Sound Art: What Are You?

Ssssssssssssssooooouuuuunnnnnund Art: What Are You?



In 1966 concert percussionist Max Neuhaus surprised audiences arriving for a concert by rubber stamping the word “LISTEN” on their hands and taking them to a power station, on what is now known as a sound walk. Although such walks are rather common practice now, and soundscape studies form a key area of practice within the greater contemporary field of Sonic Art, this practice was rather unknown to concert-going audiences of the time. Despite the efforts of Dada and subsequent movements to open minds to the possibilities of exhibition spaces, such active efforts were largely unknown to gallery-going audiences as well. Murray Schafer’s Soundscape project was just in its infancy, and Silence, although first published in 1961 had no where near the readership it does today.



Artists had, and perhaps always have, attempted to bring together the disciplines of concert music and artistic exhibition – to smash open both frames at once. In 1960 Yves Klein gave concerts of ensemble music (The Monotone Symphony, 1949) accompanying exhibitions of his monochrome paintings, often along with performances demonstrating the rather sexy process by which some of the paintings, now rather ironically considered ancestors of minimalism, where made. Others, such as the Surrealist group show in 1942, designed by Marcel Duchamp, included electronic sound, as well as odours, special lighting situations, and tactile provocations to destabilize both the senses and the expectations of exhibition visitors, opening for them a field of total sensory awareness, if not saturation, and allowing time and its perception to become part of the medium of what had previously been thought of as a solely visual art.


If such efforts of visual artists to expand the framework of their questions beyond the picture frame or the sculpture pedestal involved the use of sound, and borrowed from traditional concert-hall practices and behaviors (subsequently violated, and violently), what was happening from the music side of things? Why did so many musicians end up playing such important roles in the formation of important movements such as Fluxus, and in the new thought that provides the foundation for tendencies in still-contemporary artistic developments such as Conceptual Art or, for example, what is now known as New Media Art? It is interesting to note that time-based practices and procedures formed a core of the fledgling Conceptual Art, which from the beginning often involved a rich mixture of artistic disciplines, often through the interface of the newest technology available.

[Naumann video violin tuned in DEAD, link to the entire video is below]

It is, however, an oft-overlooked fact that not all Sound Art is time-based, at least not in the sense music traditionally has been. In fact, much Sound Art is not musical at all . So, then, what is it? The fact that Neuhaus considered his LISTEN project to include not only those events framed as concerts and performances, but also “guest lectures” (one of which making him rather the anti-hero of academia for a short time, at least in Iowa), published texts, and graphic materials such as the poster that opened this article. He describes a 1974 version of the work as being “for one million people” and describes it as “an opinion editorial that I wrote for the New York Times…condemning silly bureaucrats…for making too much noise.” Of the Brooklyn Bridge poster (1976):

“There were other manifestations of the idea. I organized ‘field trips’ to places that were generally inaccessible and had sounds that could never be captured on a recording. I also did some versions as publications. One of these was a poster with a view looking up from under the Brooklyn Bridge, with the word LISTEN stamped in large letters on the underside of the bridge. This idea came from a long fascination of mine with sounds of traffic moving across that bridge- the rich sound texture formed from hundreds of tires rolling over the open grating of the road-bed- each with a different speed and tread.”

Neuhaus is thus clearly open to Sound Art works that are not themselves sounding objects, nor being time-based in any of the traditional senses. An even later version of the work describes a “do-it-yourself version….a postcard, in the form of a decal with the word LISTEN outlined in open letters, to be placed in locations selected by its recipients”, completely shifting the locus of determination away from the artist and catapulting the individual spectator into the creative roll of composer of their own experience. Neuhaus’s work suggests a Sound Art as neither Art nor Music, but pointing towards something much bigger, less of a cultural product and more of an exploration of the mystery of individual human experience.


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