The Music of Babel

The Music of Babel
Review: “Sound Stories” by Christian Marclay at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

There was a time, it has been said, when the people of the world lived and laughed as one big family, and one day decided to work together and build a tower up to God. Displeased, the Lord confounded them, making them unintelligible to one another. No longer able to communicate, they abandoned the tower, and each other, retreating into small, disconnected communities.

Until many millennia later came the Age of Internet Technology.

In “Sound Stories” at LACMA, artist Christian Marclay uses modern-day babble to create an opus out of what we say, capture, and sing on social media. “Fusing art and technology”, as the Museum describes it, Marclay teams with Snapchat to turn publicly posted user-generated content into audiovisual sonatas. Waves breaking, gravel crunching, paper crackling — he strings these one after another along with sighs, mews, and musical instruments to create “conversations”, soothing, eerie, moody, and joyful, signifying nothing.


Walking through black corridors into blacker rooms, we begin a descent into a netherworld surrendering all sense of place. Moving cautiously we are met with embarrassed (but friendly) exclamations: “Oops…excuse me…haha…” as we nearly collide with other visitors. Carefully placed digital devices give off light like homing beacons.

In the first room, smartphones drop from above like spiders and remain suspended in mid-air. All have the same message: “Talk to me/Sing to me.” So I sing: “A doe, a deer, a female deer…” and jump as someone pops up on-screen saying, “Happy Birthday!” Someone behind them blows a favor, then the screen turns black again in the silence. Speak, and images and sounds flicker to life. Stay quiet, and find yourself alone.
In the next gallery iPads loom over us from the ceiling, glowing like hot planets. But inside them, watery images undulate creating the impression we are looking up from the bottom of the sea. The sound, unhurried and distorted, is like whale song, haunting but peaceful.

Waiting in the next room we find a mysterious electronic keyboard. Pressing any key sends video projects video that cascades down the wall before us like a waterfall. Courtesy of a one-of-a-kind algorithm, strange but harmonious audio fills the room. It’s very disconcerting.

Woman's fingers on piano keys

The exhibition winds through five dimly-lit rooms and it is easy to lose your way. You are motivated to finish only by your determination to reach the end of this digital wonderland. Marclay immerses us in a world made from bits and pieces of our eternal social media “show and tell”. The experience is like a close encounter with an amiably confusing alien race.

Surely this show is about more than sound? Our movement through the galleries mirrors our lives outside the museum walls, as we fumble our way through the darkness, in the direction of any available light, so often the light of internet-connected devices. Where we say, “I am here” and hope someone hears us. Where sometimes we meld, or break apart. And at times, we find that what we thought might save us, simply confounds us in the end.
Speaking into a phone, to no one, made me feel alone. Looking up at imaginary worlds made me feel left behind. The algorithmically-modified keyboard made me appreciate innovation but long for actual music. I was searching for a deeper message that either I could not decipher, or that just wasn’t there. For all of our modern technology, maybe we don’t really have much to say.

Yet still we dream of towers.

Stepping out of the exhibition into the courtyard, I am happy to feel sun on my face, to be part of the world again. Marclay has found a curious music in our attempts to connect with one another, but the only word I have to describe it is: distancing.

(c) 2019 MuseumHawk/Michelle Straebler, all rights reserved.