SFCA [isaw+subtropics] in collaboration with
CHRISTOPH COX: A Sound Arts Workshop
A seminar on experimental music, sound art and philosophy
JULY 8, 2017 | 10AM-NOON & 2-4PM
1035 N Miami Avenue #300, Miami
Through a set of mini-lectures, discussions, and listening exercises, Christoph Cox will explore philosophical issues in sound art and experimental music. What is sound art and what distinguishes it from music? Is there a metaphysics of sound and music? How do sound art and experimental music expand our experience of time and temporality? How might these modes of sonic art enable us to listen better and differently? What can we learn about sound and sound art through film and video? Cox’s workshops will explore these and other questions.
Sound Art Inside Out
written for publication in the summer issue of ArtCenter/South Florida’s
Small Format | Subtropics XXIV
The term “sound art” has become increasingly prominent in the art world since the mid-1990s. There’s no established definition of the term, which has been embraced by some artists, critics, and curators, and roundly rejected by others. Nonetheless, the term “sound art” hasn’t gone away – and for good reason. While no more adequate to its content than the terms “video art” or “performance” are to describe the wild variety of work that falls under those labels, “sound art” helpfully marks the fact that, in the past several decades, sound has indeed become more prominent in venues of contemporary art around the world, and that this sonic art work tends to be markedly different from musical performance and from other art forms (video and film, for example) in which sound most often plays a merely supportive role. “Sound art” is as good a term as any to describe works in any artistic medium or modality (installation, sculpture, drawing, film, video, recorded sound, etc.) that center on the sonic and consider it aesthetically. Surely this category overlaps with “music,” and no firm division need be made between them. Nonetheless, “sound art” registers the fact that “music” is no longer coextensive with the field of sonic art, that there exist artistic practices in which sound is paramount – field recording, sound installation, and soundwalks, for example – that stretch or fall outside the conventions of music, musical performance, and musical recording.
Exiting the Concert Hall
On this (and just about any other) definition, sound art has multiple origins. Prior to the contributions of composers and artists, the deaf polymath Thomas Edison laid the groundwork for sound art with his invention of the phonograph, which severed sound from its present performance and allowed it to be installed, played back independently of the live event, repeated in the absence of the performer and even the listener. Moreover, the phonograph expanded the aesthetic appreciation of sound beyond music and speech, for it registered audible vibrations indiscriminately, heedless of whether they were emitted by a musical instrument, a human voice, wind through the trees, or a passing locomotive. Music was thus subsumed within the broader field of sound or noise, and was no longer the only sonic art.
Luigi Russolo, Edgard Varèse, and Pierre Schaeffer explored this newly discovered domain of noise. But all three were content to make music with noise, to capture the sounds of the world and use them to musical effect. A more profound contribution was made by John Cage. It’s customary to think of Cage as the composer of silence. This is true, of course, but misleading. Instead of exploring musical silence or making silence musical, Cage’s most famous piece, the so-called “silent piece” 4’33” (1952), serves as a window or door through which music opens out to what Cage called “the entire field of sound.” Indeed Cage is not so much the thinker and composer of silence as the thinker and composer of noise, considered as the entire sonic field of which music is but a tiny part. Cage repeatedly reminded us that “there’s no such thing as silence” and that “wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise.” In short, for Cage, silence = noise, and not just any noise, but the hubbub of the whole audible world, the impersonal and anonymous sonic flux that precedes and exceeds us: “Until I die there will be sounds,” he remarked. “And they will continue following my death.”
Reflecting on 4’33” in 1974, Cage told an interviewer: “I have felt and hoped to have led other people to feel that the sounds of their environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the music which they would hear if they went into a concert hall.” Cage invited us to leave the concert hall and attend to the sounds of the environment. Yet he didn’t relinquish “music,” hoping that others would accept his expansion of the term to encompass everything that can be heard. It was another artist, Max Neuhaus, who took the decisive step outside of music toward what we know as “sound art.” A musical prodigy specializing in avant-garde percussion, Neuhaus had performed pieces by Russolo, Varèse, Cage, and other composers eager to incorporate everyday sounds into their work. Yet, by the mid-1960s, Neuhaus began to worry that this strategy was insufficient. “Few [concert goers] were able to carry the experience over into an appreciation of these sounds in their daily lives,” he remarked. “I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside – a demonstration in situ?” Neuhaus intended this exit from the concert hall to be quite literal. In 1966, he initiated a project called LISTEN, in which he invited audience members to meet at a concert venue, stamped their hands with those six letters, and then silently led them outside on a walk through power plants, highway underpasses, and city neighborhoods.
Neuhaus’ own final exit from the concert hall came two years later. After recording an LP of his percussion repertoire, he left the world of music and performance for good, turning instead to what he called “sound installations,” continuous fields of sound – generally complex drones – that shaped and colored their chosen sites. “In music the sound is the work,” he noted, while “in what I do the sound is the means of making the work, the means of transforming space into place.” This shift of interest from temporally-bounded works toward site-specific works that define a place, he thought, connected his work more fully with sculpture and the visual arts than music.
Neuhaus began installing unmarked sound pieces in stairwells, subway stations, swimming pools, and elevators, filling them with lush drones, phased clicks, or other sounds that were at once unobtrusive and subtly transformative. In 1973, he happened upon a subway vent on a pedestrian island in New York’s Times Square and was struck by a desire to use the cavernous space as the resonant chamber for a sound work. Four years of arduous negotiation with the Metropolitan Transit Authority and Con Edison ensued until Neuhaus finally received permission to climb down into the vent shaft and install a loudspeaker and some homemade electronic sound generators that he jerry-rigged to the city’s lighting grid. Neuhaus built the sound by ear, listening carefully to the sonic environment, layering frequencies and timbres the way a painter layers color, and shaping mass like a sculptor working with invisible material. As in all of Neuhaus’s installations, the sound was to be, he liked to say, “almost plausible” in the context and yet also a bit out of place, a slight dislocation of the aural topography. The result was a dense drone that, as Neuhaus described it, resembled “the after ring of large bells,” a sound that summoned the restless clamor of its environs and bathed it in a consistent aural hue. Launched in September of 1977, the piece defined an aural field that remained in place twenty-four hours a day for fifteen years before Neuhaus dismantled it. In 2002, the Dia Art Foundation relaunched Times Square as a permanent installation that is now one of New York City’s great works of public art.
Inside Out, Outside In
Not every work of sound art exists in public space; but a great many explore the boundaries between interior and exterior, private and public. In Achim Wollscheid’s Inlet/Outlet (2006), for example, the movements of visitors in a gallery space triggered motors to open and close casement windows that looked out onto a busy boulevard. A simple idea, the project elegantly reconceived the window from a visual opening to an auditory boundary, allowing for a playful orchestration of ambient sounds. By contrast, Christina Kubisch’s Electric Walks (2003– ) project sends participants out into the city wearing special headphones that convert electromagnetic signals (from ATM machines, street signs, etc.) into sound. Conspicuous with their clunky headphones, the participants have a private experience in public space, which they scour for interesting sounds inaudible to the general public.
Between 2011 and 2015, artist and curator Gustavo Matamoros’ “Listening Gallery” project broadcast a steady stream of sound works onto the sidewalk outside ArtCenter/South Florida. Wade Matthews’ darkly comic “Street Appeal” barked catcalls (“hey you, nice sunglasses”) at passersby, while Matamoros’ “Wet Season” produced the aural hallucination of swarming mosquitos. Jaap Blonk and Chris Mann contributed sound poems that accelerated and exaggerated the vocal chatter of the urban thoroughfare, while another project transplanted liturgical chants from the cathedral to the sidewalk. All these projects highlight the peculiar properties of recorded sound, for example, its ability to sever sound from source and any visual reference; to insert one space inside another; and to amplify subtle details. For the 2017 Subtropics Biennial, Matamoros is bringing these artworks inside ArtCenter, inviting listeners to hear them no longer as chance encounters but as focused listening. As Cage did with 4’33”, Matamoros’s “Listen” exhibition folds the outside in, while maintaining the porous boundaries between inside and outside that have marked sound art from its beginnings.
Subtropics XXIV is possible with support from City of Miami Beach’s Cultural Affairs Program and Cultural Arts Council; with additional support from Miami-Dade County, Department of Cultural Affairs and the Cultural Affairs Council, the Miami-Dade County Mayor and Board of County Commissioners; and sponsored in part by the State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture; and by the Blank Family Foundation. SFCA [isaw+subtropics.org] would also like to acknowledge the ongoing support of Sennheiser, leaders in superior sound technology. Acción Cultural Española (AC/E) supports Subtropics XXIV through the Program for the Internationalization of Spanish Culture (PICE).