NEW BEDFORD — Sound art began over a century ago, when futurist Luigi Russolo built noise machines. It was further defined with the Museum of Modern Art’s 1979 “Sound Art” exhibition. In that show’s press release, curator Barbara London said, “‘Sound art’ pieces are more closely allied to art than to music, and are usually presented in the museum, gallery, or alternative space.”
Such art stirs a heightened awareness of where we are and how we move through that place.
“Sound in Space, Sound in Place” at the New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! is, then, largely an experience of alert orientation. The show is curated by the museum’s executive director Suzanne de Vegh and Walker Downey, an art historian at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Its grand centerpiece, “Cluster Fields” by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein, snakes around a wall. The artists collect natural noises that braid, overlap, and unspool algorithmically in unlimited ways, and they route that soundscape through sometimes goofy, sometimes elegant sculptures. Here, the aural experience includes samples of whale and seal vocalizations from the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s sound archive. I was transported from sea to savannah when I heard an elephant bellowing.
This nature-driven sonata tumbles through black tubing — you can put your ear right up to its various mouths — and out four pairs of orange horns perched across one gallery on narrow white pipes outfitted with glass globes. The materials hum and vibrate, shaping the sonic experience; beyond horns and tubes, sound collects and echoes under winged mica canopies. Birdsong, crashing waves, and more whisper and chant; they beckon and enfold viewers.
Tess Oldfield’s beguiling “Whirly Chorus Composition No.4″ puts a children’s noisemaker on steroids. She installs five Day-Glo-colored corrugated plastic tubes on the wall, powered by motors mounted under neon yellow acrylic. They spin at wild rates, whistling like ghosts. In a small, enclosed gallery, the choral effect is frenetic and funny.
The show extends beyond the museum into the community, with soundscapes available featuring recordings gathered by New Bedford residents and UMass Dartmouth students, and “NBWaves,” Scott Bishop’s (a.k.a. Scapeghost) music synthesized from sounds of the city.
Such works make the familiar fresh. Activating listening, “Sound in Space, Sound in Place” reorients viewers geographically, spatially, and within ourselves.
SOUND IN SPACE, SOUND IN PLACE
At New Bedford Art Museum/ArtWorks! 608 Pleasant St., New Bedford, through June 4. 508-961-3072, https://newbedfordart.org/exhibitions/