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Listen / Hear / Create: A Short History from MutualArt

Here’s a recent article I wrote on Sound Art for

The genre of sound art is still a relatively intimidating one, with even art and art history enthusiasts shying away from the topic, if only for their lack of knowledge. Generally, it is still a young art form, having only been first acknowledged by the Futurists in the early 20th Century. Unlike visual and performance art, sound art has developed much more slowly, perhaps proliferating more recently due to the ease of creating sound with technology. The movement itself incorporates the production of sound with the absence of it, equating listening and hearing on the same level as creation. The genre can be conceptual or deliberate, with interdisciplinary methods that are both analog and digital, performative or recorded, and may be combined with visual or installation art.

Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (left) and John Cage performing at the 1971 festival.(Photo courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation archive)

When thinking of sound art, the champion that comes to mind thus far in history is composer John Cage. Identified with the Fluxist movement of the 1950s, Cage’s treatment of silence, placing of objects in a piano to alter its sound, and dance-related concert pieces put Sound Art on the map. Considered in same playing field as performance and conceptual art, Cage’s work helped make critics more comfortable in discussing sound as a movement itself, rather than an off-shoot of another genre. Yet it wouldn’t be called “Sound Art” for several decades, when it was coined by William Hellerman in reference to a show he curated at The Sculpture Center in 1983.

But long before Cage, the first recognition of art as sound came from the Futurists in Italy. On the brink of World War I in 1913, painter Luigi Russolo penned the manifesto The Art of Noises, which discussed the sounds of the city in the mechanical age as art, comparing “Noise-Sound” to the beauty of structured Beethoven. Although merely a concept, this was the first time that artists considered noise to be part of their repertoire, which influenced the Dadaists a few years later.

With this influence, Hugo Ball fused his Dada performance pieces with the art of sound in 1916. The all-encompassing work of performance and costume was joined by vocal sound, in a theatrical presentation. In the piece, Ball created sounds that were not singing nor speaking, did not create a narrative, but instead was presented as the work of art, in a context it had never been received in before. Dadaist Keith Schwitters continued in Ball’s footsteps, and composed another piece for a solo voice that was based on making sounds, rather than singing or speaking. Called Ursonate, the piece was 40 minutes long and loosely followed conventional music structure.

These sound pieces helped to fuel John Cage’s ideas, which have later come to be recognized as sound art today. Cage played on the idea of musical sound and noise, often pinning the two against each other in order to make a conceptual work. His piece 4’33” uses the format of concert presentation to draw attention to the art of uncontrollable sound. In its first performance in 1952, pianist David Tudor was told to close the piano for four minutes and thirty three seconds of “tacet,” or silence. During this time, the audience was forced to listen, not knowing when the silence would be broken. The subtle coughs, audience shifting, or rustling of papers became the piece itself, with Cage switching up the roles of the composer, performer and listener. Cage’s prepared piano works are often accompanied by dance, and are still performed by troupes such as the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Items are placed within the piano that alter the strings and hammers, which transform the melody of a composition into an altered sound experience.

The development of sound art as a viable genre was pushed forward with the advancement of technology. With recording, artists could now create aural experiences that didn’t require live performances, while juxtaposing sounds and environments to create full experiential works. An example is Max Neuhaus’ “Times Square,” a site-specific piece located in the throngs of tourism, emoting a sound texture from a grate on a pedestrian island, aptly in Times Square. The piece was initially installed from 1977 until 1992, and has since been permanently reinstalled by the Dia Foundation in 2002.

Stephen Vitiello. A Bell for Every Minute. 2010. 5-channel sound installation with aluminum sound map. Commissioned by Creative Time, Friends of the High Line and the City of New York Department of Parks and Recreation. Photo: Stephen Vitiello

The Museum of Modern Art in New York has tackled this expanse into the genre, with a show opening on August 10th called Soundings: A Contemporary Score. Having already brought performance art to the general public consumption with Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present in 2012, the museum seeks to make sound art the next topic of discussion on the general public’s lips. The exhibition promises to cover all of the bases of sound art, including field recordings from abandoned buildings in Chernobyl, a sugar factory in Taiwan and echo-locating bats. These “inaudible sound” pieces will be joined by more deliberate works and soundscapes created by artists with both analog and digital tools. Since most visitors to MoMA would not expect to be inspired aurally, the exhibition hopes to connect participants universally, by creating a shared experience that taps into a sense that is often underused when visiting a primarily visual art museum.

Galleries such as London’s SoundFjord have dedicated their stable to presenting and researching sound art, offering an educational arm to art presentation to enlighten and inspire visitors to appreciate sound art as a conduit for artistic expression. New York’s Hotel Particulier recently showcased the genre with UNCOLLECTABLE, a two-day immersive experience that welcomed visitors into the realm of differentiating music and sound, while traveling exhibition SUBTROPICS has made its way from the Bass Museum of Art around the country, bringing site-specific works from the sound art tradition to each venue. Even the Turner Prize has recognized sound artist Susan Philipsz, whose Lowlands nabbed her the prize in 2010.

Courtesy of +Aziz from the UNCOLLECTABLE event

The immersive characteristic and collaborative quality of sound art, which can include performance, installation or visual art, makes it a field still eager for exploration. Though only getting its true recognition one hundred years after its inception, the rise of an under-recognized genre, gives art enthusiasts the feeling of naïveté and discovery that can bring a little magic to art appreciation.

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