Culture  Surfin’ on a sound wave

CKUT's Magic Sound Box pushes listeners into unfamiliar art territory

On the evening of November 19th, CKUT’s Radia Sound Art Collective transformed a beautiful, vacant room in St. George’s Anglican Church in downtown Montreal into the “Magic Sound Box,” a live radio transmission art show created with the purpose of allowing the audience to “explore the limits of aural imagination and indulge in the intimacy of sound.”

Upon entering the church, I was stricken with a pang of hybrid confusion and nervousness – despite reading numerous descriptions elaborating on the concept of sound art, in addition to Wikipedia-ing and Google-searching the term, I still had no idea what the event would entail. But within five minutes, the anxiety my cluelessness had produced diminished, as I sat alongside a sizeable audience, encircled by a dimly lit, tent-like structure composed of swatches of warm-hued fabrics. Quite a few among the crowd seemed shared my “Um, what?” sentiment.

At 8:45, the lights went out, the smell of incense intensified, and a mystery artist announced the commencement of “the sensory massage.” Naturally, at this point about half of those present began to laugh. From there, a rather relaxing woman’s voice related to both the live audience and the listeners at home the purpose of this evening’s show- to discover “the magic and mystery” of radio transmission and to become acquainted with the “evolution of sound.”

For approximately an hour and a half we listened, eyes closed, to the sounds of the artists’ voices, the screeching of a violin and the thumping of bongo drums, juxtaposed with both real and simulated radio broadcasts publicizing the negative impact of human activity on rural Alberta, and depicting a fictional crisis in which Quebec residents are forced to be indoors by seven to prevent a strange carcinogen from infiltrating their systems.  A German folktale played alongside layered recordings of girls describing their boyfriend troubles and sobbing.

All of this – the arbitrary sounds, the disturbing newscasts, the laughable portrayal of teen angst, and the stories – may seem, when illustrated through written word, to add up to just yet another odd conceptual art piece conjured by the minds of recent art school grads. But the Magic Sound Box made use of sound art’s unique ability to evoke a range of emotions, a task that a more static form of art couldn’t have done as effectively. The audience laughed at segments intended to be comical. We were all disturbed by the same clamor. We were in turn relaxed by soothing white noise and somnolent sounds, and then, collectively, awoken from a stupor to urgent broadcasts, both fictitious and factual.

The aural stimuli the Magic Sound Box provided allowed for a unique examination of pathos, ethos and human nature. The pairing of the teenage girls’ discussions with announcements of problems of a greater magnitude trivialized minor daily problems, creating an opportunity for audience members to reflect on their values, prioritizing and putting into perspective their troubles. That an urgent radio transmission, no matter its contents, uniformly warranted the same reaction – that is, an abrupt return to reality – is particularly telling. This reaction showed that listeners have been taught to shift the focus of their attention for a message that is somehow universally perceived as urgent, and will consistently respond in this way.

The Magic Sound Box demonstrated, in an engrossing manner, why radio is such an effective method of communicating and transfusing thoughts and emotions. And so, I have finally learned the definition and purpose of sound art, a dynamic medium that is, perhaps, explained so vaguely because the experience of interacting with it is largely inexplicable.