Statement of Purpose

At PechaKucha Boston earlier this week I presented the US premiere of my Statement of Purpose. I primarily think of it as a composition, but you might also call it a performance piece. I suppose “multimedia lecture” might be most accurate. It was written in September 2008 for presentation at PechaKucha Shanghai and thus adheres to the PechaKucha format: 20 slides of 20 seconds each. In Boston as in Shanghai, I think it seemed to go over pretty well.

Statement of Purpose is consciously indebted to John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, one of the pieces collected in his book Silence, which I first read many years ago. The thing that struck me about these early Cage lectures and essays is that, in many cases, the message is in the form of the work, not the content. Rather than just describing his ideas about rhythmic structure, he demonstrates them; you experience them directly.

So in my piece, which I have described as an update of Lecture on Nothing for the digital era, I’ve adopted a mobile structure, as opposed to a linear lecture format. I take great inspiration from Alexander Calder, because in his mobiles, the individual elements are fixed, but the relationships between them are in constant flux. So here my lecture is arranged topically, around nodes of ideas. The main idea-nodes are

Aspects of Music and Audition
Stasis in Sound
Dynamism and Interactivity
The Current State of Videogames
Non-Linear Structure
The Nature of Multimedia

On each of these topics, I wrote a bunch (around six to ten, I think) of one sentence statements, single ideas that could be presented in any order. Then I wrote a program that generates a script by randomly picking one of these idea-nodes, picking some of the ideas associated with it, picking another idea-node, etc. Pauses are added between each statement to vary the density of the lecture over time (using a random walk, aka a “drunk” function or brown noise), in the same way that a tide or a rainstorm has a changing contour over time. Indications about when to clear my throat, gesture to the screen, take a swig of beer, etc. are also algorithmically scattered throughout the script, as a kind of textural element, subverting the ephemera of a typical lecture scenario.

I also interspersed a purely musical element, consisting of a set of low drones plus a set of brief melodies in a higher register (outlining an A mixolydian scale) all sung on a textless “ooh.” It’s pretty arbitrary; I thought the piece could use it, and I like the texture that results. But it also serves to focus attention on the abstract structure of the piece, rather than the content, and to suggest that the piece as a whole may be considered in musical terms.

There’s another type of behavior, too, statistically less likely to occur. While 16 of the 20 slides use the above formulations, the remaining 4 are shuffled riffs on standard salutations and closing statements: “Hello,” “Good evening,” “My name is Ben Houge,” “Thank you for your attention,” “Good night,” etc. The idea is that through repetition and dislocation, these phrases become formal (rather than syntactical) elements; it’s very similar to what I’m doing with radio broadcasts in Radiospace. Having another type of behavior helps vary and articulate the overall form. I also just think it’s funny, and I sensed that the audience was similarly amused. Humor is like music, in that it plays with audience expectations, as when I end my piece with a cordial, “Hello, everyone.”

The slides were generated using very similar techniques to those I employed in my 29 Giraffes series, but substituting text for little chunks of photographs. The colors, in fact, are algorithmically extracted from the same Nanjing Dong Lu source material I used in my Giraffes. Here again, the emphasis is more on the texture that emerges from all this superimposed text, rather than on the text itself; as with the algorithmically generated script, the slides communicate through form, rather than content.

The whole piece has an audio accompaniment, too, one 20 second audio clip per slide. To create this backdrop, I processed a recording of myself reading the text of the piece using a bunch of custom software I had lying around at the time, programs I had developed for other pieces. You can identify bits of Psalmus, Study for Eventual World Domination (my contribution to The Bike Bin Project), Radiospace, and a granular synthesis demo I did as a videogame audio engine prototype. Looking back, the evocations of these pieces that crop up (as of the Giraffes) provide a nice snapshot of my digital workspace in September 2008, which was part of the idea.

To assemble all of these elements, I selected the 20 slides I wanted to use of the many I had generated, then I wrote a program to shuffle them. Same for the 20-second audio segments I generated. In the end, it’s a combination of arbitrary decisions and procedurally generated bits, which is really how just about any artwork comes together, digital or otherwise.

The result is that ideas come and go, freely floating. I’ve referred to a lot of my pieces as “meditations,” and the term is certainly apt here. Ideas recur, sometimes in different media (text from the slides may pop up again in the spoken presentation or recorded backdrop). They “interpenetrate,” to use one of John Cage’s favorite terms. They reinforce each other, and they add up to a way of thinking, which is very much my way of thinking, a network, a web of ideas, all connected.

It’s a good time for me to revisit this piece. Especially in the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning that can be conveyed through pure structure. I think this has come to the fore as I’ve been increasingly active in visual media. In music, we take this for granted; you could say that music traditionally conveys meaning through structure alone. Music is the most abstract of the arts; representation or mimesis in the pre-recording era was by far the exception (think of the timpani evoking thunder in the “Scène aux champs” of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique). In some cases you can say what a piece is “about,” because you know something of the circumstances of its composition, or because of a prefatory note by the composer. But principally, music’s meaning is all in the relationships of different frequencies, rhythms, velocities, timbres, etc., and, more importantly, the calculus of how this all changes over time. You would never say that even as abstract a composition as The Art of the Fugue is meaningless.

So coming, as I do, from a background in music, it’s only natural for me to approach my visual art in the same way, applying the same types of structures that I use in my sound work to visual information, and it’s been surprising to see how the conversation unfolds differently. A prominent arts person (don’t worry, no one you know) came to see my show in Suzhou last fall, and I was kind of amazed when she asked me what my piece was trying to convey. A musician would never think to ask such a question. As Elvis Costello said, if I could have written the song with any other words than the words I used in the song, I would have written a different song, wouldn’t I?

Of course there was a bit of a conscious impulse to poke a hole in the sometimes punctilious proceedings of a standard PechaKucha event (I have my Seattle School cohorts to thank for any vestigial confrontational aesthetic). As when I sneakily built an ambient electronic piece from mildly acrimonious pre-show chatter at Opensound a few weeks ago, I like the idea of snapping people into a different state of awareness with some new or unexpected realization. I also like the pacing of it; PechaKucha is usually about people cramming as much as they can into their 6:40, but my script actually includes indications to pause for as long as 10 seconds. But both times I’ve presented this work, the audience seemed to get it and dig it; it’s not just some avant-garde stunt. The message was conveyed.

Statement of Purpose was my first project after leaving Ubisoft at the end of August 2008. The deadline was tight, less than a month, as I recall, and I liked the idea of doing a new piece completely from scratch to emphasize my new trajectory as a full time, independent artist. I remember staying up all night to get it done, with an urgency that had been missing from my corporate gig for quite a while. I consciously wanted to make a statement about the main issues I was setting out to address in my work, my mission, as I considered it (and still do). Check out some documentation from that performance, and a video excerpt below.

I originally wanted to generate my slides and script in real-time using custom software, which I feel is technically still in keeping with the PechaKucha format, but in Boston as well as in Shanghai, the organizers very understandably wanted to stick to a standard set-up for all speakers. This is still something I want to explore, though, particularly the idea of giving cues to a performer on the fly, exploring the idea of real-time score generation (which is exactly what happens in a music videogame like Guitar Hero, and which I’ve already started to explore in pieces like my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game, more commonly referred to as Beer Hero). I’ve been contemplating a revision of this piece for a long time, to include this real-time score idea, write some new modules, add some Chinese text, incorporate multiple screens of real-time generated imagery, and blow past the 6:40 PechaKucha time limit to create a full, hour-long presentation. If anyone would like to sponsor and/or host such an event, please let me know!

EndWar Audio Post-Mortem

For those who are curious, here are the slides from my Boston Post-Mortem presentation last week. It was a conscious affectation to only capitalize the first word of every heading, and I now regret it, but I’m too lazy to go back and change them all. Also, I’m sorry the font size changes so much from slide to slide. (For more on EndWar audio in prose version, check out this EndWar audio page I put up a while back.)

The talk focused mainly on the audio deployment mechanisms we developed for the game, since I think that was some of the most innovative and fun work we did, and hopefully also the most portable to other projects people may be working on. I spent about half of the time going into some detail about our music system, which I feel was one of EndWar’s key audio innovations. It’s a little tricky to share the music demo I did (mocked up in Max/MSP) online, but I found some gameplay footage on YouTube that showcases the same set of music in the final game. (Music composed by Alistair Hirst and Matt Ragan of Omni Audio!)

It’s actually an instant replay of an online match on PS3. This means that, unlike the actual game, the player is controlling the camera movement here. This provides a good opportunity to hear how the music evolves, depending on what’s going on. There are a few sounds that seem to come out of nowhere; they would normally accompany interface events, but in replay mode, the interface is suppressed. Note also the guitar squeals that indicate you or your enemy has lost a unit (depending on the squeal).

Here’s another video of actual gameplay footage on the Xbox.

Note that the volume periodically ducks down quite suddenly; that’s because this person is using the game’s voice command feature to control his or her troops. When you pull the trigger to talk, other sound ducks down for clarity, but of course in this excerpt, you don’t hear the player talking, hence the dropouts.

This video goes from the little intro movie to the main menu music to the loading music to some actual gameplay. The loading music in particular illustrates our music system’s scalability, as this was done with just a few kilobytes of audio data in memory, algorithmically permutated, nothing streaming. Feel free to search for other gameplay excerpts on YouTube, too.

Anyway, the talk went really well, with a big turnout, an attentive crowd, and a lot of interesting conversations afterwards. Thanks to Darius for inviting me to share my work, and thanks to everyone who attended!

Baldessari Sings Kanye West Tweets

So I’m annoyed that my Boston Post-Mortem lecture tomorrow has been postponed due to the forecast snowstorm, so I’m moping about the apartment, thinking about the following:

I just read that the Walker Art Center (one of my favorite places on the planet) has acquired John Baldessari’s 1972 video Baldessari Sings LeWitt. As the Walker tells the story, this video is Baldessari’s riposte to conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, who had dismissed Baldessari’s “amusing pop paintings” as “not relevant to the discussion” of conceptual art. So Baldessari made this video, in which he sings Sol LeWitt’s 35 Sentences on Conceptual Art to the tune of popular songs, including “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, I think, “Tea for Two.”

He didn’t write the text. He didn’t write the music. He doesn’t perform the results in any compelling interpretation. All he did was pick a text and (unimaginatively) pick some music and (unimaginatively) kind of mash them together.

In short, there’s nothing here that amounts to a great performance, as opposed to really bad music. Even as a performance piece, it’s lazily presented and poorly rehearsed (and please don’t try to assert that rehearsal is somehow irrelevant to performance art). And it doesn’t even enter the conversation of video art; this video is strictly documentation of an event, ignoring the whole set of issues posed by the medium of video.

What advocates of this work completely miss is that the notable “meta-conceptual exercise” Baldessari performs here is nothing more profound than what every composer must consider when setting a text to music. Why do you choose a certain text? What is the text about? How can you support (or subvert) that meaning in sound? To take this idea to its logical terminus is to raise a whole bunch of issues Baldessari completely skirts by lazily appropriating popular tunes (and of course ignoring that appropriation in music has its own rich history and another whole set of issues; see Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia, also Charles Ives, Frederic Rzewski, Peter Maxwell Davies…).

This piece exemplifies what I think is one of the major fallacies of art discourse in the past 50 years or so, which is the idea that sound represents some uncharted new territory for artists to transform into arable aesthetic soil. This attitude seems pervasive, and it strikes me as ignorant and condescending, since there are artists who have in fact been tilling the field of sound since the beginning of recorded history, and those artists are called musicians.

I am consistently surprised at how people working in or writing about the visual arts have so little understanding of what’s going on in new music. For me, the ideas are out there, the zeitgeist, the great conversation with history, and an artist continues the conversation by expressing new ideas in one medium or another, be it painting, sculpture, dance, literature, music, film, video, or whatever. Sure you gain competence and craft the longer you work in one area, but it behooves an artist in any medium to be aware of these conversations that transcend discipline and to address the ideas themselves, whatever their final form.

I don’t mean to suggest that visual or conceptual artists should not venture into sound or performance, but they would save themselves a lot of trouble by paying attention to the work that’s already been done by musicians. Or if it is strictly a conceptual gesture, there’s no reason to actually make the video; just circulate your proposal, “I’mma sing Sol LeWitt’s Statements on Conceptual Art to popular tunes LOL!” (see, it fits into one tweet!), and we’ll all have a good chuckle and get on with our days and certainly not be talking about it in 40 years. (I guess here is where commercial concerns come into play, having a video to hawk; at least in Baldessari’s case, it’s cheap.)

Speaking of Twitter, I am not kidding when I assert that John Groban singing Kanye West tweets is a more successful artistic venture on all fronts.

It’s a lot funnier than Baldessari, and perhaps in spite of itself, it touches on the fragmentation of today’s media landscape and celebrity obsession, all the more effectively since the music, tossed off though it is, fits the words.

I had a great plan a few years ago to set a piece of spam I received to music, for voice and laptop. There were 3 different layers of text in it: a decoy text, the actual ad copy presented as an image, and a bunch of random keywords, to throw off spam filters, I guess. I thought setting it to music presented some interesting structural opportunities, e.g., stratification of the different texts, and could also touch on ideas of alienation and superficiality in the digital era. But alas, I lost the text, and I’ve never found another one as suitable (I guess spam filters have gotten better; I’m not complaining).

But I did get around to setting a bunch of personal ads for voice and piano. What do you think? Is it a conceptual gesture? Or just music?

Departure from The Point of Departure

As I’m getting settled in on the other side of the planet, I’ve had a little time to upload some documentation of my ongoing (through Dec. 5!) show at True Color Museum in Suzhou.

First, in case you missed it, here’s the original press release and various placards and annotations. See also my original treatment and mockup.

The show got a lot of good notice in the press. Check out Tom Mangione’s feature in the Global Times on my residency at True Color and recent work, Jake Newby’s near eulogy that kind of made me cry a little bit, and these fond farewells in SmartShanghai and Shanghaiist.

I’ve also got a bunch of pictures from the show, the opening party, and my residency up on Flickr.

And I’ve got some video of the main installation itself up here, but be warned that a video clip doesn’t do justice to the scale and spaciousness of the final work.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure (live footage) from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

It’s my largest installation to date, and to a greater extent than any previous piece, it relies on a large space for its full effect, so the experience of watching a small, single channel video can’t describe the impact of the piece on-site. When you’re there in the very reverberant room, you’re enveloped by resonant sound. The screens are spaced out such that you can’t easily take them all in at once. You have to kind of unhinge your eyes a bit, so that you’re not looking at the image on any particular screen so much as the relationships and changes across screens; this multiplicity is an integral aspect of the piece. In addition to the technical breakthroughs (at least for me), which included a real-time color correction system and a scheme for networked troubleshooting and balancing, this piece marks a milestone in my use of video as a sculptural element in a larger composition, rather than serving as the totality of the canvas itself.

Most of my pieces are of an experimental nature (“What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.” –John Cage), which means they necessarily evolve quite a bit from original idea to final outcome. What’s striking to me about this piece is how close it turned out to my original conception, below.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

In the process of escorting the piece from concept to final installation, some additional ideas and associations emerged. One is the format of the piece, originally intended to evoke the banks of departure monitors at an airport, but which of course also evokes a bank of security monitors, all somewhat unsettlingly trained on the same subject. Feeling the piece in its final form, I was really struck at how much it really creates a portal to another space, like there’s a magical wormhole connecting southern Suzhou and suburban St. Paul. A visiting artist friend also pointed out that the tree branches standing in stark silhouette cannot help but evoke traditional Chinese ink painting in a city with a history like Suzhou’s, where the many gardens are full of literati in training, sketching away.

The exhibition’s opening event went great. Basically, I invited all the musicians I wanted to hear one last time before leaving the country (Yao Dajuin 姚大钧 performing his rich, slowly cresting Dream Reverberations; Wang Changcun 王长存, with a masterful set of algorithmic counterpoint; and Xu Cheng 徐程, exploring modulating oscillators), and they all played exceptional sets. The same day, there was an opening at the I. M. Pei-designed Suzhou Museum of works on loan from the San Diego Museum of Art (a fine show I had a chance to check out a few days later; John Sennhauser’s Syncrophormic #18-Horizontal Duo blew me away!), but the museum chairman Chen Hanxing 陈翰星 said that the turnout at our show was better!

It’s possible that I will look back on this time in Suzhou as some of the happiest days of my life. For years I’d been longing for just the kind of hermetic retreat this residency afforded me, to be isolated in an environment where I could focus on work and study. In addition to putting this show together and constructing my Self-Portrait installation, I worked on songs for my upcoming CD release Shanghai Travelogue (next step: taking the stems to my pal Mike’s place near Seattle in early 2011 to mix!), getting caught up on Chinese study (now I’m just shy of 3000 characters), and other miscellaneous writing, reading, composing (sketches for at least two future pieces), and documentation. It was a productive, peaceful, and idyllic time; if anything, I wish I could have taken better advantage of the situation, without having to pop into Shanghai so often or taking most of the month of August to tour Germany.

Here’s a very informal tour of the museum and my exhibition that I recorded in the fleeting moments before I left Suzhou:

The Point of Departure/True Color Museum Tour from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

My friend Maya Kramer was the first foreign artist to do a residency at True Color (and I am in awe of her fortitude; she came in cold from the US, first time in China, not speaking a lick of Chinese, immediately sequestered to the outskirts of Suzhou, and totally thrived). She warned me that it would be lonely sometimes, but I remember several weekend evenings realizing that I was the only person in this huge building, and feeling nothing but contentment in my rooftop retreat. The only kink was when, about halfway through my residency, the cook who had been providing me with 3 square (if somewhat homogenous) meals/day got fired, and from that point on foraging for food became a challenge in this remote location; for the last 3 months of my residency, I subsisted on bananas, mooncakes (the Chinese equivalent of fruitcake, very solid food), and green tea.

The museum’s commitment to art is serious. The previous big group show last summer at the museum was vast, and really good. I don’t know how many people saw it, but almost certainly fewer than should have. The show was called “中国性 Nature of China: Contemporary Art Documenta.” Maybe it’s a little goofy to review a show that’s already been taken down, but I thought I’d go ahead and post my notes from that exhibition, quick blurbs about artists whose work I dug, or who at least provoked me in some way.

王岩 Wang Yan
Big, polluted, industrial landscapes
Dark and Kieferesque

施慧 Shi Hui
Big papier-mâché (or some such technique) stools/drums
Nice environmental installation, with a dialog between some drums arranged haphazardly on the ground and others suspended from the ceiling

马晗 Ma Han
Went to construction sites and ground sand from various kinds of rubble
Affixed this sand to canvas to make earth-hued, Barnett Newman-style horizontal zips, nice texture
Sand was also lined up in jars, perhaps overly documented with photographs, but gets the idea across
Same artist also did a huge flock of starched black and white shirts hanging from the ceiling
Also did these weird candied bonsai trees, dripping, lumpy texture, lit from beneath, all made out of tiny people and rice

贺丹 He Dan
Several large paintings, depicting throngs of people in realistic detail, contrasting the stark formal composition of the canvases
Big plane was my favorite, looming ominously and menacingly over the crowd, an alienating display of power and technology
Another painting of crowds carrying red flags was less effective, perhaps a bit jingoistic? Or maybe that was the point

马良 Ma Liang
B&W photographs of miniature figures in fantastical pastoral scenes, evoking historical painting
Incorporating dead fish and chicken, surreal, decay
Chinese calligraphy inscriptions

王强 Wang Qiang
Hollow, woven, suspended clouds, nice effect
Not sure what these were made out of, but some super light material that traced the clouds’ outline
I had a nice view of this piece through the skylight from my quarters upstairs

梁绍基 Liang Shaoji
听蚕 Listening to the Silk Worms
A big dark room that housed several incubators in which silk worms lived their life cycles
Additional pillows with headphones to listen to them, and some videos near the roof, as I recall
Great sound and smell, sad they tossed it after a few days

郑达 Zheng Da
OK, this was the one piece I hated; if you’re going to do a piece that evokes videogames in any sense and fails to achieve excellence, prepare to incur my wrath!
Everything about this was poor
Concept was dumb and blunt: you run around a virtual world with your avatar and click on the things you “want” (material goods, big assumptions), and they explode
Explosions only make sound part of the time, and the sounds are terrible
Explosions are ugly, particles don’t disappear, just hang in space
No life in environment, just some easy flowing water
There’s no game here, it just arbitrarily ends after a while
Bad ergonomics/interface (mouse on a low table in the dark, makes your wrist hurt after a minute)
Bad music loop
Terrible, terrible

王剑 Wang Jian
欲象 Phenomenon of Desire
Abstracted grayscale paintings, bodily forms, ephemeral, evocative
I’m told this guy used to have my studio!
Gestural clarity

幸鑫 Xing Xin
吾与浮冰 Meditation on Floating Ice
Performance event, commenting on carbon emissions, among other things
Head to a glacier at the head of the Yangtze River near Tibet
Collect a piece of ice and take it to the East China Sea to melt
“We hope the audience could try to understand such boring guys like us!”
Car plate issue (had to bypass Shanghai, one of the many ridiculous restrictions on Shanghai life imposed by the Expo)
Accompanying video of him floating down the Yangtze on a bed is cool, though!
More at

杨福东 Yang Fudong
半马索 (2010)
Videos of guys in suits leading donkeys through canyons
Nice, elegiac, typical Yang Fudong
BTW, like me, Yang Fudong also used to work for Ubisoft Shanghai!

Huge sculptures outside
隋建国 Sui Jianguo’s big suspended metal block
Also a car with a rock garden in its hood; didn’t see who that was by

金锋 Jin Feng
Printed scrolls of etched graffiti
Same guy I exhibited with at OV Gallery’s “Make Over” show earlier this year!

刘建华 Liu Jianhua’s large sheets of blank paper, slightly bent, that turn out to be porcelain upon closer inspection
These were super cool

孟涛 Meng Tao’s big canvas of peacocks are striking
He hired some master silk embroiderers to reproduce his painting and suspended them side by side, very nice presentation, stretched out on a loom
Performative documentation unnecessary, as is the fact that he did the original painting in one 24 hour session
(like that Icelandic guy at the Venice biennale…when did painting become performance? Why can’t it just be a practice or a discipline? Are painters feeling so marginalized that they feel they must subject themselves to this awkward artistic rebranding?)

汪建伟 Wang Jianwei
Not sure about his big video: 时间•剧场•展览
This was the weird historical thing, period costumes, bunch of scenes, no dialog, odd nonsequiturs very theatrical (no real set, just presented in a big, dark, black box type space)
But it was projected on a heck of a projector, which I was happy to later use for my Transportation video!

曾晓峰 Zeng Xiaofeng
Creepy dark portraits, faces of animals, weird pseudo-scientific scribbles and props

Farewell for now, True Color!

The Point of The Point of Departure


I suppose now’s as good a time as any to unveil the pieces that will be included in my solo exhibition The Point of Departure, which is opening this Saturday, Nov. 6. I just finished finalizing all the text for the placards in the exhibition last night, shared below; there’s a little explanation of each piece and a brief discussion of the point of the departure for the show itself. Enjoy!

I also just added the Chinese translation of the show’s press release to the bottom of this post; sorry not to have that up sooner!

Four days out, and I’d say we’re in pretty good shape. We’re constructing the frame for the big Self-Portrait installation, which I can now confirm is up to 18 channels from the originally advertized 15. I tweaked the sound component of the software yesterday and added some real-time color correction (at first I thought this would be cheating, but I checked, and no it’s not). The rest of the gear should show up later today, and then we just plug everything together and see what happens!

I also pulled my synth-pop set out of mothballs two days ago for the first time since my June 5 show at D-22 in Beijing, and it’s surprisingly rust free. “口口口口口口口口” always gives me some trouble, but I’ll have the kinks worked out by Saturday.

See you then!

OK, here are those promised placards…

The Point of Departure
Ben Houge Solo Exhibition

Where to begin? In addition to its strictly geographic connotations, the phrase “point of departure” indicates a conceptual transition. For an artist, “point of departure” is another term for inspiration. It implies a connection, perhaps one that didn’t exist previously. For years, the focus of my work has been to underline connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, disciplines, and people. This has led me to a diverse practice that encompasses classical composition, videogame development, performance, pop production, video art, and sound installation.

The point of departure for my gallery work is sound. Sound is where I started; I grew up singing in church choirs and writing pop songs, and my university studies were in classical music composition. Perhaps music, historically the most abstract art form, lends itself to thinking primarily in purely structural terms. Over time it seemed only natural to attempt to apply my sonic structures to other media.

For twelve years, until about two years ago, my full-time job was designing audio for videogames. Early on, I observed that the challenges of creating organization in this inherently indeterminate medium were prefigured by the aleatoric works of composers like John Cage, Earle Brown, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ideas from their work, as well as from my own experience in videogame development, have in turn served as the point of departure for much of my recent music and installation work, in which I write software that incorporates real-time, algorithmic techniques to generate ambient, evolving environments.

This exhibition marks a transition in the physical, geographical sense as well, as I arrive at the end of my six month artist residency at the True Color Museum. I would like to extend my warmest thanks to Chen Hanxing and all the staff of the True Color Museum for generously supporting my stay here.

-Ben Houge


从何说起呢?除了它严格的地理学意义, “起航”一词象征着一个概念上的过渡。作为一个艺术家,“起航”在这里代表着另一个含义—-灵感。它暗示一种关系,或许先前本不存在的关系。多年来,我的工作重心是让表面上好似毫无关联的意见、原则和人,加强彼此之间的联系。这种行为让我的艺术创作呈现多元化的特色,包括传统的艺术模式,电子游戏开发,行为艺术,波普艺术,录像艺术及声音装置等。


有十二年,我都是全身投入到为视频游戏设计声音的工作中,直到两年前才停止。早期的时候,我注意到在这种本来就没有什么固定媒介的创作组织中工作是一种挑战,一些前辈人物,比如John Cage, Earle Brown,和Karlheinz Stockhausen等都在挑战这样的尝试,他们工作的灵感结合我自己在电子游戏方面的工作经验,成为我近年来音乐及装置作品的创作源泉。我运用我所学到的知识,去编写软件程序,把真实时间和算法技术合并到一起,去建立一个不断发展变化的周边世界。


-Ben Houge

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure 起航黄昏的自画像
Real-time audiovisual installation for 18 channels of video and 4 channels of sound

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure suspends a poignant moment in time and makes it last forever, in a way that is unique to the digital medium. Unlike a photograph, which freezes a moment, or a looping video, which repeats a moment, this work uses non-linear deployment techniques borrowed from videogame design to layer and offset a moment in such a way that it can never be said to be starting or stopping, ending or beginning. The rich texture that emerges from this multiplicity of independent images serves to homogenize the source video into a new aggregate that provides an ever-changing vantage point on that captured time.

Much of my work is meant to “emulate nature in her manner of operation,” to quote John Cage. Here, the complex patterns that result from 18 independent video channels evoke falling raindrops, the growth of cells, or the slowly shifting tree branches that are the video’s ostensible subject. The motion of the hand-held camera exposes the movements of the person attempting to hold it still, which can be seen as a metaphor for the effort to hold back time. The source video was filmed in St. Paul, MN, USA, last January, on the lawn outside my brother’s house, in the ten minutes before we got into the car, and he drove me to the airport.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure is dedicated to Nate, Jodi, Lydia, and Elsa Houge.



作品《起航黄昏的自画像》献给Nate, Jodi, Lydia Elsa Houge。

Transportation Is Getting a New Look 交通战线换新貌
Real-time, single channel video installation


Transportation Is Getting a New Look is a continuous, algorithmic reconfiguration of a 1970’s propaganda poster entitled “Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌”. It suggests the kind of public collage that emerges when posters are anonymously applied to a city wall. Old posters are covered up or torn down, images fade with time, and the present becomes a canvas for the future, depicting the process history. As the original poster disintegrates, its pieces give way to a formal play of rectilinear forms such as one might find in a Soviet propaganda poster by Kasimir Malevich. The work thus creates a tension between two different modes of meaning: one is representational and textual; the other is structural and experiential.


Shanghai Traces上海轨迹
Real-time, single-channel video installation

Shanghai Traces 2010119120335

Shanghai Traces was a response to the massive beautification campaign that the city underwent in preparation for hosting the World Expo this year. The falling objects are the colorful wares of Shanghai street vendors, a reminder that every person who passes through a city leaves a trace, however fleeting. The resulting patterns and combinations evoke the movements and exchanges of city dwellers, in the same way Merce Cunningham once explained what his choreography was about by pointing out a window at busy Manhattan traffic and saying, “That.”

《上海轨迹》是对上海为了举办世博会而进行的庞大的城市美化工程的一种反映。画面中坠落的物体都是上海街头小摊的颜色,它寓意是每一个从城市经过的人都留下了痕迹,大家看到的动态图案反应着城市居住者的生活动态。某种程度上类似于Merce Cunningham对他舞蹈含义的描述他指着窗外曼哈顿街头繁忙的交通说:看吧,我的舞蹈就是这样的景象。

Giraffe 2009791224 长颈鹿 2009791224
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 3/20

Giraffe 2009791224

Giraffe 200971712495 长颈鹿200971712495
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 2/20

Giraffe 200971712495

Giraffe 200971315148 长颈鹿 200971315148
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 200971315148

Giraffe 2009628223541 长颈鹿 2009628223541
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009628223541

Giraffe 2009714105550 长颈鹿2009714105550
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009714105550

Giraffe 2009719145217 长颈鹿 2009719145217
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009719145217

The series I eventually dubbed 29 Giraffes was my first foray into visual art, a process I quietly investigated over a period of more than two years. In the initial tests of my software, I used as source material a photograph of a giraffe I took in Kenya in 2006, but in the prints I finally exhibited for the first time in August 2009, the source material was a set of photographs of neon lights I took along Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu pedestrian walkway. The resulting images are reminiscent of the compression of the urban experience Kurt Schwitters achieved in his Mertz collages, conveying something of the disorienting and exhilarating overstimulation of life in one of the world’s largest and fastest evolving cities.

这组叫做《长颈鹿》的作品是我首次影像艺术的尝试,整个过程大约两年多。在最初的软件实验中,我使用的是我在2006年肯尼亚拍摄的长颈鹿照片。但是用照片来展示这种艺术形式的时间是2009年,那时的原材料已经换成了我在上海南京东路步行街拍摄的霓虹灯照片。这些图片表达着这个世界上最大最繁忙的都市的城市景象的压缩。有点类似德国艺术家Kurt Schwitters表达的对城市快速发展的疏离感。

Grisly Death by Shanghai Cab

Here’s a song about riding bikes and falling in love in Shanghai (right click and “save as…” to download MP3).

Grisly Death by Shanghai Cab

It’s not connected at all with my upcoming exhibition, but last night as I was practicing the piano for my performance at the show opening (Nov. 6!), I finally solved the puzzle of the harmony of the middle section of this song, which has been nagging at me for months. So I ran out and grabbed my H4 Zoom audio recorder and got it down quick, and I love the idea of something being available for download about 12 hours after it’s finished, so here you go. If you want a setting, imagine a dark auditorium (I don’t know how to turn on the lights in there, but I really don’t mind playing piano in the dark, although it wasn’t so practical for recording, but I managed) on the top floor of the True Color Museum, big windows onto the quiet outskirts of Suzhou, about 10:30pm at night.

I started this song about six years ago. It’s becoming an unfortunate pattern for me to work on a song for five or six years. The last one was “Go,” which I posted on NeoCha about a year ago, and the next one is “Cross Ocean,” which is about half recorded, pending completion of an unnecessarily complex algorithmic breakdown section. (Most of my songs, including “Go,” were posted on Chinese social networking site NeoCha, which despite my unflagging support was shut down a few weeks back, which is a bit annoying, so I currently have a lot of broken links on my site. If you need an interim fix, check out my page, or NeoCha’s hardier competitor, Douban.)

Anyway, the title and main hook just came to me, as these things do, about six years ago, as I was getting accustomed to life in Shanghai. At the beginning I was simply amused by the incongruity of such a dark lyric with what I imagined to be a bouncy, Burt Bacharach style musical setting (the melody and irregular phrasing certainly have some Bacharachian countours, if it’s not too immodest of me to say so). I always planned, and still do, I guess, to arrange this for chamber orchestra; there’s an intro/outro flugelhorn figure in my head, not represented in this recording.

So for a long time I just had this title/lyric and few other ideas that started to casually conglomerate around it usually while walking or biking around Shanghai. But after I’d been dating Jutta for a while, a more complex narrative started to emerge, associated with this idea that basically the more you start to care for someone, the more you worry about them; the two come hand in hand. And Jutta bikes like a maniac, and there have been times when her phone’s been out of battery or she doesn’t pick up and I’ve found myself rather distraught. It’s a little bit of the idea from the film What About Bob, where if you walk down the street yelling things like “turkey tits!” pretending to have Tourette syndrome, you must not actually have it. By imagining the worst, somehow the worst feels less likely.

I was trying to finish this song as a birthday present to Jutta in 2009, but this has proven to be one of the trickiest songs I’ve ever written. I almost completed it in time for her birthday this year, finishing the last lyrics on the train from Frankfurt to meet her in Cologne last August, but these last tricky chords still eluded me. I was trying to convey the idea of working oneself into a worried frenzy, imagining increasingly implausible scenarios, and I found this difficult to reconcile harmonically with the rest of the song.

Here’s the solution. The bridge pops down a whole step to a new, but closely related key area, signifying a new mental perspective. It starts out with a simple pattern (though also ambiguous, hovering mostly on the subdominant), twice transposed through a little twist up a minor third (F-Ab-B), getting higher and louder, then an irrational leap up another minor third (skipping ahead in the twist) to D, then this alternation of Bb minor 7 (implying melodic minor, raised sixth scale degree) with an octatonic scale also based on Bb (starting Bb-Cb-Db), trying out different scale degrees as a root (D, G, and F, kind of directionless pacing or flailing, not leading to harmonic resolution), before finally using F to slip into a FmM7 as a weird kind of resolution to something that’s still not quite settled, then eventually continuing through a more conventional cadence, gm7, d9, then to a kind of BM7 (which I voice as just an F with a Bb in the bass, although I guess I stuck a D in there, too, so whatever you want to call it). Then slipping into this thinner, ambiguous quartal set of G-A-C-D, which, since A is in the bass, allows us to fall, exhausted, back into our familiar e minor in a kind of plagal fashion. It took me many, many drafts to arrive at this! BTW, the high notes that I’m not quite hitting 3 times in this recording are Ab’s, way out of my range, but hopefully fitting in the context of the song.

OK, interlude over, I’m testing some computer configurations for my installation this morning, then I’m off to Shanghai to tackle printing for my show. I guess if I were more marketing/branding-attuned, I would, you know, stay more on message through Nov. 6, but such is the fickle nature of inspiration. Get it while it’s hot!

Now see you on Nov. 6 in Suzhou!

The Point of Departure

My solo show is confirmed, so stoked, here’s the full press release…

The Point of Departure: Ben Houge Solo Exhibition
November 6-December 5, 2010
True Color Museum 本色美术馆
219 Tongda Rd
(at the intersection of Jiushenggang Rd, near Guoxiang)
Wuzhong District, Suzhou, China
苏州市吴中区通达路 219 号本色美术馆(近郭巷)

Composer and digital media artist Ben Houge presents the culmination of his six-month residency at Suzhou’s True Color Museum with a solo show entitled “The Point of Departure.” The focal point of this exhibition is a new, real-time 18-channel video installation entitled Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure, an ambient work that applies concepts from videogame design and granular synthesis to video, to make a poignant moment last forever. Also included in the show are selected videos and digital prints providing a survey of Ben’s visual output over the past two years.

An afternoon-long digital music festival will celebrate the opening of the exhibition on Saturday, November 6, from 1pm until 7pm. The lineup includes performances by Hangzhou-based digital artists Yao Dajuin 姚大钧 and Wang Changcun 王长存, as well as Shanghai’s Xu Cheng 徐程 (of Torturing Nurse). Ben’s live performances are known to vary widely in style, and he will celebrate this diversity by performing three different sets of music: an ambient electronic set, a synth-pop set of original songs, and an acoustic set of favorite tunes by artists including John Cage and Jay Chou 周杰伦.

Long active in new music circles in China and the US, Ben Houge has been increasingly visible in galleries in recent years, with work exhibited at Art+Shanghai Gallery, OV Gallery, and [the studio] in Shanghai, as well as at the Today Art Museum in Beijing. His video Shanghai Traces, originally exhibited at OV Gallery’s Make Over show last spring, was shortlisted for the Guggenheim’s YouTube Play Biennial and has recently been acquired for permanent installation at Shanghai’s Glamour Bar. Ben has performed around eastern China and at all of Shanghai’s primary live music venues, as well as at the Shanghai eArts Festival, the Mini Midi Festival, Hangzhou’s 2Pi Festival, the Zendai Museum of Modern Art, the Shanghai Conservatory, the South River Art Center, and several NOIShanghai events. This summer he toured Germany with trumpet player Justin Sebastian. Prior to embarking on a full-time career as an artist, Ben spent twelve years designing audio for videogames, most recently serving as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar (Xbox 360/PS3) at Ubisoft Shanghai. The concepts of non-linear, real-time, algorithmic and procedural structure he honed as a videogame developer serve as the point of departure for his more recent work in a broader cultural arena. Much more information about Ben is on his website:

This exhibition and music festival mark Ben’s final public appearances in Shanghai for the immediate future, as he relocates to the USA for much of 2011. The artist would also like point out that a train from Shanghai to Suzhou takes less than half an hour these days, and a round trip ticket is less than 100 RMB. So don’t miss this unique opportunity to experience the various facets of Ben Houge’s evolving oeuvre in one idyllic setting!

In an ancient city renowned for its cultural heritage, True Color Museum is Suzhou’s key destination for contemporary art. Founded by the intrepid music business entrepreneur Chen Hanxing 陈翰星 in 2008 as one of the leading privately owned art museums in China, True Color Museum has exhibited artwork by leading artists from China and around the world, most recently in the acclaimed “Nature of China: Contemporary Art Documenta” exhibition last summer and in Taiwan’s Hsiau Jungching 萧荣庆 solo show (ongoing through November 11). The beautiful museum compound, designed by Chen Hanxing, is a destination in itself, and the museum’s active artist residency program has nurtured the careers of many established and emerging artists. Additional information is available on the museum’s website:

苏州市吴中区通达路 219 号本色美术馆(近郭巷)

个展《起航》是作曲家以及数字媒体艺术家霍杰明(Ben Houge)作为在苏州本色美术馆六个月驻馆经历的浓缩。这次展览的焦点他新作的18个频道录像作品影像装置——《起航点黄昏自画像》, 把电子游戏和粒状合成的概念融合并应用到作品中以营造令人长久感动的氛围 。另外,本次展览中另外一些数字媒体作品是霍杰明过去两年中对此方面的研究。

为庆祝展览开幕,11月6日星期六,将有一场从下午1点持续到7点电子音乐节。会有来自杭州本土声音电子艺术家姚大钧和王长存,以及上海的徐程(来自Torturing Nurse乐队)进行表演。 霍杰明的现场表演一向风格广泛,他将有三次不通风格的表演体现这样的多样性:一次是电子环境音乐,一次是合成器流行歌,一次是我最喜欢的周杰伦和约•翰凯奇歌曲集合。

由于长期在中国和美国新音乐圈活跃,霍杰明的展览的已经越来越多:上海“艺术+上海”画廊、OV画廊、[the studio],以及北京的今日艺术馆。他的录像作品《上海轨迹 Shanghai Traces 》,去年春天参与OV画廊的”Make Over”展览,入围的古根海姆的YouTube播放双年展,最近永久的成为了上海Glamour Bar的室内装置。 霍杰明在中国东部地区和上海所有的主要现场音乐场所表演过。以及上海电子艺术节,迷你迷笛音乐节,杭州二皮音乐节,上海证大现代艺术馆,上海音乐学院,南岸艺术中心等等 。今年夏天,他和小号手贾斯汀塞巴斯蒂安去了德国。 作为一个全职艺术家,霍杰明之前的十二年为视频游戏设计声音,最近在上海的育碧游戏软件开发商担任 Tom Clancy’s EndWar(Xbox 360/PS3) 的音频主管。他作为一个视频游戏开发商磨练出非线性,实时,算法和程序结构的概念,让他在一个更广泛的文化领域工作有一个新的出发点。更多关于Ben请链接:

在这个古老又富涵文化底蕴的城市,苏州本色美术馆因当代艺术而闻名,是一所成立于2008年由企业家陈翰星开办的私人美术馆。本色美术馆展出了来自中国和世界各地的先锋艺术家的作品,近期有今年夏天的“中国性:当代艺术文献展“展览,以及台湾萧荣庆的个展(展出至11月11日)。 美术馆由陈翰星设计,外观造型独特,而其本身就是一个目标:美术馆的艺术家留驻计划为很多知名或新兴艺术家建立了良好的平台。更多关于苏州本色美术馆的消息请链接:

On Sound Art

I just finished reading an incredibly frustrating yet nonetheless fairly informative book on sound art called Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories by Alan Licht (Rizzoli 2007). I think Mr. Licht and I were doomed from the beginning not to get along; he set out to write a book that defines and differentiates sound art from other media, whereas the main crux of my artistic endeavor is to demonstrate the connections between seemingly disparate disciplines. Yet even after acknowledging this fundamental difference in perspective, there were occasions when my furious margin notes could scarcely contain my indignation!

The overarching problem with the book is organization. The table of contents tips you off: there are only three misshapen chapters entitled “What is Sound Art?” “Environment and Soundscapes,” and “Sound and the Art World.” Threads are started, then dropped, topics change mid-paragraph. Instead of persuasive arguments and cohesive ideas, rambling lists substitute for synthesis. The text too frequently diverges into only mildly relevant territory: a history of film sound, the development of earth art, a section on “art bands,” another section on film sound unlinked to the first.

I thought the subsection entitled “Art and Pop Envy” that started out with Laurie Anderson exhibiting a jukebox at Holly Solomon Gallery (p. 151) raised some interesting questions, but then it dropped them all in favor of a dull parade of “art bands” (strangely omitting Velvet Underground, whose link to Andy Warhol as a sonic facet of his practice was tipped in the previous section, p.136). Laurie Anderson’s tape loops in boxes are included in the “art band” section, not the sound sculpture section, where they would seem to belong (p. 151). The section on site specificity is strangely not part of the “Environment and Soundscapes” chapter, although that chapter does include mention of David Dunn’s pieces scored specifically to be performed in the Grand Canyon and the Anza-Borrego Desert; if that’s not site-specific, what is? A specially tuned La Monte Young piano is also included as a site specific work, just because it’s heavy and hard to move (p. 45). That’s not site specific; that’s just lazy!

Mr. Licht never settles on a persuasive tone for the book. He drops periodic anecdotes of sometimes questionable relevance, for example, recounting his experience of a baby crying at a Morton Feldman concert (p. 85) or watching Lighting Bolt perform in an alley (p. 155). His first person “I” floats in and out of the book, between long, dull lists of names and events. Twice he inexplicably switches to the present tense (p. 143, and again on p. 150). In a book that seems to be attempting an objective, historical overview, he sometimes makes what come across as arbitrary jabs at artists who don’t meet his criteria for sound artist.

Certain artists are treated rather dismissively, on no cited grounds. Ed Tomney “must” be categorized as a professional musician (rather than a sound artist), despite a list of his art world activities; I’ve never heard of the guy, but given his treatment here, I’m on his side. Similarly Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger (also new to me) are dismissed as “anti-Russolo, and maybe even anti-Cage” (p. 118) for using resonators to tune ambient sounds in a public space (an idea I’ve actually been wanting to play with for a while, but it looks like they beat me to it); this is notwithstanding the quotation from Russolo a few pages earlier that “we want to give pitches to these diverse noises, regulating them harmonically and rhythmically” (p. 74). There’s a very odd jab at Dolby surround sound (p. 123), in which the author seems to confuse the difference between the number of sound channels and the relative loudness of sounds on those channels, although Dolby is later discussed in quite a positive light (p. 209). Steven Vitiello’s pieces “are perhaps more a consolidation of ideas gleaned from other sound artworks and gestures that may not add more than a few new wrinkles to the form” (p. 285), which strikes me as unnecessarily condescending.

And there’s a pervasive confusion regarding metaphor: “sculptural sound” (p. 203), the “surface of sound” (p. 136), “dirt as noise” (p. 80). The discussion of “sculptural sound” (p. 203) does not make clear the distinction between a sculptural object that emits or suggests sound, and a sound (including music) that suggests a physical object in its cohesion, scale, stasis, or palpability (I’m thinking particularly of some of the high-volume “noise” concerts I’ve been to). “Noise” as a genre or theoretical category (p. 77) is already incredibly problematic (I’ll elaborate on that matter another time), and the meandering section on “dirt as noise” (p. 136) only confuses things further, conflating noise with land art and tossing in radio (p. 118) for no apparent reason. The section on music and painting, which talks about the “surface of sound,” particularly struggles to make a point (p. 135 ff), especially when citing the writings of Morton Feldman, who has a very idiosyncratic way of talking about music’s “surface” that seems taken out of context here.

The heft of this hardcover book belies its modest content. While it’s nice to have a lot of pictures, it feels a bit cheeky to use them all twice: in addition to the full page version, they’re printed again in the lower margins of the pages (which also means less text on each page). Photographs of speakers in bottles are presented with no explanation that might convey something of the actual experience of the piece; only from reading the biographies in the back of the book can you glean an idea of what, for example, Steve Roden and Steve Vitiello’s installations might be like (pp. 26-31). And the photos are disproportionate to the text; for example, Hermann Nitsch is only mentioned in passing (p. 149) in a list alongside other Vienna Actionists, and yet he gets eight pages of photos (pp. 168-175)!

The selections on the CD accompanying this book are frustrating, too, containing only two or maybe three examples of sound art, even by the author’s own definition! Alongside eleven minutes of Bill Fontana’s masterful Harmonic Bridge and Bernhard Gal’s 57A, we get composer Alvin Lucier’s Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, multitracked free improv of Jean Dubuffet, and an “untutored foray into electronic noise” (p. 149) by art/noise band Destroy All Monsters (like Nitsch, mentioned only very briefly in the text, and similarly overrepresented in photos, pp. 176-179). Steve Roden’s rust, and really Gal’s piece, too, adhere more closely to the definition of electro-acoustic composition (there’s no indication that they were excerpted from an installation) than with any definition of sound art Licht provides (and the fact that Roden’s sound source was a Harry Bertoia chair doesn’t change that). Furthermore, disappointingly, Bernhard Gal isn’t even mentioned in the text, although I’m happy to have him on the CD (I had dinner with him after he played a NOIShanghai show at Yu Yin Tang in 2007 or so, quite an accomplished and personable fellow).

OK, those are my objections as a writer. More egregious are my objections as a sound artist.

I think Mr. Licht knows what he’s trying to say, but he’s got a hard time getting it across. He talks around a definition of sound art without supplying one in any concrete terms. “Sound art is not about a stage show” (p. 13), he writes; it occurs in “an exhibition situation rather than a performance situation” (p. 14). He quotes Stockhausen: “You have to compose differently when you know that the listeners are coming and going” (p. 44). So far, so good.

But the idea that sound art “comes from the appreciation of the total environment of sounds, both wanted and unwanted” (p. 116) is an unsupported and inaccurate generalization; as a practicing sound artist, one of my biggest concerns is keeping unwanted sounds from interfering with my pieces (a challenge the author somewhat duplicitously goes on to admit on the subsequent page). He asserts that sound art is involved in an investigation of “extended time duration and repetition” (p. 121), and that “sound artists sought the elimination of time” (p. 124). While these statements are often true, they cannot be used as absolute criteria for categorizing work as sound art or not; in fact one of my major concerns is avoiding repetition in my pieces.

In fact, there is no specific quality, parameter, or attribute of sound art that categorically distinguishes it from music. What characterizes sound art is rather a question of emphasis. Generally, yes, sound art tends to be more interested in the phenomenology of sound, in space and site-specificity, and in developing continuous or non-teleological behaviors (or if not developing new ones, simply reusing the oldest one in the book: “loop it!”). Max Neuhaus’s beautiful comment (not included in this book, but you can read it here) that he sought to fix sound in space, rather than time, to allow listeners to make their own time, sums up this aesthetic quite succinctly.

The historical precedent in music seems to me a necessary point of departure for any useful introduction to sound art. I bristle at the suggestion that occurs in these pages (p. 136) that sound or music may serve as a new medium for artists, when of course, an artist whose medium is sound has been known for millennia simply as a musician. (While I appreciate a cow with a subtile nose as much as the next guy, the recording of Jean Dubuffet scraping away on a violin on the CD accompanying this book is nothing more than a historical curiosity, contributing absolutely nothing to the evolution of sonic discourse). Allegations are often made about the limitations of music (e.g., Rolf Julius’s assertion that a composer “doesn’t know about texture” on p. 267), and they all stem from a shallow understanding of what music is, has been, and can be. Many of the artists cited as pioneers of sound art identify primarily as musicians: John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, et al. Several times the truism that music is somehow more “time-based” than sound art seems to be taken at face value, but of course sound, by definition, can only exist in time (and if all sound artists are as inherently phenomenologically oriented as Mr. Licht suggests, this physical fact should scarcely bear repeating). What remains, then, for many artists working with sound (and this is also an important focus of my work), is to find a new approach to time that functions as landscape, rather than narrative.

Mr. Licht burned the last shred of my goodwill with the last paragraph of his book, which is sheer folly, if not nonsense. In it, he asserts that, unlike music, sound art’s “effect on the listener is between categories. It’s not emotional nor is it necessarily intellectual.” On the other hand, “music either stimulates, reinforces, or touches on emotional experiences either directly (through lyrics) or indirectly (through melody and harmony),” it “deals with human thought processes, technology, and behavior. Music speaks to a listener as a human being, with all of the complexity that entails, but sound art, unless it’s employing speech, speaks to the listener as a living denizen of the planet, reacting to sound and environment as any animal would” (p. 218). I’m sure many sound artists will be as dismayed as I to learn that the possibility of intellectual rigor or emotional depth is denied to our medium. The comments about of speech and “lyrics” come out of nowhere, a blindside that would seem to dismiss the expressive and communicative power of pure sound. Unfortunately for Mr. Licht, those characteristics he assigns here to music, the logical structure of those “human” and “intellectual” thought processes, are also what make for compelling reading; he has essentially underlined the major failings of his book.

Nonetheless, I admit there’s a lot of good information here, a lot of important names (I was particularly pleased to make the aquaintance of Michael J. Schumacher), all well indexed; I’ll definitely keep this book around as a useful reference. The artist biographies at the back of the book are also useful, although like the CD, only loosely related to the text. (For reasons that the text does not care to explicate, Hermann Nitsch is also included in the bio section.) Perhaps the reason I found this book so frustrating is that, in fact, we agree on quite a bit about sound art, which makes our differences of opinion all the more acute. He makes a lot of the points I would like to make, but he doesn’t make points in the way that I would have made them, and of course, that’s much more frustrating than disagreeing completely.

Here, if you want to make a book on sound art, these are the sections I would like to see:

-Sound as object (going back to Satie and Varèse, culminating in Cage; tie in sound poetry as well, Schwitters et al; if you had lots of time, you could even start with a discussion of “materials” and “themes” in traditional music theory)
-Sound as physical phenomenon (in fact, the logical extension of taking sound as object, touch on acoustics, including psychoacoustics)
-Sound in space (in compositions by Stockhausen and Henry Brant, also as part of the environment, furniture music, ambient music, wallpaper music, Muzak)
-Sound sculpture (sculpture that makes sound as well as sculpture that suggests sound, which would include lots of Christian Marclay’s stuff, as well as Bruce Nauman’s chair tuned DEAD, touching on instrument construction, Partch, Trimpin, et al)
-Sound in time (musical form, durational structures, narrative and drama, non-linearity, sound of indeterminate duration, correlation to other media, including abstract painting [Klee, Kandinsky, and many others], the dubious category of “visual music”)
-Acousmatic sound (i.e., sound abstracted from original source; talk about recording technology, musique concrète)
-Documentary and conceptual sound (relating back to sound sculpture, Marclay, “Box with the Sound of its own Making,” Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman)
-Sound as a multimedia component (start with history of sound in opera, ballet, theater, touch [briefly] on film sound, radios and tape recorders as sculptural elements, sound in an installation)

A lot of these ideas flit through the pages of Alan Licht’s “Sound Art,” but no clear case is made. If anyone wants to write that book for me, I’d be happy to read it. If you’re lucky, I’ll compensate you with a longwinded, rambling, unsolicited review on my blog!

Shanghai Traces at the Guggenheim! And e4c!

Two super exciting bits of news about my Shanghai Traces video!

I’m pleased to announce that Shanghai Traces has made the shortlist for YouTube Play, the Guggenheim’s new Biennial for Creative Video. Here’s the full press release. The entire YouTube Play shortlist is on display at (keep an eye out for AleaBoy!), as well as at kiosks in the Guggenheim Museums in New York, Berlin, Bilbao, and Venice, through October 21.

I also just realized that I am already at liberty to announce that Shanghai Traces has been selected to be screened at Seattle’s e4c Gallery early next year! Check out their announcement. I’m going to adapt the piece to run across four monitors at 4Culture‘s innovative downtown storefront gallery for digital art, and once it’s up, it will be in rotation for a full year! I’m also planning some Seattle performances around that time; when it’s all nailed down, you’ll be the first to know.

Here’s the video in question:

(Read more about the genesis of Shanghai Traces here.)

The Guggenheim says they received over 23,000 entries from 91 countries for YouTube Play, which they eventually narrowed down to 125 for the shortlist (and, yes, they promise they watched them all). For more info, be sure to check out YouTube Play’s companion blog The Take.

The next step is adjudication by a celebrity panel comprised of Laurie Anderson (a longtime hero of mine), Animal Collective, Darren Aronofsky (I hope he digs up my glowing twitter review of The Fountain from a year or two ago), Douglas Gordon, Ryan McGinley (whose work I just saw at UCCA in Beijing a few months ago), Marilyn Minter, Takashi Murakami, Shirin Neshat, Stefan Sagmeister, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; can’t wait to see it!), and Nancy Spector from the Guggenheim. The jury will select up to 20 of their faves to be presented at a special event at the Guggenheim New York on Oct. 21.

I’m particularly stoked about the prospect of Laurie Anderson spending a few minutes getting to know my work, after all the time I’ve spent getting to know hers. I attribute her, in a roundabout way, to connecting in my brain the world of classical music that I was studying in college with the world of pop music to which I’d been listening (and which I’d been writing) growing up. She was also the reason for my only visit to New York so far, to catch Songs and Stories from Moby Dick at BAM in 1999. Though I wonder how she’s going to find time for all this adjudication with her new performance piece in full swing.

Anyway, wish me luck!

And of course any day now Shanghai Traces should be up at Glamour Bar on Shanghai’s historic riverfront. Since they wanted to show it on a big 42” screen, I obligingly created a high resolution version of the piece, which you can view below (click the four arrows icon in the lower right corner to go full screen).

He’s Away on a Business Trip in Düsseldorf

[Note: my virtual garage sale is still going on! Don’t miss out on these amazing bargains!]

For probably three or four years now I’ve had the idea of a European tour in the back of my head. During my time in Shanghai, I’ve met lots of folks from Europe who are active in some kind of new and/or underground music, many of whom have performed at one of Torturing Nurse’s NOIShanghai shows, sometimes sharing a bill with me. So for a while I’d been thinking of calling them up and trying to line up some gigs out west. After learning that my trumpet playing pal Justin Sebastian, with whom I performed several times around Shanghai earlier this year, was moving back to Düsseldorf in August, which happened to be the same time that Jutta was already planning to be visiting home in Cologne, the stars suddenly aligned, and I started sending emails.

From probably thirty or more inquiries regarding performance opportunities, the answer I received was a resounding, “The entire continent of Europe heads off on vacation in August, and only a total knucklehead would try to organize a tour at this time.” Lots of folks would be out of town, lots of regular experimental music series, sometimes even entire music venues, would be closed for the month, and even if we could get a gig somewhere, folks wouldn’t come, and they certainly wouldn’t pay a cover charge.

Nonetheless, our knuckleheadedness prevailed, and by working a few connections and reducing our scope a bit, we were able to put together a respectable if modest five date itinerary. This also provided a fine opportunity to execute a plan Justin and I had been discussing for a while: to release a CD of our live recording from the Mini Midi Festival organized by Yan Jun 颜峻 in Shanghai last May. I went a different route with this CD than for my last two; rather than having someone print me 1000 of them, I printed a small batch myself, cut them with a razor, and glued them together by hand, for which painstaking effort I hope you will not begrudge me 50 RMB. If you want one, drop me a line!

Justin Sebastian & Ben Houge, Chingachgook(s)
Justin Sebastian & Ben Houge, Chingachgook(s)

I got to Cologne before Justin, so I had a few days to acclimate. Jutta was already there at her parents’ place. Within four hours of my arrival, I got a Krakauer sausage, a Kölsch beer, and a new pair of Birkenstocks: I had been Germanized!

Ben, Jutta, Cologne Cathedral, Museum Ludwig
Jutta, Ben, Cologne Cathedral, Museum Ludwig

While getting my Germany legs, we checked out some obligatory cultural sights. First stop was the Museum Ludwig for a show of Roy Lichtenstein’s art history riffs that are more amusing than great, plus a great Wade Guyton installation, a nice little Malevich show (interesting to me, since he was an inspiration for Transportation Is Getting a New Look), and the rich permanent collection. Right next door is the amazing Cologne Cathedral with its new Gerhard Richter stained glass window (which rather unimaginatively resembles a bunch of pixilated noise, but fits in pretty well). We caught a great organ recital there one night by Sophie-Véronique Cauchefer-Choplin, who is the #2 organist at Saint Sulpice in Paris, including Widor’s toccata and an amazing improvisation on Lobe den Herren. There was also a really silly Mondrian show at the Museum of Applied Art (one painting, then lots of T-shirts, bags, that Studio Line from L’Oréal hair gel from the early 90’s, and a bunch of toys and junk, as though anything ever done with primary colors is a Mondrian tribute).

Schweinshaxe as Big as My Head at Gilden im Zims (note empty glass of Gilden Kölsch)
Schweinshaxe as big as my head at Gilden im Zims (note glass of Gilden Kölsch)

Jutta’s dad helped me get better acquainted with one of the fair city’s finest achievements: Kölsch beer. Legend has it that when President Clinton was visiting Cologne, he pulled a JFK; instead of announcing himself to be a jelly donut, he proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Kölsch,” or, “I am a beer.” There are twenty-some Kölsch brewed in the region, available only in a roughly 30 km radius around Cologne, not extending to Düsseldorf. Kölsch tends to be clear and snappy, maltier and less yeasty than what you find down the road in Bavaria. Every bar is affiliated with one of the breweries, and the traditional serving method is in tall, cylindrical 2dl glasses from surly waitstaff who won’t ask if you need another one; they just keep them coming until you cover your glass with your coaster. My gateway Kölsch on this visit was a Gaffel, and from there it quickly becomes a blur…favorites were Früh and Reissdorf (Jutta’s favorite), with Gilden and Sion also near the top of the list, and we also tried Päffgen, Peters, Mühlen, and Pfaffen. Everyone advised me not to bother with Dom. Another wondrous beer from the region, though not a Kölsch, is Eifeler Landbier. As I have often stated, one of the great hardships of living in China is lack of access to great beer (although the situation has ameliorated dramatically over the past six years), so I must admit that on this trip I exercised no restraint when it came to beer sampling.

I happened to arrive in Germany just at the start of the annual Stockhausen courses in the Cologne suburb of Kürten, Stockhausen’s home town, just down the road from where Jutta grew up in Bergisch Gladbach. Of course, Karlheinz Stockhausen died over two years ago (read my eulogy here), but the courses are still going strong, and there are concerts every night, rigorously overseen by the tight-knit group of disciples he left behind. This year’s theme was “Learning Without Limits.”

I was only able to attend two of the performances (I had my own performances to attend to, after all), but they were utterly fascinating. They focused on his late work, which for twenty-seven years involved in the creation of a massive opera cycle entitled Licht (Light), organized around the seven days of the week. After completing this in 2004, he started a new series entitled Klang (Sound), organized around the twenty-four hours of the day. He completed the first twenty-one hours before he died, and we got to hear hours two (for two harps), four (a theatrical piece for a percussionist, a door, and a little girl), and sixteen (for basset horn and electronic music). This work is much less well known than his revolutionary earlier pieces, so it was a rare treat to hear it performed live by performers closely associated with the composer.

My favorites were “Chuchulainn” (“Monday Scent,” Sunday from Light), a brief piece for costumed soprano, synthesizer, and incense, immaculately performed by Barbara Zanichelli and Benjamin Kobler; and the 2nd Hour from Klang, “Joy,” for two harpists who also had tricky, interlocking vocal parts (on a Pentecost text) to deploy, an ecstatic, forty minute tour de force performance by Marianne Smit and Ester Kooi. Another highlight was “Intensität” from 1968’s Aus den Sieben Tagen, the entire score of which reads as follows:

play single sounds
with such dedication
until you feel the warmth
that radiates from you

play on and sustain it
as long as you can

This was a total about-face from the very tightly organized pieces that precede it in Stockhausen’s canon, very much part of the late sixties zeitgeist that begat it. But of course there’s a performance practice for this type of music, termed “intuitive music” by Stockhausen, who worked closely with the performers to get the sound and vibe he was aiming for, which informed this performance by the Ensemble für Intuitive Musik Weimar as well, and the results were numinous. Also on the programs we caught were 24 Türin (for door, Japanese rin, and speaker), Mittwoch-Formel (for three percussionists), and the first five of Stockhausen’s influential Klavierstücke from 1952/1953.

I had Jutta take my photo in Karlheinz Stockhausen Platz on our way out of town.

At Karlheinz-Stockhausen-Platz in Kürten
At Karlheinz-Stockhausen-Platz in Kürten

I thought it was a great way to kick off our tour, a kind of benediction from the old master. The theme for next year’s courses was announced as “Learning for Eternity;” sign up now!

But hang on, whose concert tour is this, anyway? So Justin arrived in Germany on Wednesday, and we played our first gig on Thursday, August 5, in Düsseldorf. That’s Justin’s old stomping grounds, so he got us a gig at Salon des Amateurs, a bar connected to the Kunstverein, across the street from the Kunsthalle. This was my first time in Düsseldorf, and I learned that the city is known for its gallery scene and also for its Japanese food, with the largest Japanese population in Europe. Jutta and I got there early, so we poked around a few nearby galleries (including Schuebbe Projects at the recommendation of my pal Martin from Art Labor in Shanghai, where it seems the inadvisability of dropping in on a gallery unannounced and distributing work samples was confirmed [although we did write in advance and attempt to make an appointment]).

We also popped into the Kunsthalle, and I was really blown away by their collection, lots of pieces I’d previously only known from books. They also had a temporary installation by the ubiquitous Olafur Eliasson. The receptionist drew our attention to it from the entryway, where it looked like just a few puffs of smoke, and I thought that perhaps I had encountered my first Eliasson clunker, but no, when viewed it from the window upstairs, it was awesome. This guy’s medium really is atmosphere, and the subtle perceptual shifts he affects in the three pieces I’ve seen in person (at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and UCCA in Beijing) are arresting.

We grabbed dinner before the show just around the corner at the fantastic Brauerei Füchschen, where I enjoyed a fine Gekochtes Ochsenfleisch in Meerrettichsauce, and I was schooled in the difference between Düsseldorf’s traditional Altbier and Kölsch, Alt tending to be darker, but still incredibly tasty and refreshing.

And the show went great, with an enthusiastic crowd more numerous than my meager expectations, and a lot of Justin’s friends came down to show their support! Before we went on, they screened the film Step Across the Border, about guitarist Fred Frith, so it was kind of like he was opening for us. Afterwards we hung around chatting with people until we had to catch the train back to Bergisch Gladbach, a warm and friendly evening that set the tone for the rest of our performances. (More pictures on my Flickr page.)

Justin & Ben Live in Düsseldorf
Justin & Ben Live in Düsseldorf

Our second gig was super exclusive: a surprise performance at Jutta’s mom’s birthday party the following Saturday. During the festivities (organized into three shifts of revelers, in good German form), Jutta casually mentioned to her mom that her friend Justin and his girlfriend Ursula happened to be in the neighborhood, and that she had invited them to pop by for a convivial glass of sekt. Justin’s trumpet case accompanied him in undetected, as I surreptitiously plugged my laptop into the living room stereo system. Jutta decided against making any opening remarks; Justin simply began to play the low, muted, opening tones of our piece, and soon we had the room’s attention. Some of the guests took the occasion to migrate outside for a smoke, but most remained attentively inside, and Jutta’s mother was completely delighted by the surprise gift. How’s that for taking experimental trumpet and electronics out of the new music ghetto?

Justin Live im Haus Friedrichs
Justin Live im Haus Friedrichs

We had Sunday for party cleanup, additional cavorting about Cologne, and the second of our Stockhausen concerts (the final show of the festival, ending with Michael’s Farewell, performed by five trumpet players on the roofs of five buildings outside the performance hall). Monday we were off to Berlin for the second leg of our Germany tour.

To be continued…