Thinking Critically About Sound Art

Nasher Sculpture Center
Jul 26, 2019 5:28PM

This year, the Nasher will mount two exhibitions and one performance dedicated to sound works: Sightings: Luke Fowler, highlighting the sensitive listening of the Scottish artist, and the first sound sculpture ever to be showcased at the museum; Sightings: Anne Le Troter, which will consider the ethics of eugenics in a linguistic score and site-specific installation; and Grubnik + Suzanne, a piece by Dallas artists Jeff Gibbons and Gregory Ruppe, commissioned in partnership with SOLUNA. The various works will prove the vast terrain of the medium of sound and suggest the compelling ways that sound can be sited within an environment or combined with sculptural elements to challenge an array of perceptions. By way of laying a foundation for the museum’s foray into the aural realms, The Nasher tapped seasoned experimental-music writer Geeta Dayal to give a brief primer on what constitutes sound art and how institutions might better adapt to provide the best arena for it.

The term “sound art” is relatively young, but it has a long, perplexing history. Could Erik Satie’s “furniture music” from 1917 be thought of as sound art? Was Dada sound poetry sound art? Were the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s noisemaking intonarumori devices sound art? We also shouldn’t forget that sound art often happens outside of the museum and gallery context. If you walk 15 minutes from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to Broadway between 45th and 46th Street, you’ll stumble into an ingenious public sound installation: the late sound artist Max Neuhaus’s Times Square, first installed in 1977 and reinstated in 2002.

Contending with “sound art” means grappling with a tremendously interdisciplinary field. It means delving deeply into the history of 20th-century experimental music—a history that hasn’t been written into most art history textbooks. Was the late Pauline Oliveros—who was part of the exhibition that likely coined the term “sound art,” Sound/Art at the Sculpture Center in New York in 1984—a sound artist, or was she an experimental musician, theorist, improviser, and composer? Like many other sound artists, she encompassed all of those things, over a long, sprawling legacy. Similarly, a sound installation such as David Tudor’s magnificent Rainforest—which, in its debut version in 1968, included the talents of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, costumes by Jasper Johns, and silver Mylar clouds by Andy Warhol—illustrates sound art’s complexity: Contending with Rainforest meant contending with the history of technology, sculpture, dance, and so much more.

For the past 15 years, I’ve been an arts critic, specializing in writing on sound, experimental music, and technology. The renewed interest in sound—and music—is welcome. But how can museums and galleries—which were generally designed with visual art, not the sonic arts, in mind—become better spaces for the public to have rich and meaningful experiences with music and sound? And how can sound art exhibitions be enhanced to improve the experience of the auditory?

Over the past several years, there has been a particularly noticeable surge in sound art exhibitions across the world, including Soundings: A Contemporary Score (MoMA, 2013); Hacer La Audicion (Hear Here): Encounters Between Art and Sound in Peru (Lima Art Museum, 2016); The World Is Sound (Rubin Museum, 2017); Soundtracks (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2017); Sound Art: Sound as a Medium of Art (ZKM, Karlsruhe, 2012); and more.

At the same time, many museums have become critically important music venues, hosting everything from the likes of the legendary electronic music group Kraftwerk (MoMA, 2012) to the late free-jazz legend Cecil Taylor (Whitney Museum, 2016.) Experimental music—which has a long, complicated, and intertwined history with sound art—has also seen a boost over the past decade through numerous reissue projects, anniversary concerts, and retrospectives, which have illuminated the careers of living legends such as the composer Alvin Lucier, now 86 years old, and shed new light on departed composers such as Maryanne Amacher and John Cage, who was the subject of a massively ambitious yearlong global celebration in 2012, the centennial of his birth. Additionally, I want to revisit the provocative question that Max Neuhaus raised in his skeptical, slightly cantankerous essay “Sound Art?”, written in 2000. “From the early 1980s on there have been an increasing number of exhibitions at visual arts institutions that have focused on sound,” he wrote. “By 1995 they had become almost an art fad... In short, ‘Sound Art’ seems to be a category which can include anything which has or makes sound and even, in some cases, things which don’t.”

Later on, he admonished: “These same people who would all ridicule a new art form called, say, ‘Steel Art’ which was composed of steel sculpture combined with steel guitar music along with anything else with steel in it, somehow have no trouble at all swallowing ‘Sound Art’.”

One wonders what Neuhaus would write now, given the immense wellspring of interest in sound art in the 18 years following the publication of his essay (Neuhaus died in 2007), and the improved literacy and demonstrated commitment to sound among many informed curators and the public. Though great strides have been made, I think that it’s important that we continue to question—as Neuhaus did—what sound art is, and what it means. It is by constantly questioning and arguing for art’s value that we begin to understand art, and ourselves. The transitory, elusive, sometimes baffling nature of sound is part of its enduring mystery and power. But in another way, sound is also instantly approachable and accessible to all of us, beginning at a very young age. Our exposure to sound begins very early on, in the womb. As the noted sound designer Walter Murch—who worked on many major Hollywood movies, receiving an Oscar for his work on Apocalypse Now—mused in 2005: “Hearing is the first of our senses to be switched on, four and a half months after we are conceived. And for the rest of our time in the womb—another four and a half months—we are pickled in a rich brine of sound…”

On a more practical level, sound and music-related events can generate enormous amounts of public interest, drawing massive crowds to museums. And even those of us who don’t profess a love for sound and music have an intuition for what sound waves feel like: Anyone who has experienced heavy bass booming from a passing car knows that sound is physical and visceral by its very nature.

What follows is a list of 10 recommendations to improve the experience of sound art within museums, informed by conversations with several sound artists who have recently exhibited work in them.

Installation view, The World is Sound, June 16, 2017 – January 8, 2018, Rubin Museum Art

1. Museums and gallery spaces are often not designed with acoustics in mind

As some museums plan massive expansions, and new museums and mega-galleries continue to be built worldwide, particular concern should be given in the planning stages to supporting sound works in the architecture of the space. Particular attention should be given to reduce unwanted reverb, background noise, reflections, and other obstacles.

2. Employ dedicated staff to contend with sound works

While it isn’t always possible, having a dedicated staff member who specializes in sound would be a welcome addition to every museum.

3. Pump up the volume

One sound artist informed me that she was told to lower the volume of her installation, but not told by how much, which led to a confusing situation. All museums and galleries should have basic sound testing tools on site—at the very least, a decibel (dB) meter is necessary.

4. Use directional speakers and innovative acoustic solutions to reduce ‘bleed’ between pieces

Directional speakers, while usually more expensive than typical speakers, have great promise for allowing museums to focus sound on a very small area, without “bleed” to the next room.

5. Raise the bass

Another sound artist I spoke with was told by an institution to reduce the bass in this artist’s piece—a piece in which bass was a crucially important element—so as not to disturb a nearby Jeff Koons sculpture. But sometimes pumping up the bass is necessary to fully experience a sound work the way the artist intended. Trying to examine a sound piece at a low volume can be like squinting at a painting in inadequate light.

6. Take an open-minded approach to the growing sound art canon

Incorporating the history of experimental music, jazz, electronic music history, underground music, and non-Western music are all essential to understanding sound art.

7. Integrate sound works into permanent collections

It would be welcome to see sound art more formally integrated into the full museum experience, and not simply on display for a few months for a special exhibition.

8. Integrate sound art into visual art exhibitions—instead of ‘quarantining’ all sound works together

Sometimes seeing a huge exhibition composed entirely of sound art can be fatiguing. Sound is part of everyday life, and the ear integrates with all of our other senses. Mixing and juxtaposing sound works with paintings, films, or sculptures can lead to unexpected connections and the occasional epiphany.

9. Don’t rely too much on the visual

Conversely, experiencing a sound work with no visual element—a cluster of speakers gathered in a corner, for instance—can sometimes feel strange and unapproachable. But contending with pure sound, with no visual element, can be a vital and even transformative experience. Some curators who are deeply familiar with abstraction when applied to visual art may nonetheless run away screaming when encountering pure sine waves. But it’s important to have spaces where one can just listen, and learn to listen in different ways.

10. Expanding sound art to include a diversity of races, ethnicities, genders, generations, and perspectives

It is critical that we emphasize diversity in sound art, and have a global and wide-ranging view. In this exciting and emerging field, we should avoid solidifying into a hardened canon. Instead, we should continually work to shape and expand our notions of sound, and sound art.

Nasher Sculpture Center