What Makes the Art of Sound Art and Why We Need More of It

Let’s face it: there is not enough sound art in the world. Museums are mostly packed with visual presentations of ideas, worlds and statements. Most of the time, sound ‘only’ has a supporting role. Do curators, visitors and artists realise it could take the lead?

In this article I want to give you an introduction to what sound art is, what some of its greatest representations are and why these representations are so great. The modern art world and sound’s place within that world are also worth looking at. Perhaps one day, people could become just as likely to associate the work of a sound artist as the work of Van Gogh with the word ‘art’.

Its definition.

Without getting too scientific, I’d like to start by giving you an insight into what the word ‘sound art’ means in the cultural landscape. Here are some quotes from people who have published papers on the subject. I think they know what they’re talking about.

Firstly, an introduction to the topic from Alan Licht’s Sound Art: Origins, Development and Ambiguities from 2009:

“Sound art holds the distinction of being an art movement that is not tied to a specific time period, geographic location or group of artists, and was not named until decades after its earliest works were produced. Indeed, the definition of the term remains elusive.”

Elusive huh? Not clear when the movement started? That’s confusing. But the David Troop somewhat clarifies things. He states in ‘Sonic Boom’ (2000) that sound art is: “sound combined with visual practices, organised in a manner that differentiates it from more traditional practices associated with music.”

Okay, that’s a bit more to the point, but now it’s also getting more complex. The organization of sound, in combination with visual practices and its deviation from ‘traditional musical practices”, matters. What does Alan Licht have to say about this ‘music and visual’ aspect?

As a term, ‘sound art’ is mainly of value in crediting site or object-specific works that are not intended as music per se.”

Yes! I dig that. Let’s focus on sites, objects and intention. If it’s meant to be sound art, it is sound art. Good or bad. Let’s stick with that definition, okay? Jut to keep things simple.

Some of the best works and what makes them great.

As always with art, it’s hard to pinpoint the ‘greatest’ works. Taste differs. Techniques differ. Therefore, I’d like to give you a couple of examples of what I think are great sound art pieces, and what makes them great in my (humble) opinion.

A landmark in sound art is the organisation of sounds by Edgar Verese called ‘Poè

me électronique’. In ‘Music, sound and Multimedia’, Jimmy Sexton states that ‘Not only did this piece radically employ synthesised electronic sounds, but it was produced for a specially designed installation by Le Corbusier in the Phillips Radio Corporation Pavilion. It was therefore part of a multimedia installation, utilising 400 speakers in a series of rooms – creating a sense of sound travelling with participants as they moved from room to room.’ That’s freakin cool. Especially in 1958.

Christian Marclay’s Guitar Drag

I admire conceptual work with a social and/or political background in all forms of art. In the following piece of sound art, Christian Marley put a guitar behind the back of a car to make a statement in response to the James Byrd Jr murder in Texas in 1998, when three white men chained up a black man to the back of a pick up truck and drove for three miles. The sound piece, combined with the visual presentation of a guitar being shred to pieces, hits you in the chest.

During Meakusma festival I watched FM Einheit move pebbles around with his hands on a metal plate. It was awesome, because it seemed to approach the very essence or start of what could be called music. The clip below shows him using the same technique and others. You should also check out the ‘cocky’ comments on this video. I’ll get into that later.

My last example and my favorite for now: The Electrical Walks by Christina Kubisch. I think it’s fascinating how she creates an interaction between the world and the listener. She can best tell you herself. Watch the video below:

Its role in modern art.

Enjoyed it? Want more of it? I do. So why is there so little sound art around me, in comparison with the visual works I see almost every day? Do most people support the cocky commenters?

I think the main reason is a historical one. Again in Sound Art: Origins, Development and Ambiguities, Alan Licht says: “The roots of sound art lie in the disjunction of sound and image afforded by the inventions of the telephone and audio recording as well as the age-old notion of acoustic space.”

If telephone and audio recording techniques really do play a crucial role in sound art, which I intuitively believe to indeed be the case, and which the techniques used in the examples I have put forward above prove, then sound art finds itself at a historical disadvantage. The first sound recording was in 1860. The first known drawings are about 40,000 years old. That’s a 41,860 year delay!

Is that delay audible? Well, even though I’m not a frequent visitor of museums (I would say twice a year), I do attend art school expositions and visit smaller galleries often. I don’t have the exact numbers but I think that most, and I mean like 95% of all art works I see in the exhibition spaces, appeal to the eye first and foremost. I do notice that in the smaller galleries and art school exhibitions there is more interest in the practice of sound art then in the bigger museums. As far as I know.

To conclude, here is what I hope: the future, with all its technological progress, could hold great things for sound art. It’s up to the artists to say: we have made enough visuals. Let’s make some audio. It’s up the museum directors to say: let’s focus on the hearing. And it’s up to the art lovers to demand: give us more sound art.

Do you hear me?

llustration by Rueben Millenaar