Despite gaining recognition as an art form from as far back as the early 1900s, sound studies and sonic art still remain an enigma to most audiences. Passing through the hands of Futurists, Dadaists, then Surrealists throughout the decades, the discipline had its moment in the spotlight with the emergence of John Cage and his practice of “indeterminacy”—or what we might call generative music today—in the 1950s.
Since then, the medium has exploded while the boundaries between art, music, and sound have greatly diminished. Intimately intertwined with technological advances in electronic media, the ‘70s and ‘80s saw traditional installation artists such as Bill Fontana and Christian Marclay, as well as pop culture icons like David Byrne and Brian Eno experiment with sound beyond its musical qualities, and treat it as a concept to be questioned.
And the practice continues to grow in 2021: of all the artists working with sound as their medium today, here are five who are prolific in making you think with your ears.
It’s not everyday that an artist’s debut album also doubles as their PhD thesis. Holly Herndon lays claim to that unique achievement, but she is also an outlier in many other ways: her release of Movement in 2012 on the renowned label 4AD was only the first step in her singular mission of expanding the human voice with technology.
Calling the laptop “the most personal instrument the world has ever seen”, Herndon has since released two more studio albums, the last of which is entitled Proto (short for “protocol”) and was highly anticipated and publicised for its use of an AI collaborator named Spawn.
Why Spawn? “I chose the baby metaphor in this case to illustrate how important it is to raise an AI responsibly. Her view of the world arises from what we as parents teach her. There's a pervasive narrative of technology as what dehumanises us… I don't want to live in a world where people are automated off-stage. I want an AI to be formed that appreciates and interacts with this beauty [of the human voice]."
Employing a full choir and her own singing, she processes these audio inputs through a neural network built with the help of developer Jules Laplace and partner Mat Dryhurst, mapping them to percussion samples and teaching Spawn to “sing”.
And why Proto? “Our values and ethical principles always flow into the protocol layer of new technologies. It was the same with the Internet. But what have we made of this AI utopia?” Herndon is busy answering that question by testing out a form of AI-human community that could soon be ubiquitous.
A former landscape architecture student, Carsten Nicolai adopted Alva Noto as a pseudonym in 2000 and immediately dove into his new life as a visual artist who is primarily ”interested in the physical qualities of sound”. Using electronic music as the cradle for his own code of signs, acoustics and visual symbols, the Chemnitz-born and Berlin-based artist has collaborated with prolific peers such as Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bender, and Ryoji Ikeda.
Obsessed with the atmospheric, he’s known to base his compositions on anything from science fiction movie clips to Daniel Libeskind’s architectural drawings. “Sometimes I also do rough sonic sketches and I compile them into a kind of... a demo tape, a mood board, and that will become the reference point for the entire release. It’s like I’m creating a soundtrack for that vision.”
Nicolia’s talent and dedication to both vision and craft has resulted in a rich and versatile portfolio of work. From exhibiting at the Guggenheim and Venice Biennale, to co-serving as the opening act for Depeche Mode's Eastern Europe tour in 2013, to being nominated for his work on The Revenant soundtrack at the 2016 Golden Globe Awards, he’s an underrated success in bridging the high and low-brow worlds of art and music.
Sound art takes on a different lived experience through Christine Sun Kim. The California-raised, Berlin-based artist was born profoundly deaf, and has been embraced as a voice for the deaf community since she switched over to working in the medium (Kim was previously a painter) circa 2015. From conducting “silent choirs” to interpreting musical and graphic notations in striking ways, she translates the world of sound and what she calls “sound etiquette” into drawing, performance, video, movement, and abstract ideation.
“Sound is like a ghost because I can’t see it, but I can feel its presence,” she muses. “I use the sounds that I’m curious about, instead of what is sonically pleasing to others.” By consciously unlearning the social rules of sound passed onto her by those who can hear, her explorations reach between disciplines, incorporating studies of body language, musical notation, information systems, spatial vibrations, and the gestures of both American Sign Language and International Sign Language.
Since performing the national anthem in American Sign Language at the 2020 Super Bowl, Kim’s standing as an international artist has skyrocketed. Whereas some might shy away from such attention, she has no qualms about using her new platforms for good. “I want my ideas to be accessible. I want to pull people in and to open their minds.”
Composer by training, artist provocateur by trade, Samson Young explores the nature of sound in often political contexts. A native of Hong Kong with a PhD from Princeton, the past few years of conflict in his home city have only worked to prove the adroitness and relevance of Young’s ideological explorations and body of work.
His Liquid Borders project documents the vibrations of the border fences and bodies of water that run through the restricted zones between Hong Kong and China. Walking along the entire divide with his microphone, Young uses the physical space as a conversation piece around the metaphorical gaps in values and ideologies between the two regions.
”The border is important psychologically for the people of Hong Kong, it’s our last frontier and people fear losing it. But if it’s so important to us then where is it? What does it look like? What does it sound like? Is it fragile or robust? What does it keep away and what gets through? So the task that I’d designed for myself—to archive the fences between Hong Kong and China in its entirety—is really just an excuse for me to walk along the border and see/hear it for what it is.”
Equally poignant is Pastoral Music, a prime example of how his obsession with “condensed” sound and technology come together to re-examine history. “An explosion is one split second, but there’s so much sonic information. It’s an information overload… I’m fascinated by sounds like that because I think they defy logic. We aspire to hear as much as possible, but our bodies won’t do it.” By using audio technology and analysis software to translate these explosions, Young unveils a new world of sound for his audience.
Originally a sculptor, it was a blessing that Susan Phlipsz turned her attention to audio—she’s now touted as the first sound artist to ever win the prestigious Turner Prize, traditionally only handed to those who work in visual mediums. Designing immersive environments by carefully weaving songs amidst architectural spaces, Philipsz has spent the past two decades recreating the feelings of memory, loss, and hope through her installations.
In her seminal work Lowlands, she records herself singing a traditional Scottish lament in a cappella, then gently loops them through a sound system under the George V bridge in her native Glasgow. The end result is a haunting yet intimate and personal elegy that endows listeners with a renewed sense of place.
“It’s quite different to listening to music. Normally it would take you to another place. Or you would be very engaged with the performance. But when I create sound works in public space it is often about the place and activating the acoustics, the architecture and heightening your own sense of self in a particular place.”
War Damaged Musical Instruments adopts a similar theme of melancholy through its use of brass and wind instruments that have been damaged in wars over the past 200 years. Fragmented bugle calls allude to the practice of letting lost and wounded soldiers know that it was safe to return to base. “I am less interested in creating music than to see what sounds these instruments are still capable of, even if that sound is just the breath of the player as he or she exhales through the battered instrument. All the recordings have a strong human presence.”
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Cover Image: Hendrik Schmidt / Getty Images
Writer | Cynthia Chou
A recent transplant to Berlin and a Vancouverite at heart, Cynthia writes about art, culture, music, travel, and food. Find her at @c__yn__th__ia.