Sound art is quite a new yet vague term, essentially it refers to any form of art where sound is utilised as the main medium. Unlike many other art forms where the main focus is on visual stimuli, sound art focuses on more sonic aspects and because of this it is quite an unique discipline. Sound art has the capability to transport a viewer into another dimension as the human brain is very efficient at relating sound and space. Because of this sound art has often the potential to evoke very visceral responses as no longer is the artwork something in which to passively view but rather it’s something to experience.
“Sound art holds the distinction of being an art movement that is not tied to a specific time period, geographic location or group of artists, and was not named until decades after its earliest works were produced. Indeed, the definition of term remains elusive.” (Licht, 2009)
Like all forms of good art, sound art inspires us and teaches things about ourselves. The major theme that all sound art is concerned with is the idea of hearing vs listening. The idea is that as humans, sound is constantly being poured into our ears but its rare that we ‘listen’ and pay attention to them. Sound art teaches us to ‘listen’ to what’s around us.
“Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties.” (Robertworby.com, 2016)
John Cage – 4’33” (1952)
John Cage’s 4’33” is one of the most iconic pieces of sound art/music (although there are many who wouldn’t consider it as music). The reason for this is because it dramatically challenged people’s conventional perception of music and the way we respond to sound.
4’33” is a ‘musical’ composition, written intended to be performed by any instrument. The piece requires the musician to not player their instrument and to be almost completely silent during the entire performance. The intention of this piece is for the audience members to embrace the silence and to listen to and appreciate the intricate, subtle sounds that are happening around them. “Cage therefore never uses in his piece absolute silence, but instead, the varieties of sound such as those caused by nature or traffic which ordinarily go unoticed, and aren’t usually regarded as music…” (Gann,2010)
This piece provoked a new method of thinking about the many ‘ordinary’ sounds that our brain processes by demonstrating their sonic complexities that we often miss. By extension, Cage is also suggesting that we often miss the musical potential and capabilities of many of the sounds that we hear but don’t listen to. He is quoted saying “Everything we do is music”.
To this day, this piece remains relevant, perhaps even more relevant as it’s rare in today’s bombardment of bustle and noise to just sit in silence and really listen to the subtle sounds around us.
Carsten Nicolai – Wellenwanne, (2001-2008)
Carsten Nicolai’s Wellewanne is an art installation that is a mixture of science and art as the aesthetic appeal of this artwork is mainly based on the scientific phenomenon known as cymatics. Sound is recognised as simply vibrations, we hear sound when these vibrations travel through the air like waves in water. Cymatics is this exact phenomenon, “Typically the surface of a plate, diaphragm or membrane is vibrated, and regions of maximum and minimum displacement are made visible in a thin coating of particles, paste or liquid” (Jenny, 2001).
The installation setup for Wellewanne is quite simple, essentially flat trays of water placed over the top of four speakers. Each speaker is transmitting very low frequencies that are almost inaudible, however the vibrations carry through the tray and into the water, creating amazing patterns. ” Words from the artist: … It uses principles from optics and acoustics, demonstrating the polarity of the elements chaos and order, movement and stagnancy ” Moma.org. (2013).
Conceptually this is a pretty powerful piece of work as it again, challenges our perception of what we think of sound. Many people do not understand or realise the science of sound and its physical properties. This art piece educates its audience and challenges them to start looking at all sound as simply vibrations in the air.
Krzysztof Wodiczko – …Out of Here: The Veterans Project, (2009)
This piece sound art by Krzysztof Wodiczko demonstrates the potential for sound art to create extremely powerful, influential artworks through the creation of an immersive, visceral experience. Out of Here: The Veterans Project, (2009) is a multi-channel audio and visual experience that attempts to challenge the conventional, glorified images of war by simulating the psychological stress, anxiety and pure fear of being a soldier on the field of battle. “Out of Here encourages discussion of new perceptions of war within a global culture, and the artwork takes a fresh look at new uses of technology in postmodern artistic practices.” Ruerwein.(2012)
Participants of the installation enter a dimly lit room with four video projections at the top of each of wall, representing light entering through windows. Accompanying the screens are the sounds of a battle – screams, gun shots, explosions and the shouting of soldiers which reveals apparently that they are being ambushed. Surround sound and multi channel dramatically enhances the work’s immersion and makes it all the more powerful. The screens projects very minimal images, much of what the participant can see are simply window panes and broken glass as the work aims to ‘suggest’ war but not show it. The combination of the dark room, and the loud noises that does not seem to have a source (as we can’t see on the screen what’s happening) causes the viewers to become disoriented and even somewhat distressed, which is why this work is so effective. “We find ourselves more concerned with things than with sounds. We become obsessed with what it was that produced a sound; if we cannot identify what made a sound then we become disorientated, disinterested and even distressed” Robertworby.com. (2016)
Artie Vierkant, Content Detection Days (for Bruce Nauman), (2012)
A neat, extremely relevant piece of ‘Internet’ art that comments on the issue of Internet music piracy and copyright laws. The soundtrack is made up of a series of well-known musical tracks that have been slightly altered so as to deceive copyright detection software that uses a set algorithms to detect copyright. The artists utilises a variation of sound manipulation techniques that are known to cheat the algorithms – methods such as changing the pitch, slowing the down the tempo, adding blank space and switching stereo channels. Techniques such as these are regularly used in order to upload copyright protected songs to websites like Youtube without repercussion. By creating this work the artist is demonstrating the ease of piracy and the difficulties involved with governing and enforcing rules and regulations out on the Internet.
Licht, A., (2009). Sound Art: Origins, development and ambiguities. Organised Sound, 14(01), pp.3-10.
Robertworby.com. (2016). An Introduction To Sound Art – Robert Worby. [online] Available at: http://www.robertworby.com/writing/an-introduction-to-sound-art/ [Accessed 23 Oct. 2016].
Gann, K., (2010). No such thing as silence: John Cage’s 4’33. Yale University Press.
Jenny, H. (2001). Cymatics: A Study of Wave Phenomena & Vibration. Newmarket, NH: MACROmedia.
Moma.org. (2013). SOUNDINGS. [online] Available at: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2013/soundings/artists/8/works/ [Accessed 23 Oct. 2016].
Ruerwein, B.J., (2012). Wodiczko’s Veterans; Artist, Institution, and Audience in.. Out of Here; The Veterans Project, pp.1.