Lesson: Tarek Atoui: Sounds Like ______.

  • Grade Level: High School (9 - 12 grade)
  • Subject Area: Music, Multimedia, History, Art
  • The artist, Tarik Atoui, at workThe artist, Tarik Atoui, at work

Written by Joseph Keehn II

This lesson was created in response to the artist Tarek Atoui, who was the Museum as Hub Artist-in-Residence at the New Museum from July 18 through August 12, 2009. During the month-long residency, Atoui continued his Empty Cans project and conducted a two-week music and technology workshop with New York City teenagers from the New Museum’s high school program G:Class in collaboration with New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Participants developed an image, sound, and time-based work and a collaborative performance at the New Museum. Atoui developed a final video work from this collaboration for Museum as Hub. Atoui initiated his practice of working with youth in France in 2005 with Empty Cans, a music and video workshop for teenagers based on Atoui’s software program of the same name. Atoui developed the performance software Empty Cans as a tool that is accessible and easy for youth: the application runs synchronized music and video manipulated with Sony PlayStation or Nintendo Wii controllers. He subsequently brought the project to several groups of Palestinian teenagers in refugee camps in Lebanon, and has since realized workshops in the Netherlands, France, and Egypt. At the New Museum, Atoui worked with twenty teens from the Museum’s G:Class high school program and New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation RECYouth summer youth program. During the workshop, teens viewed previous Empty Cans videos and developed and executed their own video and sound concepts, building tools for self-expression. Participants also developed and rehearsed individual roles using the Wii controllers to manipulate the video for the culminating performance at the Museum on August 8, 2009.


The use of electronic technologies has been instrumental in defining sound aesthetics, especially in the last 100 years. From electromechanical sound devices, such as Hammond organs and electric guitars, to purely electronic sound devices, such as computers and synthesizers, electronic technology has shaped and sometimes created new genres in pop, rock and roll, R & B, experimental, punk, jazz, and of course electronic music. For electronic music, one of the most influential technologies has been the development and advancements in sound recording devices. Dating as far back as 1857 with Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville’s patent of the phonautograph, sound recording is often credited as the beginning of electronic music.[1] Reincarnating into faster, more compact, and even multifunctional gadgets, sound-recording devices quickly became a staple in the music industry. In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer ventured away from the normative usages of sound recordings in music. Creating an entire work of acousmatic sounds that he had collected from a day at the beach, Schaeffer’s influences are heard in house, trance, techno, breakbeat, jungle, hardcore, and downtempo music. This lesson focuses on the use of acousmatic sounds and a selection of artists who employ this technique. Early pioneers of electronic music broke new grounds for contemporary artists—such as Tarek Atoui, artist in resident at the New Museum—to practice and experiment. The beginning of the lesson begins with an introduction to sound and narrative, followed by an exercise addressing sound language. Throughout the lesson, students will be collecting, creating, and editing an original sound work. The lesson culminates with a discussion about the relationships between visual and audio, and how they inform one another. Based on their discussion, students will add appropriate imagery to finish their works.


Abstraction is an artistic language that frees itself from subject matter to concentrate instead on content; that content is an essential expression of an idea or feeling, rather than a representation of an object from the real world. 
Acousmatic sound is sound one hears without seeing the sound’s originating source.          
Musique concrete is a movement in music history that uses the concrete sounds that exist in the world and seeks to abstract these sounds into a song.
Consonance is a harmony or agreement among components, such as sound.
Dissonance is a clashing or unresolved musical interval or chord.
Electronic music is music which sound is generated, transferred, triggered, or amplified by electronic devices. The creation of electronic music may involve the use of magnetic tape or computers. 
Field recording is the documenting of sounds and often involves the capturing of ambient noises that are low level and complex.  
Scherzo is a sprightly humorous instrumental musical composition or movement commonly in quick triple time. 

Materials Needed:

  • Internet access
  • Sound recording devices (i.e. cell phones, tape recorders)
  • Computer with sound software

Suggested Procedures:

  1. Have students listen to Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien No. 1 (Almost Nothing No. 1), 1970 while watching Ferrari collect field recordings.  Link 1   Link 2 .  Have students write down the different sounds that they hear while listening. If not recognizable, what do the sounds resemble? Compile all their findings into one list. Ask students:

    •  What sounds is the artist collecting and how is he collecting them?
    •  How are these sounds organized?
    •  What does the title, Almost Nothing, imply about this work? 

    Tell students that Presque Rien documents a day on the beach and includes the sounds one might hear on a beach near a city. Ferrari is telling a story through this work, which led him to abandon instruments in favor of sounds from life for later works.

    •  What story is Ferrari telling in Presque Rien?
    •  Ferrari is ascribing sounds with a space. How does this work upend preconceived notions of how a day at the beach might sound?
    •  The musical instruments in this piece were recorded and then placed within the composition. How is this different than the traditional use of a musical instrument in a composition?

  2. Students will create their own sound library for future use. Students will document a space by recording the space for an hour. Have students download the recording. Students will need to isolate individual sounds and title each sound bit appropriately. Optional: Students can combine the sound libraries to form one large archive for all students to use.

  3. Have students listen to Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux Chemins de Fer (1948).  Introduce students to acousmatic sound. Tell students that they are listening to an arrangement of sounds produced by trains. Have students write descriptions of each sound they hear, and then share with the rest of the class. Ask:

    • What words were used to describe the sounds? Are there repeats? Is there a shared language to describe these sounds?
    • Are the words used to describe the sound enough for someone else to reproduce the sound who has not heard it before? Why or why not?  

  4. What senses are we relying on in order to provide us this information? What happens during the translation from one sense to another? Tell students that Etude is the first example of musique concrete, a movement founded by Schaeffer that sought to reverse the structure of composition. Traditional composition begins with the abstract musical notation of a composer in order to create a song. Musique concrete begins with the concrete sounds that exist in the world and seeks to abstract these sounds into a song. How does abstraction inform our conversation about shared language and translation?

  5. Students will create their own acousmatic music using the scherzo form. “Scherzo” means “joke” in Italian, and is usually a quick movement in a symphony or sonata fashioned in a playful manner. Students will use the ABA form of a scherzo, in which “A” is the main theme and “B” is a variation of “A."

    • Step 1: Students will select a sound from their field recording (i.e. beeping horns, doors opening, washing dishes).
    • Step 2: Students will collect a minimum of four short sound clips of their selected sound.
    • Step 3: Students will arrange three of the sound clips to form the main theme “A,” not exceeding twenty seconds.
    • Step 4: Using all their sound clips, students will create the variation theme “B.” Suggest to students to use their theme “A” and embed/splice the remaining sound clips directly into it. Variation theme “B” needs to be at least twice as long as “A.”
    • Step 5: Have students arrange the themes into the scherzo form, ABA.

  6.  Watch the youtube video featuring Matmos’s A Chance to Cut is a Chance to Cure, 2001.  Ask students to write what they are listening and to provide proof of their findings by looking at the visual.

    • How do the visuals inform what you are hearing?
    •  How do the sounds inform what you are seeing?  

    Tell students that Matmos is an electronic duo consisting of Drew Daniel and Martin Schmidt, both of whom have doctors for parents. The sounds used to create the CD are all sampled from medical procedures, including plastic surgeries, liposuctions, hearing tests, and bone saws. In a 2001 interview, the band discusses the relationship of these sounds to the record:

    Daniel: The first time I played them for you, you thought they were incredibly disgusting.

    Schmidt: Well, they are.

    Daniel: But we wanted to get past that because that's too easy a reaction to generate… turning it into something that could be pleasant was the challenge.

    •  Without the visuals, do you think you would have recognized the sounds?
    •  Do you think that Matmos was able to turn something disgusting into something pleasant?  

  7. Have students add images to their scherzi. They should consider how the visual informs the audio and vice versa. Questions they need to consider when choosing images:

    • Do they want their sounds to be represented literally, like in the video?
    • Do they want their sounds to be represented abstractly?
    • Do they want to create a dissonance between the images and the sounds, such as the sound of a dog barking with a cat image.

Keywords: electronic, music

Lesson Plan: Tarek Atoui: Sounds Like ______.