Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College

“Soundings” was a vast smorgasbord of a show, more akin to a Beaubourg extravaganza than anything normally experienced in an American museum. It had as its goal nothing less than a survey of the marriage of art and sound in this century.

The show was divided into four main categories: “Paintings, objects and books that sound or imply sound”; “Instruments as sculpture and sculpture as instruments”; “Records and tapes”; and “Sound installations/Documentation of sound projects.” The loveliest work in the first category came from the dervish days just prior to World War I, when Europe was spinning with a creativity that would change the course of art. Representing that period were the audio-intensive paintings of Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Pablo Picasso, and Gino Severini. These works strive after a synesthetic ideal which was enthusiastically reinforced by the rhythmic “calligrams” of Guillaume Apollinaire, the impossibly kinetic musings of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s periodical Futurist Words in Liberty, and the inspired ramblings of Carlo Carrà’s manifesto, The Painting of Colors, Sounds, Smells. A dollop of American work from the infancy of the century included Synchromist paintings by Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, as well as some seemingly arbitrary watercolors by Georgia O’Keeffe. This section, which curiously didn’t even make reference to the Russian Constructivists and Suprematists, worked more as an informal bouquet than a definitive arrangement. The postwar treasures on view included Arthur Dove’s still reverberant Fog Horns, two of László Moholy-Nagy’s definitively elegant porcelain-enamel-on-steel “telephone pictures” (Telephonbild EM 2 and EM 3), Man Ray’s 1958 replica of his 1923 Object to be Destroyed (in which he did for the metronome what Marcel Duchamp did for the chocolate grinder), and (from much later, but spiritually akin) two witty Robert Rauschenberg objects—the nail-studded Music Box and the Rube Goldbergian Dry Cell, made in collaboration with Billy Klüver. Looking particularly seminal in this context, not surprisingly, was Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise, 1916. Its catalogue description—“ball of twine between two brass plates, joined by four long screws, containing a small unknown object added by Walter Arensberg”—makes clear yet again the simplicity of means with which Duchamp effected his anecdotal miracles. Also looking significantly prescient were a smattering of Fluxus pieces from the ’60s by George Brecht, Dick Higgins, and Alison Knowles. The Fluxus inclusion was particularly salutary insofar as it honored (albeit discreetly) an off-center, spunky band of artists whose work and influence has been almost pathologically ignored. Interestingly, the most up-to-the-minute-looking pieces here were by Jean Tinguely; absolutely, unapologetically ugly, they flaunt their secondhand hardware with great panache. Tinguely’s love affair with mechanical detritus resulted in some of the best god-awful sculpture of the ’60s. His Tokyo Gal, 1967, with its combination of flywheel, radio parts, and bundled feathers, is the apogee of grandiloquent tackiness.

With a few notable exceptions, the “Instruments as sculpture and sculpture as instruments” category could have been subtitled “Objects for Corporate Foyers.” But mixed in with glitzy, moderne pieces by François Baschet, Harry Bertoia, Alexander Calder, and Nicholas Schöffer were the fabulous instruments of Reinhold Marxhausen and the inimitable Harry Partch. In Partch’s instruments in particular, there is a fusion of function and appearance which is very rare; Partch was a bit like a musical Simon Rodia, and his unique, beautifully constructed instruments, muted as they are on exhibition, suggest sound with great authority.

The “Record and Tapes” category was the most perplexing inclusion. Better than half of the artists included were represented by their participation on one of five anthology albums and by and large will not be remembered for their contribution to audio art. With the lone exception of Partch, none of the entrants could be considered primarily (or conventionally) composers. As far as the art/rock fusion is concerned, Yoko Ono was represented by Fly (jacket design by Fluxist George Maciunas), Laurie Anderson and Julia Heyward by a cut each on One Ten Records’ Airwaves, 1977, and Terry Allen by “Truckload of Art,” from Lubbock (on everything), and that’s it. The selection, on the whole, was disappointingly armchair archival.

The “Sound installations/Documentation of sound projects” was the hands-on section of the show, and its most stunning component. Here it became clear how radically artists working with sound are attempting to alter the traditional viewer/object relationship in art. Wandering through these sensory environments was like a stroll through a high-tech evocation of the Suburra in Fellini Satyricon. Cubicle after cubicle promised more than visual pleasures. The most strangely beautiful, particularly in the way it theatricalized its participants (the word “viewer” simply doesn’t work in this context), was Meredith Monk’s Silver Lake with Dolmen Music, a set from her performance Recent Ruins, 1980. A circle of six chairs is set on a Mylar oval ringed with stones. The overhead lighting is softly dramatic; the Mylar gives off an icy glow. Headphones are suspended over each chair, and the image of participants settling in, headphones in place, is unforgettable. As they become lost in an intimacy with Monk’s plaintive Dolmen Music, the expressions on their faces (almost all inevitably closed their eyes) makes the space inviolate, and shows people in private reveries normally unimaginable in public.

Equally visually seductive was Robert Morris’ Hearing, 1972, a grouping of an elemental chair (copper), bed (lead), and table (galvanized aluminum) on a raised bed of sand. Headphones on either side of the cubicle play back a tape analyzing the relationship of sound and vision while punning on the etymology of “hearing,” as both procedure and phenomenon. In contrast to the embracing nature of Monk’s piece, Morris’ is almost forbidding—only an art anarchist would have dared to disturb the bed of sand on which the furniture archetypes were arranged. In “Soundings,” the dichotomy between these two pieces recurred frequently in a variety of guises.

Another interesting contrast was between the cubicles of Laurie Anderson and John Cage. Anderson’s Untitled, a reconstruction of an installation from 1977, is dominated by a jukebox stocked with ten records from ten of the artist’s pieces, which in turn are documented on the walls. For a quarter, the jukebox plays one of the ten selections. Cage’s cacophonous 331/3 was a slightly pared-down version of a piece he presented in 1969, utilizing 12 turntables, 12 stereo amplifiers, 12 pairs of speakers, and 300 randomly chosen records. Participants sort through the piles of records and program their selection into the din. The activity in Cage’s installation was slightly frenetic, rather like that of shoppers at a white sale. Record choices seemed to be made with some care, only to ironically lose identity when co-opted into the greater collective sound. It is perfect Cage: authoritarian democracy in action. In Anderson’s installation, on the other hand, participants acted like tired conventioneers at a record promotion, dutifully plugging the machine with quarters (I opted for “It’s Not the Bullet: a Reggae Tune for Chris Burden”). They were duly rewarded with their Anderson favorites. But as much as I like Anderson (a lot), the piece isn’t particularly rewarding as art. It is so literally what it is that, next to Cage’s rigorous mayhem, it comes off as a piece of cute commercial flab.

Disparity of scale resulted in some interesting juxtapositions, especially between Bernhard Leitner’s Cross Space, 1977, and Connie Beckley’s The Note, 1979, nearby. Leitner’s piece takes up a great deal of space and involves a large geometric throne that, when occupied, exposes the participant to a great deal of nonorchestrated noise. Beckley’s Note takes up a tiny amount of space; from a spotlit, amplified bottle issues a woman’s voice intoning a love letter over catches of “Ebb Tide.” Leitner’s piece suggests the alienating dysfunction of power; Beckley’s, the pleasure of intimate discourse. In the end the wooing in Beckley’s humorously erotic diversion proved more compelling than the manipulation of Leitner’s aggressively formal exercise. The proximity of the two pieces set up a colloquy suggesting some essential differences between male and female impulses in art making. It may have been a red herring, but I think not; at the very least, it reinforced the temptation to attribute male and female principles to works of art.

A more elementary contrast differentiates Bruce Nauman’s Acoustic Wall, 1969, and Liz Phillips’ Sunspots I & II, 1979–81. Nauman’s Wall is a certifiable American classic. Stretching 33 feet, rising 9, it is a Minimalist sound baffle which consumes noise and gives nothing in return—nothing except silence. It’s an austerely romantic accomplishment. Phillips’ Sunspots is anything but minimal. Looking deceptively simple—a copper cable arching into space from a cylindrical base is its most attention-grabbing element—the piece utilizes a ransom in hardware: when sensors are triggered by bodies passing through its expansive range (30-by-60-by-12 feet), it generates a lush encompassing field of sound. For the most technology-dependent piece in the show, its goals are lyrically gracious. Along with Douglas Hollis’ Wind Ensemble (an outdoor installation of upright metal tubing which emits subtle, wind-activated hums), Acoustic Wall and Sunspots were the most refined experiments in pure sound here.

Regrettably, two very different, very influential sound artists, Vito Acconci and Max Neuhaus, were represented only through documentation. Acconci’s rather confrontational edge in particular would have been welcome. Still, audio-tapes of three major pieces—Where Are We Now (Who Are We Anyway?), 1976, Other Voices for a Second Sight, 1974, and The People Mobile, 1979—were available on headphones. Other artists present only in documentation included Michael Brewster, Leif Brush, and Harold Lehr. Although documentation is ultimately the moveable art product for many of these artists, and the graphic presentation of the work can appear elegantly complete in itself (notably Michael Brewster’s circuitry drawing and Max Neuhaus’ manipulated photographs of sound paths), there still remained a void that no amount of concept could fill. The exhibition worked so successfully as a sensory environment that when it withdrew into documentation there was a sense of “less is less.” This was especially true during the first two weeks of “Soundings” when David Tudor and Composers Inside Electronics were in residence with Rainforest, the ultimate vindication of “more is more.”

Rainforest was originally commissioned by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 1968 and was revamped as an autonomous environment in 1973. The catalogue description helpfully simplifies the densely layered nature of the piece as follows: “. . . a collaborative environmental work, combining in space the live sounds derived from the resonant characteristics of physical materials which take the form of suspended sculptures and found-objects.” What words cannot easily indicate is the absolute readjustment of one’s normal perceptual mode which is occasioned on entering Rainforest. The space shivers with raised and suspended objects which, while instantly recognizable as the most prosaic of found objects (trash bins, seashells, scrap metal, and so on), appear to have undergone a fabulous, distancing sea change. The space itself is charged with resonating sound which is resolved into distinct aural vignettes as one approaches individual objects; as one’s ear contacts the object, something close to shared respiration is established. Because the objects are at a variety of heights, a lovely, random choreography emerges as visitors accommodate their stances to the altitudes of the objects to which they have been lured. Rainforest produces the kind of consuming perceptual change that Tennyson attributed to his visitor on the island of the Lotos-Eaters: “And deep-asleep he seemed, yet all awake / And music in his ears his beating heart did make.” (Other artists came into residency following Tudor and Composers Inside Electronics. I did not see/hear them, but they deserve to be noted: Alvin Lucier, Peter Phillips, pianist Richard Cameron playing Erik Satie’s Vexations, Earle Brown, and The Glass Orchestra.)

What emerged from “Soundings” was the awareness that the synesthesia dreamed of when the world was just learning to pluck its voice from the air is now possible—that technology is capable of glutting the sensorium beyond any feast envisioned by Trimalchio. What “Soundings” stated, with some eloquence, were the limitations of art as we know it and the potential of art as it can be. It was, in every sense, a momentous event.

Richard Flood