Sculpture as Instruments

Releated Pieces: Cuboid Nothingness__-- | __-- (b)If; slowly |Static (i&ii) Cycle Forms & Perspectives

In my own terminology, I define a sound sculpture as a physical and spacial sound that takes on the, or furthers the, role of a physical visual sculpture using sound. In some of my works, I have used physical and visual objects as tools or inspiration to create sound sculptures. However, in other terminology these physical and visual objects are called sound sculptures. A sound sculpture is defined in The Grove Dictionary of American Music as:

A sculpture, machine, or instrument, usually made of unexpected, visually interesting materials, that generate sounds in unique ways (Wong, 2013).


The definition goes on to state:

Sound sculptures experiment with the boundaries between music and sculpture, sharing aspects with both while questioning their definitions, playing with relationships among sound, space, object, artist, and viewer-listener (Wong, 2013).


For clarity I will refer to visual and physical objects that make sound in some way as sculptural instruments. 


Harry Bertoia’s Soniambient work (1960-1969) resulted in perhaps the best known sculptural instruments or ‘tonals’ as he referred to them. As Bertoia worked and trained as a visual artist, his works inherently have a strong visual aspect. In his pieces under the umbrella of Soniambient, the artistic product is the sound which is created rather than the visual element exclusively. The sculptures involve long metal poles which, when pushed, collide into one another, resulting in a rich sonic texture. Using these sculptures and many other self-built items, Bertoia recorded eleven albums containing different performances from his acoustically-treated barn. Therefore, in this case, these sculptural instruments are used as tools for creating fixed-media sound recordings and the listener is required to use their imagination to conclude how the sculptural instruments were played in order to create the sound on the recorded media. 

Harry Bertoia - Tonal

By Os2014 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

A different approach to exploring this relationship is the Robert Morris piece Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961). This work is a solitary wooden cube containing a speaker which plays a tape recording of Morris making and constructing the box. This includes the sounds of sawing, hammering and other noises associated with carpentry (Celent 2014). Through this relationship of visual and audio media, the audience is transported back in time by hearing the sound of the box being made but not the sound it might make in its present form at the present time. The audience are not visually presented with any saws, hammers or carpentry materials and are required to use their imagination, with the use of the sonic composition, to envision the construction of the physical and visual sculpture. 


Another piece which plays with this relationship and perhaps formed an influence on the Morris piece, is With Hidden Noise 1916 (1963), by Marcel Duchamp. This piece is made of two brass plates and a ball of twine. Duchamp asked his friend Walter Arensberg to insert an object in the centre of the twine which, when the sculpture was shaken, would make a sound (Celent 2014). Arensberg was never to tell Duchamp or anyone else what was inside of the work. This creates a visual component and a potential sound element which is only realised when an audience member shakes the sculpture, adding a level of audience participation. The sound that materialises, although coming from the sculptural instrument, does not allow the audience to see or ever discover what the true origin is, disconnecting the link between the visual and the sound.


In my works __—, Nothingness and If; slowly, I also explore this relationship between what is visually and physically presented to the audience, what they hear and how the heard sounds were constructed. In both __— and If; slowly, the sculptural instruments were recorded and sampled in a studio setting and various sonic processing and manipulation techniques were applied. This means the final sound product has very little sonic bonding to the sculptural instruments. This adds another dimension to the works by further distancing the relationship. The same is also true for Nothingness, however this work was recorded in a real-time performance with real-time processing and manipulation with some post-performance editing. 

Live Performance

Nicolas Bernier is known for his live performative sound and visual installations. His works utilise sound, light and purpose-made sculpture instruments, which he unifies in a multi-sensory performance. In 2013, his work Frequencies (a) won the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica. Frequencies (a) features a long surface hosting eight different tuning forks, which are docked in special holders containing mechanical equipment. The tuning forks are accurately stuck by solenoids allowing them to ring. These sonorities are accompanied by electronic pure tones creating sonic interaction. Each independent tuning fork station is fitted with lighting equipment and has the ability to illuminate. The performance plays with the relationship between light and sound by both following the location of the sound source and disregarding it for a different counteracting pattern during the piece. The installation is performed via a laptop controlled by Bernier by the use of which he triggers different sequences (Bernier, nd). 

Tarek Atoui is an artist from Beirut, Lebanon. His work The Metastable Circuit is 


‘composed of a set of 4 tables - 4 sensor-based interrelated modules - with a computer station hidden inside one of them, and a selection of 250,000 sounds personally created and collected by the artist.’ (Celant 2014)


The sculpture functions as a sound performance tool to be played by Atoui, but is also programmed in a way where it can be set into auto mode and become a self-generating installation. 



Celant, G. (2014) Art or Sound. Fondazione Prada: Milan

Bernier, N. (nd). Selected Performances and Installations. Retrieved from


Potter, K. (2005) Hugh Davies: Iconoclastic innovator in electronic music. [available online] Available at (Accessed 17 May 2015) 

Wong, M. (2013). Sound sculpture. Grove Music Online - The Grove Dictionary of American Music, (2) doi: e-ISBN: 9781561592630.