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Sound art.

A term encompassing a variety of art forms that utilize sound, or comment on auditory cultures. Sound artworks tend to subvert, combine, or expand upon entrenched practices in music, the visual arts, and poetry. As a relatively new term that may apply to a multitude of divergent practices, sound art has no fixed or agreed-upon definition. Sound installation, Sound sculpture, Performance art, Soundscape composition, soundwalking, field recording, circuit bending, sound design, interactive sonic games, concrete poetry, conceptual art, and creative experiments with listening and audio media may technically constitute sound art. So may experimental electronic music, ambient music, noise music, and collage-based music. Some doubt the usefulness of “sound art” as a blanket term for experimental artistic forays, to which more precise designations might be more appropriate. But the broader scope of “sound art” accounts for the fact that multiple sound artists share certain aesthetic problems.

1. History.

The history of sound art is, effectively, the history of music. It is also the history of sculpture, painting, theater, and technology. Where sound art is concerned, the most important historical moments are those in which existential questions come to a head: What is music, art, technology? Forerunners of sound art therefore include: Erik Satie’s Musique d’ameublement (Furniture Music), which sought to turn music into a mere quality of a room; Luigi Russolo’s mechanical noise-makers; and Pierre Schaeffer’s invention of sampling. Marcel Duchamp’s and Robert Rauschenberg’s integration of found objects into sculpture and painting; Robert Morris’s development of installation art; the Fluxus artists’ telling uses of audience-participation; and conceptual artworks, such as those of La Monte Young, were also key moments in the history of sound art. Likewise were the inventions of photography, sound- and video-recording, montage, and digital processing.

john Cage is a looming figure in sound artists’ genealogy. His achievements included some of the earliest ventures in performance art (Happenings), pioneering creative uses of sound-recording technology, and poetic lectures performed as sonic artworks. Cage also advocated a flexible kind of listening that expanded the definition of music to include noise and silence, calling for an active audience that would participate in artists’ creative processes. Such an audience would be crucial to the development of sound art.

The first recorded use of the term “sound art” was by the American composer William Hellerman, founder of the SoundArt society and curator of the 1983 exhibition Sound/Art at New York’s Sculpture Center. The term became more prevalent in the 1990s. The year 2000 saw sound art exhibitions at high-profile venues, such as I Am Sitting In A Room: Sound Works by American Artists, curated by Stephen Vitiello at the Whitney Museum. Alongside sound sculptors, performance artists, and conceptual artists, Vitiello’s exhibition included musicians, such as Ornette Coleman and Terry Riley. Thus, from the first, the contestable difference between music and sound art stood foremost among curators’ concerns.

2. Venues.

Sound art has no typical venue or particular geographical center. Sound artists commonly exhibit in spaces other than concert halls. SoundWalk, presented annually in Long Beach, California by a multifarious collective of sound artists, uses an array of spaces scattered over several city blocks, including galleries, lobbies, shops, cafés, parking lots, and street corners. In the United States, sound art flourishes in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, and their surrounding communities.

3. Genre.

Sound art is not bound to any defining feature other than a concern with sound, which artists may express in any fashion. Sound art therefore has no canon of paradigmatic works.

Hellerman believes that sound art must involve visual imagery, a stipulation that calls the difference between visual art and sound art into question. Some sound sculptures and installations do have visual components. For instance, Bill Viola’s installation Five Angels for the Millennium (2001) includes five video projections with accompanying sounds. Performance art also relies on visuals. For Meredith Monk’s Songs of Ascension (2007), Ann Hamilton designed video backdrops and costumes, as well as an eight-story tower in which the premiere took place. Moreover, sound artworks may be mute, consisting only of visuals that depict the cultural roles of sound. Take for instance Christian Marclay’s sculpture Endless Column (1988), a floor-to-ceiling stack of LP records. Without making a sound, this piece spotlights the American tendency to treat music as a commodity, simultaneously hoarding and wasting it.

Yet many sound artworks offer only sound, without visual accoutrements. The visual aspects of specification.twelve (2003), an installation by Richard Chartier and Taylor Deupree, include only eight speakers arranged in a bare room. Each speaker plays unique, original music, which listeners hear differently depending on their physical locations. Annea Lockwood’s Sound Map of the Hudson River (2007) began as an installation consisting of sounds recorded at various points along the river, as well as a map indicating where the sounds were captured. But Lockwood later released the sounds alone on CD, minus the visuals.

Thus a single sound artwork may fit into several genres at once. For instance, specification.twelve presents music in a quasi-sculptural manner. Mendi and Keith Obadike’s Agunwayi, or TaRonda Who Wore White Gloves (2010) is at once an installation, a book, a recording, and a theatrical performance. Inouk Demers’ Conveyance (2009) is a standalone sound recording, an installation with large-scale photos, and a packaged “kit” that includes the recording and an online game.

4. Listening.

Most species of sound art demand intensive listening as a self-conscious and creative process, not merely as a receptive mode. By inviting us to engage with sound in idiosyncratic ways, sound artworks may make us more aware of how listening works in various situations. John Oswald’s collage of samples, Plunderphonic (1989), involves recognizing moments from popular songs, accentuating memory’s role in listening processes. Maryanne Amacher’s album Sound Characters (Making the Third Ear) (1999) foregrounds aural illusion as a natural aspect of listening, by causing listeners to hear tones that are not actually sounding. Juliana Snapper demonstrates how immersion in water changes what we hear and how we listen, in underwater performances such as her Five Fathoms Opera Project (2008).

Certain sound art drives listeners to the limits of their capacities. Steve Roden invented “lowercase,” a form of sound art that utilizes virtually inaudible sounds (see Roden’s Forms of Paper,2001). In Dreamsound (1996), R.I.P. Hayman experiments with how we process sound during sleep. At the opposite extreme, noise artworks overload listeners and artists with more sound than their bodies can comfortably tolerate. In Danger Music No.17 (1962), Dick Higgins instructs performers to scream until their voices give out. Performed at maximal volumes, noise music (e.g. that of Merzbow) can distress listeners to the point of illness, making us painfully aware that listening involves the entire body.

Many sound artists share a commitment to sound as a full-body experience. In Stan Shaff’s Audium (conceived c1950), audiences wallow in darkness and sound, surrounded by 169 moving speakers. Audium is the theater itself and its interior space, as well as the electronic music performed therein. Similarly, La Monte Young immerses visitors in continuous sound and light in Dream House (premiered 1962), in which sound fills his entire New York loft. Unlike most music, these installations convey a sense of permanence: one’s experience begins and ends not when sounds arise or fall silent, but when one enters and leaves the space. Ambient music, which is often very still, creates a similar impression (eg Aphex Twin’s untitled [stone in focus], 1994). Some dance clubs have “chillout rooms” in which visitors may lounge amid ambient music. The degree of difference between chillout rooms and immersive pieces like the Dream House is debatable, further obscuring the distinction between music and sound art.

5. Space and Site.

Some practitioners believe that sound art necessarily engages the relationship between sound and space. In Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room (1969), layered recordings activated the resonant qualities of a performance space. Similarly, in Vanishing Point 1.1 (1999), Jeff Talman amplified and recorded an empty chapel’s ambient resonance, and played back the recording in the chapel. These sound artworks consist not just of sound, but also of performance spaces’ architectural and acoustic properties.

Sound artists frequently invoke the term “site-specificity,” meaning that they create their works especially for particular locations. But what site-specificity entails is far from clear or consistent. Amacher’s Music for Sound Joined Rooms (1980) uses a particular Victorian house as a means of structuring and transmitting sound. As a listener stands in one room, sounds overheard from another room draw her to it, and to the next installment in a story depicted by found objects. Mark Bain turned MIT campus buildings into instruments in Live Room (1998), gently shaking the buildings and using signal generators to make their vibrations audible. These contrasting pieces both exemplify “site-specificity,” as do many other unique works. For example, field recordings, sounds captured outside recording studios, are the sounds of the locations in which the recordings are made, as in Buildings (New York)(2001), in which Francisco López recorded ambient sounds of offices and apartments. Although this piece was not installed in a particular space but released on CD, so that listeners may experience it anywhere, it achieves site-specificity by using sonic features of particular sites to represent those sites.

Site-specific work may also include the re-situation of sound from one place to another, as in Amacher’s City Links (1967) and Bill Fontana’s Brooklyn Bridge (1983). In both pieces, urban sounds are transmitted from certain sites (in City Links, the Boston Harbor and Mississippi River), to exhibition spaces in New York. One could say that these pieces occur in multiple sites at once, but are nonetheless “specific” to those locations. They demonstrate that the boundaries between artworks and venues, between sounds and the spaces in which they are heard, are contrived, perhaps even nonexistent barriers.

6. Relationality.

Sound art often aims to raise awareness of relationships between sound, art, and the other components of the world; between artworks, audiences, and artists; between individual listeners, their fellow humans, and their environment. For instance, in Kits Beach (recorded 1989), Hildegard Westerkamp leads listeners on an aural journey or “soundwalk,” by making field recordings while moving through a neighborhood, and narrating what she hears. Here there is no difference between “aesthetic” and “non-aesthetic” sounds: noises from the everyday world constitute this work of art. Art and life relate to one another as equals.

In many sound artworks, the relationship between audience and artist is also one of equality: both share in the creative process, as listeners determine what they hear. Take Max Neuhaus’s installation in Times Square (1977–92, reinstated 2002), in which a musical drone plays continually. This piece relies on the listener’s complicity, as the drone plays so softly that one must strain to listen past the bustling of the Square. Other sound artworks are more explicitly interactive, such as Brenda Hutchinson’s sculpture Giant Music Box (2000), which viewer-listeners activate by turning a wheel, and Phil Curtis’s game, My Game in the Bush of Ghosts (2008), in which a computer system (partially based on Nintendo’s Wii platform) produces sounds in response to players’ bodily movements. Circuit bending, pioneered by Reed Ghazala, is a sound art that anyone can practice regardless of training. One takes a live circuit board and touches it with wires in arbitrary places, causing it to make sound. Ghazala uses this technique to create original instruments, as in his Vox Insecta, a synthesizer of insect voices.

Other sound artists underscore social relationships. Brandon LaBelle’s Phantom Radio (2005) explored the experience of radio as both public and private. He invited listeners to describe their private experiences with radio, then broadcast their memories as collage compositions, which he also installed in public sound sculptures. M.W. Burns’ Posing Phrases (2001) addressed how we mold our appearances and behavior in response to others’ expectations. In this installation, motion-activated speakers placed alongside an urban sidewalk shouted commands at passersby, in the manner of a fashion photographer posing a model. Projects like those of Neuhaus and Westerkamp also raise awareness of humans’ ecological relationships, specifically of how we may overlook the sounds latent to the environment by obscuring them with urban noise.


H. Westerkamp: “ Soundwalking” (1974, revised 2001, reprinted 2007) Autumn Leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, ed. Angus Carlyle, (Paris, 2007), 49

T. Wishart: On Sonic Art (London, 1996)

D. Kahn: Noise, Water, Meat (Cambridge, 1999)

K. Gann: “It’s Sound, it’s Art, and Some Call it Music,” New York Times (9 January 2000)

M. Neuhaus: “Sound Art?” (2000)


P. Hegarty: Noise/Music: A History (London, 2002)

Q. Ghazala: “The Folk Music of Chance Electronics: Circuit-Bending the Modern Coconut,” Leonardo Music Journal, xiv (2004), 96–104

K. Gann: Music Downtown: Writings from the Village Voice (Berkeley, 2006)

B. LaBelle: Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (London, 2006)

A. Licht: Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories (New York, 2007)

Organized sound, xiv/1 (2009) [sound art issue]

S. Kim-Cohen: In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound Art (London 2009)

J. Demers: Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (New York, 2010)

S. Voegelin: Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (London, 2010)

Mandy-Suzanne Wong

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