A Comprehensive Overview of Sound Art
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MUSIC AND SOUND ART?
In an episode of the BBC programme The Listening Service, music journalist and host Tom Service distorts his own voice with effects, sarcastically questioning whether Mozart and Björk can be considered as sound artists. “All these labels! Can’t we just listen to some sounds, sound art, music… whatever you call it?” By the end of the episode, he comes to the conclusion that there is no set division. “Well, it’s up to you, and that’s the point. It’s a way of hearing all sounds as full of artistic and musical potential, it’s a way of paying attention, or not paying attention.”
As with all things interdisciplinary, where does one discipline end and the other begin? Where does music end and art begin? While many theorists and academics have attempted to set stylistic distinctions between sound art and music, these characteristics are loose and often contested and sound art continues to upkeep a wobbly public understanding. Fair enough.
“Sound art” goes by different names depending on the day: sonic art, sound sculpture, sound installation, experimental music, audio art, aural art, new media... Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they’re also frequently distinguished from one another based on both medium and personal interpretation. Many (like the rebellious Stuckists who we’ll get to know below) will refuse that a work is art in the absence of some level of physical dimensionality, but might instead deem it to be music; experimental music, sure, but music nonetheless. And then there’s “sound sculpture”—often attached to site-specific works by the artist and musician Max Neuhaus who is likely to have come up with the term in his avoidance of the use of “sound art.”
Whether or not your favourite Soundcloud track counts as a form of art all boils down to personal interpretation and levels of dogmatism.
Luigi Russolo publishes L'arte dei Rumori
It’s unclear when sound art came to be defined as its own separate discipline out loud or in writing. In their very nature, manifestos often reflect new formations in public opinion and it’s fairly appropriate to refer to these published declarations as markers in history—so when the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo published his 1913 manifesto L'arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises) declaring a disinterest in classical musical orchestras in favour of the infinite possibilities of sound across urban life, he reflected the beginning of a new era of experimentation.
In the manifesto, he presented a new musical aesthetic with symphonies produced with the noises of urban life, dismissing the limitations of traditional instruments and harmonies that “predispose the listener to boredom.” He built mechanical noise machines, or intonarumori, that allowed for experimental compositions. “We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds.”
Luigi Russolo with Ugo Piatti at his intonarumori laboratory in Milan. L'arte dei rumori, 1913. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A Dadaist playfulness
Many academics credit the Dadaists as the first to use audio prominently in their work. Around the same time L'arte dei Rumori was published in 1913—leading Dada figure Marcel Duchamp began experimenting with noise in his readymade works, like the 1917 piece With Hidden Noise. “Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art,” wrote Marc Lowentha in the preface to the publication of Dada artist Francis Picabia’s I Am a Beautiful Monster.
John Cage and the sound of silence
In 1952 at the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock, American composer John Cage premiered what is often referred to as his most notable work: 4′33, performed by pianist David Tudor. In a conceptual performance, Tudor set a stopwatch and sat silently for 33 seconds, closing the piano lid, re-opening it, and repeating the process in two additional brackets. It was essentially a performance of silence. Cage and 4′33 helped redefine experimental compositions.
Sound art has never gone without criticism. When Cage debuted the work, audience members allegedly stormed out. “I think we should run these people out of town,” one of the remaining audience members—enraged at the “silent” performance—claimed when Cage later opened the floor to questions.
The Fluxists and their Fluxfests
In the late 1950s, the Fluxus movement—spearheaded by George Maciunas—manifested into a network of artists pushing for progressive forms of post-war expression while renewing the anti-elitist, post-critical, and humorous sentiments of Dadaism.
With the emergence of Fluxus, performance and participatory art forms referred to as “Events” became the centre stage of the movement with sound-heavy Fluxfests featuring artists and musicians like Yoko Ono and John Lennon.
Festum Fluxorum Fluxus, 1963. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Max Neuhaus’ site-specific sound sculptures
A formal establishment of sound art notably peaked in the late 1960s when Max Neuhaus, often referred to as the creator of the first sound sculpture, unveiled multiple audio-based works exploring the sonic possibilities of physical places, including the four-day Fan Music (1967) that featured sounds that reacted to the sun.
If you look closely, you’ll stumble across Neuhaus amongst the chaos of Manhattan—and more precisely, at Broadway between 45th and 46th. Titled Times Square, the sound sculpture unveiled in 1977 transforms a triangle of steel grates into soothing sound hums generated by electronic sound generators, a loudspeaker, and the subway noises below. "I wanted a work that wouldn't need indoctrination," Neuhaus told The New York Times in 2006. “The whole idea is that people discover it for themselves. They can't explain it. They take possession of it as their discovery. They couldn't do that if it were labelled 'An Artwork by Max Neuhaus’.” First installed between 1977 and 1992, the work was later reinstated in 2002 and is currently managed by the Dia Art Foundation.
View of Max Neuhaus’s Times Square in New York City. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The first institutional sound art exhibition
"MUSEUM EXHIBITION FEATURES WORKS INCORPORATING SOUND” ran the title of the press release. Curated by Barbara London, the Sound Art group exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1979 was the first time the term was used in the title of an exhibition. The show included Maggie Payne’s Lunar Earthrise, Julia Heyward’s Organ Grinder, and Connie Beckley’s The Note.
“Sound art is another manifestation of the increasing contemporary tendency to extend the range of artistic possibilities by moving between different mediums and exploring new modes of presentation,” mentioned the release.
Museums and galleries were now knee-deep in sound art, too, indicating a formal, institutional interest. Other sound-focused exhibitions followed immediately.
Launch of the Audio Arts cassette magazine
Gallery curator William Furlong and sculptor Barry Barker’s Audio Arts was a “cassette magazine” (and later compact disc magazine) that ran between 1973 and 2004, hosting a myriad of major artists and figures like Duchamp, Mario Merz, Philip Glass, and Noam Chomsky as interviewees. Its reception reflected a growing interest in sound art and its establishment as a valid art form. The tapezine has since been digitised, and the archives are available at the Library and Archive Reading Room at The Tate as well as online.
The first Turner Prize for an audio work
When the Berlin-based Scottish artist Susan Philipsz won the Turner Prize in 2010, she became the first person to snag the prestigious award for an audio-based work. Lowlands Away features the artist singing three versions of a Scottish ballad that was performed under three bridges in Glasgow (and later adapted to a space at Tate Britain). When she won the prize, a group of artists—the Stuckists—protested outside the museum. “It’s just someone singing in an empty room. It’s not art. It’s music,” they ranted in an announcement.
SOUND IN CONTEMPORARY ART
Today, prolific sound artists include Holly Herndon, Carsten Nicolai, Christine Sun Kim, Samson Young, and many others.
The London-based artist Morag Myerscough relied on various sounds like laughter, her partner’s psychobilly music, and a song performed with her twelve-year-old niece for the work Make Those Who are Near Happy.
Though it appears obvious, sound art is a medium, not a movement, nor a style. It’ll continue to be shaped, remixed, reshuffled, broken, muted, and blared to new horizons. And with the exponential rise of new media formats in this mind-boggling Internet age of opportunities, the aural possibilities are infinite. True to his 1913 manifesto, Luigi Russolo would likely appreciate the raw sonic variety that artists (and musicians) have come to explore over the past 100 years since.
Looking for more articles on Sonic Art? Read about…
- Global Sound Art Exhibitions
- Iconic Works of Sound Art
- Female Sound Artists
- Sound Artists You Need to Know
- Sonic Art: An Overview
- The Frontier of Sound Art with Yuri Suzuki
Cover Credit: C Technical / Pexels
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