Brandon LaBelle engages with sound as an artist and as a writer. Born in California but based in Berlin, he has tackled the relationship between sound and shared space from a social perspective for almost twenty years. Sound art, he has written, “is built around the very notion of context and location.”1 The concept of his installations, site-specific works, and collaborative investigations is to use sound to generate what he calls an “emergent community” that collectively creates an “acoustical imaginary.” Room Tone (2008–12) is one such example, and one of his most accomplished projects to date.
Involving collaborations with architects, designers, and other artists, this interdisciplinary work builds bridges, but it also embraces notions of difference, variation, and interference. Collaborators were asked to listen to three “soundtracks” created by LaBelle, each an acoustic representation of his apartment, and then produce their own models of this space. The results of these collaborations run the gamut from literal translations to imaginative digressions or interpretations. A selection appears below, extending the exhibition presented in the museum’s galleries to the space of this publication.
In filmmaking, the term room tone relates to the practice of making recordings in each shooting location to capture how the space sounds in “silence,” when no intentional sound is heard. Listening to rooms is not only a professional practice but an artistic one, with strong historical references—think of John Cage’s “silence” in 4’33” (1952), Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), or Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), to name just a few. The tradition of listening to space and of making room for sound or music is kept alive in Room Tone, but with a contemporary take. As LaBelle writes below, “[Sound] flows through the environment as temporal material lending dramatically to the experiences we have of being in particular buildings, and with particular people.” In a more abstract vein, the artist refers to sound as “an economy of the between [that] is already shared.”2 LaBelle argues less for a room of one’s own and more for an embrace of the social space of sharing and interacting through sound.
— Rudolf Frieling
by Brandon LaBelle
Sound moves between inside and outside. It disturbs what may appear static, while providing moments of deep connection, togetherness. It flows through the environment as temporal material, lending dramatically to our experiences of being in particular buildings and with particular people.
I’m interested in following these movements of sound, and in recognizing how sound supports meaningful exchanges by locating us within a greater social and energetic weave. From my perspective, sound operates as an emergent community by linking together bodies that do not necessarily search for each other and bringing them into proximity for a moment, or longer. This dynamic establishes a spatiality that coheres temporarily, as a space to dwell, while also being immediately divergent and diffuse.
I understand acoustic spatiality as one that situates us within a particularly vital form of multiplicity—a generative pressure of the acoustic continually actualized through listening. The interruptive, vibratory, simultaneous, and resonating qualities of sound all begin to suggest a spatiality that is other to or in supplement to the sightlines of architecture, to the overarching ocular emphasis of spatial planning. These various pressures—of sonic stirrings, acoustic reflections and absorptions, and vibratory energies—add to experiences of looking by wrapping our locational view in more than meets the eye, and often in tandem with the unidentifiable, the invisible, the overlooked, the coming and going of events, of frictions.
In particular, through its ability to disrupt and unsettle divisions between inside and outside, between one’s skin and that of another, between human and nonhuman presences, sound can be heard to pull us into multiplicity, collectivity. Sound brings us together without necessarily cohering into any stable form of community—it affords instances of collectivity that automatically includes something or someone beyond the perimeters of a singular identity; a sound is never truly one’s own, nor does it settle within any fixed boundary for too long. It is public space precisely by integrating interruption as part of its sharing.
Sound, in other words, can be heard to create a space that is both here and there, that is concrete and ephemeral; it delivers the world in all its materiality, as pressures and movements of intensity, as animation, as an emotional geography, between us and inside, while already disappearing into the ether as invisible energy. Importantly, such dynamics of crossover, of hinging, of collectivity and transience are suggestive for the imagination—an acoustical imaginary realized in acts of transmitting, echoing, hearing more.
The Room Tone project is an experiment in acoustical imagination. It unfolds specifically as a conversation between sound and architecture. Working with architects, designers, and artists from around the world, I sent these collaborators audio recordings of my apartment in Berlin in which I had attempted to sound out the space, searching for its ambient, material, and dimensional aspects. The participants were then given the task of making a physical model of the apartment by using the recorded sounds as their only source of information. In this way, a process of translation and interpretation developed, as each participant incorporated their perception and understanding of the auditory, however factual or fantastical, into rendering a spatial form.
The audio given to the participants consisted of three tracks. The “ambient” track is a sixteen-minute recording of my apartment on an ordinary afternoon. I carried a microphone with me as I allowed the sounds of the apartment to occur with very little interaction: small movements, the sounds of being alone at home.
The “material” track is based on trying to produce an acoustic and tactile picture of the apartment. I followed the outline of the apartment, tapping on all its surfaces with a metal coin. The sounds register the materiality of the space, as well as giving an acoustic indication of its volume.
Finally, I tried to provide a sense of the dimensions and layout of the apartment through a “measure” audio track. For this, I carried a microphone and counted my steps as I followed the outline of the apartment. Each time I came to a turn in the apartment, I started counting again at one.
After receiving the models from the participants, I wanted to continue the process of exchange and of conversation between sound and architecture. To explore this further, I produced a single sound in response to each model. I wanted to bring the models back into sound by giving them a simple audio identity—a sound event that could become a voice for each. During installations of the project these are distributed throughout the exhibition space, using one speaker per sound/model.
It has been my experience that the project has generated diverse conversations and responses on the part of participants as well as audiences. Each participating architect, artist, or designer brought to the task a unique perspective, and each challenged to some degree my own sense of the project. Room Tone invites such challenges and conversations; it was always my intention to use it as a platform for open experimentation in form-making interlocked with the material, energetic propagations of sound.
I imagine sound as something that is always already form and formlessness in one; it continually plays between states of recognizability while also inciting fantasy. This readily suggests that the auditory is never one or the other, but a flow specifically enabling contact between diverse elements and bodies—between you and me, and more.
Sound’s ability to connect, to link, and to break forces one and the other into proximity; it brings into contact the representational with the nonrepresentational, the included with the excluded. Isn’t listening a key to the distribution of agency? To a politics of radical openness? I take sound as the very means by which we negotiate the challenges of a presence that is also absence, a virtual-real, a way to ultimately integrate differences. In a sense, the auditory may fuel the imagination with visions for an architecture that never stabilizes around any one particular form but inspires a shimmering foray.
1st Translation: Abstract Topography
Both model and pattern are translations of the recorded sound. After listening to the “ambient” audio track many times, I have decided how to translate it. “Ambient” comes out of silence and goes back to silence. It’s not a perfect and closed silence, but it’s quiet enough to be called under this name. S, in the translation, is Silence. The model comes out of the space, and goes back to the space. It’s not a continuous and empty space, but it’s quiet enough to be called under this name. S, in the translation, is Space. I have organized ten columns, because I could hear ten different patterns, separated by silences.
The model encloses ten different spaces. A translation is always an interpretation.
Cones, inverted or not, crystal roofs, tables or chairs are not present in the recorded sound. At the same time, they’re not absent. Every little disruption, every little discontinuity of sound, has a parallel discontinuity in space. This is my project, always a translation of another translation.
I have been working in three steps, first creating a kind of score, or script, in order to let the different tracks “interact” with each other, so that new information is generated—to get a sense of “what takes place where.”
After that, the tracks are laid out in a two-dimensional drawing—the choreography, which is based on the script. The “measure” audio track is laid out to define the boundaries of the space, and the character of each room is defined by the actions on the “ambient” audio track. The outlines are drawn around the printed information from the two audio tracks, and so the boundaries and partitions of the home are defined.
As a third step, the three-dimensional model was created in an attempt to re-create the source that initially produced the recorded sounds.
The model presents the house as a theater of sounds. The shape of the stage (in white card) corresponds to the “measure” audio track, which presumably refers to the plan of the house. The color lines and bars represent sound types, rhythms, and durations. They are stored as individual panels but can be easily unpacked to interact on the stage. The house is an active and dense store of sounds, continuously evolving through inhabitation.
A Prospective Archaeology
Like coming across a photograph from the distant past that one knows well, I am no longer sure whether I actually went to the place within the picture or purely inhabited it in my imagination. There is no other evidence; all maps, notes, observations have been lost. What remains are the photographs and my memories, however unreliable they may be.
The memory that cuts through all others is the absence of sound. Absolute silence was amplified to a visceral reality, all audible frequencies translated and compressed into solid form, surface, space, and light. When I spoke, my ears strained to hear my voice, but my words had without sound amassed and articulated into another layer of matter. I witnessed the landscape shifting, material radiating and subsiding, the cracks appearing; silent incremental movements.
The place was solarized, a white light striking every surface. Forms doubled, reflected. The light flared outlines and hardened the ground. I surveyed and measured the landscape with my footsteps, leaps, outstretched limbs. I walked the long profiles and looked back to see new undulations in the terrain. I suppose I was charting this aftermath, this constantly changing place, this insistent construction site with its absence of sound. I remember finding a case; the object and its contents I described aloud and watched it duplicate.
Understanding the project as a “riddle,” and employing intuition, reasoning, and my training as an architect, I have proposed to re-create the space in the most realistic way possible.
The first step was to make a thorough analysis of each audio track: “ambient,” “measure,” and “material.” In each of these sound layers, I recognized certain key elements. Assuming that they take more or less the same route through the apartment, the crossing or overlapping of them evokes the space.
The “ambient” audio is very clear in describing the total. A small studio apartment, with high ceilings (echo) and wooden floors. Doors, window frames, and furniture are made from wood. I think the casement windows are from the front of the building, because of the exterior noise (car engines, ambulance), and possibly near to a square, because of the yelling of children and the birds singing (if there are birds, there are trees). An old construction that is deduced from the height, the creaking of the materials, the windows, and the system of pipes in the bathroom and kitchen.
The “measure” audio is understood as a route in the apartment that does not necessarily run along the perimeter. Each of the “steps” is translated into a “foot,” which is 32 cm approx. This audio has six key moments. First, the main entrance door opens and closes. Second, and immediately after the door closes, the door of the bathroom opens and closes. Third, something (possibly metallic) drops and sounds like it crashes on the wooden floor. Fourth, the chair of the desktop is moved. Fifth, a window is opened (children shouting and birds). And sixth, the main entrance door opens and closes. The route then begins and ends in the same place.
The “materials” audio is perhaps the most abstract of the three audio files, since it is hard to understand the route. Even so, I identify various materials. Floor, doors, furniture, and window frames made of wood, tile in the bathroom and kitchenette, wallpaper in the bedroom, and painted walls in the access corridor. Glass windows.
Guided by the “measure” audio, I painted various route-schemes, marking the “key points” that I defined above. My first premise was that the space should be small, with a simple distribution, where the space is used efficiently. The bathroom should be next to the entrance door, and the end of the route should coincide with the beginning of it. Finally, the window should obviously be on the perimeter (wall) of the apartment. Crossing these schemes with the “ambient” information, I came to the scheme of a plan that better represented what I was thinking. Once drawn, the diagram of the plan (2-D) starts the projection of the volumetric space (3-D). The model is a clear architectural rendering of what I imagined. A high-ceilinged studio apartment with a distribution corridor that takes you straight to the kitchenette, which is directly linked to the bedroom/living room. Similar noises were heard from the three windows, so I gather they are part of the same façade (old building/symmetrical façade). All this was complemented by the “materials” audio information. I include a desk, a chair, a kitchen cabinet, and a bed, as they were keys to understanding the space. And the route with a red line.
I’m always interested in architecture as a product of enveloping hollowness and emptiness, or even producing it. I found it interesting that the project emphasizes the same relationship between sound and silence. Somehow the idea of producing hollowness is for me the same as producing a space for a sound. Sound transformed into liquid is not aimed at finishing the process but to produce new possibilities.
It even made a new sound, that of melting, which I also recorded—the sounds of the apartment (atmosphere) didn’t just produce a space, but also a new sound. The process of making the model was recorded when I listened to the “ambient” audio file for the first time. I purposely refused to listen to the files before the actual making of the model. Sounds of the “material” and “measure” audio tracks I didn’t use, because my concept of architecture is more oriented toward producing a context for living, and material and measure are just techniques for that main task.
The audio recordings contained all kinds of sounds—not music or conversation, but steps on a wood floor, something knocking on glass, metal, cushions, drops of water falling on a sink or basin, numbers counting steps to right and left, and also noises from the exterior.
In a while images of familiar places started to appear in my mind. With them, also some sensations: cold and warm, serenity or anxiety, smells of wood, water, snow, smoke. There were so many familiar images that they needed to be sheltered in a special place. And the sketches started to take me to it. To the only form that could shelter all those things: a house. Yes, a familiar house, that one we drew many times when we were children. Even if it seems too obvious, the lines and the absence of walls would show the interior, like if the edges were circumscribing a virtual or imaginary house.
A beautiful picture of a pleasant place was placed as a floor and lit from below, with a white tissue placed some centimeters over the picture to diffuse and distort the image, so only when some weight was placed over the tissue, approaching the picture, it would be possible to see it in focus, revealing the image. Small blocks of wood were drawn on, each one representing one room of a house: a dining room, a bathroom, and a kitchen. Visitors could move the blocks, making their own configuration and connections. It was possible to see some places and not others, depending on where the block was located. The model was placed on a mirror, duplicating it and creating an oneiric and virtual atmosphere because the reflection puts the observer inside the model.
The idea was to create something at the same time very familiar and obvious, like a house, but deconstructed and fragmented, where the observer can at each point of view see different images, making their own connections and transforming the place while listening to the audio recording. And then, somehow, appropriating the place.
White Walls, Sound, and Architecture
Entering an apartment only by sound enables one to draw a subjective view of the invisible space. All the small sound details create a personal image of the rooms.
The sound, carried to my ear, to my inner eye, to the drawing pen in my hand.
By preparing images of room situations, giving all the noises a written text, the lively character of the small apartment appears. Walking through the apartment in that way, the subjective interpretive space grew each time.
There is the small bathroom directly beside the entrance; the kitchen with its bare walls and clean furniture; the room with the comfortable sofa, the childhood music box, the desktop, paper and pens; the room with the big window to the square outside . . .
Bringing the character of these rooms into an order quite close to the dimensions of reality, the sound of “measuring” led me along the outlines of the apartment, which are shown in the model.
Only white walls, broken through by doors and the main window. Empty of all projected thoughts, the left thing of blank architectural space—waiting for the sound to fill that gap.
The texts by Brandon LaBelle and Room Tone participants are excerpted and adapted from Brandon LaBelle, Room Tone, Audio Issues 7 (Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2015). All photographs courtesy Brandon LaBelle.