Friday, February 8, 2008

If it's not music, it must be...

The art book publisher Rizzoli recently published a deluxe book by Alan Licht entitled Sound Art. Licht is an improvisational guitarist who has performed with various noise and punk outfits, with a background in film studies and a voracious appetite for different kinds of experimental music. Lavishly illustrated, his new book fits well on the fairly small shelf with other books covering the fringes, as he says in the subtitle, beyond music and between categories.

Since a lot of the CDs in my collection could fall under the sound art rubric, I approached the book with considerable interest. Licht distinguishes music from sound art as an exhibition situation rather than a performance. This definition gives Licht a practical, social context rather than a theoretical one, and a practice for which he can trace a history. Kinetic sound sculptures, such as those created by Jean Dubuffet, led to several noise works from artists not necessarily trained as musicians. But as in so many other aspects of contemporary music, he signals John Cage's recognition of everyday sounds as compositional material as a major turning point. Although Cage himself seldom left the performance space for exhibitions, his colleague David Tudor created several magnificant sound installations, most notably Rainforest, a sonic environment of resonating but otherwise inanimate objects. Licht devotes an extended discussion to the mutual influences of sound and visual artists, centered largely around the two New York Schools.

Sound installations that probe sound's relationship to space become more elaborate, leaving the gallery for outdoor installations, such as Annea Lockwood's piano transplants or Bill Fontana's installations on bridges and ranches. Licht has a whole chapter on environmental installations, which often reads like a catalog of past glories, but composers since World War II have dealt with spatialization for more strictly musical works. Licht mentions several electronic composers, including Stockhausen and Xenakis, but I see a parallel in the purely musical efforts of orchestral composers who use innovative placement of the musicians to explore the relationship between music and space (including not only Stockhausen and Xenakis, but Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu). Some sound artists combine installations with performance, such as long string installation artists Ellen Fullman or Paul Panhuysen. Alvin Lucier has several pieces like this, such as his most famous I Am Sitting In A Room, Music for Solo Performer, which uses brain waves, or Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, which explores interference tones between sine wave generators and sustained notes played on instruments.

Sound art as a gallery phenomenon is somewhat mixed. The best is represented by a work like Janet Cardiff's 40 Piece Motet (which Licht discusses), where she recorded each member of a forty-person choir performing a work by Thomas Tallis. I've been fortunate enough to experience this work, at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. It defies reduction to a two-channel home variant. The installation has forty speakers in a circle facing inward, and each speaker accounts for one singer. One can stand in the center of the installation and hear the voices all around, or one can stand next to a couple of speakers and hear their individual voices. Cardiff also recorded some of the chatter that precedes a performance, so one can hear small bits of conversation between two adjacent singers, just as if one were in the midst of the choir. It's a remarkable work. For another example, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw an installation by Olivia Block, where she arranged cymbals and water beakers so that the water slowly dripped onto the cymbals. It was a very delicate work, combining sound with kinetics, again, impossible to experience at home. Unfortunately, too many gallery sound art exhibitions rely on headphones attached to the wall. At the Whitney Biennial in 2002, one could find these headphones in the middle of a huge room of a dizzying array of video, painting and static sculptures, and the effect was completely lost. (There was also a dedicated sound room, which more than made up the difference.) Even in a quiet gallery, who wants to put on headphones and listen to a fifteen minute piece? Thanks, but I'd rather put on the CD at home.

Perhaps because a successful installation is such a unique event and cannot be sold to a collector, many sound artists release their work on CDs, often with mixed artistic success. Licht includes a CD with the book (with appropriate disclaimers), covering a representative spectrum from installations by Bill Fontana and Bernhard Gal, a sound sculpture by Jean Dubuffet, a noisy performance by Destroy All Monsters, a version of Lucier's Still and Moving Lines... for electric guitar, and a headphone installation piece by Steve Roden. In addition to the text, there is also a biographical section for major sound artists, arranged chronologically from Harry Bertoia to Steve Roden.

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