Is it possible to write about sound art without listening?
I wondered about this while reading a lamentable recent article in the New York Times on sound art. “Sound art has been on the rise for a decade or two, but it may have last hit the mainstream,” Blake Gopnik writes in his trend piece, bringing up the examples of the new MoMA survey of sound art, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, and the fact that “two major sound installations are to go up in New York in the fall.” (One of these installations, Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, was first exhibited in New York in 2001, at PS1, and has traveled extensively around the world since then.)
Sound art! It’s the New Thing! Gopnik points to “the role MP3s and podcasts now play in our lives,” musing that sound art seems “less esoteric” now because of our “new comfort with the immaterial world of pure data.” This head-scratching interlude ends with the line: “Sound waves floating through air may not seem any more exotic than information flowing through cyberspace.” While sound might seem mysterious or ineffable, anyone who has felt heavy bass booming from a speaker or taken a high school physics class knows that sound waves are physical by their very nature.
The term “sound art” dates back to the 1980s, but sound art existed long before then. Was Dada sound poetry sound art? Could Erik Satie’s “furniture music” be thought of as sound art? Were Russolo’s Futurist noise-making intonarumori devices sound art? The recent MoMA show “Inventing Abstraction” included a reading of Russolo’s 1913 classic “The Art of Noises,” and ample evidence of the interplay between avant-garde music and painting (Schoenberg and Kandinsky, in particular.) The recent MoMA exhibition on Tokyo and the avant-garde displayed inventive graphic scores by composers and artists like Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yasunao Tone–scores typed and drawn by Fluxus exponent George Maciunas. If you walk a few blocks away from MoMA, to Broadway between 45th and 46th, you’ll stumble into a public sound installation: the late sound artist Max Neuhaus’ Times Square, first installed in 1977 and reinstated in 2002.
Contending with “sound art” means contending with a fundamentally interdisciplinary field. It means delving deeply into the history of experimental music–a history that hasn’t been written into most art history textbooks. Is Pauline Oliveros–who was part of the exhibition that coined the term “sound art”, “Sound/Art” at the Sculpture Center in New York in 1984–a sound artist, or is she an experimental musician and composer? Or can she be all of these things? Is she, to use Gopnik’s lamentable language, a “honk-tweeter,” compared to “art-trained figures” like Susan Philipsz and Janet Cardiff? Here’s where the article really stumbles.
“Aligned with experimental music rather than visual art, the honk-tweeters are interested in strange beeps and buzzings for their own sakes,” Gopnik writes.
The language here–“strange beeps and buzzings for their own sakes” — side-swipes entire histories, thousands of artists and composers, a massive body of creative inquiry. If we talked about abstract art this way–let’s say, Pollock’s “strange drips and splatters”, or Twombly’s “weird scribbles”–it wouldn’t just seem dismissive; it would be reactionary.
Gopnik appears to admire more accessible, conventionally musical pieces of sound art; works like Cardiff’s crowd-pleasing ‘The 40 Part Motet’, based on a recording of a 16th-century choral piece by Thomas Tallis, are easier to digest than many overtly abstract electronic works–those “strange beeps and buzzings” he refers to. Gopnik paraphrases Australian sound scholar Caleb Kelly, writing that “[Kelly] believes that pieces like Ms. Cardiff’s “Motet,” or the riffs on Hollywood soundtracks by the Swiss art star Christian Marclay, will still matter in a century, whereas today’s honk-tweeters (“dial twiddlers,” Ms. Philipsz calls them) will likely disappear, if they keep doing retreads of John Cage’s postwar innovations.”
One can only hope that Kelly didn’t actually say that, because every part of that sentence seems misguided. Let’s put this talk about what will “still matter in a century” aside, because it’s too ludicrous to even contemplate. Are these so-called “honk-tweeters” simply “doing retreads of John Cage’s postwar innovations”? There seems to be a basic lack of understanding here of Cage, his work, his impact, and what his “postwar innovations” really were. David Tudor, to give one example, was most definitely a “honk-tweeter”–a brilliant musician, composer, and artist in Cage’s camp who blazed his own very impressive trail.
Let us not forget that the “Swiss art star” Christian Marclay spent much of his long career as a “honk-tweeter”; I witnessed many of these Marclay concerts myself in little venues like the late Tonic on the Lower East Side. Pay attention to those “honk-tweeters” and “dial-twiddlers”; sometimes those people alter the course of history. But most of all, listen with open ears.