Sound is ubiquitous, unstoppable, immersive, the agency through which spoken language is understood and music is absorbed. Sound works quietly with other senses to scan an environment, to define orientation within a place, to register the feeling that we describe as atmosphere. Without sound, the world can be an indecipherable, remote and dangerous place, yet sound is the sense that we take for granted – the sense that comes to the forefront of our attention when a restaurant is too loud, when a neighbour’s television penetrates the walls, when a car alarm shatters the peace of a Sunday morning.
Sound is a function of time, articulating time and describing our surroundings at a level of subtlety that increases environmental awareness and the skills associated with attention, should we care to exercise our familiarity with the process on a regular basis. All of these observations are germane to the use of sound as a medium, yet they have the quality of a mystery to those who privilege sight and the word. Common sense and the prevailing view both insist that the world is a large space occupied by objects, all possessing varying degrees of value, magnitude and mobility, whereas sound is imprecise and ambiguous.
For many artists working with sound, this unpredictable evanescence forms a large part of what makes it so interesting. Visual work has boundaries; a position that is fixed, if only from moment to moment; a capacity to express specific ideas. Sound, on the other hand, may come and go; be perceived at all points in a space, even behind the listener’s head or out of sight; be resistant to verbal interpretation, or attachment to any kind of meaning other than the way it alters an environment. Sound work may be the environment itself. Almost 100 years ago, shortly before the outbreak of the First World War, the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo proposed the idea that urban and industrial sounds, including the noises of modern warfare, were a new and enthralling source of musical material. Their nature was unprecedented – their intensity, volume, texture and shape – and so musical history should come to an end. The slow evolution of musical language had suffered a massive stroke, to be replaced by a vigorously healthy art of noises.
Like any doomsday prophesy, the death knell was premature, but in 1937 John Cage reiterated the warning. In a lecture given to a Seattle arts society, he told his audience that the noun ‘music’ should be replaced by a more meaningful term: organisation of sound. Both Russolo and Cage have been proved correct, and, simultaneously, utterly misguided. Happily, music persists, and that happiness derives not just from the fact that music can be both pleasurable and profound, as well as wretched and stupid, but because its dominance as an entertainment medium creates massive difficulties of interpretation when sound is installed in a gallery or public place, heard on any broadcast medium, or released to the public on a commercial format such as a CD. The difficulty hinges upon a question that Cage resolved to his own satisfaction more than 50 years ago: what is the difference between music and noise? But for the majority of people, this is either self-evidently not a question worth asking, or, at best, a puzzle with no satisfactory solution.
The conflict, deeply embedded in a society that already prioritises the visual, means that sound art can work productively with and against the popular logic that meaningful, organised sound must be either music or speech. This is an area through which artists such as Jeremy Deller and Janet Cardiff can draw the participant out into the open, away from enclosed, dedicated spaces for art or music, into places where uncontrolled life goes on and personal memory clashes with received history. Cardiff ’s The Missing Voice, Case Study B 1999, created for the Whitechapel Library and its environs in east London, engages the user (to employ that brutally utilitarian word of the software age) in a complex set of relations, even confusions, based on inner voices, narrative text, storytelling and the relationship between programming and indeterminacy, or fiction and physical life. She does this with sound – a borrowed CD in a Discman that directs you out into the streets, then leads you on a path of her devising while a mystery story unfolds in parallel with her instructions and observations about the streets through which you walk. Sounds recorded for the CD in these same streets overlap with those heard in the headphones, producing a disorientation that leaves precious little gap between your present and her past, between her story and your reality, between the disembodied place of her voice and your precarious situation in the middle of the Commercial Road.
The impact of sound, both as a physical effect and an internal soundtrack, can be devastating. Many old people, for example, ask for medical help when certain songs repeat and repeat, like a demonic loop in the head, a stuck record (for a generation that still knows what stuck record means), a kind of self-imposed brainwashing without any purpose. Think of this syndrome – we all suffer it – and we might then think of voices overheard, foul memories of futile arguments, empty and rhetorical gestures of insincerity lingering in the mind like discarded tissues, vocalisation at the extremes of emotion, fragments of music but not the ones you might choose willingly. Then there is the anxiety provoked by incomprehensible announcements in railway stations, spoken dialogue that is as disconnected in content and receptivity as the space that separates it, voices decomposed into raw sound through multiplication or acoustic resonance, commands, slips of the tongue, voices to be tolerated or welcomed, ambiguities of language, things you don’t want to hear, things you’re curious to hear, plus those maddening inner voices that won’t let go with their banal nonsense.
Since October, these and other voices have swarmed in the vast echo chamber of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, mixing with the recorded and amplified sound of the electricity substation that forms the subliminal auditory undertow of the space. The commissioning of Bruce Nauman’s Raw Materials could be interpreted as another example of sound’s encroachment on the gallery. Yes, sound is the new thing, and has been for some time, as we can hear from the work of Angela Bulloch, Mike Kelley, Mark Leckey and many others. But I would prefer to think of Raw Materials as a continuation of a far more lengthy relationship, like the brother and sister who fight and fall out, fail to understand each other, yet always go back for another try.
Art and sound and sound art are quite different creatures. As much as sound art may attempt to distance itself from music, its point of origin is silence and listening. This is also true of music, though there is a great deal of it that could use a refresher course on the subject. Sound used in art as a raw material is more likely to be an idea within a bigger idea. There are historical reasons for this. In 1916 Marcel Duchamp, who was no more interested in the materiality of sound than he was in the retinal nature of painting or the logic of a text, once concealed a noise in a ball of string. To be more accurate, the noise-making object was added by Walter Arensberg, who is now dead, which means that nobody other than him has ever known, or will ever know, what it was. Duchamp also imagined, in The Green Box notes, a musical sculpture of ‘sounds lasting and leaving from different places and forming a sounding sculpture which lasts’.
The difference lies in the ultimate aim. Many sound artists have since made versions of Duchamp’s musical sculpture for him, not as an act of homage or benevolence, or even because they knew that he had dreamed up such a thing in passing, but because they were interested in the ways in which sound behaves erratically in space, or in our thoughts, and the degree to which this behaviour can form something solid, even sculptural, out of invisible, untouchable, transient waves, so changing our sense of the world. A good example of a sound artist working with an idea, extracting sounds from apparently inert material, is found in Steve Roden’s piece, splint (the soul of wood). Released on CD in 1997, the title is printed in lower case type, so Roden has become known as a lowercase artist. This means he restricts himself to small, quiet sounds, a practice that relates closely to certain radically Minimalist tendencies in new improvised and electronic music, as well as the sound art of Akio Suzuki, Rolf Julius, Max Eastley and Felix Hess. Roden begins with a 1943 moulded plywood leg splint designed by Charles Eames and manufactured by the Evans Products Company, and then goes on to use contact microphones, physical actions, recording and electronic processing to extract hidden possibilities of sound from furniture.
In the end, he has made a form of music. Even the new Minimalists, who may play three or four sounds in the course of a performance, are making music, though an overwhelming majority of the world’s population may disagree or fail to notice.
I am constantly amazed that there is so little dialogue between visual arts, sound art and music, particularly in areas of such extremes, but then music rarely has a great deal to ‘say’, this ‘saying something’ business being the province of sounds that form words into sentences. A lot of visual art has a lot to say, and so music and music-related sound art is felt to be rather old-fashioned, since it draws upon a lengthy evolution of musical aesthetics and craft. Sound art invariably reveals some sympathy, however oblique, to values developed over a long trajectory: composing for piano, for example, or playing jazz drums, and learning where to place a microphone to best capture the din of a violently loud guitar amp.
David Cunningham has talked about this last skill, and the way in which sound engineers recording Jimi Hendrix back in the 1960s were sensible enough to set their microphones as far away from his amplifiers as possible. Using this method, rather than a more conventional close microphone technique, they captured the extraordinary effect of powerful sound waves activating the entire volume of air in a room. Cunningham has converted this knowledge into a form of installation, using a feedback device and a gate. The sound grows in intensity as it feeds back on itself, changing in character according to the nature of each individual space and the behaviour of those entering the space. At a certain point the gate comes into force, shutting off the feedback and so starting the process back at the beginning.
Exhibited as his The Listening Room series and as A Position Between Two Curves, shown at Tate Britain’s Days Like These in 2003, Cunningham’s feedback and gate works are a classic form of sound art, rather than music, since their time base is confined by the accessibility of the space, rather than the attention span of an audience. The spatial orientation is immersive rather than demonstrative. In other words, we walk through the piece, as if it were rain, interacting rather than facing forward and waiting to be entertained. They are also sound art, rather than art with sound, since the origins of the sounds lie in audio recording techniques and an appreciation of reverberation in records ranging from surf music to reggae. The elegance of the feedback idea exists to be understood, but the sound is there –’lasting and leaving from different places’ – to make a significant impact on the listener.
Christian Marclay is an example of a sound artist, a musician, an artist who uses sound, who can move fluidly between these irritating definitions. You can hear him in a club, playing turntables and his battered record collection with musicians who have very little interest in gallery art, and you can experience his work in a gallery, where the cut and thrust of live improvisation seems very remote. Marclay’s work returns obsessively to memory and death. This is never explicit, but the notion of the hidden noise, lurking in the grooves of a vinyl record, brought to life only by the sustained jab of a needle, is usually somewhere on the scene. Using technology that is more or less dead as far as the entertainment industry is concerned, he retrieves and manipulates stored memories from thrift-store vinyl. Sometimes he works with film, photographs, or collage, but always there is a hidden noise, as in his compilation of movie stars talking to unseen people on the telephone, or an inscription, as in his Guitar Drag 2000, which films an amplified Fender Stratocaster pulled through dirt behind a flat-bed truck. This cataclysmic noise takes us back to death, since the racially motivated murder of James Byrd Jnr in Texas in 1998, achieved by dragging him at speed behind a truck until he was dismembered, is an unspoken but unavoidable subtext of the piece.
The history of sound art is complex, encompassing as it does such assaults on the word as the cut-ups of William Burroughs and the vocal micro-particles of Henri Chopin; the fascinating narrative of automata and sound sculpture; the invention of new instruments ranging from Laurie Anderson’s modified violins to Hugh Davies’s shozygs (amplified objects housed within the covers of gutted encyclopaedias); the soundwalks of Max Neuhaus, a guided tour through environments of notable sonic character, hand-stamped with the word LISTEN; the phonographers and soundscape recordists, who tape and edit environmental sound; the verbal instruction pieces of Fluxus artists; along with installations, performance art, turntablism, noise aesthetics and a century of electronic, now digital music.
There were periods in the twentieth century when sound and visual art shared a remarkably close relationship. A year after Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 exhibition of white paintings, John Cage’s 4 ’ 33’’, his so called silent piece, was premiered by David Tudor. Silence could exist in all media; this was the beginning of a new mode of thought. But new musics, sound art and art and sound all grow from different starting points and address a vast range of issues, so we have to ask if a better understanding can be reached between all the factions. Could it be that the gallery is a good place to start?