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Sound Art

as a Continuum Between
Musical & Fine Art Practices

J . R,
is text explores sound arts relationship to (experimental) music and
fine art, by considering its practices, both historical and contemporary.
First, a brief history of its origins in both fields is given with a view to
providing context. Secondly, the diculty of its definition is discussed and
a broad definition is proposed in light of the aforementioned historical
context. irdly, the examination of a number of cases between sound arts
advent and the present forms part of an argument for the thesis that sound
art is a continuous spectrum between, and formed by the intersection of,
practices in music and fine art.




A Brief Back-Story to Sound & Installation

. Origins: Conceptual Art
. Extra-Musical Matter in Experimental Music
. e Influence of Minimalist Art
. e Use of Sound in Installation Art

Defining Sound Art

. A Battleground of Music & Art?
. A Prototypal Definition

Reconciling Dierent Approaches to Sound Art

. Drawing the Line: Practitional Dierences
. e Site-Specificity Spectrum
. Erasing the Line: Underlying Mutualities
. An Interdisciplinary Continuum
(Concluding Remarks)


List of References
Audio-Visual Resources, Works of Art & Exhibitions


Sound art is a term which has been given multiple, and sometimes very dierent,
definitions by various parties. e reason that I chose it as a subject for this study is
partly because of a noticeable trend in practitional divide between sound artists who are
rooted in the gallery world of fine-art, and those whose roots lie in musical practice.
Visual artist Susan Philipszs Turner Prizewinning sound installation of traditional
folk songs under river bridges seemed to me a far cry from the trend in much musicrooted sound installation towards noise and generative methods [Polli 1998: 108]. In the
same year, for instance, the musician David Byrne exhibited Playing the Building at the
Roundhouse (London), an intricate installation connected to a variety of the buildingss
architectural structures which mechanically enables visitors to play the venue itself as a
musical instrument. Noticing this dierence prompted a deeper investigation into
practitional and aesthetic trends in both art-informed and music-informed approaches
to sound art, which revealed that not only are dierences in approach widespread, but
they are sometimes a consequence of the belief by theorists that there is, or should be, a
line that can be found between the two [Coulter-Smith: 1.2]. However, sound art has roots
in both fields, and therefore could be seen to be a bridge which draws them, rather than
a territory to be divided.
By reviewing the roots that sound arts aesthetics has in experimental music and
twentieth-century fine art (particularly the history of installation art) and assessing some
examples of contemporary practice on those terms, my aim is to, first, provide a
definition of sound art which encompasses all practice which could be considered sound
art by forming a union of the current diering definitions. To do so, I have referred to
texts by both musical and fine-art theorists and practitioners. Secondly, to investigate the
dierences in practice between sound artists of the music and visual types, and to
explain how these might be reconciled by a better understanding of the common
aesthetics which underpin both.


Chapter 1

A Brief Back-Story to Sound & Installation

Origins: Conceptual Art
e use of sound in fine art is related to (but by no means bound to) the practice of
installation arta term which has been used since c.1965 for art works designed to
transform a viewers perception of space [OED, 2010]. Its practice came to prominence in
the 1970s, but its roots can be identified with conceptual art, which in turn initially
stemmed from early twentieth-century sculpture, and an eort by the (then) avant-garde
to shi focus away from physical cra and towards intellectual interpretation [Camfield
1989: 84]. Duchamps iconic Fountain () is still considered by many to be a
watershed moment in this movement, and even as the most influential art work of the
twentieth century [BBC 2004]. Not only did Fountain subvert existing institutional
expectations about art (by contending that it is for an artist to decide what constitutes
art) in a characteristically Dadaist manner [Camfield 1989: 70], but as a piece of found
art1 it asserted an abandonment of physical cra from the artistic process. ese ethics
the liberation from any pre-existent canonical form, and emphasis on conceptualization
over craare common roots of virtually all early sub-movements born of conceptual
arts advent. It has even been suggested that, in severing the traditional link between the
artists labour and the merit of the work, Duchamp single-handedly invented conceptual
art [Hensher 2008].2 I begin with Fountain, first, because its influence on the broad
conceptual movement provides partial insight into installation arts development (from
its dissolution of the art/non-art barrier), secondly because the rejection of skills (or
cras) merit is key to understanding some aesthetic dierences in fine-artists approach
to using sound to that of musicians,3 and thirdly because of the influence of Duchamps
work on John Cage.

Extra-Musical Matter in Experimental Music
Clichd though it may be to begin a passage on sound art with a sweeping statement on
the enormity of John Cages role in its development, it is necessary in this case, because
his influence reached far beyond musical practice and into virtually all art forms, not
least fine art. Cages relationship with the visual arts was multidirectional: he both
influenced, and was influenced by, artists from a variety of fields. Two are of particular
Duchamp used the term readymade for this type of found art.
e relevance of Duchamps work to artists in the s may seem a temporal leap. However,
Duchamps Fountain was lost aer its initial exhibition, and it was several decades later between
that he authorized replicas based on photographs of the original.
3 In this text the word musician will be, unless otherwise indicated, inclusive of those sound artists who
may not necessarily call themselves musicians but whose approach one can at least safely assume is
informed by a background of musical practice or theory.

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importance to this study. Duchamps found-art concept is a direct analogue of Cages

found sound, its engagement with the environment influencing Cages, and its
destruction of the art/non-art boundary a parallel of his reminder that it is sound from
which music is madeor at least, that sound is the single component which is common
to all music. Cages experimental ethos can be distinguished from contemporary nonexperimental musical composition4 in terms of its use of chance and extra-musical
matter. Nyman says that
the classical system and its contemporary continuation [] is essentially a
system of priorities which sets up ordered relationships between its
components , and where one thing is defined in terms of its opposite
Nyman, , p.

Whereas Cage advocated a relinquish of control, equally balancing sound with noise and
silence, and order with randomness; Nyman identifies the need to organise relationships
as being key to the approach which held European avant-garde composers back from the
experimental realm: Stockhausen (cited ibid., p.) insisted that using extra-musical
sound matter is acceptable only if one can integrate it and ultimately create some kind of
harmony and balance [] not just expose them and see what happens. Relevant to
sound art is Cages interest in a performances physical space, and particularly the
advantage spatial separation of players he says has, of [allowing] the sounds to issue
from their own [centres] and interpenetrate which is not obstructed by the conventions
of European musical history [Cage 1961(): 184].
Cages interest in Abstract Expressionist painting5 exposed him to a number of
contemporary artists. ough he later influenced Minimalist (visual) art, Cage has made
it clear that it was the art which at least partially informed 4'33" (), and that his
most celebrated piece was particularly insipired by Rauschenbergs series of canvases
entitled White Paintings () [Cage 1978: 9899], a series of uniformly white canvases
presented in four groups (of one panel, three, four and seven panels). Rauschenbergs
sound bite a canvas is never empty [Rauschenberg 1951] supposedly prompted Cage to
write 4'33". Having its origin in visual art provides insight into why the Cagean use of
silence and environmental noise is so readily adaptable via analogy into new media art: it
was a pluralist aesthetic to begin with. One of the most striking things about the White
Paintings in relation to Cages piece is the three-panel group of canvases: three white
surfaces in a row, divided only by the lines created by their separateness. It isor if not,
arguably as close as one could get toa visual transliteration of 4'33"but rather, the
converse is the case: the music is like a sonic transliteration of the painting. Constructed
in three movements, and making use of the musical instruction tacet, 4'33" imports the
elements of chance and extra-musical environmental awareness into a musical form,
and overturns the musical object to insert the listeners presence, not only in space, but
in the moment. is contradiction of traditional expectation, poses a question about the
medium of music,6 reflecting Rauschenbergs direction of the viewer towards the
medium of painted canvas.
Musique Concrtes role is equally important in drawing attention to medium (sound)
rather than gesture (musical construct), and the rise to a widespread use of extraWhich Nyman refers to as the avant-garde, distinct from experimental music
Which he also practised.
6 As do, for instance his works for prepared piano.

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musical sound matter. Pierre Schaeer established the Groupe de Recherche de Musique
Concrte in , using recording technology for both acoustical research and as a
means of composition. Unlike an acoustic sound, a recorded sound could be objectified
and scrutinized,
magnified, repeated, re-recorded, and played back so as to hear all its hidden
and potential details, uncovering the inner dynamic nestled inside every
instant or particle of sound.
LaBelle, , p.

Schaeer saw manipulation of recorded sound as a compositional aesthetic, since all

music is the result of some kind of empirical sonic manipulation. e change in medium
and level of precision was not where the major aesthetic shi lay: his interest was in the
acousmatic separation of (what he called) the sonorous object from its source [Schaeer
1966: 81]. Schaeer saw its ability to invoke reduced listening,7 as a pure sound detached
from causal context.
ough sharing a cause in the liberation of sound with Cage, Musique Concrte
practitioners operated dierently. Whereas Cages work brings into foreground the
material presence of the musical moment [] the process at work [] to democratize
sound [LaBelle 2006: 32], Concrte methods abolish the sense of musical moment by
reorganizing sound to defy the laws of real time, and by concealing the source/process
from the listener invoke a reduced ear removed from the listeners subjectivity and
contextual awarenessand thus a denial of their presence in the work. To achieve this
suppression of context, and reduction of external references, Schaeer favoured
presenting music in a darkened room, with speakers surrounding the audience [ibid.: 30].
Unlike Cages immersion, this instead immerses the audience not in the literal context of
space but by an abstract environment where sounds materiality envelops the listener.
Both cultivate sounds ability to build presence through cra and processbut whereas
Cage emphasises real life and found space, Schaeer on the other hand engages with the
grain of sound diusing in space, creating its own narrative in an environment built
solely from sonorous events. us alongside sounds use as a plane outside musical
gesture, experimental music marks the relationship with its surrounding environment
(whether referential to context or not) as important in its perception [Clemons 1995: 24].

e Influence of Minimalist Art
e medium8 of installation is where experimental music and fine art intersect most
predominantly, and thus of primary interest to this study. e Dadaist branch of
Conceptual arts roots informed an artistic approach embracing wider examination of
articles of lifeand the environmental envelope, in pursuit of a more intense engagement
with the outside world and everyday life [Kwon 1997: 43]. Suderburg [2000: 2] describes
installation practice as collectively engaging aural, spatial, visual and environmental
Reduced listening is listening mode distinct from both causal listening, in which we react to sound by
identifying its a source, and semantic listening in which we listen to a particular parametric order which
codifies some kind of message or semiotic (such as spoken language)it is instead a mode of listening
focused on purely sonic qualities [Chion 1994: 2530].
8 Or perhaps, more appropriately, media approach, since it encompasses a broad range of media.

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planes of perception and interpretation. is omni-sensory approach, in which a works

situation is incorporated into the piece itself is owed not only to conceptual arts modal
expansionism but also another visual movement which shares many theoretical
attributes with Cagean aesthetics9Minimalism.10
Indeed, many Minimalist artists were influenced by Cage, whose embrace of the
notions of found sound and aleatory reflected a departure of emphasis from the artists
execution, to the conditions of a works reception:
Minimal sculpture launched an attack on the prestige of the artist and
artwork, granting that prestige instead to the situated spectator, whose selfconscious perception of the Minimal object in relation to the site of its
installation produced the works meaning.
Crimp, 1993, pp.

Buren claims that this was an opposition to Modernisms ideal that the art object in and
of itself has an absolute meaning 11 (Buren 1971, cited in Suderburg, 2000, p.). However,
Meyer argues that an indirect source of this displacement from work to frame is
Modernist reflexivitya displacement of the object of reflection from the work itself to
the medium of a work, and its tactility. Minimalism displaced this by yet another degree:
from the medium to its space12 [Meyer 2000: 2627]. is implicitly suggests that rather
than opposing Modernism, Minimalism was an evolutionat least in terms of the
resulting phenomenology of a gestalt formed by presence of work and reader in an
integral frame:
Minimal objects redirected consciousness back on itself and the real-world
conditions that ground consciousness. e coordinates of perception were
established as existing not only between spectator and the work but among
spectator, artwork, and the place inhabited by both.
Crimp, 1993, p.

is led to the idea of art as a spectatorial experience, which unfolds in both space and
time, and here lies Minimalisms part as another aesthetic precursor of installation art.

e Use of Sound in Installation Art
Installation art developed into a broad umbrella for a variety of practices.13 e
conditions implied by an installation piece as an unfolding spectatorial experience lend
themselves to sound, but the aesthetic reasons for, and the manner of, its use is informed

Minimalist arts relationship with Cagean aesthetics will be discussed shortly.

Minimalism in this text refers to the movement in the visual arts, not to be confused with the musical
movement of the same name. For claritys sake, the latter will be referred to as musical Minimalism.
11 at is, a temporally and spatially fixed meaning.
12 at is, instead of the once-removed emphasis on poietic qualities of a work as a self contained object,
the emphasis was removed a further step, to a more general level of abstraction: the perceptual conditions
of its display as a piece of art.
13 Of many dierent types, but in using space as part of the medium, all ultimately informed by the
aforementioned ethics which led to their advent.


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by the underlying ethics of installation.14 is is not to say, however, that installation art
has not been influenced by musical aesthetics, which it most certainly has.
Cages ambition to reflect on musics function and materials is analogous to the selfconsciousness of conceptual art: transcending traditional modes of self-expression, and
enforcing a simultaneity of creation and reaction which elicits a reflection on medium
and situation (in Cages case, respectively sound and music). His take on the artist as not
a literal maker but a decision-maker fore-grounded process. Alongside abstract
expressionists use of dynamic process and spontaneity15 it prefigured the Fluxus
movement and the closely related Happenings and Environments, all seeking to blur
lines between art and life to a point of indistinguishability. Happenings involve staging
actions or events, scripted or unscripted, which collapse the art object as a refined
aesthetic onto the spaces of everyday life, and Environments construct whole artistic
scenes where random material assembles in such a way as to become art, the latter oen
providing a backdrop for the former [LaBelle 2006]. Where Fluxus diers is in its
rejection of the physicality and gestural vocabulary of Abstract Expressionism favouring
instead attentiveness to insignificant phenomena [Haskell 1985: 49]. is combination
of theatricality and environment celebrated art as an immersive experience. is
naturally lends itself to the use of sound, for two reasons: first, sounds inherent
temporality enforces continuous experience rather than static observation. Secondly,
Kahn notes that immersion in noise is guaranteed by the ease through which so much
can be perceived through [noise] [Kahn 2001: 31].16
Sounds explicit temporality can also transport environments between disjoint places.
Recorded sound brings an ongoing sensory element of some environment into a
dierent location, capturing and recreating a spatially enveloping narrative, rather than
merely the snapshot which a static environment provides, or that which a performance
of a dynamic (but intra-environmental) object may [Rimbaud 2001: 66]. Distinction from
the latter is aided by sounds omnidirectional17 propagation through space. Diracting
around barriers which light cannot allows it to both surround the viewer/audience, and
to transmit uninterrupted [Slouka 1999: 41]eyes are drawn between distinct places, but
the ears will hear sound regardless, and thus the perception (i.e. listening) becomes a
passive internalization as opposed to an active physical choice of sensual focus. Finally,
sound really is tactileit is a matter wave comprised of vibrations of real mass,
transmitted to us in a way we feel physically18 providing a means of directly anchoring
the viewer/audiences immersion.
is encapsulation and/or transformation of narrative19 is related to sounds use in
film, which is worth discussing in relation to video installations, though the relationship
between video installation art and cinema is a subject which is not the immediate focus
of this study.20 I will, however, be discussing the relationship between video installation
and sound art in the following chapter.
Hence the importance of the brief history given above.
Such as Jackson Pollocks drip paintings.
16 Noise of course being the sonic component of Haskells insignificant phenomena.
17 Not isotropic or uniform, but usually omnidirectional via acoustic reflection.
18 Not only in the sense that the eardrum feels vibrations, but also through the listening body.
19 at is, an environment with a time-base.
20 It suces to say that to many filmmakers, sound is merely an adjunct to plot and [cinematography], and
has only a supportive role [Gibbs 2007: 8].

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While installation arts engagement with medium, environment, immersion and

presence provides context for its aesthetic plane, sound art can take such a wide variety
of forms that it becomes debatable whether all of them are installations. at is to say, a
sound installation is a subcategory of sound art, but it is unclear whether it is a strict
subcategory, or simply accounts for all sound art. It is however, reasonable to say that all
sound art has an aesthetic link with installation. Sounds temporal explicitness and its
dispersion in space link it to immersion. If it is isolated (by, for instance, headphones) it
is still creating an artificial environment within the binaural perceptual sphere of the
listener. For these reasons, I shall discuss from hereon sound art in terms of its roots in
experimental music and installation art.

Chapter 2

Defining Sound Art

A Battleground of Music & Art?
e term sound art has been commonly used since the 1990s, though (as is oen the
case) many of its pioneers are wary of the label itself21 [Licht 2007: 11]. It is dicult to pin
down one presiding definition due to conflicting ideas of what it should encompass. It is
not a term that for a particular movement, but rather an existing set of practices whose
early practitioners felt (just as many contemporary practitioners still feel) no need to
prescribe a new name, each seeing it as an extension of their established field.
Having roots in music and fine art, and practitioners coming (typically separately)
from both, sound art is to various degreesregarded as a battleground between the two
a prize to be fought over [Gibbs 2007: 43]certainly by practitioners who see
themselves as one or the other but not both. ough it may seem a minutia, it is
important to distinguish how we can apply the terms sound art and sound artist, because
practice of the former does not elicit the latter as label if it is not their assumed primary
medium. A musician can practice sound art, as can a visual artist, and arts education in
general presents the two fields as distinct practices. ough some practitioners regard
themselves as straddling both or rooted in-between, and embrace the label sound artist
(Shaefer, cited in ibid., p.), there are many identifying themselves as either musicians or
artists, with sound art as part of their work (Neuhaus, cited in Licht, 2007, p.). So whilst
sound art is a label we can prescribe to existing works within each field, sound artist is
one which is self-adopted. is is relevant because sound arts own pre-existence as
various extensions of other fields is one reason that it has conflicting definitions: it
originates elsewhere, grows as part of a more established [field] and, aer acquiring an
identity of its own, now demands to be recognised independently [Gibbs 2007: 8].
Kahn [2001: 6] argues that sound art should apply to work with sound matter as, if
not the foremost, then at the very least a key, feature. is excludes works whose creators
do not consider sound as a core element. While Kahns point seems reasonable, he avoids
defining precisely what is meant by core or primary elements. Surely the degree of
importance of any component of a piece of art work varies on a continuous scale, rather
than being subjected by such discrete labels, from the point of view of both artist and
audience. Gibbs [2007], who uses sonic art and sound art interchangeably,22 supports
Kahns argument with slightly more useful criteria: that sound art should
actively emit sound or at least have a sound (which itself is active) as its
conceptual basis [] [and be a work which] seeks to to communicate with
its audience through sound.
ough was allegedly first used by Dan Lander in the mid-1980s [Licht 2007: 11].
Despite the semantic dierences between the words sound, implying sound matter itself or the result of
its creation, and sonic, implying the transmission and perception of sound [OED 2010], the two terms have
come toat least for the time being, and arguably the foreseeable futurerepresent a shared idiom.

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Gibbs, , p.

ese criteria are helpful, but alone not enough to distinguish sound art from any type of
musicincluding traditional forms.23 Licht, in contrast to Gibbs, says that sound art
belongs in an exhibition situation rather than a performance situationthat
is, I would maintain, a necessary correlative in defining the term
Licht, , p.

e phrase exhibition situation in itself is riddled with ambiguity, but placing it in

contrast (dare I say, even diametric opposition) to performance is where Lichts statement
fails to acknowledge the arts current climate. e fine arts have evolved to inhabit
mediums outside the arena of a physical exhibition: distributed art, internet art [Reddell
2003], and of course performance art, to name but a few. e aforementioned (q.v. 1.4)
Environments, Happenings and Fluxus works all defied the idea that exhibition and
performance are mutually exclusive practices. e definition that Licht provides is that
the work falls into one of the following categories:
1. An installed sound environment that is defined by the space (and/or
acoustic space) rather than time and can be exhibited [in the same way
that] a visual artwork would be.
2. A visual artwork with sound-producing function, e.g. sound sculpture.24
3. Sound by visual artists that serves an extension of the artists particular
aesthetic, generally expresses in other media.
Licht, 2007, pp.

Again, in the first category he appears to regard work defined by space as being
something distinct from work defined by time when there are, as I have mentioned,
cases of overlap, particularly when the perception of space changes over time, or vice
versa.25 Whilst Licht does admit that pieces comprising sound alone can be considered
sound art (in his third category), he does so only on the condition that it is created by a
visual artist. is seems an unjustifiably partisan approach, as the [sonic] extension of
the artists particular aesthetic could theoretically be analogous to the aesthetic of a piece
of sound art created by a musician. He acknowledges sound as a central component, but
his emphasis is on the visual arts, in contrast to Gibbs, who stipulates that sound art is
anything which happens to make sounds as a by-product of another activity cannot be
deemed sound art [2007: 11].
Gibbss and Lichts contrasting definitions are illustrative of the aforementioned
battle for sound art; the divide of opinion between musicians and visual artists on its
definition. A comprehensive definition, to encompass all practice of sound art, would
have to be the union of both of the above definitions. David Toop addresses the issue
that Licht fails to, asserting that in sound art, the time base is confined by the
ough I will be arguing that there is no distinct line between sound art and music, we should be wary
of the temptation to say that sound art is inclusive of all music, whichin spite of its abstractly theoretical
basiswould make it both a redundant term and one which is not reflective of its use by practitioners.
24 A sound sculpture being a sculpture that is made with an inherent sound-producing facility in mind or
a machine made for the same purpose [Licht 2007: 199].
25 Take, for example, the Skyspace series of installations by light artist James Turrell, which are rooms
whose interior lighting changes in synchronicity with the sunrise and sunset. It consequentially involves
performances at dawn and dusk, and its space is dependent on time [Yentob 2008].

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accessibility of the space, rather than the attention span of the audience. is accounts
for the branch of space-oriented sound art which doesnt explicitly engage with space, but
rather creates or relies on an abstract(ed) environment. It must be considered, first,
alongside other means of immersion of the various types discussed in the previous
chapter; secondly, alongside the combination of sound with other media.
On that latter point, it is worth illustrating how sound can be balanced alongside
other media, and which cases can be considered to constitute sound art. For instance,
from a purely textual perspective, it seems that video installations can be divided into
three broad categories with regard to their use of sound, which are listed here in
decreasing order of audio-visual interdependence:
1. at where sound is a component, or a direct or indirect artefact of the film
matter (or indeed vice versa). is includes any sound which would be
accepted by the viewer, according to a cultural understanding of cinematic
convention, as part of the film, such as a musical soundtrack.
2. at where sound is neither a component nor a by-product of the film
matter but is subsidiarily related to its temporality and/or narrative
structure (for instance, a sound which is spatially displaced from a film (or
number of simultaneously running distinct films) but accompanies it (or
them) to create a narrative.
3. at where the sound is not subsidiary to the film matter, but both are
mutually independent components of an art work in which their individual
structures and/or temporalities combine to provide a resulting environment
which is the synergy of the viewers contextual perception of each
component (perhaps among others).
According to both Gibbs [2007] and Kahn [2001], only the third category would qualify
as sound art, sound playing at most a subsidiary role in the first two.

A Prototypal Definition
As a consequence of the points made in ., we can use a union of Gibbss and Lichts
diering definitions by taking an intersection of their most general criteria, aided by
Toops more inclusive description of the use of spatiality. As there are a number of ways
in which sound art can involve extra-musical matter, there are a number of branches.
But they are all united by the underlying use of sound as a key conceptual component. I
thus propose the following definition as one which encompasses the widest possible set
of forms26 which can be considered sound art:
S A fulfils all three of the following criteria :
1. It seeks to communicate through sound, by
1.A. actively emitting sound, or
1.B. involving the perception of an active or present sound.

Forms which we have seen so far, at least.


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2. e sound aspect must be a core conceptual element, not an artefact of an

activity which is conceptually more important to the work than the sound.
3. It must involve extra-musical matter, i.e. by fulfilling at least one of the
following four criteria ..:

it uses sound alongside (but not subsidiary to) another medium;


it engages with the space (physical or abstract) in which it is presented,

which it may do so either through inherent site-specificity or by relying
on the space to provide context;


it has time base prescribed by the accessibility of the (physical, abstract,

or virtual) environment in which it is received;


it seeks immersion of the audience through any of the following

3.D.i. interactivity,
3.D.ii. creating or invoking an abstract environment,27
3.D.iii. invoking the presence of the audience.

is broader definition contains both that which is intersection of music and fine art,
and that which pertains to the extensions of either one or the other. In the following
chapters, I shall discuss the dierences and mutualities of practices rooted in both
established idioms with reference to elements of the above definition.


Which it may do so by the encapsulation of a narrative, as described in ..


Chapter 3

Reconciling Dierent Approaches to Sound Art

Drawing the Line: Practitional Dierences
For her work Lowlands (), Susan Philipsz became the first artist in history to win
the Turner Prize for a sound installation. e work comprises recordings of her singing
Lowlands Way, a sixteenth-century Scottish lament, installed under three bridges28 along
the River Clyde in Glasgow [Philipsz 2010], explor[ing] the way that sound can fill,
explain and animate a space [ibid.]. For the Turner Prize exhibition, the work was
reproduced in a bare white room [Curtis 2010], for which it received a mixed reaction,
with some (predictably reactionist) criticisms from e Stuckists29 that its just someone
singing in an empty room. Its not art. Its music. is reaction demonstrates two things:
first, the importance of site-specificity in Philipszs piece, which places frailty and
beauty (of her disembodied singing voice) within the brutalist environment of the
space under Glaswegian bridges, dark places of urban decay and illicit activity [Higgins
2010: 20]. is juxtaposition is central to the experience which her art seeks to create.
e result of translation between spaces transforms her work into a piece of recorded
music, decontextualized from the environment for it was conceived, prompting the
misinterpretation of it simply being a piece of music. e irony of this claim is that
Philipszs work falls into the practice of sound art which does not intersect with the
typical practices of sound art whose roots are in music.30 Lowlands relies heavily on
environmental and cultural context, but does so by employing a very traditional Western
music, bypassing the sound/noise-oriented aesthetics of experimental music.
On the other hand, musically-informed sound artists are still largely preoccupied
with exploring experimental music forms within their sound art, and as such avoid such
traditional forms [LaBelle, 2006: 158]. e focus which experimental music places on the
use of sound within musical forms [Varse n.d./2008; Feldman n.d./2008], and its
association with subversion [Attalli 1985] has, for the most part, placed an implicit stigma
on the use of traditional form. In contrast, even when visual artists explore sound and
noise, it tends not to be for sonic qualities but as a contextual reference.31 Robert Morriss
seminal sound sculpture Box with a Sound of its Own Making () involves a box
emitting a sound recording of the boxs own construction. Whilst sonic qualities are
present, the sounds function is to imply of a self-referential narrative, calling on causal
(rather than reduced) listening.
is is all illustrative of the dierent emphases found in sound art created by artists,
and by musicians. e former tends to place greater attention to concept or aesthetic,
e George V Bridge, the Caledonian Railway Bridge, and Glasgow Bridge.
An international art movement formed in 1999 to promote figurative painting in opposition to
conceptual art.
30 Because sound artists of a musical background are typically informed by the aesthetics of experimental
music, which does not directly inform Philipsz work at all.
31 Usually to its sourcei.e. involving causal listening rather than reduced listening.


J. c. Rai Sound Art

and the latter on the poietic/tactile quality of sound [Tagg 2010: 103]that which one
might call cra. Whereas visual art requires the audience to look, an active process,
sound can be used to be absorbed by either passively hearing or actively listening, and
music has its historical basis in organising sound to invoke the latterthe cra of
focusing the attention of the audiencethe musician as an architect of sounds [Schafer32
1973: 30]. Even in music of Cagean open form, or for instance ambient music, emphasis
is still on somehow shaping sound to alter ones experience in a context defined by
extra-musical matter, the development of the texture of sound itself as a focus for
compositional attention [Eno 1996: 95; Eco 1989: 168]; immersion in sound, rather than
sound as a reflection upon some other medium, the latter of which is the focus of artists
such as Philipsz. is treatment of sound is a trait of the musical need to tame and
control noise in some way, a sentiment expressed in the e Art of Noises: Futurist
Manifesto [Russolo 1986]. e tendency towards cra of sound sometimes results in
musicians mistrust of the ability of the fine arts community to understand the material
quality of sound, particularly on a technical level:
We still think of museum galleries as nineteenth-century galleries, like, How
do we hang this on the wall, how do we light it? But nobody knows anything
about sound [] ere isnt that kind of knowledge and expertise in the
museum world.
MarClay, cited in Licht, , p.

Perhaps it is for this reason that, whereas site-specificity is inherently assumed in galleryrooted sound art, there is more variance in musically-informed sound art, which sees
wider distribution in forms which can be received in a number of situations (MarClay,
cited ibid., p.11). Arguably this can be accredited to the fact that, with the widespread use
of recorded sound in installations, its respective musically-rooted practitioners advocate
a preservation of the Schaeerian aesthetic that sound alone can create an immersive
environment, rather than relying on any particular space. us in contrast to galleryrooted sound art, some sound artists such as Francisco Lopz consider that work
distributed on CD (for example) does not disqualify it from being sound art; dismissing
the notion that site-specificity or emphasis on presence (via spontaneity or otherwise)
are prerequisites for classification, as puerile and futile attempts at an unnecessary
transgression from established forms [Lopz 1996]. Naturally, these standpoints lie at
extremes of a spectrum.

e Site-Specificity Spectrum
Clearly, Lopzs stance is a divisive one not reflective of the gamut of approaches to
presentation of sound that is found in the work of contemporary musically-rooted sound
artists. ere is no intrinsic reason that site specificity should necessarily detract from
the poietic qualities of soundjust in the same way that, as Lopz himself says, reduced
listening doesnt negate what is outside the sounds but explores and arms all that is
inside them [Lopz 2001: 8283]. As discussed in ., spatiality and site-specificity can
be used in a number of dierent ways for dierent aesthetic reasons. Xenakiss
architecturally informed composition Terretektorh () involved scattering the

.. not be confused with Schaeer.


J. c. Rai Sound Art

orchestra among the audience, so that each is within the other (Xenakis, cited in
Matossian, 1986, p.), creating a Cagean immersion tear[ing] down the psychological
and auditive curtain that separates [the audience] from the players [Xenakis 2003]. is,
and similar recent examples such as the Birmingham Opera Companys immersive
production of Verdis Othello (Vick, ), use spatial immersion not so much as a
contextual reference to the site, but as a means of increasing audience immersion in the
music (and in the latter case, the drama) itself. Along with Xenakiss architecturallydriven interest in spatiality [LaBelle 2006: 183192], this brings to the fore the most easily
identifiable unity of the visual/physical approach to spatiality in sound art as an omnisensory immersion with musical practice: the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk [Dove
1994: 281]. Michael Fried is reported as having characterized the spectatorial aspect of
installation art as the distinction between art and theatre (Fried, cited in Meyer, 2000, p.
26). But should there be a distinction at all? e blurring of this line between static art
and performance is a central to the ethics of installation art, and even more relevant to
the incorporation of sound matter, whose intrinsic temporality is far more explicit than
that implied by the aforementioned perceptual displacement described by Meyer (q.v.
.)actively enforcing, rather than passively reflecting, a perceived passage of time.
Site specificity is a more complex idea than it may at first seem, leading to a range of
dierent applications. A sound may be tailored to a site to create particular environment,
but it may equally be reliant on the properties of whatever site it is being performed in
(as is '", for instance). Janek Schaefers33 Recorded Delivery () was an installation
in a storage facility which consisted of the amplified recording of a package concealing a
Dictaphone which was sent through the U.K. postal system [Schaefer 1995]. e package
was addressed to be delivered to the room in which the installation was taking place.
us the piece was site-specific, on a conceptual basis. e sound of the recording itself
would not have evoked anything particular to the space in which it was received by the
audience, i.e. its sonic qualities did not have an audible relationship to its environment
(it could have been easily addressed to, and installed in, any other space without any
dierence to the poietic perception of the piece), but rather a referential one which
requires prior knowledge of the concept on the part of the audience. e piece does
however, create an environment which transforms its spatial frame by immersing the
entire room inside the package. at is to say, it translates the sonic narrative of the
interior space of the package during its journey onto the installations space. By doing so,
it puts the audience inside a sonic and spatial emulation34 of a environmental narrative
otherwise impossible for humans to inhabit. is is a more subtle use of space, lying inbetween the work of artists such as Philipsz, and the completely non-site specific work of
Chris Watson. e latter is a phonographer specializing in natural history, who, like
Schaefer, has created works which place the listener in an acoustic space which would be
physically impossible to inhabit. His piece Vatnajkull () is a recording made by
microphones embedded in an ice floe as it gradually cracks, melts and moves as part of
its natural process. However, Watsons work does not rely on any form of site-specificity
in its presentation, being distributed instead as binaural recordings on CD intended for
headphone listening [Toop 2004: 58]. Instead of transforming a physical installation space
into a simulation of another spaces acoustic narrative, he instead imports the latter
directly into the listeners internal sonic azimuth, recreating a real environment as an

.. not be confused with either Schaeer or Schafer.

Albeit one which has been acoustically scaled up.

J. c. Rai Sound Art

entirely virtual one. Regardless of its presentation as music, Watsons work also qualifies
as sound art, as it invokes a virtual immersion, occupying the listeners head space
which Schafer [1973: 35] describes as a geography of the mind, which can be reached by
no telescope. However, it is also an immersion experienced privately, and as a result
intensifies the (lone) presence of the listener. Schafer goes on to say that
when sound is conducted directly through the skull of the headphone
listener, he is no longer regarding events on the acoustic horizon; no longer
is he surrounded by a sphere of moving elements. He is the sphere. He is
the Universe.
Schafer, , p.

Both Watsons and Schaefers work combine the Cagean concepts of environmental
immersion with a Schaeerian focus on reduced listening.
Another sound art form which combines the contrasting elements of Cagean and
Schaeerian aesthetics is the sound walk, in which the listener follows a route with the
intention of reduced listening to the constantly moving environmental sound matter as
they move through it [Chambers 1994]. e relationship between time and space
becomes more complex, as in this case, not only is the time-base of the piece reliant on
the accessibility of space (q.v. .), but also vice versa, since it is dependent on the
movement of the listener. Akio Suzuki created Sound Place () by walking into the
city and grating a symbol on the wall at any spot where he found an interesting sound,
then providing maps with those locations. Note how close Suzukis piece fits with the
concept of Environments (q.v. .). e relationship between time, space and listener
becomes further complicated when considering the works of Janet Cardisound walks
accompanied by an audio recording of a narrator/guide alongside ambient sounds
recorded along the same path that the listener is directed. is combines the listeners
external sensory sphere with their internal head space, and merges two temporally
dierent narratives (past and present) of the same space to a point that the listener
becomes unsure whether [certain ambient sounds] are part of the CD recording or
happening as real-time events [Toop 2004: 122]. Rather than utilising an entirely physical
one, or creating an virtual space, it augments the reality of the former with the narrative
of the latter. It also partly inverts the relationship between space and time: the time-base
is closed on a macro scale (by the recorded directions), but controlled by the listeners
movement on a micro scale, which demonstrates rather well the fluid nature of the
relationship between space and time in sound art.

Erasing the Line:
Underlying Mutualities
Whereas artists such as Lopz polarise themselves against fine art by taking a strict
Schaeerian stance (q.v. .), the Cageans who embrace non-sonic matter and
emphasis on presence are treated with hostility from some theorists at the extreme of the
fine-art end of the spectrum. Many misconceptions about sound art and experimental
music being distinct stem from a lack of acknowledgement that sound art as an idiom in
its own right was prefigured by a number of separate developments. Whilst there may be
a distinction between sound art and experimental music, there is much overlap. Licht


J. c. Rai Sound Art

[2007: 12] describes, admittedly partly accurately, a tendency to apply the label sound
art to any experimental music of the second half of the twentieth century, particularly
to John Cage and his descendants and argues that, on the contrary, Cage was concerned
with music as the organisation of soundthat all sounds can be used by composers as
musictherefore still thinking in terms of music. In other words, Cage considers sound
to be a means of an expanding an existing art form, rather than the basis for a new one.
e rather facile distinction that Licht makes misses an important aforementioned point:
that sound art existed before it had a name, as the total intersection of what its pioneers
originally considered extensions of dierent practices. us Cages conception of sound as
an extension of music does not necessarily exclude it from being considered as sound
art. Conversely, the common thread running through Modernist reflexivity, Minimalism
and installation art, each of which is an extension of the previous (q.v. .), is well
demonstrated by Mark Rothkos later work (in his post-multiform era), which draws on
ethics from all three of these. e textural nature of his monolithic paintings embraces
the poietic perception of a tactile artistic object, which itself immerses the viewer [Sta
2010]. Being devoid of any representation or symbolism, they draw upon the Minimalist
aesthetic, possessing what Barris calls their own life force [Barris 2010]. What Barris
appears to mean by this is that they exist as objects with a dynamic relation to their
spatial frame, rather than as static, self-contained objects within it. Rothko
acknowledged this, saying that space itself is the chief plastic manifestation of the artists
conception of reality [Rothko 2004: 59]. He donated the Seagram Murals to the Tate
Gallery on the condition that they be hung in a precise way, in a room matching his
exact specifications, with a specific type of lighting [Jones 2002]. is awareness is in
keeping with the Minimalist ideal of the art objects frame being part of the reception,
but rather than employing a displacement from the poietic aspect to a (found)
environment, it is instead an extension from the former to the (craed) latter, retaining
the objects physicality and tactile presence whilst also invoking spatial immersion, as
well as implicit temporality:
Whatever relationship was now to be perceived was contingent on the
viewers temporal movement in the sphere shared with the object.
Crimp, , p.

us it may be argued that poietically static visual art is thus no less capable of invoking
a spectatorial presence. Furthermore, Minimalist arts extension of Modernist reflexivity
suggests a logical progression to art with explicit temporal narrative. Again, this neednt
negate any emphasis on medium or space, but can rather enact a further extension. For
instance, Anthony McCalls light sculpture Line Describing a Cone . () projects
light into a mist-filled space to create the illusion of touchable light [McCall, 2010], thus
emphasising both medium and space in a piece with a strict time-base.
Light art is a practice which shares many analogies with sound art due to sharing a
fundamentality of medium [McLuhan 1989: 67]. Light is the fundamental medium
through which visual art is communicated, just as sound35 is to music. is direct
analogy is illustrated well by two examples which are, bar the dierence in medium,
identical in their aesthetic. James Turrells recent work Bindu Shards () is a timed
piece of work which can be viewed one person at a time, encapsulated by an enclosure
with a pitch black interior which closes o all external senses, and comprises a rapid

or rather, technically, the vibration of matter whose frequency is within detectable range

J. c. Rai Sound Art

display of white light patterns inside the enclosure. It employs a use of a single pure
medium in its simplest form filling an isolated immersive space [Turrell 2010] in the
same way that Ryoji Ikedas Matrix does. e latter is an installation for anechoic36 room,
which fills a visually and acoustically blank isolated space with complex patterns of pure
sine tones [Toop 2004: 1114]. Noteworthily, Turrells visual piece is presented insilence,
and Ikedas in a darkened room. Glitch extends the Cagean aesthetic of reflection on
medium of sound production by emphasising artefacts the recording process, and
Ikedas anechoic sine-tone piece in particular calls upon our lack of everyday experience
of pure tone [Cowell n.d./2008]. First this is an example of a direct analogy between the
medium-to-space extension of installation art and a musical equivalent, and thus a
common underlying conceptual basis. Secondly, Ikedas piece is music, but it is also
sound art, just as the performative aspect of Turrells does not detract from its validity as
a piece of visual/fine art. Sound art is thus something that can also be music, as in the
case of Cage or Ikeda, and something that can also rely heavily on other sensory
elements, as in the case of Philipszs work.
A dierent, and notable representation of space through sound is Alvin Luciers I Am
Sitting in a Room (), which recursively iterates a recording in an acoustic space.37 It
gradually strips away the original sound source and intensifies the resonant quality of
the room, resulting in an acoustic representation of the space in which it was recorded.
As a piece of experimental music, it is not site-specific in its presentation, but uses a
specific space as its source:
is slight shi overturns the sound source as a single object of attention, as
a body of sound, and brings aurality into a broader field of consideration by
introducing the contextual. Sound not as object, but as space.
LaBelle, ,

It is creates a specific space whilst not requiring presentation within any particular kind
of space, physical or abstract, and demonstrates the possibility for sound art38 to be
collapsed onto a medium which is poietically identical to experimental music.
Finally, Byrnes Playing the Building () is one work in particular which fully
demonstrates that sound art is a continuum in-between, and inclusive of, subsets of
music and fine art, by inhabiting both. It involves a (musical) keyboard (which the
audience is invited to play) centred inside a large chamber, each key of which activates
attached to the building structure [] metal beams, pillars, heating pipes
[] e devices do not produce sound themselves, but they cause the
building elements to vibrate, resonate and oscillate so that the building itself
becomes a very large musical instrument.

In doing so, if fuses not only both site as concept and as a spatial listening environment,
but also as a means of producing sound itself (as opposed to merely a frame in which to
observe it). It is both the work itself and the frame, the two becoming indistinguishable.
Devoid of any acoustic reflection, without reverb.
A recording of Luciers voice was made in room, and the amplified sound of it being played back in the
same room was re-recorded. is process was repeated.
38 at is, a particular type of sound art.


J. c. Rai Sound Art

is piece makes the act of [reduced listening of the environment] incredibly

easy [ibid.] by presenting it as both an interactive work for those engaging with the
keyboard; and for those observing, an immersive performance. Either way it brings to
fore, and requires, the presence of the listener/audience. We may consider Byrnes
invitation to the audience to play the building as an instrument as an open-form piece
of experimental music. At the same time, it can be regarded as a interactive installation
concerned with material immersion, making visually explicit the mechanical means of
sound production. e work is site-specific and simultaneously nonsite-specific; it has
been installed at a number of locations with conceptual and aesthetic retention, yet with
each location providing its own distinct poietic qualities. Despite the sound source being
explicit (rather than acousmatic), it still encourages a listening closer to the Schaeerian
reduced mode than does Philipszs Lowlands. Byrnes transformation of the environment
into an instrument asks those who play it to consider the space and its enclosure not for
its extra-musical or contextual referents, but rather in the same way that a musician may
consider an instrument for its sound-making capabilities. He thus incorporates a
treatment of sound for its tactile qualities whilst still posing Cagean questions of
medium, space, spontaneity and presence. Playing the Building integrates such a variety
of aesthetics that it could be categorised as experimental music, sound art, installation
art, conceptual art, and/or community art. It is, of course, all of these at once.

An Interdisciplinary Continuum
(Concluding Remarks)
I hope that the above discussion of examples has illustrated how diering aesthetics in
sound art lie on a continuum, rather than simply belonging to distinct camps. e
aesthetic influences of musically-based and visually-based works vary in a manner much
more complex than that described by either Licht or Gibbs. Both Philipsz and Byrnes
works draw on dierent eects of, but are both united by, Cagean immersion and
presence. e trend among musicians to avoid the use of traditional music is counterreflected by visually-based artists liberal use of it. So bizarrely, the experimental music
identityin the realm of sound artbecomes the one which narrows practice rather
than broadening it. e converse applies to the visual arts in relation to their emphasis
on the necessity of a visual/physical element rather than a virtual or abstracted one.
ese dierences exist in practice, but beneath the surface remains a strong mutual vein
of historical basis in immersive conceptuality.
e analogies between Ikedas and Turrells work reflect just how closely linked each
fields practices of medium emphasis can be. Whilst Schaefers Recorded Delivery is a sitespecific work, it may be performed anywhere, as is the case with Watsons work, and
many other phonographists. A piece of sound art can reflect on an environment without
necessarily needing to be installed in its location [Sansom 2011]. Visual works which can
exist beyond physical boundary (via lossless reproduction)for instance a photograph
are not disqualified as art, so why should a sound recording be for not being tied to
some kind of visual anchor? e implications from the two sides of each others field
seems to be that visual/spatial media facilitate immersion in music, and sonic/temporal
media enable it in visual art. In which case, the real issue is that of an omni-sensory
approach, which belongs not to one field or the other, but to both.

J. c. Rai Sound Art

Sound art is thus not necessarily the battleground that Gibbs describes, because it is
not a discrete field in-between and/or distinct from music and art. Rather, it can exist
entirely within both, it extends both, and it intersects bothsometimes simultaneously.
It is not a battleground but rather a bridge, a middle-ground for mediating expression
in either and/or both. And all of its focal parameters, which I outlined in . (spatiality,
medium, immersion, interactivity, etc.) are not binary decisions to be made by the artist,
but rather they are continuously variable in both execution and reception, on various
poietic axes, as the examples in . illustrate. ere will always be partisan stances on
aesthetics and practice, since polar ends are an inevitable property of any linear
spectrum. But, as aforementioned, dierences in creative treatment of sound and vision
may simply stem from our culture of mostly separating the study of musical practice
from art practice:
this can become problematic when preconceptions rely on [] models
based on the way things used to be [] when [music was] narrowly defined.
Young, , p.

ese need not be disposed, but could be supplemented with a wider teaching of
practice in the space between. e two fields might then be able to give up the notion
that there exists (or that there should exist) a line between musically-informed and fineart informed approaches to sound artwhich, I hope this text has substantiated, is
certainly not the case. Perhaps more importantly, breaking down this barrier in the way
creative practice is taught and understood could prompt a shi towards more open and
more extensively embraced interdisciplinary pluralism.


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, accessed //.

Watson, Chris, : Vatnajkull, Weather Report, CD.

Touch, :, Track .
Xenakis, Iannis, : Terretektorh, Iannis Xenakis
(), Charles Bruck, Orchestre
Philharmonique de l, CD. Edition RZ,
/, Track .
Yentob, Alan, : Let ere Be Light, Imagine
//, :, BBC One.

Audio-Visual Resources,
Works of Art & Exhibitions
Byrne, David, : Playing the Building, interactive
installation, Roundhouse, London.
Cage, John, : '", for piano.
Duchamp, Marcel, : Fountain, Society of
Independent Artists, New York.
Lucier, Alvin, : I Am Sitting in a Room, CD. Lovely
Music, .
McCall, Anthony, : Line Describing a Cone 2.0, film
projection / light sculpture, Tate Modern,
Morris, Robert, : Box with the Sound of its Own
Making, sound sculpture, exh. , Green
Gallery, New York.
Philipsz, Susan, : Lowlands, sound installation, :
George V Bridge, and Caledonian Railway
Bridge, and Glasgow Bridge, Glasgow. : Tate
Britain, London.

Dept of Music & Sound Recording

University of Surrey

Rauschenberg, Robert, : White Paintings, canvas

series, Stable Gallery, New York.
Rothko, Mark, : Seagram Murals, canvas series,
Tate Modern, London

Submitted as an M.Mus. case study.

Copyright 2011 by Jeevan C. Rai.
e moral right of the author has
been asserted.

Sansom, Matthew, : An interview about his

installation Vital Organs () conducted via