The World Is Sound

Dr. Risha Lee and the Intersection of Contemporary Experimental Music and Tibetan Buddhism

Very often this publication concentrates on those that create: the people that “make the thing,” and with good reason. It has always been a central tenet of Sound American to give voice to this specific group. One aspect of this kind of attention, however, is the illusion that the presentation of the work is somehow just a nascent part of society. In other words, if you do interesting work, then there will be a place and time and context for you to present it within. Yes, sometimes this happens but, more often than not, there is an organization or, more often, a small group of curators that create the space in which the creation can exist.

Such is the case with Dr. Risha Lee, who curated the recent Rubin Museum exhibition, The World Is Sound, currently running in Manhattan. It is the first exhibition at the museum dedicated completely to sound, specifically, the intersections between contemporary sound practices and the traditional musical practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Sound American editor Nate Wooley* talked with Dr. Lee about what she wanted to achieve within the parameters of a museum setting, her cross-reference of contemporary composition and ancient ritual music, and some of the specific features of the World Is Sound exhibition.


The World is Sound opened to a large and enthusiastic audience with over 2,700 people in attendance, a record-breaking number for an opening at the museum, on Friday, June 16. It’s the first exhibition at the Rubin to be completely dedicated to the idea of sound, featuring work by more than twenty artists, including Éliane Radigue and Laetitia Sonami, as well as Bob Bielecki’s Le Corps Sonore, a site-specific work utilizing the Rubin’s central circular staircase as a “body” containing tones that are tuned to the building itself. As the Rubin Museum website states: “The subtlety and ephemerality of the sounds prepare the listener for understanding a core tenet of Buddhist philosophy, where music is a metaphor for change and impermanence. As with the entire exhibition, Le Corps Sonore invites visitors to slow down and consider their bodily engagement with sound, space, and their individual perceptions.”


This statement is striking for its notion of inviting the show’s audience to purposely engage with sound pieces, which is radical in an era where museumgoers rarely feel they have the ability to fully experience the full weight of an installation, let alone an entire exhibition, before having to shuffle onward. It also provides an insight into the overarching concept brought to The World is Sound by its curator, Dr. Risha Lee. She was originally asked to create an experience of the Rubin that was limited only by the broad parameters of the five senses: in this case, the sense of hearing.


“As you might imagine,” said Lee in an e-mail exchange with Sound American, “this prompt presents quite an opening to rethink many issues—to consider the entire experience of a museum exhibition from a non-ocular-centric perspective; to explore the multi-functionality or ‘lives’ of objects and the relationships they chart with people, divine beings, and social and historical contexts; to give a sense of the underlying philosophies and practices that are integral to the living tradition of Tibetan Buddhism and past lives of the Rubin’s permanent collection. . . There were so many sources of inspiration and potential curatorial directions, which was at once liberating and totally overwhelming!”


As an institution that is often publicly perceived as working with preservation and presentation of history and tradition, the Rubin has always made the connection between Tibetan Buddhist tradition and contemporary culture part of its curatorial mission. While this could lead to a curatorial vision that simply juxtaposes boundaries between Eastern and Western culture—or religious and secular thought—Lee crafted a presentation that concentrates on the points of articulation between seemingly disparate ways of contemplating sound, allowing the differences to “erode.” The exhibition makes it clear that it is the confluences that are of more interest than the tensions produced by comparing disparate methods of working or the ritual/social uses of music. Dr. Lee had this to say about her approach to the exhibition:


“Generally speaking, I am interested in intersections—these can be between historical and contemporary art and/or various ‘cultures’—and how through examining these intersections, the boundaries among categories such as ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ and ‘New York’ and ‘contemporary’ and ‘sound art,’ and more generally, the arcane and false East vs. West imagined binary, erode quite quickly. I am interested in how we use our understandings and constructions of history to make sense of our present. When thinking about how to make this exhibition I also thought a lot about our audience, about who they might be and what they might take away. I also thought a lot about our current state as a society, which is wounded, and I wanted to create some sort of experiential space for people to heal together. The artists and the art in the exhibition all guided me towards these goals. There are such incredible voices, thinkers, teachings, and creators in this show; it’s rather mind boggling. They will change the way you think. Thus, there are quite a few themes running through all at once. I think they flow together, and I hope that others will agree, but it requires spending time with each work, slowing down, and listening. I think that if we all were to do that more often we would become more compassionate towards one another.”


For some, the idea of a museum creating a social space for healing may come across as an overtly spiritual practice, especially in connection to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. And, this reading would certainly be valid, but oversimplified. As Lee explains, there are as many ways to view the “spirituality” of the exhibition, as there are intersections between the contemporary sound artists and Tibetan ritual music.


“I think that much of the work in this exhibition is spiritual, even if it not explicitly religious.  [Samita] Sinha’s work is an example of this—her new piece, Suspension, is a haunting dissection of the Hindi alphabet as building blocks, which takes you into her lungs and out again on the exhale. The intense focus and examination of the body, centering it as the primary locus for experiencing the world and shaping our perceptions, evokes a certain quality of wonder and self-questioning that I regard as deeply spiritual. [Laetitia] Sonami, [Bob] Bielecki and [É liane] Radigue’s piece Le Corps Sonore (Sound Body) similarly probe these issues, but with more overt connections to Buddhist philosophy, as they are all practitioners. John Giorno, in addition to being a groundbreaking poet, artist, and activist, also has been a central figure in establishing Tibetan Buddhist centers in NYC.  Along with others, he founded a dharma center on West 16th Street and brought over his teacher from India to train the sangha. But just like Le Corps Sonore, his paintings don’t explicitly reference Buddhist iconography. Then you have an artist like Hildegard Westerkamp, whose sublime work Into India has much more to do with her theories and innovations on the ‘soundscape’ or ‘acoustic ecology’ than it does with religion; but then again it also grapples with notions of the sacred. As with everything else, the boundaries are blurred.”


The World Is Sound exhibition features a diverse array of contemporary sound artists, including Pauline Oliveros, C. Spencer Yeh, Hildegard Westerkamp, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Christine Sun Kim, Ernst Karel, John Giorno, and MSHR (along with the aforementioned work of Radigue, Sonami, Bielecki, and Sinha). The work of this broad group of artists is intermingled with the sounds of Tibetan Buddhist ritual music from Tibet and Nepal and an exploration of the ritual practices and beliefs that revolve around listening, creating a dense web of connections and experiences best received by the visitor that is willing to slow down and receive the space in an open and patient manner.


And, visitors of the Rubin will also have a chance to experience Collective OM, which, in some respects, sums up Dr. Lee’s curatorial vision for The World is Sound. The piece, which grew out of one of Lee’s previous exhibitions, entitled OM Lab, is the end result of previous visitors recording their own OM in a recording booth that also contained texts about OM in its religious and historical contexts. Those that recorded their OMs did not hear it in the collective, but visitors to The World is Sound will get to experience the project as a celestial whole that reverberates in the space and connects moments of individuality and immediacy: the present to the past to the future. While the audience can no longer add their OMs, they can still experience the collective sound of the previous visitors. We asked Dr. Lee about the impetus for OM Lab and Collective OM.


“It was intended as a participatory component that would allow the collective OM to grow throughout the run of the exhibition. It operates within the theoretical framework that I describe above, attempting to evoke a sense of the dynamic relationships that might animate our experience of objects but which typically remain invisible. It also immerses the visitor in an experiential exhibition and attempts to make us feel that we are all part of a chorus.”2


The World is Sound is a rare opportunity to immerse oneself, not only in the syllable OM, but also in the question of what sound has meant to us as human beings throughout history and what it means to us in the present moment. It is a rare opportunity to spend a day exploring, discovering, or simply reminding yourself of the power of sound. The World is Sound is open now at the Rubin Museum (150 West 17th Street, New York, NY) and will run through January 8, 2018.







1We will explore this idea in more depth in our upcoming interview with Sinha-ed.


2All quotes are from an e-mail exchange between Dr. Risha Lee and Sound American that took place between May 25, 2017, and June 1, 2017.


*Full Disclosure: Nate Wooley, editor of this publication, does have a short installation piece featured in the Rubin’s exhibition.