“I’ve long been aware of the powerful effect sound has on the body. The ancient Greeks believed music belonged to the divine cosmos and music catering to bodily pleasures was thought of as lowly… I’m interested in the extent to which these ideas still reside in our society today.”
An American multimedia artist who represented Norway at the Venice Biennale in 2015, Camille Norment has a profound interest in sound. With a background in dance, as well as music and visual art, this interest goes beyond the appreciation of sound for its emotional or aesthetic properties to interrogate the deep physical impact it has on our bodies and how it has helped to shape society from its beginnings, for better and for worse. Her show Prime (2016) opens this month at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios and marks the artist’s first solo exhibition in Ireland. Described as a ‘haptic sound installation’, Prime features a composition for four voices and benches for sitting on. The composition enters through the ears via speakers, but it is also channeled through the benches as vibrations, travelling up the spines of those seated.
An interest in low, vibratory tones was the starting point for Prime – specifically, a tone where the throat opens and the diaphragm vibrates, found in practices like Tibetan throat singing and moaning in the African American church.
“I’m very interested in the fact that these types of sounds found themselves in spiritual contexts throughout the world, without knowledge of each other – this vibrating of the diaphragm, the deep tone, holding it for as long as possible. It seems to be a natural self-healing or cathartic tone, which existed long before linguistics or speech. In fact, even in childbirth, the midwife will tell a woman that if they scream with a high-pitched voice they’re tightening up their muscles, and to push their voice as low as possible and try to moan – this opens up the body, relaxes the body.”
With its spiritual resonances, the type of sound used in Prime has different attachments in different cultures. The piece first showed in India, where an immediate association was meditation. There, the setting was a room with a serene and pastoral view of water and boats. In Dublin, viewers seated on the benches will look out over the cobbled cacophony of Temple Bar, with its gaggles of tourists and hordes of hen and stag parties.
“I don’t intend the piece to be a spiritual work, which is another reason why it was important to show it in as many different contexts as possible. What I’m thinking about is a response to life experiences. The moaning could be readily interpreted in India as a type of meditation, but a lot of times we moan when we’re in pain or thinking of something we can’t deal with, so I think when the piece is in many different contexts of life, these different associations can arise even more. While the experience of the piece in India was quite idyllic, I also think it’s thoroughly appropriate to have a pane of glass separating it from busy tourist streets – because I’d have to ask myself why, if I only wanted the piece to gaze out over a lovely view, how that defines the work and is that something that’s interesting, and for me the answer is no.”
While a low, vibratory tone has featured in cathartic or healing practices throughout history and across cultures, other types of sound are used as a means of violence (for example, the high-pitched recordings that are used to deter youth from loitering around shops, or pop songs used in the act of torture). Norment does not shy from exploring this darker side of sound; the idea of ‘dissonance’ and the possibilities it opens up for resolution or transformation is a frequent theme in her work. In several of her pieces she uses the glass armonica, an instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1761. It was said at one point to cause madness and/or melancholia in its players, and it’s one of several instruments Norment uses for their status as, at times, feared devices in the realm of sound.
“While I wouldn’t say dissonance is a core focus in Prime, the practice of moaning does comes out of dissonance, a reaction against one’s environment. With the moaning tradition in the African American church, it was quite obvious that this was coming from a lot of pain. In getting together and moaning together, melodies would sometimes arise, so that was a space where this element of pain and sonic catharsis turned into a song eventually. Not to say the song itself was the ultimate goal but the sound transformed itself into something else and that’s where the black spirituals came from, that’s where blues came from, where jazz evolved from… all of these spaces of social dissonance and incredible pain that people were living through were transformative in a sonic sense.”
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Images: Camille Norment, Rapt