7 Iconic Works Of Sound Art To Explore
Since the early 1900s when the futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo published the manifesto L'arte dei Rumori [The Art of Noises], sound art saw unparalleled development with artists breaking rules and moving away from traditional, classical composition towards wild experimentation.
Sound art particularly took off in the late 1950s when John Cage and Max Neuhaus, along with the Fluxists and other figures and movements, propelled it into a rich medium that’s full of varied playfulness – shaping the lexicon of music theory and leaving a lasting legacy that has drastically influenced the work that followed.
Here, we explore some recent works of sound art that have been exhibited globally over the past five years.
CHRISTINE SUN KIM | CAPTIONING THE CITY
While Captioning the City does not feature sound, it investigates a life without it – making it especially interesting to note when exploring sound art. During the Manchester International Festival in 2021, the Berlin-based artist Christine Sun Kim (who was born deaf) installed descriptive and poetic captions across public spaces in Manchester, from streets to buildings. [The sound of agreeing to never call it soccer] read the caption at the National Football Museum: “I want people to consider that sound captions shouldn't be limited to sonic properties only, but also things, emotions, times, thoughts,” said the artist in a press release.
SAMSON YOUNG | MUTED SITUATION #22: MUTED TCHAIKOVSKY’S 5TH
Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with the support of the Hong Kong Visual Art Center and Art Promotion Office, this 2018 12-channel sound installation features 12 powder-coated speakers and a 45-min video of the Flora Sinfonie Orchester "playing” Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony – except they don’t exactly play. The orchestra cheats the procedure by going through all the regular movements but without playing any musical scores, highlighting the unexpected sonic variety of the orchestra, from the rustling of sheets to the musicians’ breath.
CARL CRAIG | PARTY/AFTER-PARTY
The Dia Art Foundation in New York has long been celebrated for its involvement in sound art and currently manages Max Neuhaus’ work of public art in Manhattan, Times Square. Recently in 2020, Dia commissioned Detroit-based techno DJ Carl Craig to produce a work of sound art for their Beacon space that dialogues with the architecture of the space. Party/After-Party is “a sonic environment that is anchored to the site’s manufacturing history as a former Nabisco packaging factory, recalling a techno tradition of reclaiming industrial spaces for radical experimentation.”
SUSAN PHILIPSZ | TOO MUCH I ONE LAMENTED
A site-specific commission by the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri for their Tadao Ando-designed space, the 2019 work Too Much I Once Lamented features Scottish artist Susan Philipsz singing a seventeenth-century madrigal song in a 5-channel sound installation “that describes a heartbroken lover in a state of solitary reflection”. It’s eerily similar to her Turner prize-winning work from 2010, Lowlands Away.
TAREK ATOUI | THE WHISPERERS
Presented at Galerie Chantal Crousel in Paris in 2021, electroacoustic composer Tarek Atoui’s 2021 work The Whisperers includes a series of “listening devices” that explore the acoustics and vibratory frequency of water, wind, voices, and rotational movement created using different materials including plastic, wood, brass, water, bronze, glass, and stone. Atoui was inspired and influenced by workshops he hosted with 5-year-old students at a kindergarten in Paris.
LAWRENCE ABU HAMDAN | THE WITNESS-MACHINE COMPLEX
In a 2021 solo show at the Kunstverein Nürnberg, the Turner Prize artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan explores testimony and technology during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945/6. The Witness-Machine Complex features recorded testimonies from these trials that simultaneously play in Russian, French, German, and English. These testimonies are voiced by translators, whose anonymous role in the trials is finally spotlighted decades later. Yellow and red lights pulse and flicker throughout – lights like these would communicate speed, volume, and repetition instructions to the translators during the trials.
HAROON MIRZA | THE NIGHT JOURNEY
British-Pakistani multimedia artist Haroon Mirza’s The Night Journey was unveiled in 2018 as a site-specific work for the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. In it, speakers emit sounds of electricity that are “keyed to a source code” of an early 19th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad from the museum’s collection to create a truly immersive environment; it’s an evolution of A C I D G E S T, a work presented at Pérez Art Miami in 2017.
Cover Credit: Lee Baxter / Manchester International Festival
Looking for more articles on Sonic Art? Read about…
- Global Sound Art Exhibitions
- Female Sound Artists
- Sound Artists You Need to Know
- The Frontier of Sound Art with Yuri Suzuki
- Sonic Art: An Overview
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat