PRINT November 2007


sound art



SOUND ART IS an uncertain category and practice. The label itself—in circulation since the mid-1980s but only widespread during the past decade—is dismissed by some prominent practitioners and used sloppily by critics and curators. Visual artists predominantly wonder whether sound art is not really just music, and many musicians either reject the arty whiff of the term or latch onto it in hopes of gaining art-world credibility. Those for whom the term describes a genuine category of artistic practice distinct from visual art and music tend to disagree about its contents and their provenance, about the very nature of the field and its history.

Perhaps this tenuousness is due to the absence of a rigorous critical and historical assessment of sound installation, sound sculpture, and allied practices. Such an analysis has certainly not come from art-historical scholarship, which manifests a peculiar allergy to the sonic, unless it is attached to video or performance. Despite its breadth, currency, and theoretical savvy, Hal Foster et al.’s Art Since 1900 (2004), for example, makes no reference to sound art or to any sound artist—not Max Neuhaus, Christian Marclay, or Christina Kubisch, all prominent artists who for decades have exhibited in leading galleries and museums. This omission is all the more unjustified given that the emergence of sound installation in the late ’60s was spurred by and responsive to the same concerns as Minimalism’s emphasis on immersion and relationality, Conceptualism’s dematerialization of the art object, and the turn toward site-specificity in general. By the same token, the art-historical treatment of seminal installations such as Michael Asher’s untitled project at Pomona College in California in 1970 tends to be solely visual, neglecting Asher’s keen attention to sound and the shaping of auditory experience.

However, the open-ended sonic forms and often site-specific location of sound installation also thwart musicological analysis; and music history treats sound art, if at all, as a footnote to post-Cagean experimental music. Douglas Kahn’s book Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (1999) presents a magisterial account of the early and mid-twentieth-century context out of which sound art emerged, but it leaves off where sound art begins. Kahn’s theoretical sophistication, however, is extraordinarily rare among critics and theorists of the audio arts whose tools are generally restricted to physical and phenomenological description. Indeed, in 1989, Dan Lander, the Canadian artist credited with inventing the term sound art, lamented that, in comparison with the visual arts, sound art lacks “any substantial critical discourse.” Nearly two decades later, Lander’s assessment remains on the mark.

Two recent books, Alan Licht’s Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories and Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, promise to change this situation. Both offer critical histories of the art form that uncover its roots, articulate its relationships to music and visual art, and survey recent developments. Each book is written by a critic who is also an artist—Licht, a writer, composer, and guitarist, is a ubiquitous presence on New York’s downtown music scene; LaBelle is an American scholar, curator, and sound artist based in Copenhagen.

Licht’s book is presented in the standard art-book format, the author’s text woven through pages of glossy photos. This archive of images is lovely and valuable; but it is symptomatic of visual art’s bewilderment with sound that pages of images far outnumber pages of text and dwarf the enclosed CD, a thin collection of audio material to which the text makes little or no reference. At a mere ninety pages, the body of the text is less a book than an extended essay, half of which consists of a gratuitous inventory of artists’ forays into music—a topic with little bearing on sound-art practice. Licht’s writing is generally colloquial and imprecise, a collection of off-the-cuff observations and anecdotes that often reads more like a Wikipedia entry than a rigorous history or analysis. Quotations routinely go unreferenced (or referenced to the wrong source); names of artists and compositions are misspelled; and other errors abound.

At the outset, Licht takes on the confusion and disagreement over the term sound art and offers a definition meant to situate it in relation to music and visual art. His definition is premised on an idiosyncratic and dubious distinction between, on the one hand, “time-based and narrative-driven art forms” (music, theater, literature, and film) bent on entertainment and “depend[ent] on popular opinion and public demand,” and, on the other, visual art, which is defined by space instead of time and dependent only on the patronage of wealthy collectors and institutions. Licht locates sound art firmly on the latter half of the divide, finding in it all the aloofness and abstraction characteristic of modern painting and sculpture. “Music speaks to the listener as a human being,” clarifies Licht later in the book; “sound art, unless it’s employing speech, speaks to a listener as a living denizen of the planet, reacting to sound and environment as any animal would.” His muddled taxonomy of the arts notwithstanding, what Licht is after is something akin to the Lacanian distinction between the symbolic and the real applied to audio by Friedrich Kittler in the text Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986). Where music, like speech, articulates sound according to a culturally regulated system and a measured organization of time, sound art tends to engage sound as pure physical stuff and to present time in its fluid and interminable duration.

Despite his book’s ostensible subject matter, Licht’s own sympathies seem to lie on the musical half of this divide. He is far more comfortable discussing what sound art is not and exploring its genealogical connections to radio, cinema, experimental music, and the history of recording than he is discussing sound installations themselves. There are occasional flashes of insight, such as his intriguing hypothesis that the site-specificity characteristic of much sound installation is a response to the dislocation of sound from source that is a trait of telephone, radio, and audio recording in general. Licht also briefly but helpfully explores the cross-fertilization between the auditory and the visual arts that took place in early-’60s New York, where Walter De Maria played drums in a band with La Monte Young, who dedicated compositions to Robert Morris. Indeed, Licht is at his best with this sort of nerdy chronicling. Similarly, he is fond of the taxonomical sorting of works under thematic rubrics (sound and Earthworks; sound and spatiality; etc.) that reveal hidden commonalities. In general, it is clear that Licht has an abundant array of facts at his disposal. But one wants much more—namely, an exploration of the meaning and significance of these facts, a compelling historical story, and a genuinely critical and theoretical analysis of sound works that reveals what they do and why they are important.

LaBelle’s Background Noise delivers exactly this. The most comprehensive and sophisticated discussion of sound art to date, the book demonstrates an impressive command of art and music history, and offers an argument that challenges received wisdom about sound-art practice. LaBelle identifies a tension already evident in what he deems sound art’s “point of origin”: John Cage’s infamous “silent” composition 4'33“ (1952). While on one hand, Cage exemplifies the naturalistic tendency noted by Licht—the effort, as Cage put it, “to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments”—on the other hand, 4'33” also creates an opening onto everyday life, highlighting the social and contextual complexity of the world we hear. This latter point is what interests LaBelle. At the heart of his book is an effort to shift sound-art discourse away from naturalistic interpretation and toward a discussion of the embodied, relational, contextual, social, and political nature of sound. Ears, bodies, walls, and buildings, he suggests, are membranes that divide interior from exterior, the individual from the social; and it is characteristic of sound to permeate these membranes and to draw the terms of these oppositions into relation. The work of Alvin Lucier, for example, is traditionally read as a series of inquiries into the physics and phenomenology of sound. But LaBelle points out that Lucier’s projects are frequently prompted by very personal or social concerns (e.g., an attempt to eliminate the artist’s own stutter or group navigation in the dark via sound) and that his oeuvre manifests “an obsession with the dynamics of subjective experience.” To take another example, Neuhaus’s installations, which sonically tint rooms and sites with ambient drones, are read by LaBelle as a kind of Foucauldian consideration of the ways that sound and architecture both constrain and liberate the movements of bodies in space. Indeed, sound art, for LaBelle, perfectly exemplifies Nicolas Bourriaud’s paradigm of relational aesthetics insofar as it “create[s] the conditions for different experiences of social space and social behavior.”

LaBelle’s argument, though, is not always entirely convincing. He seems to be attracted to it because, like Licht, he believes there is little to be said about sound as a nonsymbolic, nondiscursive category. There is thus a sort of humanistic presupposition in these accounts that prevents them from fully considering sound art as an exploration of the virtual sonic flux that precedes and exceeds human contribution. In the same way, both books too readily accept Neuhaus’s own maxim that while music is a temporal art, sound art is a spatial one. Sound is irreducibly temporal; and, in my view, sound art powerfully manifests time—not the pulsed time of music but the deeper time of duration, temporal flow itself. Hence sound art’s coincidence and connection with Minimalism, Earthworks, installation, and other forms that, as Michael Fried famously complained, substitute infinite duration for transcendent presentness.

This humanistic presupposition makes sound art rather mysterious for Licht, whereas it provokes LaBelle to an ingenious and often persuasive alternative account of the practice. Even in its failure, however, Licht’s book is valuable for its very attempt to define sound art and to sketch its history. And though LaBelle’s heterodox reading calls for competing interpretations, his book ably fills a significant gap in art history and sets the terms for a genuinely critical and theoretical reflection on sound art. It gives sound artists and their audience not only something to hear but also something to think and talk about.

Christoph Cox is an associate professor of philosophy at Hampshire College, Amherst, MA.