 2014). Arensberg was never to tell Duchamp or anyone else what was inside of the work. This creates a visual element and a potential sound element that is realised when an audience member shakes the sculpture. In contrast to Smalley’s source bonding, the sound that materialises in Duchamp’s work, although coming from a visual object, does not allow the audience to see or ever discover what the true origin is, disconnecting the link between the visual and the sound.

Sculpture As Compositional Stimulus

In order to explore a further relationship between sound and sculpture, in Cuboid I used the sculpture as a compositional tool, as well as a body for direct sound creation. Conceptual information in the visual art domain was “translated” into the sonic domain for this work, in which I set out to explore various aspects of the sculpture and use them in the creation and composition of sound and music. One can assign many different musical or sonic parameters to visual ones in order to create a relationship between the two media. For example, one could take a famous skyline and map the different heights of the architecture as viewed from left to right and apply those changes to the amplitude changes in the duration of a musical piece. Visual information can quite easily be translated this way into musical inspiration or form an interesting way to generate material.

In her paper “Composing from Spectromorphological Vocabulary: Proposed application, pedagogy and metadata” (2009), Manuella Blackburn details how Dennis Smalley’s language for describing and analysing electroacoustic music, Spectromorphology (1997), can be used as a compositional tool. Smalley’s system uses visual shapes and symbols to depict the evolution, progression or movement of sound over time. By using these visual representations of sound and applying them to the three-dimensional world, one can draw comparisons between sculptural works and these depicted “blocks” of electroacoustic music gesture. This is because even though the shapes are not exactly the same, one can apply the same rules for reading the shapes, i.e. a tapered edge equals disappearance.

There are of course innumerable ways that an artist could use a sculpture to compose one or more musical gestures depending on the size and shape of the sculpture. The sculpture could be used as a graphic, or a “physical” score, and read as if the shapes were sounds over time. Within Cuboid, this idea was explored on a very basic level due to the sculpture being one simple shape, and due to the very limited gestural identity of using only one shape, exploration was needed to discover different ways sound and musical convention could represent that shape. In the future, I intend to create sculptural works which use a number of different geometric objects, which will mean it will be possible to directly apply Blackburn’s compositional use of spectromorphology to the sculpture and generate all, or a large part of, the musical or gestural ideas of the work.

Figure 1. Compositional structure of Ben Potts’ work Cuboid. [Click image to enlarge]

With this process in mind, and because the sculpture was created first, the beginning of the process could be described as “sculpting with sound” rather than simply sculpting. The resulting sculpture completely dictates what music will manifest, so it is impossible to create sculpture without also deeply considering the musical implications of the work. This means that as soon as the very first sculptural idea is being conceived, the limitations on the sonic element begin to form and many of the compositional choices are already determined. This is because the physical characteristics of the sculpture limit the possibilities of how the piece will sound. For example, if the sculpture was made from a soft material like sponge, but had physically extreme angles or spikes, it would be very difficult to realise the potential compositional and gestural ideas in said sculpture sonically with a material that did not allow for much attack. Another way to consider this process is that music is composed through sculptor’s hands. The process in practice becomes very non-linear, as no work can be carried out until both the sculptural and sonic elements are considered, and there is always movement back and forth to different parts of the process.

The piece is presented as a live, real-time performance with the cuboid sculpture played in front of the audience, recorded into a buffer and processed to form a musical composition. This piece was composed for eight speakers creating the shape of a cuboid. The intention was to change the shape of the space and engage the audience’s proprioception and spatial awareness. It also aimed to convey the shape to the audience and act as a sonic expansion of the visual cuboid sculpture.

Another method of representing the shape was through the symmetrical structure of the piece, which aimed to echo the symmetrical nature of squares, cubes and cuboids.


The composition of Cuboid offered an opportunity to explore the relationship between sound and sculpture, pertaining to space and physicality. From this, I was able to create a sound performance piece which brings together many of the space and physicality ideas discussed in this paper. Cuboid also unified my research and thinking by expressing how sound can be a sculptural entity, and how visual art can be used as a sound instrument. The work questions the relationship between electroacoustic music and the origin of sounds used by presenting the sound object in front of the audience and adding visual importance to the object. However, the discussed physical sculpture’s potential as a score or gestural inspiration is not examined in the work, which is something I hope to address in future creations.


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