The term Sound Art is relatively new, but the concept itself is rooted in the early 20th century and the works of Dadaists and Futurists. It might even go far more back than that since there is no agreement about the first work of this artistic form. Even thought this form of expression is consisted of diverse set of practices that focuses on aural stimulation, each sound installation utilizes two essential components both as the subject matter and material: sound and listening. As a complicated process of particles and air moving, a sound is something we cannot get a hold of, touch or feel. When it unfolds in its own time and moves the air, it is gone and leaves only a memory. To engage with it, one has to listen. Unlike hearing which is purely physical and involuntary, listening occurs when someone becomes conscious of the sound and engages intellect and emotions to generate meaning with it. This auditory creativity of listening has given rise to what we call sound art.
There are various forms that can be grouped within this category, including kinetic sounding sculpture, automatons, experimental radio, installations that are often site-specific, guided sound-walks, instrument making, spoken word, poetry, video art and much more. But what actually is sound art? Due to the variety of these forms and the fact that it exists somewhere between music and visual arts, it seems it is very difficult to define it narrowly. We could say that an artist working within this field uses tones and audio effects to create an artistic expression the same way a painter uses colours and canvas. Still, there are many overlaps with contemporary classical composition, experimental music and improvisation.
The earliest use of the term is traced back to the exhibition at the Sculpture Center in New York in 1983, but the term became commonplace only in the 1990s. Still, the origins of this artistic form take us back to the early 20th century and the works of two avant-garde movements. Among the key figures of this early history of the form is the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo who wrote the manifesto ‘The Art Of Noises’ in 1913 and propagated the use of industrial and military noises to conceive a new kind of music. He has built noise machines that replicated the clatter of the industrial age and the boom of warfare. Apart from the Futurists, Dadaists also contributed greatly to this new kind of artistic expression. Hugo Ball did a costumed performance making sounds that were unlike anything the public has ever heard. This performance was purely a theatrical presentation of sound. Between 1922 and 1932, Kurt Schwitters created a piece Ursonate that was 40 minutes long and consisted of vocal utterance, vowels and consonants and words with no meaning. Marcel Duchamp’s composition Erratum Musical featured a seemingly arbitrary act of three voices singing notes pulled from a hat. These interventions marked the birth of a new artistic expression.
A person who contributed the most to Sound Art is John Cage. Initially trained within the traditions of Western classical music, he soon started advocating that music should be created out of any sounds at all. In his notorious piece 4 33’ he included silence as a sound for the first time. This piece is comprised of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence and it was ‘composed’ in three movements with notation simply reading ‘tacet’, a musical term for ‘be silent’. In the famous performance by the pianist David Tudor in 1952, you could hear the audience coughing and twitching in their seats, so the roles of the composer, performer and listener were overlapping. The work of John Cage has influenced many composers and artists who came after and were working within fields of installation, kinetic and performance art, including Bill Fontana, George Brecht, Le Monte Young, Bruce Nauman or While Schaeffer. The invention of recording opened up new horizons for sound art, with the possibility of preserving sounds and manipulating the recording medium in various ways. The rise of the digital technology has brought a radical transformation of this art form and with the possibility of incorporating responding visual images or giving the audience the ability to manipulate the sound themselves.
There is a number of internal conflicts within the theoretical discourse regarding sound art, especially concerning its role in relation to music. In order to not become redundant as a term and form, this artistic form must be defined as something different from music, but it is still very difficult to draw a precise border between these two forms. Sound art often overlaps with experimental music or noise, but there are still important distinctions that make it a separate form of expression. It is distinct by the perceptual, conceptual and institutional approaches and issues raised by soundworks, and also its ultimate aim. While it is possible to communicate many things through music, the composer fundamentally only communicates the music’s form. Focused on sound issues and the possibilities to manipulate it in order to restructure it as another outfit, sound artists raise important questions through their conceptual exploration of the complex relationships between the sound, listener and space. They are interested in the way the sound behaves in space or in one’s mind and the possibility of forming something sculptural out of invisible waves. The way music and sound art are experienced is also different. While a musical piece should be experienced in its entirety, sound art is usually experienced in a venue where the artist has no control over how much time a listener spends with a piece. Still there are no boundaries and strict rules, and these two forms can often overlap.
Contemporary Sound Art is such a vast and diverse landscape that involves so many different artistic practices. Those such as Jeremy Deller and Janet Cardiff draw the participant out of the gallery to the streets where the uncontrolled life goes on. Cardiff’s The Missing Voice, Case Study B from 1999 involved a CD in a Discman that directed the user out into the streets with a set of voiced instructions and observations regarding the path. With sounds on the CD overlapping with the street noise, she made the participant experience two confusing realities. David Cunningham has created a sound installation using a feedback device and a gate so that sound grows in intensity as it feeds on itself and changes according to the specific site and the movement of the visitors. This installation where the audience interacts with the sound and manipulates it has been exhibited as The Listening Room series and as A Position Between Two Curves at Tate Britain’s Days Like These in 2003. In his piece splint (the soul of wood) from 1997, Steve Roden used a plywood leg splint designed by Charles Eames and employing contact microphones, physical actions, recording and electronic processing extracted hidden possibilities of the sound from a piece of furniture. By extracting hidden noises and memories from a thrift-store vinyl, Christian Marclay continues to explore the subjects of memory and death.
The artist Angela Bulloch explores the systems that structure social behavior. Toying with the ways in which we construct and interpret different types of information, the participant engages with her works by walking through a room and triggering various sounds. Haroon Mirza, a London-based artist whose installations create an interplay and friction between sound, light and electric current, has been rewarded the Silver Lion at the 54th Venice Biennale for his installations Sick and The National Pavilion of Then and Now. The artist Susan Philipsz creates site-specific installations that involve her recorded voice to explore the universal themes of loss, hope and longing. She rose to international fame after winning the prestigious Turner Prize for her piece Lowlands. Soundscape composition is also becoming a more commonplace term in the world of Sound Art. These artists work with sounds coming from various places such as rooms, factories, oceans, markets, forests, mountain tops or even edges of outer space to create various sound installations. Although the sounds are often manipulated, it is important they remain vaguely recognizable to generate meaning.
Susan Philipsz winning the Turner Prize in 2010 was the first time in history that an artist who works primarily with sound has been shortlisted for this prestigious award. It was a milestone and an overdue recognition for the genre. I seemed that the victory was not simply her own, but it belonged to the artistic form in general. Despite the long history of this medium, this prize has certainly helped raise its awareness to the general public. With the rising number of Sound Art exhibitions all around the world and various Sound Art courses and programs that have been introduced in prestigious Universities such as the Columbia University in New York, the University of Brighton in England, the Nordic Sound Art Program and the Sonic Arts Research Center in Belfast, it seems that this form is having a moment of sorts. On the other hand, Sotheby’s and Christies haven’s sold any of soundworks yet, but Benjamin Godsill from the Phillips auction house sees strong potential for the sale of these works to private buyers. Still, various artists working within this field have managed to sell their works, but the sale is not the ultimate goal for the majority since it is rather about the act of listening and experiencing the space in relation to the sound.
In an international art world dominated by visual works, the sound has long been perceived as a challenging and esoteric medium. With the advancement of digital technologies and the affordability of recording devices, artists are now including multichannel audio systems, computer programming software, computer-mediated sound spatialization and even a cell phone is becoming a creative force. With unlimited means to shape and manipulate the sound, there is a countless number of possibilities to cultivate this medium and take it beyond its limits. By celebrating the ear in our predominantly visual world, sound art encourages us to listen and expand our imagination.
Featured images: Haroon Mirza Sound Installation, via arts.glossom.com; MoMA's Major Sound Art Exhibition, via animalnewyork.com; Pavel Buchler, Studio Schwitters, 2010, via dailyserving.com. All images for illustrative purposes only.