24. NOVEMBER 1988


radioversion of a soundinstallation

by Ed Tomney



back to german version

"I have always felt that the magic in sounds is that they are ephemeral - they exist for a second and then they fade away, sometimes forever." (Ed Tomney)

Ed Tomney was not heard of much in the international art scene in the 1980`s, perhaps because he is both an artist and composer and also at home in all other media. On the American and Japanese exhibition scene Tomney is primarily known for the sound installations he implemented together with Jonathan Borovsky. Borovsky, on the other hand, is quite well-known in Europe by way of the Dokumenta 7, the Zeitgeist Exhibition and many other large exhibitions from the 1980ís which included his threateningly oversized forms. Both of them have also worked together in radio as well, for the radio series "The territory of art" for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Ed Tomney began experimenting with cassettes an d researching visual methods of composition during his university studies in art. His band "The nesessaries" was formed in 1977 and 9 years later in 1986 "Ed Tomney and the Industrial Orchester" was formed. During the time in between, he also worked on videos, paintings, computer works, installations, exhibitions, theater and film music.

"The major influence of the Industrial Orchester and a lot of the sound work I have been doing over the past eight years has really come from a realization of the urban environment that I have been living in most of my life. This is not an unusual realization, but I come from the industrial north east of America. I had the best combination of all sounds; I was right near an airport, I was right near a factory and very close to a very busy highway. And one day I was composing and I suddenly realized that all these elements were influencing the way I was writing, the way I was perceiving large columns of sounds, massive sound, mechanized sound and perceiving them as beautiful sounds too, having no problem with the aesthetic of an engine. In the modern climate of technology we have the best of tools, a very wide range of musical instrumental tools to choose from and to me all sound is material: noise, sound is music and music is sound, they are interchangeable. The only difference is when we concentrate on but: noise can be an irritating element, but if we put noise on stage it is an entirely different matter." (Ed Tomney).

Ed Tomney always carries a recorder with him. As early as the 1980`s he was already investigating the possibilities of working with computers. Not so much in order to create sounds or to store sounds, but rather primarily to alter the sequence of notes, the instrumentation, the duration of the rhythm and other parameters in conjunction with random instructions from the computer. When Tomney inserts an element of chance into his music and transfers to a machine a least some of the decisions, which one would assume that the author of the work determines, and also often uses existing material, then Tomney is naturally following a very long tradition set by other artists and musicians in this century. Tomney attempts to dissolve the interface between man and machine and to have the lifeless computer inspire him with its commands rather than let it rule over him. On the other hand, he is also interested in transferring characteristics of the musician, the biological musician as he calls it, to the machine, while playing on some of the terms used by John Cage, such as randomness and uncertainty.

"I thought it would be interesting, to automate instruments to a degree where they would have certain characters, characteristics of the biological musician, the human being. And the solution in making machines that are making sounds is to use the random function of a computer. This would give the machine a sense of unpredictable patterns and an indeterminate direction much like the human being." (Ed Tomney)

These ideas were finally the basis for unusual sound sculptures. In 1986 Tomney, who has a preference for cheap, out-dated technology, bought in a pawn shop a couple of electric guitars and some robot motors with which the guitars could be hit. "I attached the robot motors to the guitars, mounted them to metal frames and called them guitar trees. The unusual thing about the guitar trees is that they are computer controlled. They are switched on and off 20 times per second sometimes. This results in some very unusual sounds. Series of digital echoes and flangings. Sometimes they sound like voices, then like a circular saw, or a motorcycle, sometimes like violins." (Ed Tomney)

Tomney`s guitar trees have been used for a number of purposes. They are set into motion as guitar trees by pushing a button. During performances they act as part of the Industrial Orchester, which are pre-programmed and can be operated both mechanically and electronically. "Human machines have always fascinated me. And the question, what can be done to make them a medium which is less cold. I think the element of surprise is very important in this respect, meaning the random function of the computer. The guitar trees sometimes play completely alone, without any human influence. At live performances of the ěIndustrial Orchesterî there are 4 musicians, so half of the Orchester is composed of machines. In its last version, the Orchester was composed entirely of machines. The performances are a series of mechanical processes, accompanied by film background material and slides. It is a purely mechanical environment." (Ed Tomney)

Tomney also records a lot of radio sounds from broadcasts and the radio waves with the cassette recorder which he always carries with him. "I hear a lot of things I like on the radio. I am always making recordings. For me, radio is a very interesting thing, because it has an on-going history and as it has this continuous history, it reflects certain ideas such as that new people and objects are constantly being added to the world. Radio, in particular broadcast radio has two aspects: first the very realistic aspect of new objects, new people, new information which is added to the world and second the beauty of radio waves, which are reflected by the atmosphere and leak out into space and are lost in infinity. Radio as a sound has exactly those characteristics which make sound exciting. It vibrates the molecules in the atmosphere, it fills a space for a certain period, you can hear it, but you cannot touch it or see it and then it is gone, sometimes forever. Thatís beauty." (Ed Tomney)

"Whispering Elms" by Ed Tomney is the radio version of a sound installation which Tomney set up at the "Styrian Fall" as part of the symposium "With the eyes shut/Bilder im Kopf. On the Theory and Practice of Radio Art". Tomney used clips from radio broadcasts from a wide variety of countries as the basis material, primarily spoken texts and dialogue, which was re-edited and strictly assigned by gender to the left and right stereo channels. The various "characters" in the piece were assigned to different places in the stairwells of the Attems Palace.

The preface of the aforementioned symposium offers an interesting view of the situation in radio art at that point in time:

"In 1989 Bellamy, America`s premiere utopian, wrote the short story "With the eyes shut", a vision of the communication structures of the future: He described the dream of a train passenger, who suddenly finds himself in a completely new world of media devices. Recorded books and magazines have replaced the printed ones in the coaches. Clocks tell the time with quotes from great authors. Letters, newspapers and books are recorded on sound media and are listened to with audio boxes instead of being read. Each person carries around an essential object: a combination of a cassette recorder and phonograph. Bellamy seemed very disturbed by the fact that the sense of hearing was threatening to become superior to the sense of sight. But a point in his fable that really sticks out is the limitless choice of programs from which the individual can choose." (Daniel J. Czitrom: Media and the American Mind. The University of North Carolina Press. 1982).

"No one knows exactly what "radio art" is. Nevertheless, the term is appearing more and more often. It clearly denotes a field of acoustic art, in which the divisions between music, literature or fine arts are dissolved.

Anyone who is looking for the roots of this "art for radio", the radio play expert Klaus Schöning in the audiotheque of the Dokumenta 8 in Kassel (3. 12. 1987), Germany for example, always comes to the trans-national artistic movements of the early 20th century. After the 2nd World War it was again intermediary tendencies and a renewed expansion of the term "art" which led to tones, sounds and noises, some of them from the radio and for the radio, being used as material for art and artists. Using the cassette tape, the recorded sounds were able to emancipate themselves from the aethestics of film editing. "Musique Concrete" analyzed, collaged and edited recorded sounds and noises from tape.

Within the Open Dramaturgy of the New Radio Play, which developed as a reaction to competition from television in the 1960`s, John Cage had the opportunity to mix thousands of original sounds together into collages, which have become milestones in the history of acoustic art on the radio. Whereas in Europe it was the large radio broadcasting institutions which supported the New Radio Play, electronic music and the segment in between, more and more independent productions were undertaken in North America and Australia, which were spread by experimental broadcasts from radio cooperatives and university radio stations.

Now there is a world-wide network for the exchange of cassettes with acoustic art which is open to radio stations. But it is not only pieces for radio which are being produced, the radio itself, its form and content has become the object of a new form of "art in public".

Recent technological advances (such as sampling) make it possible to investigate the meaning of sounds from a new perspective, for example their codification by the mass media. Another factor is the clear trend towards the dissolution of the term "medium" in the digital stream of data, from which, just to cite a simple example, any piece of information can be accessed in acoustic as well as in visual form.

The symposium at the Styrian Fall will be one of the first attempts to show how theoreticians are approaching with growing interest the wide-ranging aspects of an interdisciplinary art for radio and the associated media policy and technological factors, and how they classify the far-reaching philosophical, sociological and artistic questions within this phenomena.

excerpt from: Radio Art at the Styrian Fall 88 "With the eyes shut - Bilder im Kopf". On the Theory and Practice of Radio Art. Symposium.