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Sound Art

Curricular materials created for the 2014 SAIL seminar:

Contested Spaces in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado

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.


Content/Concepts Goals

  • Students will understand the role of John Cage in the problematization of the distinctions between music, sound, and noise, by articulating the nature of his influence on a variety of different artistic media.
  • Students will understand musique concrète by articulating its fundamental principles in a variety of different aesthetic contexts.
  • Students will understand noise by articulating its manifestation in different artistic movements and aesthetic contexts.
  • Students will understand microsound and immersive environments by articulating how the digital analysis of sound sources can generate new forms of art and aesthetic experience.
  • Students will understand fidelity by articulating the role of “codecs” (coding/decoding, compression/decompression algorithms) in a variety of different contexts.
  • Students will understand phono-graphy by articulating ways in which recording technologies shape modes of human (self-)understanding.
  • Students will understand dj culture by articulating ways in which recording technologies transform social relationships.
  • Students will understand electromagnetism (in the context of sound art) by articulating how natural processes (at the cosmic, the terrestrial, and the bodily levels) can produce new modes of aesthetic experience.
  • Students will understand acoustic ecology by articulating how the lived experience of soundscapes can change the nature of cognition and inspire new artistic media.
  • Students will understand soundwalks by articulating the complexities involved in circumscribing modes of listening in natural and built environments.
  • Students will understand site-specific installations by articulating the ways that introducing sounds into environments can transform both how we perceive the world around us and how we understand that world.
  • Students will understand the role of Pauline Oliveros in the development of sound art by articulating how careful modes of listening can play a variety of therapeutic roles.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

  • Nurturing the ability to “listen” and to suspend immediate attempts to “understand” works of sound art.
  • To articulate their experiences of listening both orally and in writing, and a key goal here will involve the exploration of alternative modes of discourse, forms of writing more appropriate for these experiences than what we normally find within particular academic disciplines.
  • Students will be encouraged to develop new models of “understanding” itself.

Multidisciplinary Analysis Goals

In fulfilling each of these interlocking, higher order thinking skills/goals, students will effectively be learning on their own new ways of scaffolding multi-disciplinary and even trans-disciplinary analysis. The result will be something like a collective “auditory ecology” of the contemporary world, using the practice of sound art as a privileged moment of access to this ecology.

Other Skills Goals

Other skills/goals pursued in “Sound Art” include the more traditional skills of writing essays, making oral presentations, and working in small groups both to produce a product (in this case a “soundwalk”) and to present the product to the class.

Resources & Materials

The Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne. London: Routledge, 2012. [SSR]

Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. [AC]

The most useful monographs and essay collections devoted to sound art, to particular movements in sound art, and to sound studies include the following:

Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, translated by Brian Massumi, foreword by Fredric Jameson, afterword by Susan McClary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

Nicholas Collins, Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking, second edition (New York: Routledge, 2009)

Joanna Demers, Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Frances Dyson, The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014).

Paul Hegarty, Rumour and Radiation: Sound in Video Art (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Paul Hegarty, Noise/Music: A History (New York: Continuum, 2007).

Eleni Ikoniadou, The Rhythmic Event: Art, Media, and the Sonic (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2014).

Brian Kane, Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Douglas Kahn, Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Caleb Kelly, Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009).

Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, translated, with an introduction, by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

Brandon LaBelle, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2006).

David Novak, Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).

Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound, edited by Tara Rodgers (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).

Soundings: A Contemporary Score, edited by Barbara London, with an essay by Anne Hilde Neset (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2013).

Jonathan Sterne, MP3: The Meaning of a Format (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

David Toop, Haunted Weather: Music, Silence, and Memory (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2004).

Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Sound Art – Leonardo Music Journal, volume 23 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013).

Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1992).

Particularly helpful and even revelatory monographs and essay collections focusing on particular artists include the following:

John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961).

The Cambridge Companion to John Cage, edited by David Nicholls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Paul DeMarinis, Buried in Noise (Heidelberg/Berlin: Kehrer Verlag, 2010).

Almost Nothing with Luc Ferrari: Interviews with texts and imaginary autobiographies, edited by Jacqueline Caux, translated by Jérôme Hansen (Berlin/Los Angeles, 2012).

Christina Kubisch, Klangraumlichtzeit: Works from 1980 to 2000 (Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2000).

Alvin Lucier, Music 109: Notes on Experimental Music, forward by Robert Ashley(Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 2012).

Alvin Lucier, Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings (Köln: MusikTexte, 1995).

Christian Marclay, edited by Jennifer González (New York: Phaidon Press, 2005).

Christof Migone, Sonic Somatic: Performances of the Unsound Body (Los Angeles/Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2012).

Paul D Miller (aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid), Rhythm Science (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2004).

Max Neuhaus: Times Square, Time Piece Beacon, edited by Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly, with Barbara Schröder (New York: Dia Art Foundation, 2009).

Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2005).

Pauline Oliveros, Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80 (Baltimore: Smith Publications, 1984).

Pierre Schaeffer, In Search of a Concrete Music, translated by Christine North and John Dack (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

R. Murray Schafer, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World (Rochester, Vermont:  Destiny Books, 1994).

Yasunao Tone, Noise, Media, Language (Los Angeles/Berlin: Errant Bodies Press, 2007).

Edgard Varèse: Composer, Sound Sculptor, Visionary, edited by Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2006).

Sound and Light: La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, edited by William Duckworth and Richard Fleming (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1996).

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