Most people find the sound of a dripping faucet irritating. But Tarek Atoui, a multimedia visual artist and musician, hears the water drip as one tiny note orchestrating the music of the spheres. His work is difficult to define because he sculpts with sound, remarkably capturing and transforming it as untraditional musical composition channeled through compelling sculptural form.
Atoui was recently selected as the recipient of the 2022 Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize, for which he developed the solo exhibition “The Whisperers,” debuting at The Contemporary Austin and followed by an iteration at The FLAG Art Foundation in New York. During our conversation, Atoui illuminates how sound phenomena, even ordinary noises, become music when we learn to listen creatively to what we hear. He generously share the sources of his mercurial, ephemeral, yet palpable work—art that resonates as much with archaic instruments, ancient performance ritual, and sculpture as it does with contemporary notions of the infinite ways in which creativity functions to lift the human spirit.
Joyce Beckenstein: You came of age in the 1990s, a student newly arrived in Paris from Lebanon. What sparked your interest in electronic and experimental music?
Tarek Atoui: I grew up with electronic music as a teenager but fine-tuned that interest when I studied at the French National Conservatory, in Reims. I spent lots of time in record shops, where I found much wider selections than I did in Beirut—electronic dance, ambient, and glitch music, as well as earlier contemporary and orchestral music that had me moving back in time a bit. While studying at the conservatory, I also looked at lots of multimedia art, performances, and happenings, such as Fluxus, Kaprow, and dance spectacles created by Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. After completing my studies, I decided not to concentrate on studio composition and concert-making, but to focus instead on live performance and education, and to travel around the world, where I learned much about the things I love to do.
JB: Were you influenced by Arabic music?
TA: That came later. I wasn’t interested in it in the beginning, because growing up I listened to new-wave Arabic music, an eclectic mix of popular Western and Arabic arrangements that I heard on the radio and in restaurants I didn’t much like going to. Later, around 2010–11, I discovered classical Arabic music, and that was a nice reconnection for me.
JB: Were there specific experimental composers who influenced you?
TA: The French composer Bernard Parmegiani first comes to mind. He came from cinema, but he was making electro-acoustic music and working with electronics and visual culture. His work was an important influence, especially his concept of the sonic object.
JB: What do you mean by the “sonic object,” and how does it operate in your installation, The Whisperers (2021–22)?
TA: Simply put, the sonic object is an object that makes sound when something—or someone—contacts it. The sonic object can be almost anything—a tin can, a ceramic vase, a stone, even a musical instrument. In The Whisperers, several sonic objects make sounds in ways that are quite different from the sounds one would normally expect to hear. This aspect of my work emerged as part of educational workshops that I developed and conducted with kindergarten children during the Covid pandemic. There were a series of sessions designed to teach children about sounds, how to experience them and play with them in different ways. For example, I placed a speaker inside a drum and let the children listen with a stethoscope to the resulting sounds hidden within the instrument. This reversed what was expected: instead of the musician making the sound by playing the drum, the drum was making the sound. The children also worked with other sonic objects—a turntable equipped with a branch that made scratching sounds on the surface as it rotated; sounds heard as water flowed or dripped through a variety of devices. The title, The Whisperers, comes from the whispers shared by the children during these educational, but playful moments. It also refers to the murmurings of the sonic objects themselves.
JB: The Whisperers combines aural experience with sculptural form. Could you explain some of the works in the installation? How do they merge sound and sculpture?
TA: Totem and Home, two works from The Whisperers, are good examples of these aural and visual synergies. Both use water as a vehicle for experiencing sound. Totem consists of a bowl set on a Brancusi-like column, through which music and field recordings are funneled through water. Home includes a domed bronze bowl housing an underwater speaker and systems of air and water pumps that create different sounds and flows in the water. Because water conducts sound four times faster than air, and 10 times better, these aural/sculptural sonic objects allow the listener/viewer to focus on the sound of water in a counterintuitive way. One hears more distinctly how water reacts to disturbances in its environment—how, for example, the acoustical qualities of water set in a bronze vessel change when air bubbles mix with electronic elements.
JB: So then, the aural aspects of your practice are inseparable from the sculptural forms you create, such as Home and Totem. You must therefore consider sound, which one cannot see or touch, within the context of sculpture, which embraces shape, form, color, light, space, and texture. How do you accomplish this?
TA: I feel closest to sculpture when I am sculpting the way you will hear the sound. By that I mean that my works always begin with sound, and sound leads to the choice of materials that best suit the acoustic properties I am looking for. Stone, for example, can produce a dim or resonating sound, whether it is marble or limestone or granite. Shapes and textures must work as sculptural forms, but these elements must also enhance and maintain the diffusion of sounds. Parabolic shapes made from bronze, for example, are beautifully reflective and beautifully amplify sound. Light and space work in concert with one another, and, in my solo shows, I often knock down the wall to let in natural light, avoiding theatrical lighting or anything that might seem contrived. Natural light, like space, should be unobstructed so that it is sound that is calling us. Sound makes the statement that asks us to consider our relationship to the sonic sculpture.
JB: How did your experiences with kindergarten children help you to evolve this practice?
TA: Working with four- and five-year-old kids was a real challenge, and I took it very seriously, because it helped me understand how to make abstract ideas intriguing, yet easy to comprehend. Take, for instance, my work with loops and repetitions, which came from my DJ culture working with records and turntables and from the inspiring work of Christian Marclay, whose avant-garde performances included the use of records and turntables. Watching children learn how to create a variety of sounds using turntables confirmed my belief that the complexities driving my work can easily plug into classroom environments. The experience also taught me a new definition of musicality; it is something you can experience as individual components that then come together in compositional form to create music as sculpture.
JB: How specifically does that happen?
TA: The first step involves creating individual sculptural elements that emit sound in unique ways and that provide unique listening experiences. The second stage unites these individual elements as composition. Technically I do this by creating my own computer software to orchestrate the interactions. I install this software in The Track Breaker, a box that connects all the sculptural elements included in an installation like The Whisperers through the wires and cables you see running along the floor. When these various sculptural forms connect to the tracker box, their individual sounds play together as a symphony.
JB: There’s much serendipity in your work. You’ve told me, for instance, that as you record all these sounds you know you will make a song, but you don’t know what the song will be. You’ve also mentioned that you, along with your collaborators, have created hybrid instruments, such as the ones exhibited in The Ground, your installation for the 2019 Venice Biennale. Could you describe that installation? How does it pull together all of your ideas?
TA: The Ground is one of my strongest works. It summarizes a seven-year odyssey, a series of travels to the Pearl River Delta in the Canton region of China, where I learned about architectural principles, water and irrigation systems, alternative methods of agriculture, and Chinese traditional string music. The Venice Biennale installation, dispersed through the five platforms that make up this large work, included 13 unique instruments crafted from ceramics, wood, and electronics, all of which came together through complex digital processes to play as a symphony. The more time you spent with it, the more you experienced the subtle distinctions between the archaic and the modern, the analog and the digital.
In fact, the visual and audio flow of The Ground was inspired by fish farming ponds around the city of Guangzhou, where ponds connected over a wide geographic area share their waters with each other. Similarly, the sculptural components in this work connect in subtle and imperceptible ways. For example, a branch scratching a ceramic vase controlled a string instrument on the other side of the space and made it vibrate. A turntable reading a ceramic record created beats and bass pulses that could be heard throughout the room.
JB: I notice that we use the words “sound” and “music” interchangeably. At what point do the sounds made by sonic objects, which are then recorded, become music?
TA: Definitions change all the time, and I like that. To paraphrase John Cage, sounds become music the moment they become ordered or structured in time. To this, I would add that sounds become music depending on the volume with which they are put together, and on their duration.
JB: Your sense of sound as sculptural form explains how you were able to work with the deaf to create music. How did that ongoing project begin, and how does it work?
TA: In 2011, in pursuit of defining sound and what it could be, I asked deaf people to describe their impressions of sound. They explained that it was related to vibrations they experienced in their fingers, their bodies, and bones. For them, sound was also a visual phenomenon, a sign language conveyed through hand gestures and facial expressions as well as a multi-sensorial experience in which sight plays an important role. A flashing police siren or a bouncing ball, for example, are visual signifiers of sound. And, although there is little vocabulary about sound in deaf culture, it is not unusual for small communities of deaf people to create their own signs to express what they are commonly experiencing. Years of exchanges, workshops, and performances with deaf individuals of different ages from different countries have led to an ensemble of instruments and principles that allow deaf and hearing people to play together. WITHIN is an ongoing project involving hundreds of people—deaf, hearing, amateur musicians, and professionals, from a broad range of countries including the United Arab Emirates, the U.S., Russia, France, and Norway.
JB: The incredible range of ideas, senses, and forms defining your practice suggests that you’re an artist aspiring to create the music of the spheres. Do you feel that connection?
TA: I feel connected to lots of practices: from Neolithic man experiencing the interior of a cave to the work of Greek and Arab philosophers and scientists. So many things are connected. Plato, after all, was a doctor, physician, and philosopher. I similarly consider the spiritual, the scientific, and the artistic as one, and that is why my compositional and sculptural works include calligraphy, astrology, and shamanism—an expansive embrace of the universe. In this sense, I think of music as enchantment, something that has a certain magnetism. It’s something that you feel you would like to stay with, something mysterious and surprising. That’s when things become music for me.
Tarek Atoui’s work is currently on view at the 14th Gwangju Biennal, “soft and weak like water,” through July 9, 2023.