Helen Thorington, Who Brought Sonic Art to the Airwaves, Dies at 94
Helen Thorington, whose haunting sonic compositions helped bring the medium of radio art to a national audience and provided the soundscape for filmmakers, artists and choreographers, died on April 13 in Lincoln, Mass. She was 94.
Her partner and collaborator, Jo-Anne Green, said she died in a hospice from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. Her death was not widely reported at the time.
Radio art was a niche medium when Ms. Thorington started out, but she helped bring attention to the form — through her work, which was frequently featured on NPR and other noncommercial outlets, and later as the founder of a project called New American Radio, which commissioned more than 300 works that were broadcast on more than 70 radio stations for more than a decade starting in 1987.
Ms. Thorington began her pioneering work in the 1970s as a writer interested in expanding her short stories and scripts into impressionistic radio dramas. She blended her own musical forays on synthesizer with audio snippets of industrial or nature sounds, unaccompanied improvisations by musicians on various instruments, and samples from radio broadcasts. The result was the auditory equivalent of an art installation.
Her first composition for public consumption, “Trying to Think,” was a synthesizer-fueled rumination inspired by the idea of a fictional woman’s feelings of emptiness and loss after she hears news on the radio of the drowning of two young boys. The piece made its debut on NPR in 1977.
In an interview with Ear Magazine, a publication devoted to new music, where she was the radio editor in the late 1980s, Ms. Thorington compared her mixing and matching of sounds pulled from their natural environments to splicing genes together to produce a new being. “The overall effect,” she said, “is to create a narrative, not as we have understood what narrative is, but another kind of narrative that touches an emotional level.”
Her sonic compositions were often part of multimedia collaborations with musicians and visual artists. One such performance, “Adrift,” which included elements of early virtual-reality technology, was presented live at festivals and at venues like the New Museum in New York and streamed on the internet in various iterations from 1997 to 2001. The piece contained no scripted dialogue, merely a droning synthesizer interspersed with gull cries, splashing waves and shipboard sounds like intercom commands and clanking hatch doors — suggesting the terror of being lost at sea and the faint hope of rescue.
Her pieces often focused on the dire consequences of humans’ domination of nature. “My work talks about the loss of the natural environment, something to which I contribute as a maker of artificial worlds,” she told Ear. “And in the process of doing that, I can use any kind of sound.”
Helen Louise Thorington was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 16, 1928, the second of four children of Richard Thorington, a lawyer, and Katherine (Moffat) Thorington.
In addition to Ms. Green, she is survived by a sister, Florence Williams.
After graduating from Wellesley College in 1950 with a bachelor’s degree in biblical history, she moved to New York, where she worked as a copy editor in the book publishing industry and held various other jobs. In the mid-1960s, she pursued a doctorate in English literature at multiple institutions, including Rutgers University, although she chose to write a novel, which was never published, instead of the required dissertation.
While pursuing the writer’s life in the small town of Towanda, Pa., in the mid-1970s, Ms. Thorington rented her first synthesizer for a children’s musical she wrote, “The Frog Hollow Ghost.” It was the start of a new direction in her career, and by the 1980s her work was being featured on college and public radio stations around the country and on stations in Europe and Australia, as well as at electronic-music festivals.
She often performed her work live, in collaboration with choreographers like Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, artists like Jacki Apple and filmmakers like Barbara Hammer. She provided the ethereal soundtrack for Ms. Hammer’s 16-millimeter short film “Optic Nerve,” which premiered in 1987 at the Berlin International Film Festival and was also featured in that year’s Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
As funding for radio art began drying up in the 1990s, Ms. Thorington shifted her focus to the internet. In 1996 she founded an influential net art site, Turbulence.org, which provided funding and a distribution platform for emerging web-based artists. She flourished in the new medium, exploiting the open-ended nature of the web to reach a broader audience and to interact, and even collaborate, with users.
Whether on the radio or the internet, Ms. Thorington argued, sound provided a sense of grounding, a geography, even when floating through the ether — which she found significant in a modern culture where people are relocating more than ever.
“The sense of belonging to a community anywhere is sort of dissipating in our lives,” she said in a 1998 interview. “That does not mean the need for it isn’t there. I think sound is one way of creating a space that people can enter and feel that they know where they are, at least imaginatively.”
Alex Williams is a reporter in the Obituaries department. @AlexwilliamsNYC
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