Audio Files

Over the past several years, the art world has witnessed a tremendous explosion of interest in sound art. In 2000 alone, major group exhibitions of audio art were mounted at London’s Hayward Gallery, New York’s P.S. 1, Tokyo’s NTT InterCommunication Center, and the California College of Arts and Crafts' Wattis Institute. The Whitney featured sound art in its 2001 exhibition “BitStreams” and its 2002 Biennial. And, since then, sound-art exhibitions have popped up in Paris, Frankfurt, Turin, Amsterdam, Göteborg, San Francisco, and elsewhere. More and more younger artists have begun to work with sound, while pioneers such as Max Neuhaus, Alvin Lucier, Christian Marclay, Maryanne Amacher, and Christina Kubisch have moved from the margins to the center of critical discourse and curatorial practice.
This spring and summer, New York City (and its environs) will pulse, hum, and chatter with sound-art installation, performance, and symposia as the “New Sound, New York” festival, organized by the Kitchen and the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of the Cooper Union, gets under way. A celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of 1979's influential “New Music, New York” festival, “New Sound, New York” brings audio art's éminences grises into contact with its youngest innovators. It seems a good time to ask: Why sound now? What are the key antecedents to current practices in audio art? Where is sound art heading? What are its most exciting manifestations? To consider these and other questions, Artforum has invited art historian Branden W. Joseph, composer and author David Toop, curator Anthony Huberman, and sound artists Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Steve Roden, Marina Rosenfeld, and Stephen Vitiello to participate in an online roundtable discussion moderated by philosopher and critic Christoph Cox.


Christoph Cox
04.23.04 11:21

Sound art is nearly a century old. To cite only a few moments of its history, it stretches back at least to the Futurists and Dadaists experiments with nonmusical sound and to Erik Satie and Arthur Honegger’s performances of “furniture music.” John Cage's compositions of the 1950s (for example, Imaginary Landscape No. 4, for twelve radios, and the infamous “silent piece” 4’ 33) abandoned traditional music in favor of “the entire field of sound.” And “sound-art installation” as we know it today has been an established practice since the late 1960s, when Max Neuhaus coined the term and began producing site-specific audio art for city streets and interior spaces. Major museums such as the Whitney have included audio art for several decades. Yet only in the past five or ten years, it seems to me, have curators, critics, and the art-going public shown a genuine and widespread interest in sound art. What accounts for this turn to sound? Are we witnessing the emergence of an audio culture parallel to visual culture? And, if so, why now?

Anthony Huberman
04.23.04 12:57

Yes, sound is certainly gaining a lot of momentum! Like most of the twists and turns of curatorial and artistic practice, I wouldn't say that there are clear cause-and-effect reasons for it; but one of the currents that seems to be making its way into how we think about art has to do with the idea of the trajectory. I am thinking of Nicolas Bourriaud's comments about the artist as a “semionaut,” or someone who “invents trajectories between signs.” Implied here is an emphasis on the open fluidity between places, media, and disciplines. Of course, cross-disciplinarity is far from new; but sound is relevant here because, by its very nature, it “leaks” across spaces and materials, and it can play a role in the way artists think about sculpture, installation, architecture, music, drawing, etc. If artists and curators are interested in things or places that overlap, sound emerges as a material that can encourage a “post-media” sensibility to art, which, I think, is something that many curators are interested in today. Rather than sound as a category in and of itself, sound can contribute in interesting ways to an understanding of art that is more about the trajectories between languages, media, places, and histories.

It's interesting to note, though, that the exhibitions Christoph mentions are often “sound art” shows—shows that emphasize medium-specificity and isolate “sound artists” from others. I wonder if this totally contradicts my thoughts on Christoph's “why now” question . . . or not?

Branden W. Joseph
04.23.04 01:40

It seems to me that there are already a number of interesting issues to discuss in what Christoph puts forward. I mean, to what extent is it really the case that Cage's and Satie's musical compositions—no matter how avant-garde—constitute a “sound art”? Certainly, they are part of the history of sound (or the acoustic) within modernity or the modern period. And Neuhaus, for one, does make the move into a recognizable type of sound installation, as Christoph points out. However, I would think of Luigi Russolo, Satie, and Cage as still within the realm of a particularly avant-garde thrust to extend into all fields—art, music, poetry, architecture, etc.—with similar strategies and ideas: for example, Russolo's attempts to create a Futurist music to go with Futurist writing, art, architecture, and cinema. This is not exactly the same thing as already being in a post-medium condition. Or, to look at it from the other side, as Tony Conrad has pointed out, many art practices of the early 1960s, especially those around Fluxus, put their works forward as a species of score. In other words, in the wake of Cage, they felt somehow situated within the realm of a larger field of composition, even though what they were doing might be largely visual. The relationship to a certain medium is, perhaps, flipped, but it doesn't necessarily disappear. I guess the question for me would be: What is the relationship between “sound art” or “audio art” and this larger “audio culture” that Christoph puts out for consideration? As Cage put it, “There is always something to see, something to hear”; but to have a century-old history, wouldn’t we have to consider sound art in terms of a “medium”?

Christoph Cox
04.24.04 12:15

Anthony is interested in sound and “the between”: sound as a fluid substance or medium that can conjoin various practices in the arts. Without trying to revive a modernist commitment to medium specificity, I confess an interest in what Anthony calls “sound as a category in and of itself.” Since the Renaissance, at least, hearing has been the second sense—second, of course, to vision and the visual. And, since its inception as a category (distinct, say, from craft), “art” has really always meant “visual art.” Of course, there is a parallel history of music. But, even there, European art music is a highly visual and literate art, embodied in the score. The emergence of sound art is important, it seems to me, precisely because it promises to give sound and aurality their due. And it seems to me that the emergence of sound art is linked to the emergence of a broader “audio culture.” Back in the '60s, Marshall McLuhan argued that electronic media were causing a shift in the sensorium, from the predominance of visuality to, if not the predominance, then at least the reemergence of aurality. I do think that something like that may be happening. Look, for example, at the abundance of recent books by anthropologists and historians that take sound as their primary material. In any case, while the use of sound in cross-media work can be wonderful and exciting, I don't want to give up the project of a sound art that centers on sound itself.

On this note, Branden implicitly raises the questions: What is “sound art”? What is its relationship to “music”? What is its relationship to avant-garde, multimedia practices? I think that Branden is right that Satie, Russolo, and Cage belong to the history of experimental music and that to call them “sound artists” is a bit of an anachronism. But I think that the work of these artists forms a kind of prehistory of sound art. Cage seems to me to be particularly important in this regard. He was certainly primarily a “composer” who worked primarily in the medium of music. Yet there is a sense in which Cage was not really interested in music but interested in sound as such: sound as a kind of impersonal, virtual, transcendental field that precedes and exceeds human beings, composers, and the domain of “music.” That, I think, is what is so important about pieces such as 4' 33" and Imaginary Landscape No. 4. Sound art is many things; and I wouldn't hesitate to include multi- or cross-media work within its scope. Yet, at its core, it seems to me, sound art has to be about the experience of sound as such; and I worry a bit about any definition that would take it to be a mere attendant to other media.

Carl Michael von Hausswolff
04.24.04 01:22

Cairo 17.55

At the moment I don't find it interesting to discuss the relation between music and sound art. It's very easy to notice that the development of musical ideas, experimentation, and final composition has placed itself within various categories depending on context and discipline.

I'd like to dwell on Christoph's question: Why is this happening now? Why the buzz? Well, the resistance had to break down sooner or later. For more than fifty years, electroacoustic music, sound installation, free-form jazz, and progressive rock music have been neglected and put aside by the contemporary music establishment. Concert halls have kept on presenting classical music and music that feeds directly on the tradition of scores. The form of presenting music hasn't changed in a couple hundred years. Only places like Fylkingen in Stockholm and the Kitchen in NYC (and other places) have maintained the “other side” of serious sound works. The lack of development and expansion of the alternative places, probably because of financial considerations, has forced composers and sound artists to find new areas for showing their work. Since the visual-art world is much more open-minded and generous toward any kind of new tendency in the art world as a whole, this has become the playground for sound works. Curators like Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Minoru Hatanaka, and Catherine David have invited sound into rather important exhibitions in Europe and Japan; and that's where we are now. The term “sound artist” has been adopted by critics because of convenience. Most artists I know, including myself, do not answer to the “sound artist” label. Most of us do photography, writing, video, and any other kind of discipline . . .

. . . but, as I said, the bubble had to pop. The artists working with sound couldn't sit around for much longer and got a bit tired of doing bar gigs and cellar installations. The energy of Merzbow, Hafler Trio, PanSonic, the Mego gang, and the rest of the thousands of artists developing spoken word, frequency investigation, field recordings, and superleveled sonics just had to get out there; and it seems like there was a response to it. A positive one.

The concert halls can now be seen in the rearview mirror, and their directors are standing there with their pants down. There was a time when electronic-music composers actually wanted to perform their music in these places; but I think that time is gone. The acoustics are not good enough, and the spaces are not flexible enough. Sound installations and new electronic music fit better in the enviroment of the Kunsthalle with a curator who might not get the point but still is open to something new.

Steve Roden
04.24.04 01:48

I agree that artists tend not to be simply painters or video artists (or sound artists) anymore; but people who move across disciplines. Ten or fifteen years ago, it seemed as though every painter began including a video work along with objects in a show—simply because making a video had become a very real possibility for anyone who wanted to make one, due to technology and cost. You could always find someone to lend you a camera. Sound has simply become another tool that artists are interested in using—whether the interest has come from the historical trajectory Christoph is speaking of, or because artists are now able to work with a medium that seems fresh and new to someone growing up in a culture of electronic music and video games with a Macintosh as an extension of their body. Unlike even ten years ago, an artist now has access to creating sound works in a way that is just about as easy as making a drawing. (With hundreds of free downloadable sound softwares available, I would say it is easier for most people to make a mediocre piece of sound work than a mediocre drawing :-).

The funny thing is that, at this moment, a lot of people are bent on calling this stuff “sound art” simply because it uses sound as a component of the work. I agree with Mr. von Hausswolff, that the term “sound artist” is not one that I would plant on my forehead. In fact, the folks who do tend to wave the “sound art” flag are somewhat conservative, exclusive, and protective of what they will and will not allow to be considered “Sound Art” . . . which I find somewhat problematic. When I showed an installation in Berlin a few years ago, a German newspaper writer came into the space and, after a few minutes of listening, cocked his head like the RCA Victor dog and said, “But it sounds like music!” . . . and he was kind of pissed off. It seemed that sound art was not allowed to “sound like music.” So perhaps I really am a painter who also works with sound :-)

Marina Rosenfeld-Mesinai
04.24.04 04:16

First of all, I love Carl Michael von Hausswolff's vision of concert-hall directors receding into the distance with their pants down! (I'm visualizing Walter Benjamin's backward-flying angel unwittingly aiming straight for the facade of a cartoon Carnegie Hall!) In my experience there is definitely truth to the contention that this kind of (sound) production—whether predominantly musical, spatial/architectural, technological, performative, compositional, transmedial, etc.—has been gaining momentum (and, importantly, audience) for some time, and that the visual-art world has come around to noticing it more quickly (though not that quickly!) than the various musical establishments. The younger practitioners—artists and presenters in their twenties and thirties—who are really committed to an investigative, experimental, or hybrid visual/sonic kind of audio work do seem to be immune to some of the residual modernist prejudices that prevent older critics and institutions from seeing beyond the “medium”—ephemeral, unsalable, etc.

As for personal definitions, I think most artists would prefer not to take on any sub-label; but the world being what it is, I usually insist on “composer” as a complement to the “sound artist” tag, for reasons I've discussed elsewhere (see my recent conversation with Stephen Vitiello at Ditto for the relationship between music and sound art.

What's jumping out at me so far here is the possibility of talking about electronic music as a form of field recording, or sound installation as a kind of architecture-reverent music, or dub-plate production (that mechanical drawing of a single, spiraling line) as a kind of performance. These are just suggestions off the top of my head; but they mean to me that the art category “sound” as we're discussing it lends itself quite magically to a conversation that slips and slides around static, solid media. I've always thought sound was the closest thing to a diagram of thought in the sense that, to actually hear and apprehend it, you have to simultaneously forget and remember, instant by instant.