Curricular materials created for the 2014 SAIL seminar:
Contemporary culture is increasingly dominated by visual means of communication, often serving the commercial ends of consumer capitalism. This is most apparent in the current moment characterized by a high degree of media convergence. In response to this state of affairs, Ryan Platt (Performance Studies, Colorado College) and I have developed a new course that examines an alternative form of communication, the auditory. Using the history and theory of “sound art” we explore the ways in which auditory expression challenges the immediacy, transparency, and autonomy implied by visual regimes of representation.”Sound art turns spectators into audiences, who must learn to attend to experiences that cannot be immediately understood.” Sound art itself demands that audiences learn to listen, and particular works of sound art can often be considered as modes of teaching this listening skill.
The course focuses on experiments in the emergent field of sound art, which explores a new, non-visually centered sphere of expression. Sound art is an interdisciplinary artistic genre that traverses music, installation art, dance, performance art, theatre, film, and new media: it is, thus, a perfect example of a “contested space” in the aesthetic domain. At the historical level, we explore: musical works by such experimental composers as John Cage, Luc Ferrari, and Alvin Lucier; environmental works such as Max Neuhaus’ site-specific sound installations, Hildegard Westerkamp’s “soundwalks,” Annea Lockwood’s “sound maps,” and Francisco Lopez’s experiments in blindfolded listening; and performance-inflected works such as the “noise-music” of Merzbow and the “deep listening” pieces of Pauline Oliveros.
This historical overview of sound art is contextualized with extensive readings from historiographies of hearing in modernism, from the aesthetic lineage of experimental music, and from recent philosophical inquiries into the relation of sound and listening to questions of technology and the human. Sound art emerges from the radical re-thinking of music in the 20th century, which focused on artistic alternatives to conventional concepts of harmony, dissonance, and noise. In the post-World War Two era, one of the most distinctive challenges to traditional music came with the rise of electronic music, contesting both the historical predominance of the human voice and the centrality of acoustic instruments. These artistic developments, in turn, inspired an extensive body of aesthetic and critical texts exploring the cultural significance of the work of these artists. With the growing interpenetration of artistic production and theoretical reflection and the rise of deeply interdisciplinary, inter-arts work, the contemporary situation of sound art provides a rich field for exploration.