Camille Norment: Triplight, 2008, microphone cage, stand, light, electronics. Dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

 

Just outside a third-floor gallery at New York's Museum of Modern Art, where sleek padded seating customarily attracts weary visitors, sits a worn wooden subway bench. This is Motor-Matter Bench (2013), by Sergei Tcherepnin, and when you take a seat, you feel intermittent vibrations. While the sensation recalls that produced by an oncoming train, it's actually a physical rendering of ambient noise from the surrounding space, conveyed through the sitter's very bones via electronic components on the bench's underside.

It's part of "Soundings: A Contemporary Score" (Aug. 10-Nov. 3), MoMA's first full-scale exhibition of sound art. Organized by associate curator Barbara London, the show includes 16 artists, all under 50.

Another of the first works one encounters is Camille Norment's Triplight (2008), a sculpture that consists of an antique microphone on a stand. Silenced by the removal of the interior works, the device now houses an intermittently flashing light whose illumination casts a ribcage-like shadow on a nearby wall. Among the show's other surprises are drawings on the theme of sound by Christine Sun Kim, who was born deaf.

Thankfully, the show is far from an enfilade of dark, padded "listening rooms"—though there are some of those, for the first time in a show organized by MoMA, London said at a preview last week. The show mixes auditory and silent works in various mediums to offer a survey of ways in which artists deal with sound. (The works without an audio component also provide space between works with sound, preventing noise bleed.)

The press preview provided a bit of a reunion for some of the artists, who, due to shared concerns, have considerable overlap in their exhibition histories.

"The first proper sound art show I was in was at the gallery The Project, in Harlem, in 2000," Norment told A.i.A., "and it was the first time I exhibited with Stephen Vitiello." Vitiello's A Bell for Every Minute (2010) is installed in the museum's courtyard. It reproduces, every 60 seconds, the sound of a bell recorded somewhere in New York.

"Some of these artists are also composers or musicians," New York-based Tristan Perich told A.i.A. "Sergei Tcherepnin is a composer, and he and I have been on the same program together. Jakob Kierkegaard and I have played on the same stage together." Perich's 2011 Microtonal Wall consists of 1,500 tiny speakers, each containing a one-bit microprocessor and playing a different note; at a distance, they blend into a drone, but as you press your ear to the speaker, distinct pitches emerge.

Kierkegaard, for his AION (2006), created field recordings in abandoned rooms at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. In the mode of Alvin Lucier's I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), which takes advantage of a room's resonant frequencies, Kierkegaard recorded the ambient noise of the seemingly silent rooms and then layered the sounds until they create a droning hum. "There is always sound in a room," Kierkegaard said. Kierkegaard, besides having appeared on the same stage with Perich, is in a group called Freq Out with Jana Winderen, whose field recordings are also included, in one of the show's few listening rooms.

"When I started recording seriously in 1995," Kierkegaard said, "I never dreamed I'd show at the Museum of Modern Art. But I feel so welcome in the visual art field."