Professor Stephen Wetzel, Instructor Daniel Kerry
Film 116: Experimentation with Media
26 November 2012
In An Analysis of the Position and Status of Sound Ratio in Contemporary Society, Ron
Moy says, “hearing is the first sense that an unborn child possesses” (Moy, 7). Hearing is an
inherent part of the average human experience, making quantifying and qualifying what is and is
not ‘sound art’ a seemingly complicated matter. Formerly, sound as art encompassed musical
compositions but has grown tremendously with the birth of sound recording technologies. These
new devices resulted in the creation of hundreds of genres and subgenres that all technically fall
under the heading of ‘sound art.’ This heading includes the strange and the weird and even the
ordinary, so ordinary that qualifying it as art can appear to be difficult. However, there is
inherent danger in declaring what can and what cannot be art, rather than if a piece is successful
in its own right or not. Brandon Labelle, in his Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and
Everyday Life, even goes so far as to say, “…sound reroutes the making of identity by creating a
greater and more suggestive weave between self and surrounding” (Labelle, xxi.) Artists must
test perceived boundaries in order to expand their own means of creating art and their medium as
a whole. A stunning example of this test of preconceived boundaries is the career of Judy
Dunaway. Dunaway’s career, in many ways mirrors the expansion of sound art.
Dunaway formed Judy Dunaway and the Evan Gallagher Little Band in the early 90s, up
to 1995. Dunaway did the vocals and played guitar, similar to sound as art starting with
traditional musical compositions. Though her method of performance changed drastically in the
following years her future works are reminiscent of some of her past ones. For example, the
song, “Wrestling for Elvis” has a chorus that is repetitious in nature that Dunaway echoes once
she makes her transition away from the traditional sense of sound art.
Once Dunaway left her first band, she chose to never perform with vocals or guitar again.
Instead she decided to use a completely unheard of method of creating sound art: latex balloons.
Dunaway faced a huge obstacle when using an object like the balloon for her sound art pieces.
When air is released from a balloon, the noise that is produced is very loud and a continuation of
such a noise has the danger of simply becoming perceived noisiness or more simply put: an
annoyance. However, according to Karl D. Kryter in his The Effects of Noise on Man,
“Experiments have shown…that for many sounds there are differences between some physical
aspects of sound, and judgments of loudness compared to judgments of perceived noisiness”
(Kryter, 272). Each of Dunaway’s pieces, though echoing the repetitions of her days with
Gallagher have enough variation to avoid becoming an annoyance.
After leaving the Little Band, Dunaway spent some time with the avant-noise-rock group,
Shar. This became the transitioning time in which her use of the balloons started off more
experimentally before she allowed the balloons to stand completely on their own in her later
work. During this time, she also tried her hand at using other nontraditional means of creating
sound art, for example: the vibrator. In Shar’s piece, “Vibratoria” Dunaway can be commended
more for her use of the vibrator than the balloons. This piece is also a little more musical than
many of their other pieces. The vibrator makes a very low hum in the background, which almost
directly contradicts with the piece’s title by making the humming not the standout part of the
work. At times Dunaway brings the vibrator closer to the microphone, making the hum a little
louder and ends the piece with the hum becoming extremely loud but cutting off very abruptly,
as if to stop the sound from becoming overwhelming. Another of Shar’s pieces, “Miguel I.” more
exemplifies Dunaway’s wrangling of her new medium of sound art. The piece begins en media
res making the balloon sound almost shocking. This introduction allows this work to function as
the true debut of Dunaway’s balloons. Some of Shar’s other pieces also have this surprising
‘wakeup’ of a beginning, including, “Chromotom” and “Sex between Consenting Donkeys.” A
couple of traditional musical elements creep into the piece and there are even a couple of the
repetitions that Dunaway appears to be extremely fond of. Though Dunaway’s works from this
point on begin to get even further away from traditional sound art, the influence of tradition is
still very apparent which in many ways is indicative of the scope of the expansion of sound art as
After departing from Shar, Dunaway went on to further showcase her balloon
compositions. However, the influence of her past sound endeavors was still very visible in her
first couple of solo compositions. This is glaringly obvious in her balloon cover of Kurt Weil’s
“Surabaya Johnny” in 1999 which was simplified to “Surabaya.” This piece is very different
from some of her other later works in that it is extremely musical. In fact, it is so musical that a
keyboard with balloon samples had to be used in order to make the rapid changes in balloon
‘notes’ possible. However, the balloons used in the background are not recorded through a
keyboard, are at a much lower pitch, and create sound in Dunaway’s previous repetitive manner.
“40 Day and 40 Nights” was made the same year as “Surabaya” but has an extremely
different feel too it. The piece, echoing some of her work with Shar, begins en media res.
Opening with a single balloon, Dunaway added brief moments of respite before continuing again
with a new element added to the overarching sound. This continues and then turns the other way,
with elements disappearing after the respites, over the course of the piece. A couple of the added
sounds do have a slightly lyrical feel to them but the feeling never takes over the entire piece. A
year later Dunaway went on to fully show complete mastery of this new area of sound art with
“For Chorus with Balloons.” This piece portrays no desire to stay true to the traditional musical
form, though the name suggests otherwise. With this desire to fully display her control of the
balloons there is never really a moment of the piece that has complete silence. The closest the
piece gets is a very brief moment when a single balloon plays. There is almost no manipulation
of the left and right channels which allows the sounds to simultaneously envelope both ears.
Rather than trying to get the balloons to imitate actual instruments, like in “Surabaya,” Dunaway
allows them to truly stand on their own; through the duration of each sound and varying tones.
Dunaway’s career venture into a new form of sound art is a stunning replica of the
expansion of the entire art form. Through her steady departure from the more traditional musical
composition Dunaway allowed her use of balloons to mature, and stand on its own without
simply being a novelty. Perhaps this Dunaway’s evolution will continue to expand in the same
way that the art form as a whole has over the course of its existence. An existence that extends
incredibly far back in the annals of time, just as a person’s hearing extends to the earliest parts of
Kryter, Karl D. The Effects of Noise on Man. New York: Academic, 1970. Print.
LaBelle, Brandon. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. New York:
Continuum, 2010. Print.
Moy, Ron. An Analysis of the Position and Status of Sound Ratio in Contemporary Society.
Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2000. Print.
"UbuWeb Sound - Judy Dunaway." UbuWeb Sound - Judy Dunaway. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Nov.