SONIC FABRIC is an ongoing work of sound/conceptual art by Alyce Santoro. Editions of an audible textile (it emits sound when a magnetic tape head is drawn along its surface) woven from audiocassette tape recorded with intricate collages of sound and music are woven with a cotton or polyester warp on a 1940s dobby loom at a family-run textile mill in New England.

The sound compositions themselves also kind of SONIC FABRIC, made by weaving together combinations of looped and layered samples of found, created, and collected sounds.

sonic fabric


My connection with cassette tape started early, having come of age during the golden years of the cassette as a powerful, accessible medium for counter-cultural expression and information-sharing. While in high school during the 1980s, inspired by Laurie Anderson's Tape Bow Violin, I had an electric pick-up installed in my flute. Using a multitude of effects pedals, I played in a folk-punk-experimental-improvisational ensemble (among this group's minor achievments is that we performed a several times at CBGB's). Every jam session was recorded on tape...hundreds and hundreds of tapes...


As a kid, I raced small sailboats with my family. We'd often use short strands of cassette tape tied to the rigging as wind indicators, or "tell-tails". The movement of the tell-tail is used to gauge slight shifts in the strength and direction of the breeze, to which the skipper responds by making adjustments to the trim of the sails, in creasing the efficiency with which the force of the wind is transformed into forward motion. Cassette tape is ideal for use as a tell-tail, as it is light and very sensitive to the wind, it’s extremely durable, and it dries quickly. I used to imagine that if the wind hit the tell-tails just right, the sounds of whatever had been recorded onto the tape (Cat Stevens? Beethoven? Billie Holiday? The Beatles?) could be heard wafting out into the air.


Years later I learned about the colorful flags often hung at auspicious sites by Tibetan Buddhists. Tibetan prayer flags are made of colorful squares of cotton fabric imprinted with the images of mantras, or syllables that, when vocally toned, create ripples that affect thought and physical matter in much the same way that music emanating from a stereo can cause a speaker or other adjacent object to vibrate. The flags are traditionally hung outdoors where the breeze blowing through them can "activate" the depicted sounds, dispersing them out around the world on the wind.

buddhist prayer flags

I immediately recalled the cassette tape tell-tails and sensed a direct relationship between the two. I became compelled to create a fabric that had sonic potential literally woven into it. I set about collecting and recording tapes of music and sounds that had been influential to me throughout my life (the Beatles, Allen Ginsberg, John Coltrane, Ravi Shankar, Oregon, Miles Davis, Beethoven, Laurie Anderson, ocean surf, crickets, whale sounds, etc), and/or that had mystical or religious significance in a particular tradition (Buddhist and Gregorian chants, the Islamic Call to Prayer, shamanic icaros or medicine songs, etc). Friends contributed mix tapes and recordings of their own music projects. I began carrying a recording device with me at all times so that I could collect samples of the sounds of everyday life.

omwaves become matter

I began by knitting with the tape, resulting in a fabric with a loose and loopy texture. A technically proficient friend offered to try weaving the tape on a loom using a cotton warp at the Rhode Island School of Design. The result astounded both of us. We never expected such a beautiful, tightly-woven, functional material. At first I'd intended to make a string of my own sort of nautical/Buddhist-inspired flags from the original samples, but before I could begin working on the project, the fabric had been accepted into a show of artworks made from repurposed materials at Felissimo Design House in New York City. For that show in 2003 I constructed my first sonic shaman-superhero dress from the panels of fabric, which I came to realize (during a critique session/salon at the home of Louise Bourgeois...for that story please see page 71 of Philosoprops: A Unified Field Guide), were actually audible...the fabric retains it's magnetic properties throughout the weaving process, and when a tape head is dragged along its surface, it emits a garbled, underwater-like sound.


sonic fabric shaman superhero dress

Over a decade has elapsed since then, and works made of SONIC FABRIC have been included in exhibitions in galleries and museums around the world related to sound art, innovative musical scores, technology, and "smart" and upcycled fashion. Shaman-superhero dresses, suits of sails, and strings of flags and banners have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, the New School, the Museu d'ArtContemporani de Barcelona, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, the Gwangju Design Biennial, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many other venues.

SONIC FABRIC has appeared on the Sundance Channel’s Big Ideas for a Small Planet and on the Today Show. It’s been featured in the New York Times, Orion Magazine, People, MAKE Magazine, Treehugger, Wired, and in many other print and digital publications.

In 2003 I was commissioned to make a dress for Jon Fishman, percussionist for the band Phish, which he wore and played on stage during a concert in Las Vegas. Works made from SONIC FABRIC are in the collections of the RISD Museum, Laurie Anderson, the FIT Museum, and the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona.


As a conceptual artist and a musician, I am constantly collecting and experimenting with the sounds that are recorded onto the tape before it’s woven into fabric. The current edition of fabric is recorded with the Between Stations album, a collection of sound collages composed of loops and layers of samples collected over a 5 year period on and under the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Between Stations is music literally made from the sounds of the city, and is intended as an ode to life in post-9/11 New York.

As the project has evovled, it has become increasingly clear that SONIC FABRIC reaches its fullest potential when it is shared; it functions most efficiently as a platform for collaboration. Opportunities to exchange ideas with fellow artists, musicians, architects, fashion, and interior designers who find innovative ways to incorporate SONIC FABRIC into their own work have brought the project to places I never could have imagined alone.


SONIC FABRIC is woven on a 1940’s dobby loom at a small family run textile mill in New England. The large spools of tape used in the weaving process are gleaned from the waning audiobook industry. All of the tape is recorded with intricately composed collages of sound prior to weaving.

Individual cassette tapes have also been used to weave smaller batches of yardage, some of which was hand loomed at a craft cooperative for Tibetan women refugees in Nepal. I also use individual tapes for smaller projects, and constantly refer to them as source of sound samples.

If you have tapes you would like to donate, or if you can connect us with weavers or weaving cooperatives in Central or South America, India, Tibet, Nepal or in other parts of the world who would be willing to collaborate with us, please let us know at info(at)sonicfabric.com.



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