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Audio As Art At New York Exhibit



Arpeggios ricochet through three speakers and envelop us. We're on the modernist Bauhaus staircase at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, listening to techno-inspired electronica. This piece is part of a new exhibit, "Soundings: A Contemporary Score," that opens today.

BARBARA LONDON: I wanted work that pushed limits, pushed boundaries.

LYDEN: That's curator Barbara London. She invited 16 young artists from around the world to participate here. Now, sound art has been around for decades but more and more, traditional museums are embracing it. London calls it intangible, time-based art.

LONDON: I think there is a lot more recognition now. And I think it has to do with the fact that audiences, listeners, they've got gear. They've got their little smartphone. And they're not only taking pictures, they're recording sound. And I hope that people in Soundings record also. If it's grabbing them, I'm thrilled.


LYDEN: The artists literally went everywhere to bring back sound. Jacob Kirkegaard, a Dane, traveled to Chernobyl to capture these faint, haunting echoes. You'll remember the disaster of 1986. The explosion at the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl killed scores, and left the place a ghost town. It's radioactive, but Kirkegaard placed mics in an old pool, a concert hall, an abandoned church and a grimy gym.

JACOB KIRKEGAARD: What you hear here is the gym. And that's the result of these layerings - that's the frequencies that sort of came out of that room. It's like, for me, it's important that, you know, that the sound can remain just what it is. I'm not trying to change it into being eerie or happy or spooky.


LONDON: So we're in the room of Jana Winderen. And you might think these chirps are birds, but I actually think we're - at this point, underwater. And you're hearing the sound of bugs, and those are probably fish.

LYDEN: Jana Winderen has a background in marine biology. And she put microphones underwater, to capture the sounds of mammals and insects which are beyond human hearing capacity. We only hear them now because she slowed the sound frequencies down. Curator Barbara London explains.

LONDON: The fish are in a kind of cul-de-sac, and they're shooting their sound into the corner which - then it ricochets out; and then they're looking for a mate.

LYDEN: Richard Garet, from Uruguay, plays with the frenzy of modern life in a piece called "Before Me." He converted a worn-out turntable that acts as a stage starring a vintage bit of Americana - a shiny glass marble that never gets anywhere. The marble advances and rolls back again and again, a classic Sisyphean ordeal.

RICHARD GARET: This is a Fender Bassman amp. It's an antique. And the turntable is a Dual turntable. And all the objects in this work, with exception of the microphone, were street-found. So in my work, I pay close attention to objects of commodity and how they participate in our lives, and how people relate to those things.

LYDEN: Some of the sound pieces here only refer to sound. A classic ribbon mic was the one used by legendary vocalists. It was called the Shure microphone, tall and straight. But this one has been altered by artist Camille Norment.

CAMILLE NORMENT: In this case, the microphone components have been removed, and I've replaced it with a very strong light, which casts a shadow upon the wall that looks like a ribcage with a vertebrae or a mask.

LYDEN: The skeleton-like shadow projected by the microphone is large, even sinister. Every few moments, it flickers. Norment says the instability is intentional, capturing suppressed voices.

NORMENT: And I think that this particular microphone, especially since it evokes so much from a certain period, for me, in American history and especially my being an African-American woman, that evokes a very specific social tension. So you have, you know, the Billie Holiday, and you have Elvis - you know, the same microphone. The time, you know, it was - it was a very abrasive, you know, social reality that was sort of offering itself, pouring itself into this microphone.


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root...

LYDEN: In the radio biz, I've recorded everything from buzzing refrigerators to the whine of racing tires. Sound carries us. It's the first sense we have, and the last to leave us. Soundings: A Contemporary Score at MoMA reminds us of its infinite artistic possibilities and its creative necessity. The show is open until November the 3rd.


LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKEND on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKEND on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes, or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. We'll be back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening, and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Longtime listeners recognize Jacki Lyden's voice from her frequent work as a substitute host on NPR. As a journalist who has been with NPR since 1979, Lyden regards herself first and foremost as a storyteller and looks for the distinctive human voice in a huge range of national and international stories. She is the current Weekend All Things Considered host.