All Ears’: Victorian music boxes inspire sound sculptures

It’s always good to hear about original artworks inspired by historical collections. I’ve recently heard about an exhibition of new works created in response to early examples of innovative music technology. 'All Ears' is being held at Millennium Point as part of the Supersonic Festival, 1-14 June 2015. Among the artists contributing are collaborative group OWL PROJECT and Morton Underwood.

Owl Project work with wood and electronics to fuse sculpture and sound art. They create music-making machines and objects by inter-mixing pre-steam and digital technologies. Assembled from a bespoke kit of paper discs, synth modules, motors and fixings, their Optikit combines ideas from music boxes in the Birmingham Museum Trust’s collection with more experimental techniques of optical sound developed in Russia during the early 20th century. It can generate endlessly changing beats and rhythms. 

During their time exploring the collection at the Birmingham Museums Trust, David Morton and Sam Underwood were struck by the efforts developers of the music boxes and gramophones in the collection made to amplify the sound output. Now we can easily increase amplification electronically, many of the innovative approaches seen in the collection are obsolete. Through Amplification, a stereo acoustic amplification system developed to encourage deep listening to environmental sounds within a space, they seek to highlight the beauty of passive, acoustic amplification systems. Users of the system will be able to adjust the stereo field of what they can hear by swivelling each of two large ear trumpets, thereby creating an unusual listening experience. 

Other pieces include a five-octave pipe organ designed to play requests by roboticist and composer Sarah Angliss  and Paul Gittens' Oak Apple Orchestra. All of their works are being shown alongside examples of Victorian music boxes and table top organs from the museum’s rarely-seen collection. These early programmable instruments can be seen as the ancestors of today’s electronic and digital instruments. By showing them alongside contemporary sound sculptures, the exhibition situates them within a rich tradition of sound art and radical experimental music.

Why not go along and see the exhibition for yourself? Perhaps it may inspire your own creative work…