What’s that sound (art)? Art Radar’s guide to aural aesthetics

Sound art is not only something to hear, but also something to see.

“Soundings: A Contemporary Score” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), 10 August to 3 November 2013, shows that sound art encompasses all genres of cultural production, from music, visual arts, performance, architecture to computer programming.

Hong-Kai Wang, still from 'Music While We Work', 2011, multi-channel sound and two-channel video installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Hong-Kai Wang, still from ‘Music While We Work’, 2011, multi-channel sound and two-channel video installation. Image courtesy the artist.

Soundings: A Contemporary Score” is MoMA’s first major exhibition of sound art, showcasing pieces by sixteen artists in their thirties to forties working with sound. In the exhibition, running from 10 August to 3 November 2013, sound art is presented in various formats including music, performance, video and even sculptural installation.

Several of the artists have conducted field recordings in diverse places such as abandoned buildings in Chernobyl, a sugar factory in Taiwan, or captured the ultrasound range of echolocating bats and underwater insects.

Jana Winderen, 'Disco Bay', 2007, field photograph, Greenland. Image courtesy the artist.

Jana Winderen, ‘Disco Bay’, 2007, field photograph, Greenland. Image courtesy the artist.

Art heard in the uterus

A review of the show in The New York Times quotes Tom Eccles, Curator of the permanent public sound art piece at Governor’s Island by Tate Prize winner Susan Philipsz, who said: “for the public, sound art it still a fairly new and also a very, very accessible medium.  On a very basic, basic level sound is one of our first experiences — in the uterus, in fact.”

The birth of sound art

Barbara London, the curator of MoMA’s exhibition, writes in her catalogue essay that sound as an art form gained strength in the 1960s, but its origins can be traced to the Futurists fifty years earlier. She argues that the consolidation of sound art in the sixties coincided with time-based art and was bolstered by the counterculture climate and the non-commercial experimental art scene. 

London states that “the distinctions between visual artists and composer-musician-performers blurred as young artists started to thrive in the fertile middle-ground between disciplines.” Carrying on in that tradition, the artists in the MoMA exhibition “have a broad understanding of art, architecture, performance, telecommunications, philosophy, and music,” according to London.

Susan Philipsz, 'Study for Strings', 2012, eight-channel sound work. Installation at Kassel Hauptbahnhof, Documenta 13, 2012. Image courtesy the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie. Photo: Eoghan McTigue.

Susan Philipsz, ‘Study for Strings’, 2012, eight-channel sound work. Installation at Kassel Hauptbahnhof, Documenta 13, 2012. Image courtesy the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, and Isabella Bortolozzi Galerie. Photo: Eoghan McTigue.

A short history of sound art

A comprehensive sound art exhibition chronicling the history of the medium, titled “Sound Art. Sound as a Medium of Art” was held at Germany’s ZKM | Media Museum from 17 March 2012 to 6 January 2013. The exhibition’s curator Peter Weibel briefly describes the history of sound art in his curatorial statement. Sound art began with “the Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo [who] published the musical manifesto “L’arte dei rumori” in 1913, elevating urban noises to the level of an art.”

By the mid-twentieth century many of the Fluxus and Happening artists were creating sound art, such as Yoko Ono, Nam Jun Paik, La Monte Young and John Cage; in the 1970s and 1980s, industrial noise (the sound of heavy industry) influenced pop and punk music. According to Weibel, other important contemporary sound artists include Benoit MaubreyMarian Zazeela, Christina Kubisch, Alvin Lucier, Ryoji Ikeda and Christian Marclay.

Camille Norment, 'Triplight,' 2008, microphone cage, stand, light, electronics, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Camille Norment, ‘Triplight,’ 2008, microphone cage, stand, light, electronics, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist.

Artists in the MoMA Exhibition

Click on the links below to hear snippets of their sound art.

Richard Garet, 'Before Me', 2012, sound installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Julian Navarro Projects, NY.

Richard Garet, ‘Before Me’, 2012, sound installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and Julian Navarro Projects, New York.

Asian sounds

Asian artists included in the MoMA show:

  • Toshiya Tsunoda (Japan) is an artist and composer who creates field recordings and collage.
  • Christine Sun Kim (American of Asian descent) is a sound artist and composer who is also fluent in American Sign Language as she is deaf.
  • Haroon Mirza (British  of Pakistani descent) creates site-specific audio-based installations.
  • Hong-Kai Wang (Taiwanese) is a sound artist who was originally educated in political science. She describes her piece Music While We Work in Artforum.

A History of Sound Art – Sound Collage

A History of Sound Art is a comprehensive sound collage documenting the medium from its beginnings, incorporating the voices of artists and seminal figures such as Thomas Edison, Marcel Duchamp, Hugo Ball, Leon Theremin, F.W. Marinetti, Kurt Schwitters, and Harry Partch. The work was arranged and composed by J. Milo Taylor, and mixed by Joel Cahen as part of the Wet Sounds 2009 UK Tour.

Watch ‘A History of Sound Art’ on Vimeo

Susan Kendzulak

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Related Topics: sound art, art and technology, electronic art

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