Sonic Arts

Brief History #

Introduction #

Sound art is an interdisciplinary field at the intersection of music, art, and technology, emphasizing the use of sound as a primary medium. Over the past century, it has evolved through various artistic movements and technological advancements. This essay explores the history, development, and current trends in sound art, highlighting key artists, thinkers, and moments. It delves into the concepts of space, matter, and listening, and how sound art influences sound studies. It also examines the notion of non-cochlear sound, emphasizing the contributions of diverse artists globally.

Historical Background #

Sound art’s roots can be traced back to the early 20th century with the Futurist movement, particularly Luigi Russolo’s manifesto, “The Art of Noises” (1913). Russolo’s “intonarumori” (noise instruments) aimed to capture the industrial sounds of modern life, challenging traditional notions of music and paving the way for experimental sound practices.

The Dadaists and Surrealists further expanded the boundaries of sound in art. Marcel Duchamp’s “With Hidden Noise” (1916) is an early example, incorporating chance and found objects to create a multisensory experience. John Cage’s works in the mid-20th century, such as “4’33″” (1952), where performers remain silent, highlighted the ambient sounds of the environment, questioning the nature of music and listening.

Development and Key Moments #

The 1960s and 1970s marked a significant period in sound art with the advent of new technologies and the rise of conceptual art. Pierre Schaeffer’s development of musique concrète in the late 1940s, which involved the manipulation of recorded sounds, laid the groundwork for many sound art practices. Schaeffer’s influential book, Treatise on Musical Objects (1966), introduced the concept of acousmatic listening—hearing sounds without seeing their source—which has deeply influenced sound art and related fields.

Artists like Alvin Lucier, whose piece “I Am Sitting in a Room” (1969) explored the acoustic properties of space through iterative recordings, exemplified this era’s focus on the materiality of sound and space.

Max Neuhaus is another pivotal figure, known for his “sound installations” that integrated sound into public spaces, transforming the listener’s experience of the environment. His “Times Square” (1977) installation is a landmark in sound art, using a subtle drone to alter the perception of a busy urban space.

The World Soundscape Project (WSP), initiated by R. Murray Schafer in the late 1960s, played a crucial role in sound studies. The project focused on the acoustic environment and its impact on human life, advocating for the preservation and improvement of soundscapes. Schafer’s concept of the “soundscape” and his writings, such as The Tuning of the World (1977), have significantly influenced sound art by emphasizing the environmental and social aspects of sound.

Some Current Trends #

Contemporary sound art continues to expand, incorporating diverse media and addressing pressing social and environmental issues. Annea Lockwood’s “A Sound Map of the Hudson River” (1982) is a pioneering work in acoustic ecology, documenting the natural and human-made sounds along the river. Jana Winderen’s work, such as “Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone” (2012), uses hydrophones to capture the sounds of underwater environments, highlighting ecological concerns.

The concept of non-cochlear sound, introduced by Seth Kim-Cohen, challenges the traditional emphasis on auditory perception. Kim-Cohen argues for a broader understanding of sound art that includes conceptual and theoretical dimensions, as seen in his book In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (2009). Brian Kane’s Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice (2014) also addresses these themes, exploring the relationship between sound, listening, and perception.

Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (2010) and Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2015) are essential texts that offer critical insights into the practice and theory of sound art. Voegelin emphasizes the subjective experience of listening, proposing that sound art challenges visual dominance by engaging with the ephemeral and immersive qualities of sound. Voegelin’s later work, Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound (2014), introduces the concept of “possible worlds” where sound art creates alternative realities and perceptions through listening.

Francisco López is another influential figure in the field of sound art. His work often focuses on the phenomenological experience of sound, aiming to create immersive environments that encourage deep listening. López’s “La Selva” (1998), a soundscape composition based on field recordings from the Costa Rican rainforest, exemplifies his approach to sound as a material and spatial experience. His writings, such as Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter (2004), emphasize the importance of experiencing sound beyond its mere acoustic properties.

Key Ideas in Sound and Sound Art #

Space: The physical and perceived dimensions in which sound exists and interacts.

Sonic Matter: The material properties of sound and its sources.

Listening: The act of perceiving and interpreting sound.

Noise: Unwanted or disruptive sounds that challenge traditional musical norms.

Silence: The absence or intentional omission of sound, emphasizing ambient and background sounds.

Acousmatic: Sound heard without an originating visual source.

Non-Cochlear: Sound art focusing on conceptual rather than auditory dimensions.

Field Recording: Capturing environmental sounds to create immersive soundscapes.

Installation: Integrating sound into physical spaces to transform the listener’s experience.

Interactive and Participatory: Engaging audiences in dynamic sound experiences through technology and interaction.

Acoustic Ecology: Studying the relationship between living beings and their sonic environments.

Sonic Fiction: Combining sound with speculative narratives and theoretical frameworks.

Soundscape: The acoustic environment as perceived and understood by individuals or communities.

Deep Listening: A practice that involves meditative and heightened awareness of sound and environment.

Phenomenology of Sound: The study of the structures of experience as they relate to auditory perception.

Auditory Culture: The cultural and social practices related to sound and listening.

Sound Design: The art and practice of creating soundtracks for various forms of media.

Electroacoustic Music: Music that incorporates electronic sound production techniques.

Sound Sculpture: Physical artworks that produce or interact with sound.

Sonification: The use of non-speech audio to convey information or perceptualize data.

Musique Concrète: A form of electroacoustic music that uses recorded sounds as raw material.

Sound Poetry: A literary form that focuses on the phonetic aspects of human speech.

Auditory Art: Art forms that primarily engage the sense of hearing.

Soundwalk: A guided or unguided tour that focuses on listening to the environment.

Relation with Other Forms of Art #

Sound art is inherently interdisciplinary, often intersecting with other art forms such as visual art, performance, and literature. The integration of sound into gallery spaces and public installations blurs the boundaries between auditory and visual experiences. For instance, the works of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, such as “The Murder of Crows” (2008), combine sound with visual and narrative elements to create immersive environments.

Sound art also overlaps with performance art, as seen in Laurie Anderson’s work, which incorporates storytelling, music, and multimedia elements. Anderson’s “United States” (1980-1983) is a prime example, blending sound, visuals, and performance to explore themes of technology and communication.

Key Postulates in Major Texts #

Seth Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear challenges the primacy of the auditory experience in sound art, advocating for a conceptual approach that considers the broader cultural and theoretical implications of sound. He argues that sound art should engage with language, history, and theory, rather than relying solely on sensory experience.

Brian Kane’s Sound Unseen explores the acousmatic experience, where sound is divorced from its source, and how this influences our perception and understanding of sound. Kane delves into the philosophical and practical aspects of listening to sound without visual context, drawing on the traditions of musique concrète and electroacoustic music.

Salomé Voegelin emphasizes the phenomenological and subjective nature of listening in Listening to Noise and Silence, proposing that sound art can create new ways of experiencing and understanding the world. Voegelin argues that listening is an active, interpretive process that shapes our perception of reality.

Brandon LaBelle in Background Noise examines the socio-cultural contexts of sound art, highlighting how it engages with issues of space, identity, and politics. LaBelle explores how sound art interacts with public and private spaces, challenging traditional notions of listening and participation.

Francisco López in his writings, such as Profound Listening, advocates for a deep, immersive engagement with sound, stripping away preconceived notions and focusing on the pure sensory experience. López emphasizes the transformative potential of sound art, encouraging listeners to engage with sound in novel and profound ways.

Sound Art Groups / Labels #

Sound art has found a significant platform through various record labels dedicated to promoting experimental and avant-garde sound compositions. Some of the most influential labels in sound art include:

  1. LINE: Known for its minimalist and experimental sound works.
  2. GRM: (Groupe de Recherches Musicales) Pioneers in electroacoustic music and musique concrète.
  3. Touch: A label that has released works by notable sound artists like Chris Watson and Fennesz.
  4. Room40: Focuses on exploratory music and sound art from around the world.
  5. Raster-Noton: A German label that blends sound art with electronic music.
  6. Mego: Releases experimental electronic and noise music.
  7. Important Records: Features a wide range of experimental music, including sound art.
  8. Editions Mego: Specializes in electronic music and sound art.
  9. Sub Rosa: Known for its eclectic catalog of avant-garde music and sound art.
  10. Lovely Music, Ltd.: A label dedicated to experimental music and sound art.
  11. 12k: Focuses on minimalism and ambient soundscapes.
  12. Erstwhile Records: Known for releasing electroacoustic improvisation and experimental sound art.
  13. Die Schachtel: An Italian label that focuses on avant-garde and experimental music.
  14. Tzadik: Founded by John Zorn, it includes a range of experimental music and sound art.
  15. Staalplaat: An independent label that specializes in electronic and experimental music.

Festivals, Conferences, and Academic Journals #

Sound art is celebrated and discussed in numerous festivals, conferences, and academic platforms around the world. Some of the key events and publications include:

Festivals #

  • Sonar (Barcelona, Spain): A festival that focuses on advanced music and multimedia art.
  • Transmediale (Berlin, Germany): A festival and year-round project that draws out new connections between art, culture, and technology.
  • Sonic Acts (Amsterdam, Netherlands): An interdisciplinary arts organization that focuses on the contemporary and historical intersections of art, technology, and culture.
  • Mutek (Montreal, Canada): An international festival of digital creativity and electronic music.
  • CTM Festival (Berlin, Germany): Dedicated to adventurous music and related visual arts.
  • ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art): A yearly gathering of the international art, science, and technology community.
  • Unsound (Krakow, Poland): Focuses on experimental and electronic music.

Conferences #

  • ISEA: The International Symposium on Electronic Art.
  • ICMC (International Computer Music Conference): A yearly event organized by the International Computer Music Association.
  • NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression): A conference on new musical interfaces and technologies.

Academic Journals #

  • Organised Sound: A peer-reviewed journal focusing on the rapidly developing methods and issues arising from the use of contemporary technology in music and sound art.
  • Leonardo Music Journal: Focuses on the intersection of art, science, and technology.
  • Computer Music Journal: Published by MIT Press, covering a range of topics in computer music and digital audio technology.
  • Journal of Sonic Studies: Explores the cultural, political, and artistic aspects of sound.
  • Sound Studies: A peer-reviewed journal focusing on sound studies, auditory culture, and sound art.

Some Educational Institutions and Programs #

Referential Sound Art Exhibits #

Several exhibitions have played a pivotal role in the recognition and development of sound art:

  • “Soundings: A Contemporary Score” at MoMA (2013): The first major sound art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
  • “Sonic Boom: The Art of Sound” at the Hayward Gallery, London (2000): Curated by David Toop, this exhibition was a landmark in sound art, featuring works by Janet Cardiff, Christian Marclay, and more.
  • “Volume: Bed of Sound” at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center (1999): An installation featuring beds where visitors could lie down and listen to sound works through headphones.
  • “Sound Art” at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe (2008): Explored the use of sound as a medium in fine art.

Relevant Sound Art Installations and Sculptures #

References #

  • Bailey, Thomas Bey William. MicroBionic: Radical Electronic Music and Sound Art in the 21st Century. Creation Books, 2009.
  • Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Wesleyan University Press, 1961.
  • Goodman, Steve. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. MIT Press, 2012.
  • Kane, Brian. Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Kelly, Caleb. Gallery Sound. Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.
  • Kelly, Caleb, editor. Sound. Whitechapel Gallery, 2011.
  • Kim-Cohen, Seth. In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art. Bloomsbury Academic, 2009.
  • LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.
  • Licht, Alan. Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. Rizzoli, 2007.
  • López, Francisco. Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter. Mimaroglu Music Sales, 2004.
  • López, Francisco. La Selva. V2_Archief, 1998.
  • Lockwood, Annea. A Sound Map of the Hudson River. Lovely Music, 1982.
  • Lucier, Alvin. I Am Sitting in a Room. Lovely Music, 1969.
  • Neuhaus, Max. Times Square. 1977.
  • Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. iUniverse, 2005.
  • Russolo, Luigi. The Art of Noises. 1913.
  • Schafer, R. Murray. The Tuning of the World. Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
  • Voegelin, Salomé. Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. Continuum, 2010.
  • Voegelin, Salomé. Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
  • Voegelin, Salomé. Colloquium: Sound Art and Music. Zero Books, 2014.
  • Westerkamp, Hildegard. “Kits Beach Soundwalk.” Transformations, 1989.
  • Wishart, Trevor. On Sonic Art. Routledge, 1996.
  • Wishart, Trevor. Red Bird: A Document. 1977.
  • Winderen, Jana. Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone. Touch, 2012.
  • Various authors. The Bloomsbury Handbook of Sonic Art. Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.