The announcement that ‘Soundings’, which opened in August at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is, according to the press release, the institution’s ‘first group exhibition to single out sound as a form of artistic expression’, is as baffling as it is unashamed. It begs the question: how can such an important museum have neglected a crucial strand of 20th-century art until the second decade of the 21st?
In London, a slew of recent exhibitions – at Tate Modern, South London Gallery (SLG), Calvert 22, Iniva and the ICA, to name but a few – have reflected a growing interest in art using sound as material. Video art with audio, art works about sound, art made by composers, sound sculpture and music made by artists: any of these could be embraced or rejected as sound art depending on curatorial agenda, personal preference or taxonomic rigour, yet defining sound art is a tricky and difficult task. For instance, Baudouin Oosterlynck’s Variation of Silence (1990–91), a series of hand-drawn maps detailing the locations of particular zones of silence, was, to my mind, the most powerful piece in the slg’s recent exhibition ‘At the Moment of Being Heard’. However, as it was only accompanied by sounds from the street, its inclusion in the category of sound art might appear tenuous to some. On the other hand, Heiner Goebbels’s Stifter’s Dinge (Stifter’s Things, 2008) – a work which exists as a 62-minute cd, a seated ‘concert’ of 80 minutes and an automated scenographic installation – effortlessly straddles the categories of sound-art, sound sculpture, musical installation, composition and performance. Over the last two decades, Artangel, who brought Stifter’s Dinge to London, have been tireless in presenting sound projects from a diverse list of artists including Janet Cardiff, Hans Peter Kuhn and Douglas Gordon.
During the last decade or so, there have been several important books heroically attempting the task of definition. These include: Douglas Khan’s Noise, Water Meat (2001); Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise (2006); and David Licht’s Sound Art (2007). Each has assiduously examined the development of sound art – its roots in Futurism, its Cagean benediction by way of Erik Satie, the importance of Fluxus in the 1960s, and the accelerating evolution and often interchangeable identities of sound, noise and music over the last half century – while inevitably devoting considerable space to arguing for the inclusion and exclusion of various categories. It would seem that sound art is still so malleable that fulfilling the criteria of the moment can be an end in itself: if something simply has an audio component it may qualify, which is a little like celebrating as painting anything upon which paint can be found.
There is a preoccupation in particular with maintaining a divide between sound art and music, despite constant disagreement about where that divide might sit. I would suggest that certain bodies of musical work should also be seen as sound art. This is not an irreversible translation from one territory to another, but rather a parallel occupation of two zones. The development of a total sonic grammar (Morton Feldman, Harry Partch, John Zorn) and the subsuming of narrative into deep phenomenological experience (Partch, Meshuggah, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Ryoji Ikeda, Henry Flynt, Eliane Radigue) help identify numerous musical canons as perfectly congruent with ideas of art as creation unmoored from practical utility. I have attended performances of ragas in Kolkata that exceeded five hours, during which time people came and went, ate meals, attended to children, concentrated deeply and conversed. While many critics would exclude such an event from the category of sound art, it shares more with the performances of Marina Abramović than with any traditional definition of a musical concert. Indeed, the idea of variable durations, improvisation and the stretching of structure almost beyond recognition, of a sonic environment outside of time, is surely the basis of La Monte Young’s Dream House (1974) as well as of the drone works of Tony Conrad, Pauline Oliveros, Charlemagne Palestine and, more recently, Thomas Köner. Of course, musical performances have evolved and benefited from bespoke venues designed expressly for the experience of listening. Part of the struggle with the definition of sound art is driven by a pervasive sense of hierarchy in which art is supposed to sit somewhere above music, performance, anthropology or cartography.
In Sound Art, Christian Marclay declares: ‘Everything is so portable and easy to share that you don’t need an art institution to tell people what to listen to.’ Yet it is precisely this almost mandatory uncoupling of sound from any and all locations, from the sites of cause, from context and meaning, which induces us to disengage from sound as a primary phenomenon. All sound, even human speech, is in danger of becoming an arbitrary accompaniment to a life of slippery images and fleeting text.
The ‘liberation’ of sound through its ready portability – streaming, mp3 players and file sharing – is a further sign of its dissolution. Manifest artefacts of sound and music are vanishing: cds, tapes, records and a host of fleetingly innovative alternatives are endangered species. The rituals attending our use of sound invest it with an identity that is both intellectual and physical. Now, though, we rarely experience it unaccompanied by images. The ease of mp3 use actually means that most listening is accompanied by the perpetual visual bombardment of travel, by movement, acceleration and the muted newsreel of our days, by Apps, games, YouTube, smart-phones and tablets.
In 1999, I took part in ‘Sonic Boom’ at London’s Hayward Gallery; it was the first – and remains to date the only – large-scale exhibition of sound art in the British capital, and illustrated the degree to which our idea of art and its presentation has developed in the relative silence of an occularcentric environment. The Brutalist splendour of the Hayward wasn’t conceived to host sounding art works. Seasoned exhibitors found ways to isolate their pieces but many of the more delicate works were swallowed up in the ‘mix’ of numerous sound sources sharing the huge, harshly reverberant galleries. Soon after, I visited the newly opened Tate Modern and not one of its 84 galleries had a door; each opened onto the next with complete acoustic transparency. Significantly, aside from a couple of video works often audible metres away, there was not a single piece of sound art included in the display of the permanent collection. In 2010, the Turner Prize was awarded to a sound artist for the first time: Susan Philipsz’s Lowlands comprises recordings of the artist singing a Scottish lament in three different versions, devoid of any visual component. Despite this, a search of Tate’s online archive for works by any of the 20 better-known sound art practitioners from the last 50 years still yields no results. When I visited the newly opened Tanks at Tate Modern in 2012 – which are seemingly perfect for the installation and performance of mixed-media works – Sung Hwan Kim’s specially commissioned, untitled installation was occasionally buffeted by a storm of Steve Reich music from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s performance Fase: Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich (1982) in the adjoining space.
Perhaps we should put aside the labour of reducing sound to genres and categories and concentrate instead on nurturing it as a medium, allowing it the benefits so long bestowed on the visual arts: auditing environments in which the chaos of life is suspended for long enough to allow a direct encounter with the work and the chance to grasp its meaning, intention, identity and our relationship to it. Crucially, galleries need to be designed and run with an understanding of the behaviour and apprehension of sound. We don’t sell advertising on gallery walls, or project films in cinemas which are not lightfast, or illuminate the Rothko Chapel with mirror balls, yet we seem unable to entertain the notion of sound as a vehicle of profound creative importance – one which demands its own sympathetically designed spaces.
The Finnish architectural theoretician Juhani Pallasmaa once wrote: ‘Buildings do not return our gaze but they do return sounds back to our ears.’ In detaching ourselves from sound and its origins, we’re detaching ourselves from our physical environment – which is, in turn, suffering our neglect. Architect Steven Holl, who also writes about sensory environments, designed the Kiasma museum in Helsinki, which opened in 1998; perhaps unsurprisingly, many of its galleries have automatic glass doors that isolate sound and air movement from one space to the next. When I visited the museum, the lack of sonic bleed across galleries transformed the experience of sound art on display.
We have become supine in the face of aural and visual overload. The very fact that our galleries and museums are distinct zones of visual separation from this quotidian chaos enables art and our relationship to it. Let us cultivate sound in zones that nurture its fidelity and our attention, and create environments in which sound can define itself. Sound art, in its broadest, most sympathetic definition, just may provide the key needed to reintroduce a bodily, cultural awareness of all sound.
First published in Issue 158