Early Thoughts on Sound Art

I think when criticising or critically engaging with new media, it’s easy and sometimes right to let the jargon dictate the discourse. The language that defines an art form necessarily dictates the valuative and evaluative aspects of that art form’s cultural and critical place. Examining the definitive language of an art movement with any depth reveals the movement’s cultural and historical precedents as well as the way it seeks to define itself for the future.

One of the first things Eli Keszler said in his talk at the Conservatory (Spring 2015) was: “Music is very limited in a lot of ways so I had to broaden my scope,” in reference to what he perceives to be the severe fixedness of chronological time in music as well as the inspiration he found in his readings of visual art. I take a lot of issue with this kind of viewpoint, and while there might be a lot of psychobiography in why I do, I also think that the willingness to see (and, though many sound artists would be loathe to admit it, heed) the limitations in something as broad as “music” at this point goes a long way in explaining the role of sound art in the contemporary landscape. I think the intensity with which sound artists embrace the interdisciplinary aspects of contemporary art is ruled not only by what might be a true interest in the intersection of certain art-forms and the appropriation of more than one art form to a creative end, but also by economic self-interest.

Sound art is an interesting term to me because it takes a noun that is also a quality (art// artistic) and seems to set it firmly to be related to the adjective “sound”. So, at its most basic definition, sound art would be considered either “art that inhabits the realm of sound,” or “art that is expressed through sound,” the latter of the two being a semi-traditional definition of “music”. I think that looking beyond the simple grammatical transformation of these two words and into the cultural landscape they are describing reveals “sound art” as a summational positioning of what contemporary “art” is today. I mean that if “sound art” is not music (even if it incorporates both musical semiology and musical material), that really says something about what “Art” today must be. My personal leanings would say that “sound art” as jargon implies that “art” today is almost strictly understood to be an object for purchase or the purchase of the experience (my gut says it was probably always this way…).  I say this because the sound art that seems to be garnering the most attention and acclaim, such as the work of Susan Phillipsz and Janet Cardiff, tends to use the works of composers that have come before, like Thomas Tallis, and to simply re-appropriate or rearrange them with a special concern given to the semiotics of musical material. “Sound art” as I see it does not seem to be pushing the sonic or musical realm itself any further, instead choosing to use music, musical notation, or musical imagery and material (speaker, wire, etc) as it already exists as a grounds by which to make an installation. While somesound-artists write their own music, and Eli uses his improvisations, to me the music tends to read as secondary to the experiential understanding of the exhibit or the reappropriation of the physical material of the music.

This leads me to the issue I have when somebody in sound art says that music has temporal limitations (that by implication led them to explore sound art). First of all, the manipulation of musical time is an almost oppressively deep, rich subject that has pretty much generated the best compositions forever, but especially in the past century. Musical time can be manipulated through the reappropriation of theme and reference, through the development of rhythmic cycles, structures and silences, through any number of timbral and spatial production techniques, etc. These manipulations both defy and enhance the linear way Western culture and language experiences and expresses time, and in so doing provide extremely rich suspensions of the chronological temporal realm in ways that installation art is not necessarily able to. By allowing the visual aspect of passing time to exist through implication or inhabit the background instead of the foreground of a work, the accomplished composer or improviser can make it so that the person experiencing their art enters into a sound world. I mean that the audience can hear the spatial and temporal aspects of music in a way that does not reflect linear time (for instance, it is extremely common in pop-music to have the drum sound pre-recorded and canned while the singer sounds or performs “live” over that sample). Because this sound-world would in this case be predominantly nonvisual, the audience is allowed to enter and simultaneously create an imaginary, extra-temporal, perhaps impossible but definitely independently created and perceived sound world. There is a real poetry to this internally visualized interactivity. Time tends to be experienced as a man-made structural perception that exists in the changes of a visual world, like the aging of the body or the blooming of a flower. By contrast, in non-visual sound worlds listener can experience an extra-temporal, even “physically impossible” world….

An historically dominant way of altering temporal linearity in music has been through recording, although the construction and manipulation of a musical narrative have as much to do with the establishment of non-linear memory, reference, and moment time. While sound-artists have easily picked up on the physicality of recording materials as a source of reference and moment, they have not so easily nor frequently used the physicality of human music performance as a place from which to gain inspiration for their work. I believe that the physicality of musical performance could be as much “sound art” as the physicality of manipulated wires and speakers, and has the added bonus of existing organically in the same temporal-spatial realm as the sonic aspect of the work. I’m not only thinking of the performative aspects of instrumental music (the drawing out of a bow, the extension of a line through the wrist…) but also the radically physical operatic or art-song worlds. The vocal music world exists in the physical, bodily realm by necessity, and is also somewhat obviously “sound art” in its blend of image, music, and text. That the traditions of opera or art song or even the physicality of instrumental musicians have been less frequently integrated into sound-art practices than recording or broadcasting materials speaks to a valuation of the itemization of music in time over the more practical, present-tense grace of the musician’s body, or as discussed before, the sounds themselves.

So the issue is this: when sound art uses music that by its nature is a manipulation of our perception of time experienced, it sort of necessarily fails the temporal perception manipulation by the original work because it appropriates that work to live in a gallery, in the right now, with certain  of the moment or of a past moment (like the arte povera stuff) technical materials. For instance one of Eli’s pieces exists in a gallery with piano wire on the wall, making its compelling sounds forever in that moment in the gallery, but the improvisors who played with it (it did not play back with them) in the premiere only exist in the memory of those who attended the premiere, even though Eli might define the piece as both improvising quintet and installation. That seems very unbalanced to me in favor of the visual, unless of course the art is valued for its scarcity (and what is more scarce than something improvised and unreleased?). It seems more like a visual installation piece with a sound component than a complete, holistically realized piece of “sound art”, because the piece of real sonic interest only existed once. The installation becomes a gravestone for that moment, a weird testament with its own mournful sound, which is itself compelling but more as an art piece that happens to have sound emanating from it, not a sonic piece balanced with a visual aspect. However, memory is just a shadow of chronological time -- these artists do not escape the chronological time that drove them from a univocal career in music, they just use its shadow...and who could escape chronological time? Wasn’t that Yeats? (you cannot conquer time)?

So what then is the real thing that made these sound artists flee from careers in music? Was it the fact that sound art allowed these artists to indulge and make good use of their interests in conceptual art and conceptual music, while also allowing them the critical position of inventing and establishing a “new” or “edgy” trend that could garner significant gallery support? A lot of the ways sound art has been picked up in the visual art world reminds me of the ways that the court system worked for musicians from feudal Europe until the 18th century or so (Caramoor, for instance, looks like a weird modern Versailles), where musicians would just make music at estates for the wealthy, who either liked the music or wanted to appear cultured, in order to make a middle class living and also live in castles. If more experimentally minded musicians or artists wanted to combine their interests in sound and visual realms so that the cultural cognoscenti would take a supportive interest, rather than playing the academy dance, that is perfectly understandable. The issue is really how “sound art” exists as a coined phrase that almost literally has the exact definition of the word “music,” but whose practitioners take almost no serious, non-surface level initiative to really contend with the ramifications of the temporal aspect of either art or music. The “sound artists” I see tend to pay lip-service to the temporal realm of both art and music while using the already established temporal suspensions of a gallery or a public, guerilla art piece as the most common way of “critically engaging with” the musical or sonic aspect of the piece.

Wendy Eisenberg