Lesson: Tarek Atoui: Sounds of an Activist

  • Grade Level: High School (9-12 grades)
  • Subject Area: Music Theory, Multimedia, Computer Technology, History
  • The artist's "Empty Cans" program and equipmentThe artist's "Empty Cans" program and equipment

Written by Joseph Keehn II

Tarek Atoui 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.


Activists have used many methods to display the convictions of their beliefs. For Tarek Atoui, artist in residence at the New Museum, electronic music has provided him a means to illuminate the grim realities of war and its repercussions. Mashing, splicing, and infusing beats with field recordings, the practice of combining electronic music with politics, dates as early as the 1960s. As early as Steve Reich’s Come Out in 1966, musicians have experimented with various techniques in manipulating sound to address issues of brutality, conflict, death, and destruction. This lesson will focus on techniques artists have used sound and music as a tool of activism. Through manipulating frequency and amplitude, artists are able to change the waveform of a sound; ultimately, creating and sometimes changing the original mood for which the sound was collected in. The lesson will culminate with students creating a work that is framed around a political agenda. What political reality do you want the viewer to bear witness to by listening to/watching this work?

Materials Needed:

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


Activism is an intentional action to bring about political or social change.
Amplitude is the intensity or loudness of a sound. Amplitude is measured in decibels (dB).
Consonance is a harmony or agreement among components, such as sound.
Dissonance is a clashing or unresolved musical interval or chord.
Doubling is usually used to describe a perceived increase of amplitude. To achieve doubling in amplitude, an increase of approximately 10 decibels (dB) is needed. For example, if the sounds is around 60 dB, then an additional 10 dB to make 70 dB would double the loudness. Doubling can also be applied to frequency and waveform by multiplying the Hertz (Hz) by two, or increasing the length of the waveform by two.
Frequency is the pitch of a sound caused by the sound’s vibrations, usually discussed in terms of high and low. Frequency is measured in cycles per second (CPS), also commonly denoted as Hertz (Hz).
Waveform is the shape or tone of the vibration that produces a sound.

Suggested Procedures:

  1. Have students watch Steve Reich’s Come Out, 1966. Tell students that Reich begins with a recording of nineteen-year old Daniel Hamm saying “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Ask students to try to decipher this quote.
    • What is Reich doing to the recorded voice as the song progresses?
    • Does the recording every change?Are you able to recognize the words throughout the work?
    • What do you think Hamm is talking about?What could be meant by having to open the bruise to let some of the blood come out? Who do you think the blood is being shown to?
  2. Tell students that Hamm was one of the Harlem Six, a group of black teenagers who were arrested for committing a murder during the 1964 Harlem riots. Although only one of the Harlem Six was responsible for the murder, they were all treated brutally by the police, and the phrase comes from a recording of Hamm explaining that he had to puncture a bruise on his own body to convince the police of the severity of his wounds. Knowing this, ask students:
    • How does this affect our understanding of the work? What political message is suggested?
    • How does Reich’s usage of repetition and doubling of the voice add to the emotion/mood of the work? Are these techniques effective tools in addressing the work’s political message? How? 
    • Optional: Students will add doubling of frequency, amplitude, and waveform into their scherzi. Recommend using variation theme B.
  3. Listen to Bob Ostertag’s Sooner or Later, 1991 and have students describe what they are hearing. Tell students that they are listening to a recording of a young boy’s voice, a shovel digging, and a fly buzzing nearby.
    • What connections can be made between the boy’s voice and the act of digging with a shovel?
    • What emotion is the boy conveying by the sound he is producing? What could that sound be?
    • Tell students that the boy is burying his father, who had been killed by the National Guard in El Salvador. How does this information change or confirm your initial deductions?

    Tell students that Ostertag has explained this process on his Web site: “The music is made by breaking the original recording into very small events, and stringing these events into musical structures, creating shapes radically different from the original.” This technique has been described as an “audio microscope.” Have students break down the musical structure of the recording.

    • Step 1: Label each sound with a capital letter starting with A.
    • Step 2: With a sheet of music, mark each staff with a sound/capital letter.
    • Step 3: Listen to the entire piece and document the structure by marking when the sound occurs.
    • Step 4: For each variation of the sound, place a number next to the mark. Refer to sidebar for an example.
  4. Listen to Tarek Atoui’s Mort Aux Vaches, 2008. Have students describe what they hear. Tell students about Tarek Atoui’s work. Tarek Atoui’s soundscapes combine techno beats with field recordings both of everyday interactions (café discussions and street performers) and dire circumstances (bombings and refugee camps). The CD Mort Aux Vaches was recorded a few days after the 2006 Lebanon War (or July War), in which over 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed and over one million Lebanese displaced. The recording, which incorporates all of the aforementioned sounds, carried the following dedication by Atoui: “I want this disc to be a violent message of hope, of denying all forms of repression and of believing in people's wills and rights to freedom."
    • How is Atoui’s usage of field recording different from Schaeffer’s or Ferrari’s? 
    • Does the combination of techno beats with dire circumstances create a dissonance? Or, are they in consonance? Explain. 
    • What informs the emotions felt by listening to field recordings? In what ways do field recordings retain their original emotions for which they were collect? What informs their changes? 
    • Optional: have students incorporate beats/music into their scherzi to create dissonance at certain moments and consonance for other.

Additional Resources:



Keywords: music

Lesson Plan: Tarek Atoui: Sounds of an Activist