Annotations for Sound Art – Julian Cowley
Charles Ives, in his Postface to 114 Songs (1922), envisaged an individual of the future sitting at evening in his backyard, receptively gazing towards mountains and hearing “the day’s symphony” resounding in the wind.
In 1988 Japanese sound artist Akio Suzuki sat against a wall of sun-baked clay bricks he had built in a mountainous region near Kyoto and spent the day listening intently to natural sounds as the autumnal equinox occurred. Suzuki faced another wall, seven meters away, which filled his peripheral vision vertically and horizontally and helped concentrate the ear. He called this performance Space in the Sun.
Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer in his book The Tuning Of The World (1977) identifies “the soundscape of the world” as “a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly”. Schaefer raises the prospect of acoustic design to enhance our sound environments.
“Sound is the least controllable of all sense modalities…” Julian Jaynes
Pauline Oliveros has distinguished between two kinds of listening: one involves focusing and categorizing, and attends to detail; the other involves opening or encompassing, and takes in the full 360 degree environment, the whole cloth.
In July 1974 in southern France, English sound artist Hugh Davies, formerly assistant to Karlheinz Stockhausen at his electronic music studio in Cologne, wrote Sounds Heard at La Sainte-Baume, a text comprising seven invitations to listen. One advocates standing on the highest mountain peak, listening to the shrill calls of swifts in their rapid convoluted flight. Another commends listening to the loud and varied songs of crickets. The seventh proposes listening to the echoes produced by two stones struck together, in regular rhythms at different speeds, in a small secluded valley high up in the mountains, surrounded by rock on all sides.
Technological developments over the course of the past century in the production, recording, storage and distribution of sound have contributed to “music” bursting its terminological banks. The flourishing of sound art in recent years is evidence of the vast excess that “music” struggled to conceal within its tidy classification of sonic phenomena. Modernist admission of dissonance and elements of noise into the strained contours of classical form paved the way for taxonomic breakdown. John Cage, in particular, extended permission to listen seriously and with pleasure outside of previously authorized forms. Sound art swelled to full audibility following steady and widespread erosion of aesthetic categories throughout the twentieth century.
Walter Marchetti, formerly a member of the ZAJ performance group, suggests that music has become a continuous return of formulas, so “we spend our lives listening – re-listening – to what we have always already listened to, and more than anything else listening to what others tell us to listen to.” His own sound art activities have been devised to rupture that habit: “Le secche del delirio” lards piano music with the grunting of swine; “Per la sete dell’ orecchio” is the sound of stones dropped at intervals down a well; “La Caccia” posits a series of absurd scenarios in which birds are tracked down and greeted with artificial bird-calls.
In 1996, writing in the catalogue for the Kawasaki Sonic Perception exhibition, Japanese sound artist Minoru Sato lamented the fact that most sound works have been “requisitioned by music” and that as a consequence the value of sound as a phenomenon has been diminished or neglected entirely.
Hildegard Westerkamp, who formerly assisted R. Murray Schafer in his Vancouver-based World Soundscape Project, has argued that as well as countering noise pollution “the task of sound ecologists is to build healthy and attractive sonic environments, sonic places”. She envisages an acoustic ecology respected by town planners and acknowledged openly in the creation of acoustic parks and playgrounds. Acoustic ecology is adjacent to sound art in its concern for renovated listening and attentiveness.
“If this word, music, is sacred and reserved for eighteenth-and nineteenthcentury instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.” John Cage, 1937
Sound artist Ross Bolleter makes music with pianos that have suffered the ravages of weather and infestation by animals, insects or plants. He has formed the World Association for Ruined Piano Studies after spending several years combing the sheds and barns of Western Australia in search of those jettisoned structures of rotten wood, tarnished ivory and rusting wire.
Akio Suzuki occupies a special niche in the broad and multiform field of sound art. Deflected by curiosity from employment in a Tokyo architect’s office he has undertaken two complementary lines of research: since 1963 he has sought out untamed places and trained himself to hear them; since 1970 he has made his own instruments. Performances and installations arise out of these solitary investigations. His home-made instruments include the “Suzuki Type Glass Harmonica”, glass rods of differing diameters arranged horizontally and rubbed with wet hands, and the ANALAPOS, a pair of open-ended cylinders connected by a spring and activated by plucking the spring or making vocal noises into a cylinder. Everyday objects, such as newspapers, dinner plates and wine bottles, can also be his raw materials. He feels particular affinity with the voices of stones, played percussively, blown as flutes, jostled electro-magnetically or simply befriended: “When a slow-moving person like myself meets a stone with a similar character, we both feel a little diffident.”
“A musician playing in a field or on a beach becomes just an element in a landscape. His role is defocused. But in a concert hall he is the centre of attention: all activity is subservient to him and his work.” Paul Burwell
In 1983, in East London, percussionist and instrument-maker Paul Burwell, performance artist Ann Bean, and sculptor Richard Wilson formed the Bow Gamelan Ensemble. The trio scavenged boatyards, factories and scrapyards abutting the Thames for cast-off machinery and industrial debris they could appropriate and use to make sounds. A Bow Gamelan Ensemble performance might accommodate sirens and motors, steam whistles and electric bells, arc welding equipment and fireworks, bagpipes, oil drums and shattering glass. Their sound art was spectacular, literally pyrotechnic and adapted to specific locations. A decade before “Industrial” became a familiar category in record stores this strictly acoustic trio took the noise and flashing light of industrial process into venues ranging from shopping precincts to barges floating on the river.
Hugh Davies, a member of pioneering live electronics ensemble Gentle Fire and the computer group Naked Software, is an acknowledged authority on electronic music and an acclaimed concert-hall performer of avant-garde compositions. He also invents instruments, favouring natural objects and simple everyday materials – larch cones used as clickers, nuts made into tiny whistles, egg-slicers amplified with guitar pickups. Davies combines technical sophistication with acoustic inquisitiveness and an ecological impetus to recycle cast-off materials. He has described his making of new instruments as “a small gesture against consumerism and the tendency to throw everything away”. His Aeolian Harp amplifies fine fretsaw blades that make sounds when gently blown. Best-known is his SHOZYG, amplified springs, ball castors, wires and other salvaged items mounted in the detached cover of an encyclopaedia volume labelled SHO-ZYG. Toothbrushes and screwdrivers are amongst the implements Davies uses to play the SHOZYG.
In 1976 multi-instumentalist Pierre Bastien created the Mécanium, a kind of home-made miniature orchestra utilising Meccano pulleys and levers and motors from old record players to activate bows and sticks applied to musical instruments. The mechanical repetitions made possible through this contraption become, in effect, potentially endless sound loops. Another Mécanium replaces instruments with objects such as scissors, a teapot and an ashtray. Bastien performs on conventional instruments accompanied by the Mécanium. He also displays his musical automata in art galleries and museums.
“Bless Glenn Gould for throwing the Concert Audience into the junkyard”, wrote Marshall McLuhan in Counterblast (1969) responding to the pianist’s highprofile renunciation of the concert hall in favour of the studio. A crucial aspect of much sound art has been its resistance to the dictates and conditions of concert hall performance. Instead, sound artists have shown refined awareness of many kinds of environment, sensitivity to the particular acoustic properties of various places, interest in the sounding of architectural space and in site-specific sonic design. The audience is released from the fixed position of its seat and is invited to engage actively in free-ranging exploration or to train the ear’s receptiveness to unexpected, overlooked or neglected sound events and phenomena.
In 1979 Yoshi Wada built a kind of bagpipe instrument from a large air compressor plus plumbing fittings and pipes. This prototype was improved with more finely crafted components to ensure a stable air source and more accurate tuning. Yoshi Wada created a pair of droning instruments that projected high microtonal partials with unusual clarity; from their appearance he named them the Alligator and the Elephantine Crocodile. He found that the long delay acoustics of an empty swimming pool in a basement in Buffalo enriched the drones of these sounding beasts and in 1981 composed Lament for the Rise and Fall of the Elephantine Crocodile for his improvising voice and these adapted bagpipes located in the “Dry Pool”.
In 1994 Christina Kubisch, an artist in sound and visual media, installed six slabs of ancient slate painted with luminescent pigment along the parapet of the organ gallery of a late Baroque church in Saarbrücken, Germany. Each slate glimmered in response to light stimuli and also emitted sounds generated by circular rubbing of drinking glasses. She called the piece Sechs Spiegel (Six Mirrors). In common with other sound artists Kubisch works with the particular structure of the site in which her installations are placed. That structure is at once architectonic and imaginative, physically specific and resonant with personal and cultural associations and implications.
In 1997, for The Clocktower Project, Kubisch fitted solar panels around the clocktower of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, formerly an industrial site. Changes of the sun’s position and intensity were registered by the panels and passed to software that modified the sequencing of quarter-hourly bell chimes from the tower. Bell tones reflected degrees of brightness or dullness according to changing weather conditions. People in the neighbourhood were in effect enabled to hear modulations of light.
In 1979 minimalist composer LaMonte Young and artist in light Marian Zazeela, sponsored by the Dia Art Foundation, oversaw the transformation of the former New York Mercantile Exchange Building into their first permanent Dream House. Until funding evaporated in 1985 the Dream House with its 30-foot ceilings was the dedicated and meticulously cultivated space of the Theater of Eternal Music, a continuous sound and light environment and the nerve centre for their activity. Young and Zazeela’s Church Street loft then became their creative hub.
“I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again, until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.” Alvin Lucier
In 1988 composer and accordionist Pauline Oliveros, electronic sound designer Panaiotis and trombonist Stuart Dempster convened in a cavernous, reverberant underground cistern, north of Seattle to engage in the collective improvisatory practice Oliveros calls Deep Listening. Oliveros had already played and recorded in an echoing cistern in Cologne and had investigated interaction with a real-time electronic delay system. Dempster had played solo, in 1976, in the resonant space of the Pope’s Palace, Avignon. He had also worked with digital reverberation techniques and had used a plastic sewer pipe to make an instrument that approximates the sound of an Australian didjeridu. Later venues for the Deep Listening trio and their guests included the Tarpaper Cave, a disused cement quarry in the Catskill Mountains.
In 1989 Italian sound artist Davide Mosconi composed music to be installed in the Hiroshima Tower in Japan, a tall steel structure like a vast upturned megaphone topped with a facetted crystal ball. Mosconi’s sounds are broadcast through 24 loud speakers, 16 positioned near the base, 8 (including 4 subsonic, ultra-low frequency speakers) around 50 metres high, near the top. Lobes within the building’s cone help shape the paths and patterning of the sonic vibrations. The music is elemental, deriving from earth, air, fire and water, from animals, fish and insects. No permutation of the constituent sounds will coincide within a hundred years.
In 1967 Maryanne Amacher commenced her City Links series, real-time telelink transference into an exhibition space of sounds of airports, steel mills, harbours and other urban environments. She subsequently extended this synchronicity of distant spaces to a liaison between New York, Boston and Paris, in effect anticipating internet options. In Music for Sound-Joined Rooms (1980) and Mini Sound Series (1985) Amacher employed multiple-speaker systems and used “the architectural features of a building to customize sound, visual, and spatial elements, creating multi-dimensional environment-oriented experiences, anticipating virtual immersion environments”.
In 1996 Michael Schumacher and Swiss visual artist Ursula Scherrer founded Studio Five Beekman, a soundproof enclosure in a Lower Manhattan office building, dedicated to presentation of acoustic art works and intermedia installations. When the space had to close in 2000 Schumacher moved to Diapason gallery on Sixth Avenue, where dedicated rooms offered visitors the brandishing a short length of electromagnetic tape and saying, “this is the sound”. Her work has subsequently gravitated towards acknowledgement of the physicality of sound objects, establishing continuities between the physical world and music, recognizing music as an extension of lived, and heard, experience. Her composition Frantic Mid-Atlantic assembles snippets of radio broadcasts – news, weather and traffic reports, phone-ins, together with static and mechanical noises.
In 1981 in Gothenberg, Swedish conceptual sound artist Leif Elggren made a drypoint engraving onto a copper sheet connected to contact microphones. The resultant sounds were captured on a vinyl single, the other side of which had the sound of Elggren using steel wool to erase the engraving. For a later work he attached a long copper rod to a sensitive microphone, creating a feedback loop that swelled into massive sound. Elggren regards such investigations as an important aspect of sound art, disclosing molecular reality through a form of acoustic microscopy. Carl Michael Von Hausswolff, Elggren’s close associate in sound art sculpture, performance and installations for 20 years, views his own often unsettling activity as a meditation upon the physicality of sounds, which might be as banal as the hum of a refrigerator, the flow of electricity through our daily lives.
Christian Marclay has made sculpture from the stuff of musical commodity culture. Endless Column piles LPs high; The Beatles parcels that group’s entire recorded output within a pillow woven from audiotape; Moebius Loops is constructed from found cassettes. Marclay has also performed using turntable decks, his compositions foregrounding surface noise, accentuating the attrition of vinyl through time and use.
British sound artist Philip Jeck works with lo-fi Dansette record players and old vinyl, which he doctors using glue and a scalpel to trap sounds in loops as the stylus locks in the groove. In 1993 in London Jeck staged Vinyl Requiem using 9 slide projectors, 2 16mm movie projectors and 180 Dansette turntables simultaneously playing prepared discs.
Fluxus artist Milan Knizak started mutilating and ruining records in 1965. Playing them he discovered “an entirely new music … unexpected, nervewracking and aggressive”; he called it “Broken Music” and refined the preliminaries: applying tape to the vinyl, painting on it, burning it, cutting up records and gluing the fragments together in new combinations.
Former Fluxus artist Yasunao Tone was offered the opportunity to make a CD for Lovely Music in New York. He took an ancient Chinese poetic text, converted it into a series of photographic images, loaded the images onto a computer and translated them into the digital language of zeroes and ones. The computer then made a further translation of the code into noise, which was transferred direct to CD, bypassing the usual recording process, and Musica Iconologos came into being. This CD was then reconfigured by application of Scotch tape and he created Solo for Wounded CD.
“… we are, in fact, technically equipped to transform our contemporary awareness of nature’s manner of operation into art”. John Cage
Hugh Davies has written a piece that involves tuning a small waterfall by placing stones and rocks along its lip, or by using simple wooden gates lowered into position.
Douglas Quin has made recordings of birds and threatened species of monkey in the forests of Brazil and of penguins and seals in Antarctica. His focus as sound artist falls upon cultural perceptions of natural phenomena and he has used the synthesis and digital signal processing of animal and human vocalisation as a source for music. He recognizes that digital manipulation can broaden the range of our aural experience. “I am more interested in learning about the function of sounds and their acoustic properties in nature than I am in music theory”, says Quin. “The planet’s diverse and fragile habitats are quickly vanishing; places I have known and recorded no longer exist”.
“How far is anyone justified, be he an authority or a layman, in expressing or trying to express in terms of music (in sounds, if you like) the value of anything, material, moral, intellectual, or spiritual, which is usually expressed in terms other than music?” Charles Ives
The inclusiveness of sound art is remarkable: it encompasses stones and microchips, brainwaves and the weather, cellars and mountaintops, expert technicians and the wholly untutored, sound poetry and radio art, natural objects and the detritus of consumerism, sculpture and the immaterial, arcane circuitry and damaged LPs, cacophony and silence, birdsong and traffic noise and music.