How to Plan a Sound Installation for the IAWM SNM Anderson Prize

For several years, I’ve been the coordinator for the composition contest of the International Alliance for Women in Music, called Search for New Music by Women Composers, or SNM.

Our Ruth Anderson Prize is for a commission to do an installation. To help composers figure out how to think about making a viable proposal, I asked Sky Macklay, 2014 Anderson prize winner, to write about the planning process for a successful installation. She has provided good advice that applies to anyone’s planning, whether for the prize or not.

Here are her comments:

Ruth Anderson Commission Prize for a New Sound Installation
By Sky Macklay, 2014 Anderson Prize Winner

Are you a woman with an idea for a sound installation? Would $1000 help you make it happen? Then you should apply for The Ruth Anderson Prize, a commission for a new sound installation awarded by the International Alliance for Women in Music! I received the Ruth Anderson Prize in 2014 for my sonic and kinetic installation of harmonica-playing inflatable sculptures, Harmonibots, and here I will share what I’ve learned, both about creating a successful application for the prize and about following through with the project. You can view/hear documentation of Harmonibots here.

First, a bit of background information about this commission’s namesake, Ruth Anderson. Anderson is an inspirational composer who was born in 1928, was the first woman composer ever in Princeton’s graduate program, and was a professor at Hunter College for many years. You can stream some of her music on LastFM.  Ruth Anderson is still alive and she loves to hear about the installations that are made possible through this commission!

Ideas for an installation

When applying, the first question to consider is: what exactly counts as a sound installation in this context? The prize guidelines specify that it cannot be a performance installation, so it should be something that does not use human performers. It should be a long-duration, sound-centric piece that exists in a space that visitors can engage with on their own time-frames.

Beyond that, it is completely open to whatever you can imagine! You could produce the sound with software and speakers, or you could create robotic instruments or sound-producing sculptures. You could create a fixed soundscape or a system that responds to the listeners in the space. You could harness the powers of feedback or repurpose TVs, radios, or boomboxes, or you could create speakers out of resonant objects excited by speaker drivers.

Here are just a few other inspirational sound installations to check out:

Your proposal

In order to create a strong proposal, get started by making the sounds. You could make a mock-up of the sound in a digital audio workstation, create a computer program or patch to make the sound, or perhaps build a physical prototype of the sound-producing body.

In my case, I wanted to prove both to myself and to the Anderson Prize jury that my idea would work, and that the fan sound would not overpower the harmonica sound, so I made a little harmonibot and included a video of it in my proposal. You can include video or audio examples as a part of your proposal, and I would highly recommend doing so.

Then, write about exactly what you want to do. Perhaps start with an intriguing “big picture” description, and then write about the technical nitty-gritty. What materials will you use? How exactly does it work? How will the audience interact with it? Where will it be installed?

You do not necessarily need to know where the piece will be installed when you apply for the Ruth Anderson Prize, but you should be thinking about it because having a committed space is key to following through with the installation. Also, the unique details of the space will affect your piece.

Finding a space for your installation

One of the most challenging aspects of doing installation work is finding an appropriate space. I would begin by thinking about your personal network of people and places including art galleries, historical societies, community centers, places of worship, outdoor public spaces, libraries, schools, universities, transportation hubs, and private homes. Also, think about events and festivals where your work might fit in. You can also think about site-specific installations that connect to a particular place.

I installed Harmonibots at the Waseca Art Center, which is a small-town art gallery in Southern Minnesota, where I grew up. I knew the director of the gallery and I pitched my idea to her. She said that the gallery space was booked years in advance for full exhibitions (which last several months), but that I could install my piece for three days over the New Year’s holiday weekend. While slightly shorter than I would have liked, this schedule actually worked very well because many people had time to visit the gallery over the holiday weekend.

Once you think of a piece idea and a place you would like to do it, pitch your idea to the person in charge of the space and see what happens. Create a compelling mini-proposal and pitch it to different venues, keeping in mind that you may have to compromise on certain elements.

Accept the challenge!

Sound installation is an unwieldy medium that neither the concert hall nor the art gallery are fully equipped for. This is a challenge, but also an intriguing invitation to create as-of-yet unheard sonic worlds in perhaps the most unexpected spaces. It takes vision, planning, and thinking outside the box, but creating a sound installation can be an extremely rewarding project that truly breaks boundaries and reaches new audiences. I very much look forward to hearing and seeing the next piece funded by the Ruth Anderson Prize!

Sky Macklay is an award-winning composer, new-music oboist, and improviser. Her commission from my home town of Lexington, MA, titled “Dissolving Bands”, also won an ASCAP award in 2013. She grew up in Minnesota, lives in New York, and teaches at the Walden School in New Hampshire, a renowned summer program for pre-college composers.


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