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Sound Art: Definition and Survey

By Sheldon Kessel

In January 2000, New York’s Whitney museum held a ten day event/exhibit that offered the

museum-attending public an ear toward an unfamiliar and new world of music. It was a world inhabited

not by conductors waving batons, nor by musicians with nimble fingers, nor by composers with pencil

and staff paper, but by amplifiers, speakers, computers, media playback machines, and sound-making

sculptures. The show was called “I Am Sitting in a Room: Sound Works by American Artists 1950-2000,”

and was currated by artist Stephen Vitiello. The exhibit introduced the New York art world to a category

of work which Vitiello labeled Sound Art in accompanying texts.

This Sound Art idea had, depending on the particular work’s content, context, and artist

associations, previously been called Fluxus, Electronic Music, Ambient Music, Tape Music, Noise Music,

Conceptual Art, or simply Art Music, to name just a few. Though a precise etymology of “Sound Art”

does not exist, we can safely assume Vitiello’s exhibit to be the first public collection of work to be

designated as such. Music writer Kyle Gann, in discussing the exhibit, gave his opinion of the term

“Sound Art” as “a vaguely glorified name for weird music.” Indeed, the Whitney exhibit featured a wide

variety of work whose only consistently common feature was its musically non-traditional approach.

There were works created by rock musicians, art music composers, computer artists, performance

artists, sculptors, painters, and “other” artists. Most works were presented in a listening room which

consisted of nothing more than chairs to sit on and speakers to listen to (Gann). The two defining

features of works in the exhibit were that they were chosen by Vitiello and they were created in the

twentieth century.

Sound Art as a genre classifier had probably been casually used for a number of years to

categorize music that was somehow too un-music-like to those using the term. There is something
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keenly offensive to musicians about a music in which the traditional role of musician has been usurped

by the traditional musician’s output: Sound, without the traditional musician’s intervention. So, the

term Sound Art was most probably used as a term of reluctant acceptance. If the “un-musical-music”

couldn’t be dismissed entirely, at least musicians didn’t have to call it music.

The eternal is-it-music debate began with futurist Luigi Russolo’s refutation of Hermann

Hemholtz’s ideas of noise versus musical tones. Hemholtz published an exhaustive study in 1862 of

what became the foundation of modern acoustics titled On the Sensations of Tone. It was primarily a

scientific study on anatomy, physiology, and the physics of sound, but also contained a great deal of

aesthetic philosophy disguised as science. Hemholtz, in a number of sections, describes what should

and should not be considered music and musical tones (periodic vibrations). A main idea of his text is

that noises (non-periodic vibrations) are to be dismissed as they are not worthy of study. This was

countered in Russolo’s 1913 aesthetics-only manifesto The Art of Noises. Russolo argued that sounds

made by traditional musical instruments had grown stale and that the natural course of musical

evolution would lead to examination of the subtleties of noise-sounds. This evolution of the definition

of musical sounds naturally led to the evolution of the definition of music itself.

It is widely accepted that John Cage was directly and immediately influenced by composer

Edgard Varese who broadened the definition of music to be of, simply, organized sound. Varese laid no

claim as to the type of sound that deserved organization nor did he attempt to distinguish valid methods

of organization (Cage, 83). To Varese, music was elegantly, simply, sound. John Cage then expanded

Varese’s definition to include perceptions occurring as non-sound in his seminal work Silence, written in

1961.

Since the 1960s, owing to John Cage and his musical descendants, the accepted musicological

definition of music is of organized sound and silence, organized in any possible way. So, it would seem
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as though the term “Sound Art” is a redundancy. Why not simply use the term “music”? Is Sound Art a

term of genre distinction, or a term of repudiation and exclusion – a rejection of Russolo, Varese, and

Cage? Writers on the topic have largely avoided the question, suggesting that the term is a genre

distinction but making the genre so overwhelmingly inclusionary as to render the term useless. Often,

writers allude to their own all-inclusionary usage and its uselessness but do not suggest clarification.

Perhaps this is due to a lack of scholarly investigation until very recently.

A canon of texts describing relationships of visual and musical arts has only recently begun to

develop. In 1989 Greil Marcus published Lipstick Traces which followed a history of art/music/political

movements from dada and futurism through 1970s punk rock. This was followed ten years later by

Noise, Water, Meat by Douglas Kahn – a work covering nearly the same period of history and body of

work, but from an aesthetic rather than political perspective. Both texts discuss in great detail the

increasingly multidisciplinary and multimedia artwork which developed through the twentieth century.

Though alluded to, neither author uses the term Sound Art. Only in 2006 did the first text surface

openly using the term “Sound Art” – Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art by Brandon LaBelle.

LaBelle’s book was quickly followed by Sound Art, written by Alan Licht and Noise/Music by Paul

Hegarty, both published in 2007 and both referencing the LaBelle text. Perhaps it is due to the recent

development of the Sound Art term that there remains to be a definitive idea of what Sound Art is.

LaBelle avoids attempting to narrow possibilities as to what Sound Art is, preferring an all-

inclusive survey of what Sound Art might be. As a primary text, LaBelle is forgiven for his lack of

conclusiveness. Only through the next generation of texts does an idea of Sound Art begin to emerge.

Hegarty suggests the problem with existing texts on Sound Art. It is “something porous and very hard to

define,” but “it’s going to make you think, and in doing so reveal to the listening subject some part of a

hitherto hidden sound reality.” He then directly quotes LaBelle, “In bridging the visual arts with the
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sonic arts, (it) fosters the cultivation of sonic materiality in relation to the conceptualization of auditory

potentiality.” Hegarty reinforces Labelle in stating that “sound art is process at least as much as

product.” (Hegarty, 170-171) So, the focus of Sound Art must be the creation, propagation, and

reception of sound, and offers a visual relationship to the auditory. Licht adds to this in saying, “Sound

Art belongs in an exhibition situation rather than a performance situation,” and “its main concern is

sound as a phenomenon of nature and/or technology.” (Licht, 14) With this, we have arrived at a

definition of Sound Art as an exhibition of sonic phenomena with an accompanying visual aspect

without human performance interaction.

Within Sound Art discourse the last part of my definition brings widest delineation of my

definition from that of others. Sound Art as distinguished from other forms of music cannot be a live

performance by a human performer. With human performance Sound Art would become something

else, something slightly more akin to “performance art” or “new music.” By eliminating the human

performer, the works’ perceivers are more likely to direct their attention to sound and its visual

counterpart in the work rather than actions of performers. This directing of attention to the act of

perception rather than to a performer creating something to be perceived is an essential part of my

definition of Sound Art.

Now, with a relatively concrete and narrowed idea of Sound Art, a brief survey of sound artists

and their work is in order. I have identified four types, or sub-genres, of work I consider acceptable to

my Sound Art definition. They are room installations, site-specific installations, sound sculpture, and

resonant, or architectural, works. Artists were chosen somewhat randomly for inclusion, based solely

on their ability to illustrate the sub-genre categories.

First, I return to Stephen Vitiello, curator of the Whitney exhibit. Vitiello, born in 1963, the

youngest of the artists presented here, began his artistic career as assistant to Nam June Paik in the
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1990s. He is most known for recording sounds of New York’s World Trade Center in 1999 as part of an

artist residency there, attaching microphones to the building. He has done a variety of gallery

installations all properly fitting the definition of Sound Art. His “Four Color Sound” is a room lit with

slowly changing colored light and slowly changing sounds from the natural environment. He also

created a series of installations involving speakers suspended from the ceiling, again playing sounds of

nature. Recently (2005) he began to take his work outdoors, most notably in a piece called “Smallest of

Wings” which consists of a geodesic dome which people can walk through and which contains twenty-

two speakers, each playing different recordings of moths flying. Taking work out of the gallery is a new

development for Vitiello’s work, but in all his work he seeks to amplify and bring attention to sounds

from the natural world. In contrast, Max Neuhaus is a long-time creator of sound installations who

brings artificial, electronically generated sounds outdoors.

Neuhaus has said that he is interested in music as a spatially based art-form rather than the

traditional notion of music as time-based (LaBelle, 147). This idea evolved into a theory of sound-as-

space perception. Neuhaus believes that the essence of place and space is as much defined by sound as

by physical surroundings and seeks to contribute to the perception of public spaces through the addition

of sound elements. His is a site-specific art enhancing particular places and making elements of those

places come into perception while contributing to the percievers' sense of place. He is primarily

interested in fully public exhibitions, in public places, beyond the museum setting, and often in urban

environments (LaBelle, 156-7). He is prolific and has amassed a large body of work since his installation

work began, in 1967, with "Drive In Music." This early piece was heard in automobiles driving along a

stretch of Lincoln Parkway in Buffalo, New York. Sound was broadcast from "a large number" of low

powered radio transmitters tuned to a particular AM frequency along the roadway (Neuhaus). The

sound experience would change depending on weather conditions, traveling speed and direction, and

the automobiles’ interior environments. Another of his well-known pieces is “Times Square” installed in
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a subway ventilation chamber under a grilled walkway along a sidewalk in New York City. The piece is of

a drone that interacts with incidental sounds to bring attention to aural components of the cityscape.

Neuhaus isn’t necessarily interested in sounds of nature, but of sounds interacting with civilization and

the public spaces civilization creates.

Michael Brewster is a Sound Artist often grouped with “architectural resonance” composers in

the lineage of LaMont Young and Maryanne Amacher whose interests lay in highly amplified drones

played indoors, which explore the physics of sound in acoustic spaces. The basic idea of “architectural

resonance” music is that surfaces, angles, and bodies in spaces amplify and attenuate certain

frequencies to create unique and constantly evolving sonic phenomena which present themselves

during loud, harmonically rich, and sustained sound. However, Young and Amacher create

performances, whereas Brewster creates self-sustaining, sound generating, sculpture. It is this

elimination of human performance interaction that allows Michael Brewster’s work to be included in my

definition of Sound Art, but disallows Young and Amacher.

Brewster is unique among those working with “architectural resonance” in that he creates self-

controlling sound generating machines, and also carefully tunes the rooms where his work is placed to

create specific sonic effects. He exploits acoustic phenomena such as standing waves to have sounds

make specific changes depending upon where the observer stands in his space. For example, standing in

one corner of a room might amplify high pitches, while walking toward the center of the room might

change the listener’s overall volume, and walking toward another corner might amplify low tones

(LaBelle, 170). His art is of sculpting sound within a particular space.

Perhaps the most accessible of Sound Art work is of non-site-specific sculpture that includes a

sound-generating component. This body of work is quite large and includes a great number of artists

working in traditional sculpture (without sound) as well as those working primarily as Sound Artists.
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Most Sound Art sculpture could also be considered machine sculpture or, even, multimedia sculpture.

Machines and multimedia brings us first to the team of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.

Janet Cardiff working alone often creates sound works for headphones – yet another type of

Sound Art - where she combines natural and artificial sounds to surprise and sometimes startle the

listener (Licht, 282). Working with her partner George Bures Miller she creates sound-generating,

multimedia, environments and experiences that, like her headphone works, startle and surprise with

regularity. Their work often immerses the viewer in fantasy-like, multimedia, fully-immersive worlds

which are interrupted by unpleasant realities. Recently, their work has been of “workshop-like”

environments that the viewer can observe and listen in on. The “workshop” pieces typically have

political undertones. Describing “The Killing Machine,” Cardiff says, “In our culture right now there is a

strange, deliberate, and indifferent approach to killing. I think that our interest in creating this piece

comes from a response to that” (Cardiff-Miller).

Significantly less high-tech and multimedia is the work of machine-sculptor Jean Tinguely.

Tinguely created machine-sculptures with distinctive sound-generating components. His work is

decidedly low-tech – no amplifiers or speakers are used. Tinguely made extensive use of electric motors

triggering bells, chimes, drums, whistles, and other noise-makers. His work is more about physical

beauty and elegant engineering than physics of sound or immersive experiences. Tinguely’s work is

often compared to fantasy machinery of cartoons and children’s Dr. Seuss books. His work was always

playful and imaginative and though it usually made some type of noise, playfulness, imagination, and

machine elegance is what mattered to Tinguely. Vision came before sound, but without sound it would

fail to be Sound Art. Tinguely, most likely, never heard the term Sound Art in his lifetime as he died in

1991. Though he didn’t intend for his work to be included in a new kind of art category, his work does

fulfill the requirements of Sound Art. Without the sound Tinguely’s work would be, simply, art.
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