Sound art.

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.

27 thoughts on “Sound art.

  1. Graham Dunning

    I think I agree with both of you to some extent. Or rather I agree with you (about how ridiculous it is to ignore all “abstract music,” as I’d call the “honks and tweets”) and at the same time I agree with Seth Kim-Cohen’s desire towards a “non- cochlea sound art.”
    ie, I think that a lot of stuff out there is all Sound without the Art. Sound for its own sake can get pretty boring pretty fast. I need something to get my teeth into. Lots of experimental music ends up sounding very samey – you hear the process rather than the input, ends up a homogenised mess. I’m not sure what the equivalent would be in visual art.
    And yeah, as you say, sound is fundamentally cross-disciplinary.
    Anyway, thanks for this article and for bringing the other one to light for me. I’m currently putting together an course on “Experimental Sound Art” (the college’s title, not mine) and these are the issues that are the real meat for me at the moment – will get the students thinking.

  2. pilastr

    Entertainment leans so heavily on repetition in music that when it’s absent many listeners give up immediately. A bridging step: Play that “homegenised mess” multiple times, just like a poem requires multiple readings, not so you can search for the refrain, but to find what’s possible without conventions of repetition. Pictures of infinity, as Sun Ra called them. Word of warning, it may prove hard to go back.

    1. Graham Dunning

      Thanks, totally agree but not quite the point I was making!
      My own stuff (at the moment) is very repetitive, eg:
      The sort of music that often leaves me cold is the acousmatic/electroacoustic stuff which often seems to have the same palette of sounds regardless of the input source. The broad spectrum of frequencies individuated, the glitches, the almost-too-high-to-hear drones, the granular delays, the fourier transforms etc….
      It’s justified under the Pierre Schaeffer “sound object” way of composition but for me the “processed” sound of it is a bit of a cliche now. Needs less high end computer programming wizardry and more repetition!

  3. Blake Gopnik

    Hi Geeta — Blake Gopnik here, the author of that lamentable NYT article. Thanks for taking the time to think and talk about it. May I just say that much of your annoyance with it may come from all the historical contextualization that wasn’t in it — simply for lack of space. Take a look at Thursday’s blog entry at, and you’ll see that I nod to some of that history, and its recent recovery within the art world. I’m afraid, though, that I do agree with Seth Kim-Cohen that contemporary sound art of the abstract (or “honk-tweet”) school is seriously deficient – just as I find almost all of current painted abstraction to be an almost pointless retread of the great abstraction of years gone by, by Pollock and Twombly and other old heroes you mention. Any CURRENT Pollockian abstractionist would indeed, I fear, deserve the title of “drip splatterer”. (And the MoMA show, like my article, was about CURRENT sound art; I have nothing but respect for its Cage-ian roots, and for Oliveros.)

  4. J. Lavender

    The opposition between cochlear and non-cochlear sonic art seems to me to be an unhelpful distinction, particularly when couched in such value-laden terms as “honk-tweeters”. The whole notion that sonic art needs its ‘conceptual turn’, as Kim-Cohen has it, risks eliding exactly what was at stake in the experimental music tradition, as well as in the history of sonic art itself: the specific articulation of material, experience, and meaning allowed for by sound, as opposed to other media. If sound is to become just another vehicle for an inter- and transmedial practice, well it hardly seems worth talking about “sound art” at all. But if what is at stake is an artistic practice that is both specific to sound and able to bear critical and conceptual valences, then there’s little benefit to reinstating a dichotomy that cuts along those lines. Needless to say, many of the voices in that article who are critical of the “honk-tweeters” are also content to evoke the specific qualities of sonority and the mechanics of hearing, so one expects that even they might not be in quite the rush towards a “fully mindful” sound art as it initially appears.

  5. Caleb kelly

    I’m very interested in the comments on the article floating around.
    I think that sound art is a problematic term, as I have written often, but the introduction here of honk tweet is causing further problems. I would contend that Marclay spent much of his career working in the area of plinky plonk and never has he been a honk tweeter. (And yes I write that with a smile)
    More prudent would have been to discuss the sound art as purity, as phenomena approach in art. This approach is aligned with a new modernism and I believe has limited interest. (As pointed out by Graham above)
    I did suggest that Cardiff and Marclay would be remembered, but for Cardiff there are plenty of better works than the one quoted. The speaker work for me is far too literal in its use of spacialisation.

  6. Jon Abbey

    ” I do agree with Seth Kim-Cohen that contemporary sound art of the abstract (or “honk-tweet”) school is seriously deficient”

    well, I agree with the dozens of people who have taken the position following your dreadful article that neither you not SKC have any idea what you’re talking about. just because your editor assigns you to cover a ‘sound art’ show doesn’t make you qualified to do so, and it certainly doesn’t mean anyone should take your drivel seriously.

    anyway, name names or STFU with your ridiculous made-up terms. of course there are terrible abstract musicians but there are great ones too, right now. sticking to people in this show, have you heard Toshiya Tsunoda’s 2012 release with Michael Pisaro, crosshatches? it’s not on Spotify, so probably not.

  7. Jared

    Although, yes, the NYT article is overall quite vapid, Gopnick is right that there are some serious problems with abstract, purely-phenomenological based sound art. The important point here – the real crux – is the question of what is at stake in sound art. Abstract sound artists – by presenting context-free, ostensibly ‘pure’ ‘sounds-in-themselves’ (a extremely-problematic Cagian notion still prevalent within experimental music) for mere aesthetic appreciation – practice an embarrassingly belated and a-political form of Modernism that is incapable engaging with the larger world. As Kim-Cohen and others rightly argue, the discipline of sound art (however provisionally framed) is very slow in moving forward, and is still mired in problematics long since worked through by the gallery arts.

    With regards to Jon’s comment, the point here is not that there are some ‘terrible’ and some ‘great’ abstract musicians (a distinction you are undoubtedly drawing only on purely aesthetic grounds) but rather the persistence and shortcomings of this ‘abstract approach’ to sound itself. This approach may be fine, perhaps, if one is only looking to music and sound art to provide nothing more than an a-political and and entertaining aesthetic ‘experience’ (like any other capitalist pastime) but others demand more and want to more the discipline forward.

  8. Charles Eppley

    i think that part of the problem – perhaps a large part of it – is that the art world, including curators, art historians, and critics alike, are simply too quick to draw the Cage card. it is easy to assume that we all really know who Cage was, and what his work was, and how that work (music, ideas, actions, etc.) proliferated so widely, quickly, and maybe even a little misguidedly, throughout the arts in the 1960s… but rarely does the person who invokes this history actually take time to consider, much less explicate, what it is they actually mean to say with the reference. so, we end up with sentiments like ‘oh, listen, yes, i get it, we all get it, ok. well, let’s move on to the real art’ which are unfortunately dismissive and generally off-base, especially when talking about works from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. we should be thrilled that, for the moment, sound is being given such wide consideration — but it seems that much of the conversation hasn’t actually been all that serious, much less invested in a conversation surrounding the complicated history of sound in the arts.

  9. Michael Pisaro

    Quoting Jared: “Gopnick is right that there are some serious problems with abstract, purely-phenomenological based sound art. The important point here – the real crux – is the question of what is at stake in sound art. Abstract sound artists – by presenting context-free, ostensibly ‘pure’ ‘sounds-in-themselves’.”

    Could you give me an example of this “context-free” situation? I don’t think such a category exists (i.e, to me it seems a bit like a straw man). Adorno, I think, demonstrated that _regardless_ of what a music-creator says or thinks about what they are doing, what they do will not be context-free (i.e., it can’t be). Thus: Is the question really about whether one is “conscious of the question”? Or is it rather about some larger (and perhaps as yet indescribable) layer on which the “non-abstract” takes place without it being fully theorized? Look at what T.J. Clark discovered about the art of turn-of-the-century Paris without any of the artists being directly conscious of it (in “The Painting of Modern Life” and elsewhere).

    Isn’t the art-world (i.e., the capitalized world of large museums and expensive galleries) a place in which often the theory takes the place of real engagement with the issues theorized? Shouldn’t we resist the commodification of the alternative to the already commodified world of the successful visual artist? I think that (my colleague) Michael Asher understood the complexities and inherent contradictions of this situation in the art world very well. I haven’t seen this level of subtlety in the discussions of sound art (or experimental music, which I prefer) to this point, in the critiques of the so-called abstract music, whether it is called sound art or not.

  10. Jon Abbey

    Jared, it’s so much more of a nuanced discussion in 2013 than ‘abstract’ or not, there are a trillion gradations in every direction. once you include a field recording, is it no longer abstract? it’s such a simplistic dichotomy, it strikes me as close to useless. of course, there’s a good chance the music we’re all referencing here with these overarching terms doesn’t actually overlap that much.

    and Charles is mostly right although way more tolerant than me of the art world’s dilettantism. I guess it’s nice when the official art world deigns to notice the adjacent sound world, but that doesn’t change the fact that the leading edge of experimental music tends to develop in tiny rooms holding a few dozen people in Tokyo and Berlin and Seoul and Vienna and London and NYC and Paris, etc., not at MoMA (not that that is the goal here, I’m aware). it’d be nice in this era of lightning communication if the art world wasn’t a few generations behind that leading edge, but maybe that’s still too much to ask for. as I said on FB, I’m glad there is still at least one curator in NYC like Lawrence Kumpf (Issue Project).

  11. Malcolm Riddoch

    I also thought the Gopnik piece illustrated the old hackneyed art music vs contemporary art polemic quite nicely. What I find most amusing though is the notion that any aesthetic form in the industrial wasteland of 21st century artistic practice can be valued either against its supposed naive ‘honk tweet’ neo modernism or for its apparently crafty contemporary conceptualism … ‘non cochlear’ sound art may very well be the latest and perhaps ultimate fashion statement in artistic immaterialism but I thought we’d already disappeared up our collective postmodern sphincter by at least the early 2000’s? And what else is new/s in the past decade apart from that what is validated in the art industry is the derivation of the next trend in corporate art investment?

    I do enjoy Philipz’ approach to her sound art though, and I personally find the Cardiff Motet as musically sublime as a choir in full tilt. But most of all I love the passionate need of some to philosophically validate their own peculiar tastes in sound and art in a never ending reaction against modernism as if they can offer something new … so modernist, so 21st century, mired in the eternal return of late 80’s postmodern conceptualism. Is it time to move the polemic on? Or is this vicious treadmill all we have?

  12. Robert Crouch

    I think it’s also useful to note that in the Gopnik piece, no less than three paragraphs are dedicated to fleshing out the market value of certain artists in the MoMA exhibition, contradicting his “hail Mary” comment above, “May I just say that much of your annoyance with it may come from all the historical contextualization that wasn’t in it — simply for lack of space.” I get it, critical validation in the MFA fueled visual art world falls neatly along the same market-driven lines, and here is another attempt to validate so-called “sound art” as a genre by reifying that system.

    It’s unfortunate that he also decided to privilege this ridiculous binary, cochlear vs. non-cochlear sound art. I would argue that much of the work in the show would be better served by not contextualizing it as “sound art” in the first place. These are conceptual pieces, much like any other widely understood “conceptual” works. Putting Philipz as a primary artist in a “sound art” show makes about as much sense as curating Lawrence Weiner as a major figure in a painting show.

    Then again, the fault lies with the institution itself, not necessarily Gopnik or even the exhibition curator. MoMA “finally” does a show on sound, and all we get is a scatter-shot selection of 16 artist?

  13. Carl Rosman

    I must disagree with one thing:

    “…Cardiff’s crowd-pleasing ‘The 40 Part Motet’, based on a recording of a 16th-century choral piece by Thomas Tallis…”

    It’s not ‘based on’ a recording of Spem in Alium. It _is_ a recording of Spem in Alium. Yes, she’s put it in surround, but it was written to be performed in surround. Yes, she’s included the singers chattering to each other… but permit me to suggest that the piece would work without the chatter but without the Tallis it would be pretty jolly pointless. Yes, one has the possibility to alter one’s perspective, but I must honestly submit that only someone who really thinks that choral music comes out of loudspeakers instead of humans (and/or someone who’s never heard of psychoacoustics) would see anything remotely revelatory in that.

    To be perfectly honest I don’t see how she can claim authorship of that work with a straight face.

  14. Pingback: » Passion for sound art.

  15. Joe Hampton

    the most disturbing part of the nyt piece is the inclusion of kim-cohen’s statement “if the (visual) art world is now willing to embrace sound, it should do so according to the same criteria of quality and engagement that it demands of other media.” critics and curators who attempt to quantify the “criteria of quality” for abstract and experimental works will murder the works and sully the “genre” by subjecting both to historical precedent or arbitrary values. the name of cage will always be invoked, implicitly or otherwise, as the figure without whom current sound artists would not exist. in some cases that is true; in others it is quite probably not; in all cases it is pointless, and i am sure cage would be the first to say this, as he would also be the first to eviscerate a “criteria of quality” for experimental musics. also, let’s not forget that many of cage’s ideas were also retreads, the most obvious example being the much-celebrated _cheap imitation_. we are already at the point where the decision to make a sound (or not) is a retread. it is probably not worth discussing further. ideas and concepts count a great deal, but what matters most of all is the engagement of the individual, for whom the only criteria should be “do i enjoy these sounds” and/or “does the process that brought them to life interest me?”

  16. Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan

    I think Kim-Cohen’s distinction of cochlear/non-cochlear sound art is useful as a descriptive framework, and I find it helpful when generating ideas for projects. But where Kim-Cohen and others lose me is their normative attitude that there is one true approach to sound art and all others are irrelevant.

  17. Dean Rosenthal

    Name-checking seems to me a weak strategy in defense of any argument, although the context is already historical, so that this can’t be avoided. I support that – what Joe Hampton writes: “the decision to make a sound (or not) is a retread”. That might be perceived as an attack in certain circles; still there is probably an aspect of reality here. I like the idea that we, as auditors, musicians, the audience, the public, the artists, should ask “do I enjoy these sounds?” and “does this process that brought them to life interest me?”. I ask myself these questions about my own music daily and find my judgement of other music, honk-tweet (how offensive, even if tongue-in-cheek), gallery-friendly, mass-marketed or otherwise, based on the premise that if I am not interested in the sounds I am hearing, I have little interest in how they’re made. And yet I have found that’s not always true, though, and I think the thing to remain open to may be the cross-polination of the commodified and the esoteric. Sometimes the process is more interesting than the result.

  18. Ben Boretz

    “If you know what you’re doing, do you have to know what it’s called?” Only if you need to sell something, certainly not for the benefit of aesthetic experience or discerning special qualities in an expressive work – quite the contrary, in fct.

  19. Jesse

    my disappointment in pieces like this is that generally i learn of them through the dust raised on social media (or in this case, from the musicians who played my concert series friday night), only to discover, invariably, the piece is much ado about nothing. i welcome considered and well-researched critiques of what i am into, dialectics are fun! but the NYT shares, along with MOMA, or, in my backyard, the walker art center, a very different function than that.
    the real edge of experimental music can be discovered, as Jon suggests, very easily; one has to be clear about this sort of puffery – it has the appearance of being a jaunty piece on sound art, but suffers from the dismissive dilettantism that attends such ill-advised dispatches. downbeat (and ken burns) did the same disservice to cecil taylor, for example.
    add to Jon’s roster of cities Minneapolis and Chicago, and you have quite a network of venues/curators and enlightened audiences available to writers genuinely curious about experimental music.

  20. Joe Grimm

    We already have a robust and ongoing tradition of abstract sound art. It’s called music. It doesn’t require validation from MOMA.

    The trouble here is there’s this apparent need to distinguish music from sound art, to know where a particular work fits. So inevitably the easiest way to distinguish sound art from music is to privilege the semantic elements over and above the sensual elements. This works up to a point, but if you follow Seth Kim-Cohen’s line all the way out, you end up with a sound art that is impoverished.

    Imagine if painting was held to a “non-retinal” standard. How would we even begin to think about Albert Oehlen, Mary Heilmann, Gerhardt Richter, John Currin? In visual art, we’ve long ago moved on from Duchamp’s idea of non-retinal art, toward a shifting field of evaluative criteria that gives both formalism and conceptualism a seat at the table.

    Gopnick and Kim-Cohen are instituting a double standard. For sound art (but not painting), the sensual elements are redundant to a piece’s critical evaluation.

    This is a healthy and productive debate. On the merits, Gopnick and Kim-Cohen are flatly wrong. But they are at least serving a useful purpose by staking out a position that can help us figure out why their arguments feel so out of tune.

  21. Steve Greene

    Thank you Geeta for your thoughtful response to Gopnick’s article. I’ve been looking forward to this show since it was announced – finally a major museum mounts a full exhibit on sound art! And reading Gopnick’s article, I got that sinking feeling at exactly the same point that you did. If this show is such an event, an official curatorial stamp of approval of sound art, then why in the hell is it necessary to pit sound artists against each other? Why claim that the artists who work with the sounds that truly matter are working in a visual arts tradition? Aren’t we trying to get away from the paternalistic view that visual art is superior to sound art? If Gopnick thinks experimental music is inferior to sound art, does that mean he thinks music in general is an inferior art form? Is it any coincidence that Cardiff and Philipsz (who don’t even compose their own music) sell their work in very small editions in six digit figures while experimental music can often be downloaded directly from the artist for free? I don’t believe Gopnick is only protecting their brands, but the elitist/democratic division he appears to champion is unfortunate. Critics love works like Cardiff’s 40 Part Motet and the Taps piece Philipsz installed on Governors Island because they can be explained so completely, in concept and execution, that one really doesn’t need to experience them to get them. There is no messy undefinable mystery. Personally I prefer artworks that leave me with questions, rather than giving all the answers.


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