Think With Your Ears
“We can hear our interaction with the world very, very clearly, but we can overlook a lot very easily.” Sound thinker and composer Sam Auinger has cultivated an artistic practice around listening to and harmonizing the sounds of our urban infrastructure.
By Annette Klein
Sam Auinger, a self-described sound thinker, artist, and composer living in Berlin, understands the world through sound. He is particularly fascinated with the interaction of sound and architecture, both inside and outside. One of his trademarks is clapping with his eyes closed in urban settings, listening to how the sound moves in and around spaces. Another is making architecture and urban settings ‘sound’ with a diverse cast of collaborators.
The ‘thinker’ in Sam ties what he is hearing into a critique of the visually-dominated design of our cities and further what he sees as the shortsightedness of our neoliberal, capitalist system. For Sam, “listening brings back the complexity of life where you hear the process, the details, and the movement. It is honest, it doesn’t lie”
Yet, he has no illusions about changing the world with his work. For him, “the artist is like the canary in the coal mine.” He sees himself as developing alternative techniques for reading the world and contributing to a better understanding of the world.
Very early on, growing up on a homestead near Linz, Austria, Sam says he intuitively understood that music belongs to the social part of life whereas sound is mainly there to organize life and its daily tasks. He trained as a composer and electronic musician but became disillusioned with the Berlin club scene in the early 2000s. Looking to find more meaning in his artistic practice, Sam began several fruitful collaborations including Stadtmusik, tamtam and O+A. His focus turned to the interaction of sound and space.
Tuning tubes as a way of harmonizing city noise have been a part of Sam's work since the 1990s. (Berlin, 1999)
Sam's partnership with fellow sonic thinker Bruce Odland runs deep; "every project begins with an adventure." (Quiet is the New Loud, Bruegge, Belgium, O+A, 2015)
The partnership with Hannes Strobl is based on years of performing together and a shared interest in interacting with architecture and infrastructure that fascinates them. (Ars Electronica, tamtam, 2011)
© Georg Spehr
Tamtam produced a whole series of works on the A100, the motorway that runs through Berlin. (A100, tamtam, 2018)
Sam often shares his Auditory techniques for reading the world in workshops and soundwalks.
© Norbert Tukaj
Sam leading a workshop at The Swamp Summer School as part of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, 2018.
© Sam Auinger
Sam's signature clapping, one of his methods for investigating a new urban landscape. (Boston, 2017)
O+A is particularly known for sound installations that transform urban noise into harmonic sounds using resonating tuning tubes. As Sam explained, “the challenge is to regain information which our hearing can decode from that chaos, and re-invigorate our hearing environment with that harmonious version of reality.” Each installation represents many hours of listening to both the cities and carefully chosen locations therein—and tells a story of the history, societal structures, and input from what is remaining of the natural world.
What becomes clear in discussion with Sam is that much of his knowledge is experiential and visceral, and hence, difficult to verbalize. He is in his element when he can listen with you in a space and share his toolkit of techniques and realizations. For this reason, he (with his collaborators) has developed a number of performances and workshops that quite successfully demonstrate the curious discrepancies between visual and aural signals he has picked up over the years. Despite occasional theoretical projects, Sam says he grounds himself in his listening, sharing his experimentations and discoveries mainly through artistic performances, installations and occasional compositions.
Along these lines, Sam created two special works for this post. The first, a small hands-on exercise, created during the recent lockdown, which I pass on to you to try for yourself: