“How does a bicycle light sound?”
It’s a question that Norbert Möslang, a Swiss sound artist who specializes in “cracking” everyday electronics to unleash their sonic properties, posed in a short 2004 article in the Leonardo Music Journal, a peer reviewed journal published by MIT Press.
It’s also a question that reflects the aesthetic of Capture, a peculiar CD he put out on the Cut label in 2004.
A great profile in Paris Transatlantic magazine summarizes Möslang’s development as an artist. Born in 1952 in St. Gallen, he apparently taught himself how to play soprano saxophone, performing improvised sets through the 1970s. At that time, he also began his long-standing collaboration with Andy Guhl. Together, they would form the pioneering experimental act Voice Crack, though their first release, a 1978 improv LP titled Deep Voices, was credited to their own names, and today commands over a hundred dollars per copy. That LP, as pointed out in the Paris Transatlantic article, is noteworthy because of some subtle credits on the back cover. The instruments involved include “home made instruments” and a “tape recorder,” hinting at a move beyond traditional instrumentation, and towards repurposing electronic technology.
The name Voice Crack appears in the eighties as the title of their 1984 album, which was still credited to their names. That record came out on their own Uhlang Produktion label, and is a live recording where each artist is credited with playing only one instrument: “Geknackte Alltagselektronik,” German for “cracked everyday electronics.” Images of those performances reveal the innards of various electronic appliances and doo-dads laid out on a wooden floor. The audio itself is a tract of whirs, creaks, and sundry abrasives, all reverberating against the surfaces of the room.
Their cracked everyday electronics aesthetic would be carried forward through the eighties and nineties. Their 2001 installation, sound_shifting, was one of their most impressive feats. Using an underwater microphone called a hydrophone, they broadcast the sounds of Venice’s Grand Channel into a nearby cathedral. It was documented in a CD and book.
In the early- to mid-2000s, Möslang and Guhl stopped recording together as Voice Crack, and since then Möslang has been involved with a number of solo exhibitions and recordings. In 2002 he exhibited glass_speaker for the first time. He took a gallery space, and connected contact microphones to the windows, then running the results through loudspeakers inside. As a result, every subtle vibration of the window from the goings-on outside led to big sounds inside. The. In a sense, this was similar to laser microphones, the technology that intelligence agencies use to hear conversations inside a building by measuring the subtle vibrations of a window pane.
By email, Möslang tells me about a unique release he put out in 2004, Capture. It was released on Jason Kahn’s seminal Cut label, known for a number of experimental albums. Möslang knew Kahn for years; in fact, they played together in the Signal Quintet, “In 2004, I was invited to be part of the group show, ‘Nachschub,’ in Feldkirch, Austria, in an old factory building. I developed Capture as a light-sound installation for this occasion.”
“Nachschub” is the German word for “replenishment.” According to the exhibition’s program, which Möslang generously shared with me, the warehouse used for the exhibition was the material depot that supplied parts to the Austrian national railway system, or the ÖBB. When the Feldkirch train station expanded, that warehouse lost is original function, and it was scheduled for demolition. The warehouse’s role was originally to “replenish” materials for the railway; as a result, this exhibition took this concept and extended it to art.
The idea was to create a work that fit inside the room and that had both a visual and acoustic element. “For the visual intensity, I chose 10 fluorescent lamps and placed them on the floor as a cluster. The sound sources, an infrared receiver and a guitar pickup, were placed on the fluorescent lamps. Each of the two different, more or less stable, sounds were processed individually by a parametric equalizer. The sound is always changing.”
Capture is a documentary of the acoustic side of the installation. It’s a classic case of cracking everyday electronics, and fits the exhibition’s theme of “replenishment.” As the program outlines, Möslang himself found the unused fluorescent bulbs in the old factory building, then repurposed them for their sound-generating potential. Those lights were intended to replenish bulbs that had burned out, and here they are replenishing a condemned building with purpose and life.
Thanks to Norbert Möslang for the interview and for sharing the exhibition program.