Sound Art

The Sunday Times (UK) featured an intriguing look at the integration of sound and visual art. Tim Cooper writes:

Remember when art appreciation used to be a simple, straightforward affair? You walked into a gallery, looked at some pictures, or maybe a few sculptures, and that was that. Then came photography, followed by film, the emergence of performance art and all that conceptual stuff... Now, thanks to 21st-century technology, sound art – art for the ears, as well as the eyes – is bringing a new dimension to the art world.

Actually, 'art for the ears' has been with us a long time. We call it music. More on this in a minute.

Cooper reports some of the imaginative ways aural and visual elements are integrated:

You walk into a white room in a fashionable Oxford art gallery. A fractured, fragmented version of the [Beethoven] Moonlight Sonata echoes from an unmanned grand piano at one end. On the opposite wall is a white-on-white neon display of a telephone number. You dial, then listen. Down the line, you hear a whooshing, splooshing sound. You are connected, live and in real time, to a glacier melting in Iceland.

Meanwhile, at the Science Museum, in west London, displayed on a huge futuristic grid, you can see and hear thousands of messages sent by strangers in internet chat rooms all over the world as they are intercepted, live, in a work aptly entitled Listening Post. And soon, in a warehouse in central London, you will find five grand pianos, insides out, playing on their own over the disembodied voices of William S Burroughs, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Malcolm X. This is the splendidly titled Stifter’s Dinge, created by a German composer called Heiner Goebbels. It, too, is a work of sound art.

The full article gives fascinating details about these pieces.

Cooper goes on to consider historical influences:
If sound art has a beginning, it seems to lie with postwar avant-garde composers such as John Cage, the start of a line that follows through to Brian Eno’s ambient music, the sound collagists Christian Marclay and John Oswald - forefathers of the “mash-up” - and electronic composers such as the Japanese minimalist Ryoji Ikeda.
Edgard Varèse also belongs on any short list of this kind.
Yet most of those are primarily musicians with artistic inclinations.
Oops. Gaffe alert.

musicians have artistic inclinations. This is true by definition. Music is art. Making music is thus making art. The 'artistic inclination' of musicians is thus a given.

It's a tic among visual artists to use the word art as a synonym for only visual art. It is useful enough as a verbal shorthand when talking to other specialists. But it crashes and burns when you step out of the gallery and start discussing aesthetic issues. Here, it doesn't do to let gallery shorthand do your thinking for you. Categories are already understood. Art consists of creations in all sorts of media. Music is a subset of art, just as visual art is.

Here the tic leads to a working definition that is actually irrelevant to the art itself. The text asks us to understand sound art as 'sound structures created by primarily visual artists.' This is in contrast to music, understood here as 'sound structures created by primarily aural artists.' But this focus on the resumes of the individuals cannot be sustained. Where does it leave the work of Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, for example? She a was neither a musician nor a visual artist by profession. Was she making 'sound contemplation' and 'sight contemplation' instead of music and visual art? There is no need to let oneself in for this. Hildegard remains a noteworthy figure in the realm of both music and visual art. But it's not her resume, however we define it, that puts her there. It's the work itself.

Either way, the subject here is sound structures. The arrangement of sound for artistic purpose is music. Music is sound art. Sound art is music.
Rubin, 43, who cites Cage and Marclay as influences, sees sound art as having more distant roots. “In the early 20th century, the Russian futurists were doing orchestras with noise-making machines,” he says. “And within experimental music, there is a tradition of composers doing spatial-installation projects that push far outside what you would consider music, towards what we now consider sound art.”
The assumption is that sound structures sufficiently original to 'push far outside what you would normally consider music' are 'not music' for that reason. But this is another distinction that makes no difference. Music does this all the time. The music makers of the world are forever pushing boundaries 'far outside what you would normally consider music.' I could offer many names, but just one closes the case. John Cage.

Music is the art of sound. Where sound is art, music exists. The two are the same.



Tim Cooper said...

Oops. Gaffe alert!

"All musicians have artistic inclinations. This is true by definition. Music is art. Making music is thus making art. The 'artistic inclination' of musicians is thus a given."

Seriously... is Kylie Minogue an 'artist'? Are the Cheeky Girls 'artists'? Are the X Factor / Pop Idol contestants 'artists'? Would they even consider themselves 'artists'?

I don't think so.

The very point I was making was to differentiate between 'popular' music (ie. music made primarily for commercial reasons) and music that really is art.

I accept that they need not necessarily be different... but sometimes they are.

Alton Thompson said...

It took me a while to figure out how the 'differentiation' you describe could be the 'point' of an article that never mentions commercial genres at all. Now I understand what you mean to say.

We're dealing with a word tangle. Please be patient while I separate the strings and lay them out in strands. This may clarify what is happening.

We have a vast phenomenon of human creativity called art.

Under this big tent we find visual art (art we see) and music (art we hear). Music, then, is aural art.

In each of these art realms--visual and aural--we find a variety of genres. People create art for many reasons. Some works aim to realize exceptional aesthetic ambitions. Some works aim to siphon money from as many wallets as possible. Music gets its Cheeky Girls to go with its Sofia Gubaidulina, and visual art gets its Third Page Girls to go with its Diane Arbus. C'est la vie.

As you point out, laudable aesthetic goals can co-exist with the profit motive, but very often they don't. It has proven useful in any case to distinguish between the two camps. In the aural realm we often speak of 'art music' and 'commercial music.' Visual artists recognize a distinction between 'fine art' (or 'high art') and 'commercial art.'

The big categories we have in play so far:

art > music / visual art
art > fine / commercial genres

Into this picture everyday habits of speech introduce a bit of mischief. Here's one of them.

People often use the unadorned terms 'art' or 'music when discussing only certain subcategories. They mean 'the art I am concerned with at this moment' or 'the music I listen to most.' The context is known and thus assumed. This verbal shorthand is encountered routinely in galleries. People say 'art' not in reference to all kinds of art that exists, but to specific genres of visual art that the gallery collects.

The shorthand is usually harmless. If you were to ask curators of fine art museums whether or not art also exists in the concert hall down the street, most would tell you it does, even though they usually call this art 'music.' They would acknowledge that the comic strips in the local newspaper are art, though the category would be 'commercial art' or 'popular art' or 'vernacular art' rather than the kind of work they collect. And most would acknowledge that there is such a thing as good art and bad art.

Bottom line: Visual or aural, it's art. Fine or popular, it's art. Good or bad, it's art.

Provincialism can take root, though, when the word 'art' is used habitually to mean only 'works that interest me.' A too literal understanding of this colloquial usage leads one to begin thinking of all art outside that sphere is somehow non-art.

The term you introduced, 'sound art,' results from this habit of thinking. Works of music were placed in spaces that display visual art. It was erroneously stated that this 'art for the ears' went beyond the boundaries of music. Not so. Music is aural art; these new works fit the definition of music just fine.

The only boundary breached was the wall of the art gallery. People on the inside were used to thinking of 'art' as the kind of work they saw around them and 'music' as something that existed outside. This music got in. For that reason alone, some felt the need to call it something other than music. They needed a term with the word 'art' explicitly in it. This made the work feel to them more like the other works in the museum and less like an intruder.

It's both, of course. Music is aural art. Aural art is music. This remains true no matter which side of the museum wall it stands on.

Here's another, related habit of speech that causes mischief. When we're behind the wheel of a Lamborghini we say 'Now this is a car!' Well, of course it's a car. So is a Volkswagen. In literal terms we haven't said much. What we really mean, though, is that it's an unusually rewarding car to experience. We do something similar when we stand in front of a painting at the National Gallery and say 'Now this is art!' No kidding. The crayon drawings displayed at the local kindergarten are also art. But we aren't being literal. We mean the term in a superlative sense. This art work is especially rewarding.

The same wordplay occurs in the negative. We might say of a lemon we're taking to the garage for the third time this month 'This hunk of junk doesn't deserve to be called a car.' We might likewise say that art we don't like doesn't deserve to be called art, that music we don't like doesn't deserve to be called music.

We return now to the Cheeky Girls. What better way to bring this matter to a fitting end?

You call them 'musicians' but deny that they are 'artists.' On this ground you justify recognizing a cleft, as it were, between music on the one hand and aural art on the other.

This doesn't work because the argument rests on an equivocation. You have used the original and broad definition of music (embracing all genres, including commercial product like the Cheeky Girls) and set it against a narrow, colloquial use of the word art (meaning gallery works only, proper dress required for admittance).

Music is aural art. Eliminate the equivocation and the problem disappears.

If you call the Cheeky Girls musicians, you have called them artists. If you say 'That stuff can't be art!' you have also said 'That stuff can't be music!'