New York

Hong-Kai Wang, Music While We Work, 2011, multichannel sound and two-channel digital video installation, 39 minutes 17 seconds. Production still. Photo: Chen You-Wei.

Hong-Kai Wang, Music While We Work, 2011, multichannel sound and two-channel digital video installation, 39 minutes 17 seconds. Production still. Photo: Chen You-Wei.


Hong-Kai Wang, Music While We Work, 2011, multichannel sound and two-channel digital video installation, 39 minutes 17 seconds. Production still. Photo: Chen You-Wei.

THE ENCOUNTER between sound and listener is widely held to be uniquely ephemeral, ineluctably tied to real time and immediate presence. Yet long before anyone heard the first tone in “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” the Museum of Modern Art’s survey of recent acoustic practices in the arts, the show’s actual content had nearly been drowned out by a din of speculations and pronouncements about the museum’s role in promoting “sound art.” Although many exhibitions garner advance publicity, the proleptic assessments of “Soundings”—including Blake Gopnik’s New York Times preview, the considerable Internet commentary it attracted, and anxious blog posts by sound-art scholar Seth Kim-Cohen—were such that its reception can be said to have preceded it, rendering the critical conceit of an innocent eye (or ear) more fraught and fraudulent than normal.1 One is thus compelled to address “Soundings” as a phenomenon both emblematic and actual, and to consider how these two aspects mutually define each other. (Full disclosure: I was a speaker on a panel associated with the show on October 16 at MoMA.)

Shorn of the surrounding discussion, “Soundings” would likely have appeared a relatively modest survey of the “new tendencies” variety. Eschewing broad historical scope, curator Barbara London arranged, within a well-thought-out and (refreshingly) acoustically well-battened installation, work by sixteen young and midcareer artists of ten nationalities, whose practices draw upon a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including art, architecture, music, film, performance, and even marine biology. Moving up the stairs through Florian Hecker’s three-channel electroacoustic installation (or, alternately, past Sergei Tcherepnin’s subsonic Motor-Matter Bench, 2013), down a passageway flanked by the fifteen hundred speakers of Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall, 2011 (which inadvertently catch the hairs of visitors leaning close to hear), and beyond the skull-like projection of Camille Norment’s sculpture Triplight, 2008, consisting of a light contained within an empty microphone cage, one enters a somewhat labyrinthine suite of galleries. Inside, the pieces range from the almost entirely unvisual gray room of Jana Winderen’s Ultrafield, 2013, to the understated frieze-like speaker array of Susan Philipsz’s Study for Strings, 2012, to the bright two-channel video projection of Hong-Kai Wang’s Music While We Work, 2011.

These three pieces also typify the show’s acoustical diversity. Winderen recorded the ultrasonic communications of bats and fish, which she lowered to the range of human hearing. Philipsz appropriated Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra, composed in 1943 in Theresienstadt and first performed there by prisoners, and then reduced it to only a single viola part and a single cello part, interspersed with pregnant silences. Wang enlisted retired sugar refinery employees to record the industrial soundscape of their former workplace.

While the Sheetrock-intensive installation makes for some difficulty maneuvering on a crowded afternoon, it provides the space and tranquillity necessary to approach and appreciate each piece in a one-on-one manner, something MoMA’s architecture rarely allows. Even those works not sequestered within their own soundproofed galleries—Marco Fusinato’s stunningly graphic five-part Mass Black Implosion (Shaar, Iannis Xenakis), 2012, and Christine Sun Kim’s more hesitant, score-like drawings, Pianoiss . . . issmo (Worse Finish) and Feedback Aftermath, both 2012—are displayed in ways that permit attentive focus.

Gopnik’s August 1 article describes sound art’s supposed coming of age as signaled by the exhibition’s taking place at MoMA (though, as London indicates in the catalogue, a three-person exhibition titled “Sound Art” actually took place at the museum in 1979) and by the art-world celebrity of Philipsz and Janet Cardiff. He then staunchly differentiates the practices of such “art-trained figures” from those practices more overtly associated with experimental music, which, he notes, have been denigrated as “dial twiddling” and “the ‘honk-tweet’ school.” He later seemingly endorses this terminology, explicitly maintaining that “contemporary sound art of the abstract (or ‘honk-tweet’) school is seriously deficient.”2 As others have indicated more vociferously than I will here, the distinction on which Gopnik’s piece rests seems tendentious, if not wholly specious, not only because so many artists in the show (including Tcherepnin, Hecker, Fusinato, Norment, Winderen, Toshiya Tsunoda, Stephen Vitiello, and Carsten Nicolai) expressly cross the line between artistic installation and musical performance, but also because virtually every history of sound art expressly invokes the legacy of experimental composers such as John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, consummate “dial twiddlers” at certain points in their careers.

Self-serving epithets such as “honk-tweet” clearly attest more to disciplinary anxieties (over competence in musicology, for example) and legitimating purposes (the desire to carve out separate discourses with distinct authority figures) than to critical, historical, archival, or experiential distinctions. Martha Rosler perspicaciously outlined the ideological and institutional motives behind such border policing nearly three decades ago in relation to the art-world ascendancy of video. Her argument applies almost directly to the current situation surrounding sound: “It is the self-imposed mission of the art world to tie video into its boundaries and cut out more than passing reference to film, photography, and broadcast television, as the art world’s competition, and to quash questions of reception, praxis, and meaning in favor of the ordinary questions of originality and ‘touch.’”3 If, in the discourse surrounding sound art, questions of originality and touch cede to those of emotion (Gopnik notes that “wherever [Cardiff’s] ‘Forty Part Motet’ gets installed, a visitor or two often leaves in tears”), the aspiration remains largely the same: Like “video’s history,” sound’s history “is not to be a social history but an art history, one related to, but separate from, that of the other forms of art.”4

Similar to the effects of touch, a trope imported into criticism of video from the discourse surrounding painting, sound art’s emotional impact is often understood to influence recipients without the intercession of social, historical, critical, or artistic knowledge. (This fantasy of unalloyed affectivity is itself a long-standing trope in the reception of music.) Hence, no doubt, the New York Times’ decision to illustrate their exhibition review with photographs of very young children: visual “proof” of sound art’s capacity to provide an untutored, user-friendly, interactive experience.5 One can only wonder how such images, and the discussion surrounding the show, would have differed had London included a piece like Fusinato’s Aetheric Plexus, 2009, which blasts museum visitors—including children!—with 13,200 watts of white light and 105 decibels of white noise.

Today, when the type of video that preoccupied Rosler has both dissolved as a discrete medium and expanded to near ubiquity in the art world, one questions the benefits of shoring up the independence of a category like sound art. Indeed, “Soundings” is perhaps most noteworthy for those moments that resist the impulse or imperative to do so. Engagement with certain pieces compels an attentiveness that is not merely inductive but nearly archaeological or genealogical, implicitly demanding that one trace associated or imbricated references. Appreciation of Jacob Kirkegaard’s AION, 2006, for instance, depends not only on the haunting knowledge that it was filmed and recorded in the area immediately surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, but also on familiarity with Alvin Lucier’s now-classic experimental composition I am sitting in a room, 1970. Like Lucier, Kirkegaard recorded, played back, and rerecorded multiple times the sounds reverberating within an architectural enclosure, procedurally refashioning acoustic decay into a sonic buildup reminiscent of a suspenseful cinema sound track. Similarly, Luke Fowler and Tsunoda’s installation Ridges on the Horizontal Plane, 2011, in which a windblown curtain sets off snippets of sound and equally brief glimpses of enigmatic imagery projected from 16-mm film and two-by-two-inch slides, draws as much or more from the asynchronous audiovisual legacies of structural film and expanded cinema as it does from dedicated acoustic practices like field recording.

Both the diversity and the relative modesty of “Soundings”—which is nowhere near as ambitious as the Centre Pompidou’s “Sonic Process” (2002), or “See This Sound” (2009) at the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, Austria, to name just two relevant precedents—run counter to any attempt to read the exhibition as a manifesto. Yet, if one were to do so, the show would seem to speak to, if not insist upon, inter- or cross-media hybridization, where the confluence of sound and art is not thought of as an exclusive area of overlap, distinct from music as well as from other forms of art, but rather as a hinge between the two realms (sound and art), opening out to the complex histories of the visual and the acoustic in multiple directions. A beginning more than an apotheosis or end, “Soundings” draws from and intertwines not only the legacies of sound and video, but also those of experimental film, post-Minimal sculpture, Fluxus-like performance instructions, drawing, infrasound, field recordings, neo-avant-garde experiments in technology, and musical genres and practices including twentieth-century orchestration, electroacoustic composition, graphic scores, free improvisation, noise, rock, and pop. If the kind of work it presents is to get its due, the challenge is to elicit a critical discourse as diverse and multifaceted as the art being produced, regardless of label.

“Soundings: A Contemporary Score” will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art through November 3.

Branden W. Joseph is Frank Gallipoli professor of modern and contemporary art at Columbia University.


1. Blake Gopnik, “Did You Hear That? It Was Art,” New York Times, August 1, 2013; Geeta Dayal, “Sound Art” (and associated comments), August 6, 2013, Geeta Dayal’s personal blog,; and Seth Kim-Cohen, “Percepts-Concepts-Precepts,” June 17, 2013, and “Percepts-Concepts-Precepts, Part Two: Stones, Storms, and Dreams,” June 21, 2013, Voice of Broken Neck (blog),

2. See the comments in Dayal.

3. Martha Rosler, “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment,” in Illuminating Video: An Essential Guide to Video Art, ed. Doug Hall and Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture, 1990), 43.

4. Ibid., 42–43.

5. Holland Cotter, “Going to MoMA to See the Sounds,” New York Times, August 8, 2013.