About Sound


Net Art

Helen Thorington


by Michael O’Loughlin
High Performance, Winter 1992

Last April, Helen Thorington spent the night in a dark Texas cave with two friends, 20 million bats and a tape recorder. The Brooklyn, New York based executive producer of New American Radio had gone south to record the sounds of flying freetail bats: she thought they would contribute appropriate atmosphere to her new composition, Dracula's Wives, a feminist take on the vampire legend.

Thorington has spent the last 17 years transforming mere noises into art. In her quest for beauty, the self-professed "sound composer" has taken her microphone into caverns in Italy, recorded the noises of an iceberg melting in Alaska and the stirrings of a swamp in Upstate New York. She has recorded electrical switches, computer crackles, and street din—everyday noises most of us take for granted and sometimes even resent as intrusions into our world. Every little sound has infinite possibility to Thorington. "For a long time I was very fond of the sound of static," she says.

Thorington began her career with words, as a writer of comic novels and short stories. Now, as a creator of aural compositions, she finds that increasingly her work has no words. What the eye lost, the ear has gained. Thorington appropriates sound the way a sculptor works with found objects, arranging the exotic and the mundane in ways that cause her audience to pause and, she hopes, appreciate. Her compositions tell a story, but without formal narrative.

The founder of New American Radio, Thorington says she came to the airwaves "by complete accident" in 1976 while living in rural Pennsylvania. She had written a Halloween theater piece for schoolchildren called The Fog Hollow Ghost, but couldn't get anyone to record the music that was to accompany it or the eerie sounds that make a story about ghosts and goblins everything it should be. So she picked up a copy of Rolling Stone, found an ad for a small nearby company that taught recording techniques, and discovered her new calling. Within four years Thorington was creating aural backdrops for the works of dancer Lois Welk, dancer/choreographers Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane and other artists in the vicinity of the college town of Binghamton, N.Y. "When you're an artist in a rural area and there's so few of you," she says modestly, "you eventually run into each other."

By 1984, when she returned to New York City, Thorington was creating, full-time, "a kind of non-music composition for which there really was no place at that time in the art world." Thorington felt that her work, while it could be heard as "musical" by some (in fact, many of her early pieces were introduced as "new music") or used as an accompaniment to dance, was more appropriate for radio. Two years later, she began developing a radio series that could accommodate her kinds of compositions. "I was concerned that listening is becoming an entirely background activity. I wanted focused listening."

New American Radio is now the single key venue in the United States for sound artists working in radio. Its weekly broadcasts feature a wide range of artists using sound to, as Thorington puts it, "create an architecture where people create their own imaginative response."

Through her work at New American Radio, Thorington is able to take art, hers and others', beyond the museum walls, and it's free to all. She has commissioned and distributed about 150 new works which, with another 100 or so pieces from other sources, now air on 60 public-radio and independent stations nationwide, and in more than a dozen foreign countries. New American Radio's appearance on college radio stations particularly thrills Thorington. Younger audiences, she believes, have a more flexible idea about what radio can be. "They're open to new kinds of experiences and (it helps that) they're more involved with contemporary pop, which is very much inter-genre: spinning records, sampling, rap."

Beginning just this year, cassettes of the program are now being sent to 70 New York radio stations, a boon to New American Radio whose philosophy is to challenge its audience, however small, not to bribe listeners with ear candy. "In American radio there are a lot of programming demands and restrictions," Thorington points out. "Today, radio is ossified into specific formats: news, music, talk shows, all in their own slots." Although she concedes such segregation is an efficient way to grab larger audiences, Thorington doesn't feel that increasing numbers should be the only goal of the public radio system. "Radio is, par excellence, the media that demands your imaginative participation."