Sound art encompasses cross-border art practices in which the acoustic element governs the recepient’s overall perception as well as the structure of a given work. The visual sphere and the spatial dimension represent the most important references to sound. The most decisive factor differentiating sound art from music is the breaking up of linearity and of limited temporal duration.
In its combination of auditory, visual, and motoric-tactile perception, sound art addresses the interaction of the senses and is therefore grounded more strongly on general aspects of perception than on the further development of artistic principles. Thus, the artwork-like object diminishes in importance in relation to subjective experience focusing on perception.
Direct precursors to sound art date back to 1900; sound sculpture began to develop around 1950. The concept of sound installation, which now plays a greater role, first emerged in the 1960s. During the 1980s and 1990s, sound art entered the context of specialized solo and group exhibitions, which led to its increasing popularity and inclusion in important contemporary music festivals.
Precursors of sound art can be found among composers shortly after 1900. Spatial effects by Charles Ives (The Unanswered Question, 1908) and the impression of dynamic sound surfaces and volumes by Edgard Varèse (Amérique, 1918–1921) provided the act of composing with spatial references, thus pointing to the constitutive function of place and spatial movement in music. Erik Satie’s concept of musique d’ameublement (1920) was to lend a subtle and specific background to a location and thus to produce an effect which is comparable to warmth or light.
Also of importance were some attempts from 1910 onwards which aimed at finding analogies for musical structure in painting (e.g., František Kupka, Fuge in zwei Farben (Amorpha), 1912) and later in sound film (e.g., Oskar Fischinger, Tönende Ornamente, 1932). During the second half of the twentieth century, textual, graphic, and sculptural scores by among others Mauricio Kagel (Transición II, 1959), Earle Brown (Calder Piece, 1965/66), and Dieter Schnebel (Mo-No: Musik zum Lesen, 1969) were discussed as a connecting link between the fine arts.
At the same time that visual collage techniques were being introduced, style collage (e.g., Charles Ives, Central Park in the Dark, 1906/1946) and noise collage in futurism and in sound poetry expanded musical sound material beyond conventional compositional and instrumental concepts. Both Allan Kaprow’s concept of
In kinetic art, Jean Tinguely’s resounding scrap sculptures established the temporalization of sculpture (e.g., Metamechanisches Relief, 1954). In Mauricio Kagel’s Musica para la torre (1953/54) and in the
From early on, the structuring role and activity of the recipient/participant was significant, either due to real interaction in the sense of control or regulation of audiovisual events or due to an individual’s movement in space and focus of attention, which determine the flow of perceived perspectives and stimuli. The creation of new instruments by Harry Partch (Cloud Chamber Bowls, 1950/51) and the structures sonores by Bernard and François Baschet (Schlagzeug, 1955) are sound sculptures not only because they appeal to both the eye and the ear. Because their construction produces very rich and changing frequency spectra, individual sounds develop such a complex form and inner dynamic that they become much like physical sculptures. Thus, they also can be played by the untrained visitor. Here, system behavior can be derived from the observation of constructive features and mechanical operations. The electronic sound sculptures by Peter Vogel are controlled by the light and shadows cast by visitors. The artist translates their system behavior into an algorithm that is invisibly integrated into the electric wiring: unlike in the previous examples, the emerging sound sequences cannot be anticipated on the basis of visual information, but have to be tested empirically (Musikalisch-kybernetisches Environment, 1975). Some two decades later, it was only with an ironic (though poetic) sidelong glance at the market of consumer electronics that Erwin Stache could realize his Klangkästen (1994), which also use the incidence of light as the control parameter; after all, different models of Vogel’s idea have long since been available as cheap consumer items such as electronic greeting cards.
Space plays a central role in sound art, as it often replaces time as the primary structural frame. Social and pragmatic functions as well as a location’s history provide a significant part of the context in which production and reception take place. Constructed, architectural space with its implicit paths, directions, and perspectives makes up the movement parameters that guide the sequence of listening and viewing positions, of time spent at a particular spot, and so forth. When musical form takes place in time, sound art generates its form from meaningfully sequenced elements of the recipient’s own movements, which are constituted within the sphere of spatial settings and personal choice.
In Drive-in Music (1967/68), Max Neuhaus installed a large number of low-range radio transmitters along a street, which were all to be received through the same frequency. Due to the different sounds and directions of the various transmitters, a driver with a car radio set at the correct frequency could hear individual sequences of sounds that depended on his or her traveling speed and direction. In Times Square this concept was given a permanent form. In La Monte Young’s Dream House (since 1962), movement in space impacts the sequence of sounds. Mathematically harmonized sine tones form a complex spatial pattern of stationary waves. Depending on whether the ear is located in a frequency’s antinode or vibration node, this frequency either can be heard or is silent. Thus, frequency combinations develop that become inert once the listener stands still and that start to flow dynamically once there is movement, much like the complex game of visual lines and proportions that develop as an observer moves through this space.
Because a focus was placed on the interplay of the senses and, therefore, on subjective qualities of perception, public space also became part of the discussion. Reflections on the importance of the auditory in Western culture played a critical role in these discussions. In the late 1960s, R. Murray Schafer bemoaned the derelict state of the urban acoustic environment and traced this perceived situation back to the rationalistic primacy of seeing. Many artists responded to his call for a
Even when the recipients’ movements or interactions do not matter, space can still be experienced as temporal flow. Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) underscores the contrast between the moment of the image and sound’s temporal element by accompanying the visual permanence of a wooden box with the ephemeral sounds of its manufacture. In Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977), Alvin Lucier uses an electrically amplified string that resonates by means of hardly perceptible air flows in order to demonstrate how sensitive the hearing apparatus is, allowing it to differentiate invisible processes such as temperature fluctuations. The tightened string that conveys the visual impression of being static and inanimate turns out to be dynamic and is experienced as animated. Bernhard Leitner acoustically rebuilds spatial constructions (e.g., an arch construction) by dynamically reshaping architectural features such as proportion, tension, and weight through sounds moved in the room (Immaterielles Gewölbe, 1974). Through a change of media he demonstrates that the visual experience of architecture is a dynamic process and that the ideal of static space represents a simplification which neglects the constitutive role of the subject with her or his inevitably time-bound perception. In The Pier (1996), Hans-Peter Kuhn uses light and sound to depict large spatial dimensions in ever changing ways. Nine tall towers in color along a New York pier show a static structure, while sounds at high speed—that is, very dynamic and thus counteracting the visual impression—contradict the visual order.
The works of Rolf Julius, such as Musik an einem Gebäude vorbei (1987), have been shaped by the dynamic interaction of the acoustic and visual or haptic qualities of materials, objects, and spaces. By reducing the means (e.g., through minimalistic, creative interventions; extremely muted and simple sounds; small, unimpressive objects), the material character and the contextual content of pebbles, sand, wood, air, everyday items, spaces, and surfaces are highlighted in the act of perception as if one were looking through an endoscope—as if one had entered these objects. In works such as Iter Magneticum (1986), Christina Kubisch creates a resonance between the visible traces of history and the characteristics of special spaces by making sounds from the past or from the functional context of the space perceptible as a dynamic meshwork. Both examples deal with intermodal processes of resonance between visual and acoustic stimuli. These processes become sources for the emergence of meaning.
Mechanical, electronic, or digital media are used in most works of sound art. They serve the need for time-bridging storage, spatial transmission, structural modification, or the synthesis of sounds. These media forms enable the long running times (days, months) and the process-oriented character of sound art, thereby replacing the closed work of art with the open form. Here, media technology is only rarely used as a pure means, as one (almost always) speaks of air as a medium to propagate sound or of the loudspeaker as a means to transform electric signals into airborne sound. To different degrees, an observation of second order is intended which reflects the relationship between the perception of reality and of media and thus also the relationship of image and sound.
Bill Fontana’s Landscape Sculpture with Fog Horns (1982), for example, uses sophisticated transmission technology to bring together in real time and in one space the sounds of places which are far apart. He therefore raises the questions of to what extent media can deform spaces and how image and sound interact in the encounter of current experience and memory. In his performance Mechanical Sound Orchestra (1990), Matt Heckert employs computer-controlled machines as orchestra instruments. They resound in groups, tutti, or solo and develop themes and motifs just like in a symphony or other large musical group. Symbolic language, the orchestration of light, and the aesthetics of sounds of machinery furthermore serve as system references for the medium of film and for the science-fiction genre. Heckert’s crossover between different technical media, artistic environments, and contexts of performance draws attention to how the combination of set elements from auditory and audiovisual culture generate new meanings.
In Janet Cardiff’s Münster Walk (1997), one walks down a street while listening to events through a headset that integrates the real environment into a fictional narration. An acoustic fiction superposes real sounds and real images, enabling a consideration of how the eye and the ear intermesh on one side and how the real world and the world of media intermesh on the other. Christian Marclay combs through the context of consumer goods and technical media which are associated with music (e.g., records, tapes, sheets of music). Through his exhibition of these items (The Beatles, 1989), we begin to grasp both the importance of the textual and visual context with respect to the acoustic primary level and the intensity of their interaction.
Transmissions of sensual stimuli from one modality of sense to another are based on a change of media and thus require a transfer that is a transformation somehow linked to the given medium’s inherent obstinacy. This is demonstrated by the singing flames in Andreas Oldörp’s One of Us Cannot Be Wrong (1996). Gas flames produce thermal air movements within two glass tubes, which in turn generate audible air vibrations through interference. What is perceived is the connection between the flame (as the archetype for the source of light and warmth) and sound (as the basic element of music). However, pitch and timbre only marginally depend on the color and brightness of the light. Instead, proportions (tube, space), material composition (tube, walls of the space), and temperature determine the vibrational properties.
In telefunken (2000), Carsten Nicolai also examines technical connections between visual and sound structures. Different synthetic audio signals (e.g., square waves, impulse sequences, white noise) generate visual patterns on a conventional television. However, in this case we do not see in any direct way what sound in itself looks like on a video, because visualizations such as those in telefunken show movements that play a trick on the eye, as they are produced by the interference between the technical values of the audio signal and those of the image system (the refresh rate and the number of scan lines of the television standard). Furthermore, oscillations become audible to the human ear at pretty much the same point (beyond approximately 18 Hz) at which their movement is no longer detectable to the eye, which is why individual images in a film melt into one flowing movement at approximately 18 pictures per second. As a result, audible oscillation processes cannot be immediately followed by the eye. It is only with a slow-motion recording—in musical terms, a transposition—that such oscillations could also be visually observed. For their installation Rigid String Geometry (2006), Ludger Hennig and Hanns Holger Rutz produced such a slow-motion impression in real time through the interference of the scan rate of the television with the oscillations of a piano string in front of the screen. These examples show that a sound-image relationship is not produced by intrinsic correspondence but rather by a specific interaction of a certain technical system with the individual’s perception.
A digitally based form of transfer is produced by Jens Brand, who algorithmically simulates the functionality of a record player’s needle and applies it to a virtual scanning process of the earth’s surface. Brand’s data transfer also represents an example of artistic sonification—a procedure which increasingly is used in contemporary sound art.
Treating topics such as the spatialization of time, interaction, and auditory sensitization up into the 1990s, sound art established itself as a genre positioned between the arts, between the media, and thus between sound and image. Since the late 1990s, the relationship between image and sound has been thematized in an increasing number of medial and artistic contexts. Tools of sound art appear as modules in media art, in net-based works, or in concert installations, or represent one of several aspects within a work of art. Sound art, originally an outcome of the dissolution of boundaries, is increasingly without boundaries itself.
1900 until today