Light / Dark mode

Orchestral Manoeuvres at the ArtScience Museum Reminds Us What It Means to Be Human

Truth be told, I had not wanted to go to this exhibition. Being a very visual person, I felt that there would not be much to look at when I flipped through the press materials for Orchestral Manoeuvres: See Sound. Feel Sound. Be Sound.

But I stand swiftly corrected after curator Amita Kirpalani took us through the show. What the exhibition lacks in visual splendour it more than makes up for in the way that it engages your other senses. Not only is there actually quite a lot to see, what’s most compelling is how this exhibition captures the human experience itself in all its senses. From the humdrum and the absurd, to the joyful, conceptual and hopeful, the vast array of sound art works reflects the myriad things that make us feel human.

Sounds as signs of their times

For starters, works like Hsiao Sheng-Chien’s kinetic sculptures and Chen Zhen’s Chair of Concentration conjure up a sense of the past as the artists recreate sounds of their environment.

Using repurposed objects such as motors, Chinese medicine boxes, and pastry moulds

Using repurposed objects such as motors, Chinese medicine boxes, and pastry moulds, Taiwanese artist Hsiao Sheng-Chien juxtaposes the familiar sounds of his childhood with these curious altered landscapes. The result is a poignant and endearing encounter, which I urge you to see for yourself since this image does no justice to the crucial sonic properties of the artwork.

Chair of Concentration (1999)
Exhibition view of Chen Zhen’s Chair of Concentration (1999).

In pre-pandemic times, visitors would have been encouraged to take a seat and listen to the field recording emanating from the repurposed chamber pots in Chinese-French artist Chen Zhen’s Chair of Concentration (1999). In this presentation of the work, its soundscapes tend to be overshadowed by the other noise-making works in the room by Zul Mahmod and Hsiao Sheng-Chien.

While the curators did share that it was the intention for sounds from different artworks to bleed into one another and evoke the cacophonous nature of city living, in this case it was truly quite difficult to hear Chen Zhen’s work, unless one patiently waited for the other sounds to cease.
Excerpt from Zul Mahmod’s Resonance in Frames 3 (2018).

Nearby, Singaporean artist Zul Mahmod strikes a rhythmic tune on copper pipes, drawing attention to the way that these unassuming yet essential household tools connect us all. These everyday objects – and their attendant sounds – go unnoticed until they are placed in a gallery setting like this.

They provoke the question: what other everyday sounds go unnoticed in our midst? As I type this on my clattering keyboard, I feel myself becoming more attuned to the neighbour’s dog barking, and the spinning saw and jackhammering at a distant construction site.

The notion of sounds as signs of their times continues on in another gallery where several works were clustered together by nature of their visual, sonic, and conceptual properties.

(clockwise from back left) Ashley Zelinskie’s Cube with the Sound of its Own Printing (2014/2021), Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) and Timm Ulrichs’ Radio (1977/2021).
(clockwise from back left) Ashley Zelinskie’s Cube with the Sound of its Own Printing (2014/2021), Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) and Timm Ulrichs’ Radio (1977/2021).

Put together, Robert Morris’ Box with the Sound of Its Own Making and Ashley Zelinskie’s Cube with the Sound of its Own Printing speak to the way that our soundscapes shift with the times. As the title describes, Morris’ boxed sculpture encases within itself the sounds that were made during the process of its construction. Zelinskie’s own cube, intended as an homage to Morris’ work, updates the piece for the 21st century as hers is constructed using the medium of 3D-printing.  

The absurd and the playful

Those seeking a more light-hearted approach to sound will not be disappointed as the show is peppered with joyful and slightly absurd moments that point at our human capacity to play.
Excerpt from Mel Brimfield’s 4′ 33′′ (Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister) (2012).

Mel Brimfield’s 4′ 33′′ (Prepared Pianola for Roger Bannister) (2012) is a very randomly specific tribute to Roger Bannister, the British athlete who finished in fourth place at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki in simultaneous triumph and disappointment – although he broke his personal record and the existing world record in this race, finishing in fourth place meant that he was denied a medal despite this achievement.

There’s much to love about this self-playing pianola that, in true Fluxus fashion, may or may not start when you press the big red button. Using the footfall of the athletes as a starting point, the music that emerges from this percussive machine is both visually and sonically delightful. One can observe the analog pieces of the machine come together to make beautiful sound: the clashing of cymbals, the keys of the pianola, even a rolling ball bearing that triggers all the action at the start. It encapsulates everything that’s exciting and invigorating about a race, and is simply joyful to watch.

Cory Arcangel’s Arnold Schoenberg Op 11 I – III – Cute Kittens (2009)
Video still from Cory Arcangel’s Arnold Schoenberg Op 11 I – III – Cute Kittens (2009). Image courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery.

Meanwhile, Cory Arcangel’s Arnold Schoenberg Op 11 I – III – Cute Kittens (2009) stitches together snippets of YouTube videos of cats playing the piano to recreate composer Schoenberg’s avant-garde masterpiece, showing how our relationship with music evolves as technology brings new tools with which to play and manipulate sound. It’s a light-hearted take on a very serious piece of music, and importantly underscores the point that music-making can be accessible to anyone regardless of the tools one has at their disposal. Yes, even if it is a handful of cute YouTube videos.
Excerpt from Nevin Aladağ’s Traces (2015).

I personally enjoy how Arcangel’s take on sound art can be read in contrast to German artist Nevin Aladağ’s Traces (2015). This 3-channel video installation pretty much rounds off the exhibition, but not without first giving you a hefty dose of amusement and awe.

Taking musical instruments such as accordions, flutes, and violins out into the streets of Stuttgart, the artist puts them to work through the most unconventional of means. Case in point: she attaches a recorder to the mouth of a helium balloon such that its air plays the recorder as it is expelled. The recorder-balloon’s short sojourn into the sky ends with the recorder bobbing onto the ground repeatedly as it lets out an incessant whistle.

I won’t spoil the rest of this work for you, but suffice to say that its idiosyncratic means of conjuring sound out of age-old instruments are bound to bring a smile to your face – dare I say, even if you have PTSD from all those childhood violin lessons of yore?

The silent and the still

On a different note (haha), ample space is also given to the still and silent pieces which nonetheless evoke sound with their word and image. There are too many to name individually, but those that stood out include deaf American artist Christine Sun Kim’s The Sound of… series. Her works imaginatively visualise sounds in musical notation.

The idea of translating languages that one lacks access to rings strongly here. Depending on whether you’re able to read musical notation, you’ll relate to the work in different ways. Either you’ll find it apt, or you’ll come head to head with the frustration that the artist undoubtedly feels as a deaf person in a hearing world.

I keenly felt the latter with most of the works in this series save The Sound of Obsessing (2017), where the visual cues in the spacings of the letters clearly communicated the anxiety of obsessing:

The Sound of Obsessing, 2017
Christine Sun Kim, The Sound of Obsessing, 2017.

Elsewhere Yoko Ono and Pauline Oliveros evoke sound through instructional text – Ono’s inviting the imagination to realise the art piece in one’s mind, and Oliveros’ being functional breathwork exercises suitable as warm-ups for groups, whether trained or untrained.  

Whisper Piece (1961/1970)
Yoko Ono, Whisper Piece (1961/1970). Blink and you’ll miss it – these relatively small text pieces were placed adjacent to Mel Brimfield’s comparatively ostentatious piece. The latter tends to command the room’s attention when the pianola is in action. So do look out for it before you exit this gallery!

Other works by Idris Khan, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Singapore’s own Song-Ming Ang explore the notion of the graphic score, or how music might be represented visually apart from the Western tradition of music notation. Music buffs will appreciate the nod to musical history in the form of the inclusion of American avant-garde composer John Cage’s seminal scores (including, of course, 4’33”) and reproductions of ancient notation manuscripts from the Schøyen collection: 

Idris Khan, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Singapore’s own Song-Ming Ang explore the notion of the graphic score


The pièce de résistance

From sculpture to text, video and actual pieces of music, works by the 32 artists of Orchestral Manoeuvres trace how sound and music relates to our human experience in so many ways. But perhaps the most memorable of all is a work whose essence cannot be pinned down by any photograph. To go by looks alone it frankly does not amount to much:

Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium,” by Thomas Tallis 1556) (2001)
Materially speaking, Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium,” by Thomas Tallis 1556) (2001) comprises 40 speakers arranged in a circle. Viewed as a staid image in a press kit, it is unlikely to inspire any awe. Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.

But stand in the middle of the room and close your eyes, and the experience of this work is transcendental. The 40-part choir sings Spem in alium, a piece of sacred choral music by Thomas Tallis, an important Renaissance composer of sacred music. The exultant music, brought forth by 40 speakers each transmitting one singer’s unique voice, transports one to an almost otherworldly plane.

There is something inherently transformative about this experience that at the risk of embarrassing myself I should say that I felt cleansed and closer to the divine – whatever this might mean for a heathen such as myself.

In counterpoint to the elegiac, Cardiff’s included a glimpse into some deeply human and personal moments as part of the work. Before the choir begins their performance, we are first privy to their casual chatter, yawning, throat-clearing, vocal warm-ups – those mundane little sounds of life that are more often shunted to the side in favour of the big moment.

It is in this juxtaposition between the mundane and the divine that we stand, remembering that to be human is to exist between the two. For this work alone, it’s worth paying a visit to Orchestral Manoeuvres, but the numerous works in this thoughtfully curated show round it off soundly for a thoroughly moving afternoon.   


Orchestral Manoeuvres: See Sound. Feel Sound. Be Sound is ongoing at the ArtScience Museum from now until 2 Jan 2022. For more information, visit their website.  


Support our work on Patreon