Organised Sound vol.14 No 1 [review]

Organised-Sound-front-sOrganised Sound
vol.14 No 1, 122 pages, April 2009
Cambridge University Press, UK [+]


Thanks to a variety of contributors, this issue of Organised Sound usefully articulates several definitions of sound art, principally the German Klangkunst vs the US art gallery assumption, the former focusing on the sculptural dimension and site specific, architecture related installations, while the latter deals with more aesthetic and psychological aspects. In their article, Sweden sound artists Andreas Engström & Åsa Stjerna [+] acknowledges the importance of a proper definition that would ensure a wider recognition and survival of the practice as a genre (after Barbara Barthelmes, 1999). Despite Germany’s credentials in the field (a dedicated publisher like Kehrer Verlag; the Singuhr-Hörgaleri, a Berlin art gallery devoted to sound art only [+]; various regular columns in art magazines), the 2 authors note the lack of awareness of German studies in English writings on sound art. They particularly point towards Alan Licht, whose ‘very strong North-American focus’ they consider a major flaw (Engström & Stjerna, p15). Moreover, ‘the way the term sound art is handled in English texts is often very vague, to the point of being useless’ (Engström & Stjerna, p17).


According to Aden Evens (2005), quoted by Christoph Cox (p21), all sounds stem from background ambient noise, what Evens calls the ‘cacophony of silence’. Cox mentions recent trends in sound art, making background noise and silence the prime materials for artists like Christina Kubisch, Jacob Kirkegaard, or Francisco Lopez. In 1966, Abraham Moles (Cox, p20) defined music as stemming from a background of noise, with no real difference between music and noise, save for a special quality: noise is an unwanted signal, one ‘the sender does not want to transmit’ (p20).

One of the missions of the sound artist would be to deal with sound’s potentialities, to reveal apparent and unapparent sounds (Alan Licht, p7), what Cox calls the latency of sound, drawing a parallel with Leibnitz’s concept of latency of memory: all memories are not apparent all the time, they pop up as event-triggered phenomena. But all memories are virtually available in one individual’s memory. Similarly, silence is potentially sonorous, provided the right amount of amplification or the right way to listen. In this context, it is interesting to consider the humble tape loop (remember?)  as a ‘close study of sound… a frozen visual image’ (Licht, p4) and sound art as magnifying silence or noise like a magnifying glass (funnily, the French word for magnifying glass is ‘loupe’, pronounced ‘loop’). This close attention to sound was called for by Pierre Schaeffer, several authors note, with his ‘écoute réduite’ concept. Reduced listening is the intention to listen only to the sound object, writes Joanna Demers [+] (p41). ‘Cette intention de n’écouter que l’objet sonore, nous l’appelons l’écoute réduite’, P. Schaeffer in Traité Des Objets Musicaux, 1966 (Demers, p41). Sound art itself might resort to this special quality of listening.


Organised-Sound-back-sBrasilian sound artist Lilian Campesato notes the specific modalities of sound art (Campesato, p36), distinct from music or cinema: 1) absence of linear temporal discourse; 2) referentiality or site-specific images and concepts; 3) interaction between audience, site and time. Most contributors to this issue of Organised Sound seem to agree more or less with these modalities. In accordance with 2), Claudia Tittel [+] gives several examples of sonification of specific sites with related sounds (Christina Kubisch, Bill Fontana, Bernhard Leitner). Her conclusion is that ‘sound art deals with sonification and the artistic treatment of features in our surroundings’ (Tittel, p64). She goes as far as assimilating sound art to installation art (p58), providing the following chronology. 1966: the first installation (Dan Flavin); 1967: the first sound installation (Max Neuhaus); 1968: Land Art (pp58-9). Similarly, several other writers propose Minimalism, Land Art or Situationism as influences to sound art. But, as far as I know, these artists were actually rather disillusioned with the art gallery commodification and sought to escape from the white cubes. If Sound Art first appeared in an Art Gallery, as several authors imply, it was because the art dealer thought the idea marketable, for an art dealer would not put up a show without a sales potential. There’s nothing wrong with this, but are we seriously to let art merchants decide what sound art is and has to be, and to follow their choices? Attributing the birth of sound art to Max Neuhaus (or others in NY in the 1980s, like in the ridiculous Wikipedia article) is at odds with my own information. According to Margaret Fisher in her book ‘Ezra Pound’s Radio Operas’ p.67 (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002), the first occurrence of Sound Art is due to German composer and film maker Walter Ruttmann (1887-1941). After the completion of his 1928 sound film ‘Deutscher Rundfunk’, a survey of several local radio stations in Germany, Ruttmann wrote that ‘sound was a new kind of art’. Ruttmann then went on to conceive ‘Weekend’, a sound piece for radio realised on film stock and including urban environmental sounds (completed 1930). Sound art is clearly born out of these radio experiments.


Further ideas would deserve to be noticed: Dani Iosafat‘s psychosonography concept, inspired by the Situationists’ psychogeography or sonic dérive, is interesting in the context of field recordings – Iosafat defines his practice [+] as reconstructing the experienced reality, eventually using added musical instruments to enhance the experience ; Georg Klein‘s site specific social-sound installations set up little corners of disjunction and irony in the urban landscape [+] ; regarding disjunction, Alan Licht writes: ‘The roots of sound art lie in the disjunction of sound and image afforded by the inventions of the telephone and audio recording’ (Licht, p4). So why not assume sound art was created the same day as the telephone (Bell, 1876)?

Sound and radio artist Virginia Madsen [+] introduces her research and ensuing ‘Cantata of Fire’ radio opera, inspired by the 1993 FBI assault on the Davidians sect’s headquarters in Waco, Texas. The last day, the FBI launched a famous ‘sonic assault’ on the inhabitants, using a various mix of ‘exotic music, sound effects and harsh light’ (Madsen, p89). Here’s the playlist as reconstituted by Madsen:  Tibetan monks in prayer, dentist drill, cries of slaughtered rabbits, babies wailing, a phone left ringing off the hook (with added distortion), The Carpenters. Would the Davidians really go saying ‘there is no real difference between music and noise’ (see The Cacophony of Silence above)?

And what would be your own sonic assault playlist?

8 Responses to “Organised Sound vol.14 No 1 [review]”

  1. 1 jar dim August 4, 2009 at 3:30 am

    Very interesting reading: Jstor should be helpful here. The historiography in these texts should be especially captivating and, despite the theoretical relevance of such debates, your skepticism about “art merchants” trying to circumscribe a product sounds wise. As far as I can see, “sound art” is still far from being as definable as such texts would wish it to be, which is probably a good thing and a proof of its vitality.

    In the end, I wonder who should I feel sorry for: the Davidians or the Carpenters?

  2. 2 continuo August 4, 2009 at 7:40 am

    Well, I think a general definition of ‘sound art’ is still possible, even useful. Though, in such matters, a variety of approaches is certainly preferable, as is the case here, to a solitary, prejudiced theory. I’m glad you enjoyed the review – thanks for the feedback.

  3. 3 Dualtrack August 7, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Amazing ‘zine! Thanks for drawing attention to it!

  4. 4 continuo August 7, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    I’m not even sure this is available in newsstands or book stores – I’m a happy subscriber. Though I’m pretty sure the plurality of opinions in this issue will prove a benchmark for future researchers.

  5. 5 Acousmata December 23, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Nice work, as always. Important, new questions abound. I think you’re on to something in looking for the origins of sound art in radio (and, I would argue, experiments with the phonograph and sound film from the same period). But I wonder if the more modern sense of sound art isn’t connected with a sense of place and the experience of “live” audition, which seems to be quite opposed from radiophonic or acousmatic listening.

  6. 6 continuo December 24, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    The key word in all these matters is: disjunction. When was the first time a sound could be heard with no musician around, only a man-made device – call it music box, automata, sound sculpture. This was the birth of sound art as we know it, disconnected from music.

  7. 7 Mr Stutter April 12, 2010 at 11:06 pm

    I like your references to Fisher’s book on Pound BBC radio operas; I came across this book recently and found in fascinating. Do you perchance have any recordings of Pound’s music that you could post? I believe the ‘Villon’ opera saw the light of day as an LP release on Fantasy Records.

  8. 8 continuo April 13, 2010 at 6:15 am

    Margaret Fisher’s book is a favorite (published by MIT, 2002). Pound’s operas have been collected on an Other Minds CD titled ‘Ego Scriptor Cantilenae’ in 2003. It won’t appear here as its still available (from Amazon, for instance), but, if you send me some rare music for consideration for the blog, I can send you Pound mp3s as a trade. Reach me at: teepeesfrp[at]yahoo[dot]fr

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