Sound is being recognized and exhibited as an art form in its own right
This fall, for the first time in its history, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is presenting a work of contemporary art at the Cloisters. Located in the serene Fuentidueña Chapel, the artwork, on exhibit through December 8, is not a sculpture or a painting, but a sound installation, The Forty Part Motet (2001), by Janet Cardiff. The 14-minute work plays continuously a composition by 16th-century Tudor composer Thomas Tallis with individual voices coming from each of 40 loudspeakers. Visitors are encouraged to walk among them and hear the solo performances or step back and listen to the total choral effect.
Inviting museumgoers to use their ears as well as eyes is becoming increasingly common at arts institutions around the country. In August, the Museum of Modern Art opened “Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” an exhibition intended to introduce “sound art” to a new generation of viewers and listeners. Throughout November, Performa, New York’s biennial of performance art, is presenting several sound-art events, including Florian Hecker’s C.D.-A Script for Synthesis, which features music emitted from auditory objects and theatrical props, and Tori Wrånes’s works in which she struggles to stay in tune as she is being bound or suspended, accompanied by a musical ensemble.
Showing through November 3 at New York’s Foley Gallery are Martin Klimas’s photos of paint set in motion by vibrations from speakers playing everything from jazz to Bach to Kraftwerk. And at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College through November 30 are Conceptual artist William Anastasi’s drawings based on sound from 1963 onward.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has in its permanent collection a bell without a clapper by Kris Martin (it tolls no sound) and wind chimes by Pierre Huyghe (after John Cage’s Dream) on seasonal display in the sculpture garden. And the SculptureCenter in New York, which first exhibited sound art in 1983, will host a shortwave radio broadcast by artist Agnieszka Kurant (see Art Talk) consisting of pauses taken from famous political speeches November 10 through January 27. And on Governor’s Island in New York Bay, the Public Art Fund sponsors a permanent sound installation by Turner Prize–winner Susan Philipsz.
“Today, museums are fully adept at incorporating video and media installations, and by extension, sound art, into their contemporary programming,” writes “Soundings” curator Barbara London in the show’s catalogue essay. The exhibition brings together works with a strong sonic component that are surprisingly engaging visually, and sometimes incorporate video or sculpture. They may make noise, such as Tristan Perich’s Microtonal Wall (2011), an installation of 1,500 miniature speakers emitting sound in a wide range of pitches. Or they may be silent, like Carsten Nicolai’s wellenwanne Ifo (2012), a water tank with audio equipment that captures soundwaves made by tones too low to be heard. Bringing together 16 artists in all, “Soundings,” up through November 3, demonstrates that sound can be the key factor in many different kinds of art, including video, installation, sculpture, drawings, and musical scores. “As media and performance have become the default modes for many artists, sound has moved up through the ranks to be recognized and exhibited as an art form in its own right,” writes London.
“From a critical and historical point of view, I like to think of sound art fairly broadly as a work of art in which sound is foregrounded,” says Christoph Cox, professor of philosophy at Hampshire College and coauthor of Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Admitting that “sonic experiments” have been present in modern-art history going back to the Futurists and Dadaists, he traces sound art back to Cage’s compositions of the 1950s, especially to one work titled 4’33″, in which a piano player walks onstage and sits silently for four minutes and 33 seconds, while the audience is left to listen to the sounds in the concert hall, including nervous coughs and restless movements. According to Cox, Cage’s ideas about randomness, duration, and process had an impact on artists and movements ranging from Robert Rauschenberg to the Fluxus group to Max Neuhaus, who has been called the grandfather of sound art. Neuhaus is best known for his work Times Square, where passersby unexpectedly encounter rich harmonic sounds at the north end of the triangular pedestrian island on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets in Manhattan. The piece, originally installed between 1977 and 1992, was put on permanent display in 2002 by MTA Arts for Transit and the Dia Art Foundation, which owns it.
“Sound art emerged as the rivalrous sibling to Conceptual art,” says Cox, pointing out the continuity between works like Neuhaus’s and those of other artists, who create with steam, light, and even text, in an effort to “dematerialize the art object,” in a phrase coined by art critic Lucy Lippard. “Sound artists responded in a different way,” Cox says—”they thought the work of art could be about something you can’t touch, you can’t grasp, but is nonetheless powerfully physical.”
“Cage’s was a very pure approach to sound. It didn’t have to refer to anything, it didn’t have to tell a story, it didn’t have to reach a crescendo—sound was its own medium,” explains Walker Art Center chief curator Darsie Alexander. The Walker’s collection reflects the long history of sound art, chiefly because it holds choreographer Merce Cunningham’s archive, which contains key collaborations with Cage. But even among its other holdings, there are sound works that reflect a very different approach to the medium. Kris Martin’s For Whom . . . (2012) refers to the famous John Donne poem—”never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”—yet, in this instance, the bell cannot emit sound, even as it swings on the hour. Instead, viewers can almost imagine its ringing, accompanied by nearby basilicas tolling the hour in the distance. “Cage really saw sound and experienced and advanced sound in its simplest form,” says Alexander. “Nowadays, sound has become an immersive experience, and many artists have returned to the emotional power of sound.”
Certainly, many sound works in recent years had to make what is essentially invisible into an intimate and moving experience. “My work takes place in the transactional space between sound’s disbursement and its reception,” says New York artist Marina Rosenfeld, whose Teenage Lontano took over the Park Avenue Armory in 2008. Inspired by experimental composer György Ligeti’s 1967 classic work “Lontano,” Rosenfeld recorded 17 different parts and had her choir—local teenagers—sing each one as they listened to their individual parts on MP3 players, while a bank of speakers overhead played the score. “The piece is happening in the air in between,” Rosenfeld explains. Currently, she is working on a new composition for the Borealis Festival in Bergen, Norway, in which she will disperse members of a Norwegian naval marching band throughout an unconventional site—she hasn’t decided where yet, but it won’t be a concert hall. So, for once, she points out, they will not play in formation and will be heard from different directions, and will not necessarily be synchronized. “I don’t think of sound as a pure vehicle of experience, because even the experience of its reception is touched by so many complexities—including the nature of the listener and the context of the room.”
“I like to emphasize a sense of solitude in a public space,” says 2010 Turner Prize–winner Susan Philipsz, who often works with her own untrained, quite musical voice distinguished by its Scottish accent. Originally a sculptor, Philipsz turned to sound art in graduate school as a way to explore a medium that claims space even as it remains invisible. For her permanent installation on Governor’s Island, she reclaimed the melody of “Taps,” referring to the island’s original function as a military base. She recorded each note of the bugle separately, and then played the notes back sequentially, but not necessarily seamlessly, over a range of speakers situated in different places on the island. Each day, the recordings of the bugle sound off every five minutes between 6 P.M. and 7 P.M., warning people to catch the last ferry. Philipsz originally came to Governor’s Island in 2009 to do a project with Creative Time, and almost missed the ferry herself. “I thought, What would it be like to be stuck on the island among the old buildings after you miss the last boat there? It wasn’t very appealing,” she recalls. Although her being awarded the Turner Prize signaled a turning point in the field of sound art, she says, “I still don’t really consider myself a sound artist because I come from a visual-arts background and I’ve still only showed my work in a visual-arts context, like museums, galleries and biennials.” When asked why, with a voice like hers, she didn’t become a musician, she replies, “I don’t even read music.”
“When sound artists think about and work with sound, they are using it in a way that is similar to how a sculptor uses materials,” says Mary Ceruti, director and chief curator of the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens. “Musicians think about sound more linearly and sound artists think more spatially.” In fact, she says, the term “sound art” can be traced back to a 1983 exhibition, “Sound/Art,” organized by William Hellerman at the SculptureCenter. “We can’t find a reference to the term, before then”—it was often referred to as “experimental music” at that time, Ceruti points out. Since then, the SculptureCenter has often worked with sound art, viewing it as an extension of Minimalist art, rather than as a separate medium. Still, there are challenges in exhibiting sonic works in a gallery setting. “The sound has to be experienced spatially, and you have to think about it in relation to the other works differently,” according to Ceruti. “Usually, when you do your layout for a show, we think in terms of sight lines and square footage and how works are going to relate to each other visually. We don’t always think about sound spatially, but it does impact all the works in the gallery.”
Kurant’s work, 103.1 MHz (title variable), 2012, composed of pauses in 20th-century speeches, ranging from those by Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King Jr., is not really silent, since each recording reflects the shape of the environment in which the speech was made—whether it was in a room or outdoors—and the conditions of the recording devices, which give off a sequence of very specific hums. “Sound, or the seeming lack of sound, just adds this whole other layer in thinking about installing a show in order to allow each work to be experienced in a way that you want it to be, or in a way that is interesting,” Ceruti says.
Working in sculpture, video, and drawing to investigate how words give way to meaning, the Israeli-born artist Uri Aran says he had to take the site into consideration when he created Untitled (Good & Bad), 2013, for the High Line, the elevated park in Chelsea. In this project, a sonorous voice emanated from the flowerbeds along the walkway, reading off a list of animals categorized as “good” or “bad,” according to idioms concerning their character traits, such as “busy as a bee” or “sly as a fox.” Aran notes that, “for the High Line, it made a lot of sense for me to work with a medium, like sound, that would work with the time-based conditions there.” He says, “I think there is something nice about the visual clarity of it—its transparency. I don’t think of it as an invisible piece,” he adds. “I think the location was more than half of the piece—always changing and dynamic.” As for the audience response to the work, Aran says, “I am so excited about the fact that it is an almost interactive piece. Mentally, you see people identifying with the animals, the good and the bad. And physically, people look for where this voice comes from, and in that sense they interact with the specificity of that spot.”
Stephen Vitiello’s A Bell for Every Minute originated on the High Line as a Creative Time and New York City Department of Parks & Recreation project in 2010, but it is situated in the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden during the run of “Soundings.” Visitors to the museum can hear the ring of a different bell every minute—from the starting bell of the New York Stock Exchange to the Japanese Peace Bell at the United Nations—culminating in a crescendo on the hour. Accompanied by a map that locates each bell, A Bell for Every Minute provides a charming and accessible aural tour of New York City.
“The first thing I think about is the site; I go to the site and see what resonates, what I feel immediately,” explains Vitiello, who started his career in the 1970s playing in art bands, then moved on to score video works by such artists as Nam June Paik and Tony Oursler, and later, in the ‘90s, creating his own installations. When he considers a site, he takes into account not only the shape of the place and its accoustics, as a musician might, but also the context of the place and the audiences’ expectations. “Sometimes I want to play to that expectation, sometimes I want to challenge that expectation,” he says. “With Bell, I was trying to think of a sound that would cut through the city noise, cut through the architecture, and claim audible space.”
Having followed the trajectory of sound art over the past four decades, Vitiello is delighted to see institutions like MoMA responding to the medium, but he also has reservations. “There is always this challenge where to put sound works. People always offer you the spaces that no one is going to use—like elevators and bathrooms and hallways—and I say, no thank you.” He adds, “I guess maybe this moment will give us more opportunities, but I hope it will give us more than just sound-art shows alone. I’d prefer that, if someone was creating a show on architecture, they might think of me, rather than mount just another show in which ten people are making sound.”
Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.