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  • Jul 25, 2011
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Sounds Like… Curatorial Statement

Tod Emel

<raises index finger>
“First word…”
<nodding; places cupped hand behind ear, turning head slightly>
“Sounds like…”
<more nodding>

We’ve all participated in this scene familiar from the popular game of charades. The convention of the second gesture eliciting the familiar phrase “sounds like…” serves as both title and conceptual touchstone for the thematics being explored through this interdisciplinary festival presented at AKA Gallery. Through its interplay of gesture and speech, charades is a fitting reference for the overlap between sound and performative bodily movements examined here. Participants in the Sounds Like… festival present their audience with an experience orchestrated to heighten our perceptual awareness of the symbiotic relationship between sound and the body.

Regardless of how we are physically situated in relation to any specific audio source, we cannot escape the essentially embodied nature of our perception of sound. As theorist Ken Jordan states: “even our experience of the most abstract music is invariably linked to something seen, touched, smelled. Sound is inherently physical. It is a vibration; it travels through the body, and evokes a bodily response.”[1] Since our minds neatly synthesize all of the various senses into a comprehensible gestalt experience, art forms which incorporate multiple sensory events into a single practice come closest to expressing something of what it is like to be a body in space-time.

Erin Hall, Sounds Like…, 2011


What we see profoundly influences what we hear and the reverse holds true as well. Art, like all forms of interpersonal communication operates on many levels simultaneously as a multiplicity of meaning passes from source to receiver through the shared activity of language; whether spoken, or in the subtler phrasings of the body. From the vagaries of voice modulation and intonation to the minutiae of facial expression and the autonomic response of flushed cheeks and dilating pupils, we are at all turns saying far more than we realize while at the same time, responding emotionally and meaningfully to information of which we are completely unaware on a conscious level. Performance acts as a framing device to pique our critical awareness of the whispers of thought present in the finer details of physical bearing.

Seen in this light, the intentional gestures of sound artists with a performative bent are more than simply functional kinetic means to produce a specific sound. Their movements communicate an additional, parallel channel of impressions and sensations. Neither is this communication moving in a single direction. Like a DJ dancing along to the beats she’s producing, artists who straddle the fuzzy boundaries between sound and performance are instantaneously responding to the sounds they are making in collective bodily resonance with their audience and the physical space they share.The web of communication lines transversing these temporal events are multi-sensory, interactive and intimately affective.


Ellen Moffat & Jeff Morton, Sounds Like…, 2011

The advent of recording technologies fundamentally altered our perception of sound, shifting the focus of listenership to a more disembodied, introspective and primarily cerebral activity. Think of the throngs of commuters immersed in streams of data flowing from loaded mp3 players into ears isolated from their environment by noise cancelling headphones. Caught in an endless playlist playback loop of familiar favorites, sound serves as an anaesthetic against the drudgery of necessity, an empty distraction teasing our thoughts away from tired and under-stimulated bodies. Through the live and inescapably physical performance of experimental audio works at Sounds Like… we are presented with an effective antidote for the soporific and insulating effects of the solitary sonic landscapes we usually inhabit.

Hearing, or even hearing and watching a performance on video necessarily elides whole swaths of perceptual information processed by a live audience. Divorced from the specificity of context informing and shaping the ‘original’ instance (as problematic as the notion of ‘original’ may be), all subsequent iterations lose some of their indexical meaning. Most obviously, the physical presence of the performer registers as an absence. Highlighting these apparent losses is not a value judgement. What is suggested here is an attention to the qualitative differences between the immediacy of first-hand perception and mediated experience. Sounds Like… is an invitation for reflection of our individual awareness within a shared polysensorial environment.

Each of the artists selected for inclusion in the festival bring their own unique and often radically different approach to sound and performance. On one end of the spectrum, Erin Sexton’s methodical, almost meditative movements unfold in an inquisitive, searching exploration of architectural space. Her movements are picked up by contact microphones arranged throughout the space, literally amplifying and transposing the nuances of her physical actions into the dimension of sound. Pushing the envelope of emotional and sonic intensity, Joshua Fraser’s performances as The Suicide Bomber present audiences with a challenge to explore the threshold of our capacity to tolerate and engage in confrontation. This is not provocation for its own sake; rather Fraser seeks to see us through to the other side of the sort of catharsis we would expect from Artuad’s Theatre of Cruelty in a movement reflective of Nietzsche’s famous axiom “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”[2]

Alain Lefebvre, Sounds Like…, 2011


Other performances will play with the tension between presence and absence through particularly telling means. Lief Hall samples, loops and responds to digital echoes of her own voice, filling the auditory space with ghostly replicas of short-term memory traces. Michael Waterman has engaged several radio stations around North America to remotely rebroadcast and interact with his Saskatoon performance in real-time via the Internet. Virtually cloning his presence and redistributing it through these different nodal communication points troubles our expectations around the primacy of locality.

While there can be no neat accounting for all of the various differences at work in the practices of the artists in Sounds Like… audiences at the festival will have the opportunity to witness the full flavour of the variability and immediacy of sound performance. Now how does that sound?


[1] Ken Jordan, “What’s That Sound?” in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, edited by Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid (MIT Press, 2008), 246.

[2] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols, (Collective Commons) Maxims And Arrows 8.

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