Archive for the 'book review' Category

Source: Music of the Avant-garde, 1966-1973 [book review]

Source: Music of the Avant-garde, 1966-1973

Source: Music of the Avant-garde, 1966-1973
Edited by Larry Austin and Douglas Kahn
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2011

Directed by Larry Austin and Douglas Kahn, both former teachers at UC-Davis, this long-awaited anthology published by U. of Cal. Press, gathers a generous selection from the 11 issues of Source, but is not a complete reprint, as original color pages, photo essays and material printed on transparencies or fur had to be set aside for practical reasons. Printed in black and white, in a format reduced by 1/3rd compared to the original magazine, the book is still a wonderful complement to the Pogus 3xCD set issued by Al Margolis and restoring the six accompanying 10-inch LPs, including such classics as Robert Ashley’s The Wolfman, Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room or Annea Lockwood’s Tiger Balm. See the revamped Wikipedia article for an introduction to Source.

NY Corres-Sponge Dance School of VancouverSource logoKen Friedman
Above: NY Corres-Sponge Dance School of Vancouver, Source logo, Ken Friedman

Source Magazine emerged in 1967 after an incredibly creative decade in the Bay Area and a series of buoyant, multifarious initiatives in the fields of improvised music (Lukas Foss’ Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, the Pauline Oliveros/Terry Riley/Loren Rush 1958 improvisations for a Claire Falkenstein film); electronic music by Morton Subotnik and the San Francisco Tape Music Center; intermedia art (Herbert Blau’s Actor’s Workshop, the San Francisco Mime Troupe and choreographer Ann Halprin all collaborated with experimental music composers); performances and Fluxus events by Allan Kaprow or La Monte Young; etc. Various institutions helped disseminate and stage these groundbreaking sound experiments: Mills College where Subotnik was a teacher and Steve Reich a student in 1961 ; UC Berkeley’s Department of Music, home of the Noon Concerts series ; the San Francisco Conservatory organized its Sonics series in 1961-62 ; Charles Amirkhanian’s influential avantgarde music broadcasts on KPFA radio ; the Morrison Planetarium’s Vortex, etc.


This was also a time of high political activism, none more visible than UC Berkeley’s anti-Vietnam war protests. Similarly, protestation and vindication prompted Larry Austin and Source’s editorial team to promote the most radical forms of music and indeed, says Austin, ‘rejection and dissent pervade these works’ (preface to issue #1, p12 – all page numbers from the book under review). An experimental music magazine created as a protestation against conformism and institutions, Source challenged formal concert performances and traditional music scores in every possible way. ‘The score no longer serves as a roadmap’, writes Will Johnson in issue #3 (p123), and ‘composers reject the notion of traditional score’.

But rejection would be nothing if it were not to support a new paradigm and this is why Source editors believed in the power of graphic scores to champion their conception of new music and their faith in music’s freedom. The magazine soon became an extraordinary kaleidoscope of drawings, artworks and photos, whose design alone, arguably, prompted many subscriptions. With good reasons, Austin is proud of the graphic work: ‘We wanted to make Source an artwork and I think we succeeded in that regard’ (p8). Not only was the score considered a document or report of possible musics, it also signaled ‘the transition between literary music and performed music […] and machine-generated music’ (Austin, issue #5, p202), which was the reason Source focused so much on graphic scores, as it enabled the notation of improvised, performance and electronic musics, new genres traditional notation couldn’t properly document.


Alvin LucierLowell CrossJohn Cage/Lejaren Hiller
Above: Alvin Lucier, Lowell Cross, John Cage/Lejaren Hiller

More than any other music magazine, Source heralded the new role of the composer in the electronic age. Reporting on a performance of Alvin Lucier’s Music For A Solo Performer in issue #2 (p79), Gordon Mumma details the various actions of the ‘technical assistant’ ensuring ‘musical continuity’ between the performer’s brain Alpha-waves and the Cybersonics amplifier, and the complex ‘system-concept thinking’ underlying Music For A Solo Performer. For Will Johnson, writing about the same sound work, the composer is now a technician and an explorer (p117); for Larry Austin, a practitioner or a synthesist (p202). Though it seems natural for artists to explore the technological possibilities of the era, why would they refuse being considered as composers? Perhaps because, in the 1960s, the US universities and music conservatories were already shock full of composers of all kinds and such enviable positions were not available to newcomers. They had to create a niche for themselves in the music world, as suggests Ben Johnston in his article on the state of institutional music in issue #7 (p250), one of the best essays in Source, along Dick Higgins’ Boredom and Danger in issue #5 (p178).

While electronic music was all the rage in the Bay Area since the late 1950s, Source magazine helped demonstrate its validity as a genre, a repertoire and a respectable art movement. In addition to pure electronic music, Source also championed hybridized forms of art involving two or more disciplines, as well as intermedia arts, a term coined by Dick Higgins to describe the fusion of different techniques to create a new art form (p239). Coincidentally, Source is the exact contemporary of the legendary Art & Technology group exhibition curated by Maurice Tuchman and Jane Livingston at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1971, which brought together international contemporary artists and Californian corporations.


It’s easy to feel dizzy contemplating the long list of artists included in Source along the years, yet the number of set aside, like-minded artists is also significant. As Larry Austin remarks, some artists could not be included for legal reasons – with publishers, say – but the ‘not-included’ artists form a group that can help define the actual scope (and limitations) of Source. For instance, Takehisa Kosugi’s Fluxus performances, Henry Brant’s spatialization concept of the 1950s, George Crumb’s graphic scores, Tod Dockstader’s electronic music, Alison Knowles’ computer poems and sound installations, Harry Bertoia’s sound sculptures, or Jean Tinguely’s 1960 Homage to New York, all seem to fit in the magazine’s canon.

The graphic score proved an adequate medium for 10 or 20 years, but was eventually superseded by sound installation, sound art and abstract electronic music where a score is less relevant. Since then, it has been steadily losing momentum as an inflammatory and subversive medium, to the point of becoming a mere decorative by-product of music composition. In a final analysis, the graphic score belongs to a time when music composers wanted to enter the art gallery, for want of a better place to perform their art. Part of Source‘s remarkable accomplishment lies in documenting and contributing to this highly creative, if short-lived, period.

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Greg Goodale – Sonic Persuasion [book review]

Sonic PersuasionGreg Goodale

Greg Goodale
Sonic Persuasion – Reading Sound in the Recorded Age

University of Illinois Press, Champaign, IL, 2011

For Greg Goodale, no sound is innocent and Sonic Persuasion reads like a handbook on how to examine aural documents with a critical ear able to discern the lures, subterfuges and manipulations orchestrated by corporations, advertisers and politicians – as Goodale puts it: to read sound, that is, to listen, instead of just to hear sounds. To achieve this, one shall be aware of the consequences of invisibility, the tricks of sonic persuasion and the benefits of the sonorous envelope. Goodale is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, Boston, MA, where he teaches Rhetoric and Persuasion and conducts advocacy workshops. He studied Law and Communication, is a defender of disabled people and animal rights, and a politically opinionated gentleman who served as congressional aide to Democrat representative Leslie Byrne.

As chapter 2 and 4 of Sonic Persuasion aptly demonstrate, recording technology is by nature racially biased, because of the accents, the elocution, the expectations of the public or simply by the degree of tolerance – or lack thereof – of the times. Hence the invisibility inflicted on some black artists performing on disc or on radio, while white artists could turn invisibility to their advantage. For instance, in the 19th century, political speeches were recorded by professional actors, not by politicians themselves, and a concern for effeminate or shrill voices led to a preference for manly and oratory style. Accordingly, Abraham Lincoln‘s famous 1903 Gettysburg address was recorded and circulated with the deep voice of actor Len Spencer. But the invisibility resulting from the recorded voice and radio broadcasts was not just a consequence of the new medium. For black artists, it also resulted from the anonymousness imposed by recording companies complying with the segregational laws or producer and consumer’s prejudices, in a racist environment where the Ku Klux Klan was tolerated by the US government.

But in turn, artists themselves have been using their recorded voice to persuade or make believe, like the fake news bulletins and pretended Martian invasion of Mercury Theater’s War of the Worlds, 1938. Billie Holiday could persuade listeners she wasn’t black when using a straight voice in the song Your Mother’s Son-In-Law, 1933, instead of her typically black syncopated voice in Strange Fruit, 1939, where she uses many vocal tricks – like syllable elision, rhythm change, unusual pronunciation and intonation– to keep the audience listening to the gruesome lyrics of the song. CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow, reporting from London during WWII, could help persuade America of the necessity to help Europe with the sounds of air-raid sirens and foot steps in his legendary London After Dark broadcast, 1940. Air-raid sirens and falling bomb sounds re-emerged during the Cold War period as anxious, paranoid sounds used to convince US citizens of the necessity of nuclear weapons to balance USSR’s own armament, particularly in the Duck and Cover propaganda film of 1951. In turn, the sound of a falling bomb was hilariously caricatured by Chuck Jones in an episode from the Roadrunner cartoon series in 1952, and this sound will endlessly underline Vile E. Coyote’s repeated falling in the series. Though not mentioned by Goodale, the cartoon’s relentless frolicking and energy owes much to composer Carl Stallig and Foley artist Treg Brown, who created the sound effects of all Warner Bros Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons (see Lucky Psychic Hut for a collection of Roadrunner soundtracks). Pictures of the bombing reappeared in the 1964 Daisy ad to persuade people to vote for Lyndon B. Johnson, along other tricky sound effects used by Tony Schwartz in this controversial ad. Conversely, Goodale also detects sonic manipulation in the absence of sound in the silent pictures of the Pentagon’s bomb videos of Irak during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 (p126) – which is not necessarily a paradox, rather a continuation of the Pentagon’s manipulative use of media.

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, 1903Billie Holiday at Cafe Society, 1939Duck and Cover, 1951Wile E. Coyote, 1952

During the first half of the 20th century, the sound of clocks, trains and machines pervading everyone’s life disturbed and infuriated people. Blues singer Bukka White famously imitated the locomotive’s bell, brake and engine sounds with his guitar in his heart-wrenching song Special Streamline, 1940, in which, despite the feeling of loss, deprivation and pain the lyrics convey, the singer is adjusting to industrial noises. Maybe what helped people cope with the incessant urban noise was the sonorous envelope, an aura of familiar, immersive sounds in which to find comfort and gain some sense of identity in a time when “the accelerating velocity of humanity […] threatens to tear souls apart” (Goodale p55). Inspired by French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu‘s psychic envelope concept in The Skin-Ego, 1987, the sonorous envelope according to Goodale includes everything from the roaring of a crowd, ubiquitous radio waves, sounds coming from the stage in a theater, and even Hitler’s calculated, fear mongering speeches, among other examples. Even one’s own voice can spread a sonorous envelope, since “we use our voices to protect ourselves from threats”, writes Goodale on his blog.

In the last chapter, the author sums up the reference books on sound criticism written in the 20th century, but his selection, as well as his source material for Sonic Persuasion in general, seems a bit univocal. “The best work on sound has consistently been written from within the Marxist tradition”, writes Goodale (p144), and one can’t help but hope for examples from outside this canon. For instance, the invisibility concept would have benefited from a comparison with disembodiment, a concept examined by various sound and media theorists like Allen S. Weiss in Breathless: Sound recording, disembodiment, and the transformation of lyrical nostalgia in 2002, and Brandon LaBelle in Background Noise in 2006, among others. If we are to “resist exploitation of sound by modern playwrights, politicians and corporations” (p147), it would seem necessary to adopt a less biased doctrine as Goodale’s. The merits of Sonic Persuasion are to be found elsewhere: in the minute attention to speech and pronunciation, in the way the author scrutinizes the political use of sound from the early days of recording, and in his delightful rendition of the Cold War propaganda era in pure sonic terms.

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Notes on music and Chinese calligraphy

Jean François Billeter – Essai sur l'art Chinois de l'écriture et ses fondementsNotes taken in Jean François Billeter‘s book on Chinese calligraphy titled Essai sur l’art Chinois de l’écriture et ses fondements (Essay on the Chinese art of writing and its origins), published by Allia, France, 2010. Billeter is a respected Swiss sinologist, born 1939, who lived in China during the sixties. The book is a fantastic resource on the various disciplines, philosophies and techniques of calligraphy during Imperial China. This post focuses on the music and calligraphy relationships with examples from the book completed with some Internet research.

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Zhang Xu (658-748)

Zhang Xu 张旭 (658-748) was a Chinese calligrapher of the Tang dynasty. Famous for his wild style and for creating calligraphy with his hair instead of a brush when he was drunk, he could never re-create the same calligraphic frenzy when sober. Zhang Xu presumably wrote a hand-written autobiography in caoshu, or cursive script, known as the Ziyantie, or the I-Already-Said-It-autobiography, 714 AD, where facts from his life are collected. In one famous passage from this text, he recollects how he got his inspiration for some of his calligraphic art: “It is when I saw the guard of honour of a princess and some porters fighting for their way in the street, and when I heard drums and wind instruments resonating nearby, that I understood the art of the brush”. Billeter assumes Zhang Xu did not want to recreate the anecdote or the sounds he heard, but to re-enact in his calligraphy the emotions he experienced during these moments. Below: examples from Zhang Xu’s explosive style.

Zhang Xu's wild styleZhang Xu's wild style

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The Taiyin Daqaunji, or Great Complete Collection of Utmost Sounds, is a 14th c. qin manual published during the Ming dynasty. It has sections on building and tuning a qin, and a repertoire of hand positions for playing the 7 strings. The latter sections lists 33 hand positions and provides 2 illustrations for each: the left one consists of a drawing and a poem, the right one shows how it applies to finger and hand position on the strings. The following example, #31, shows how to produce floating sounds or Hufan 互泛 inspired by dragonflies.

Hand Gesture Illustration #31 from the Taiyin Daqaunji

Dragonflies glide over the water,
At times skimming over the surface.
[Forming ripples on the surface]
Their movements inspire me
When I brush the silk strings
To raise harmonic sounds.

From the Taiyin Daqaunji, Hand Gesture Illustration #31
[personal translation]

According to Billeter, the art of qin consists in capturing the essence of actual phenomenons, just like calligraphy. By this he means getting inspired by the movement of animals, the physicality of mountains or the power of natural meteorological elements.

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Ancient Chinese music making

Jean François Billeter lists a number of analogies between music and calligraphy. Three of them are particularly interesting:

  • In calligraphy as well as in musical interpretation, there’s no remorse, each brush stroke, each note from an instrument is impossible to retract once executed.
  • In both cases, the art is an interpretation via an instrument, which is not only the vehicle of the artist’s psyche, but also influences the artist’s hand (think: a brush and a violin bow).
  • In Chinese calligraphy, one brush stroke comprises three moments: attack, development and ending, which is exactly how Pierre Schaeffer characterizes any sound in his 1966 essay Traité des Objets Musicaux. According to Schaeffer, a sound goes through 1) attack, 2) sustain or evolution, and 3) decay.

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Juliet Koss – Modernism after Wagner [book review]

Juliet Koss - Modernism after WagnerJuliet Koss

Juliet KossModernism after Wagner
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2010

The great originality of architecture historian Juliet Koss’s illuminating book is to draw parallels between Bayreuth’s Festival Theater (1876), the Artists’ Colony in Darmstadt (1901) and the Bauhaus’ Artists’ Theater in Dessau (1921), that is, performance venues conceived by artists themselves and specifically tailored to suit their needs and artistic vision. The book examines the architecture and features of each building, how it creates its own environment and re-models the surroundings so as to impact the audience’s experience of a stage performance until, with the Bauhaus theater, the building itself has become a stage. In so doing, Koss eschews the dogmatic considerations that plague  many a book on Wagner’s heritage.

Hence,  combined with the other arts, architecture contributes in no small part to the Gesamtkunstwerk experience (hereafter: GkW). Defined by Richard Wagner in 1849 as the combination of  poetry, music and dance, with emphasis on poetry (as he considered he wrote music dramas with music as a mere supplement to the dance, cf Intro, pXIII), GkW is embodied in the Bayreuth festival theater, build 1872-6, after a plan by architect Gottfried Semper, revised by Wagner himself. The theater’s situation on a hill  led spectators to raise from the train station situated downtown and climb up to the venue. When they finally reached the theater itself, they discovered a modern auditorium with folding wooden chairs, no balconies in the aisles and an orchestra tucked under the stage, completely remote from the audience (orchestra pit and auditorium pictured below, from this source).

Bayreuth orchestra pitBayreuth auditorium

Indeed, contrary to bourgeois opera, the GkW is meant as a collective experience where ‘spectators discarded their own identities as individuals to become a unified audience‘ (p18), supposedly as in Ancient Greece drama festivals, one of Wagner’s references for GkW. With nothing to detract spectators from the performance, Bayreuth was ‘a conflation of haptic and optical concerns’ (p65), where Einfühlung, that is empathy and identification with what happens on stage, was free to develop.

In her book, Juliet Koss addresses the distortion brought in our perception of Wagner by Nietzsche’s writings. From adoration to hate, Nietzsche always professed bold, caricature feelings towards Wagner and, regrettably so, this attitude seems to have infused all comments on the composer since. In her nuanced prose, Koss points to Wagner’s enthusiasm during the 1848-49 revolution, as shown in his writings and correspondence of the time, and even calls him a ‘revolutionary, not a conservative’ (p.271). Similarly, Koss makes a distinction between Wagner’s early theoretical writings about GkW and the way it materialized in Bayreuth. That the latter was not entirely artistically successful doesn’t mean the original GkW concept was wrong (p.265).

As the Bayreuth Theater, the Darmstädter Künstlerkolonie removes spectators from their usual environment to put them in an exalted frame of mind in the countryside outside the city (p115). The Kolonie was a group of artists’ studios and exhibition buildings with a small theater created for the duration of the 1901 opening exhibition. The modest building was equipped with a very shallow stage, totally at odds with large dimensions and fake perspectives found in Naturalist theater (ie: Ibsen, p126). The venue had humble wooden chairs that could be moved around by spectators, an option offering an egalitarian view of the stage and forming a rather communal spectatorship, actually very close to Wagner’s own concept of theater (p136). (Below: pictures showing some of the buildings, not the theater itself).

Das Eingangsthor, DarmstadtThe Artists’ Colony in Darmstadt

The venue was build at a time when movie halls and gramophones were getting tremendously popular in Germany, and Juliet Koss finds analogies with GkW (p203) and, for her, even automatons and advertising are derived from the GkW vision. These new media proved immensely absorbing for the audience and Einfühlung reached a kind of apex then, to which Bertold Brecht will later react with his Verfremdung concept of estrangement and shock (p231).

A common trait of the Bayreuth and Darmstadt theaters was to be conceived as sacred venues where artistic purity was worshiped. In 1900, Peter Behrens, one of the Darmstadt architects, said: ‘We will build a temple to art ourselves ; it will be sacred inside’ (note 31, p303), but the kind of purity he had in mind did not prevent him to work for the AEG firm as a designer, creating their logos, ads, posters and the AEG Turbine Factory building in Berlin in 1909.

Either in Dessau or Weimar, Bauhaus was the kingdom of puppets, tableaux vivants and costumed parties like the Beard, Nose and Heart party, 1928 or the Metallic Party, 1929 (pp238-40), where creative costume design was considered an art form.

Bauhaus auditorium, DessauOskar Shlemmer‘s Triadic Ballet, Berlin, 1926

A pantomime for 3 dancers based on symbols, primary colors and the man-machine concept, Oskar Shlemmer‘s Triadic Ballet (pictured above in the 1926 Berlin version, along a view of the Dessau auditorium today) was performed August 1923 in Weimar (p232), with original music by Paul Hindemith (in 1976, Hans-Joachim Hespos wrote a new score for the ballet). The triade of the title refers to the 3 actors, 3 movements and 3 colors, but also to the 3 disciplines used: dance, music and costume design. And since all Bauhaus theater experiments usually included ‘music, dance, film, stage direction and spectatorship’ (p241), Koss considers they were offsprings from GkW, though she might be extrapoling a bit here, since poetry as a literary form is lacking from the Bauhaus theater. It is still a refreshing point of view that enhances our perception of Bauhaus. In any case, these theaters were all revolutionary and utopian in their way and Schlemmer even claimed he targeted ‘the spectator’s inner transformation’ (p243), a feat out of reach from bourgeois theater, right?

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Jeremy Mynott ‘Birdscapes’ [book review]

Jeremy Mynott: Birdscapes book coverThe author in the field
Beatrice Harrison

Jeremy Mynott
Birdscapes: Birds in our Imagination and Experience
Princeton University Press, NJ, 2009

Suffolk-based birdwatcher Jeremy Mynott personifies the perfect British hobbyist: disinterested, obsessive and generous. After decades as Cambridge University Press’ chief executive and radio producer on ABC, Mynott decided to explore the reasons of our fascination for birds, with examples from psychology, folklore, history and literature (Mynott is a specialist of poet John Clare). In so doing, the author assesses the role of imagination and subjectivity in our fondness for birds and definitely goes beyond hunting and identification matters that so much obsess other birders. If the analysis sometimes seem to lack real depth, the multifarious angles make the approach stimulating.

Despite Mynott’s preliminary statement on language’s inadequacy to describe birds (p26), acknowledging the unspeakable and unnameable in bird watching, the author will write at length about classification, naming, favorite spots, etc. Accordingly, one recurring topic is lists. Mynott suggests making a lot of them, of any kind, including hugely subjective preferred lists such as preferred species or preferred songs, bird classes (p90), sound cartoons or sonagrams (p169), hunting diaries, birder slang vocabulary, conservation lists, etc. While these lists mirror everyone’s subjectivity about birds, they are also a tool allowing to notice the differences, the details going beyond the jizz, or general impression of shape and size.

Jeremy Mynott recontextualizes birding activities in the broader sense of landscape studying, in which it is as important to “read the landscape” (p196) as to spot a bird. In fact, Mynott suggests examining the environment before even focusing on the bird itself as the appropriate strategy to study birds in the field. Only if “the birds become part of the extended sense of the place” (p205) can the birder accurately identify a specimen. This strategy implies using all human senses to scan the territory at hand, but hearing remains key.

On every walk you take in a familiar landscape, you’re moving through a dense web of sound and signals and therefore through a whole terrain of meaning that can be sensed and explored.

This is how one can understand the Birdscape concept, in reference, one assumes, to Murray Schaffer’s own Soundscape. According to Mynott, it is not enough to know many bird songs, you have to be familiar with the environment.

The book contains a chapter on sound in which Mynott mentions the usual examples of music including bird song transcriptions. But the wonderful story of Beatrice Harrison and the Nightingale Music Festival really stands out. Starting 1924, British cellist Harrison used to play in her garden to the accompaniment of birds – though there’s a delicious ambiguity in deciding if she played for the birds or with the birds. Anyway, the BBC recorded several evening serenades and the broadcasts were national events. Listen for yourself here.

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‘Max Neuhaus – Times Square, Time Piece Beacon’ [book review]

Max Neuhaus 'Times Square, Time Piece Beacon'Published by Dia Art Foundation,
New York, 2009

Lynne Cooke
Alex Potts
Branden W. Joseph
Peter Pakesch & Ulrich Loock
Liz Kotz
Christoph Cox

Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with Max Neuhaus (1939-2009) before reading this book, yet his name pop up in many articles and books on sound art. He seems to have been strongly present in Europe with sound installations in various towns, and on the 18 books and catalogs devoted to Neuhaus listed in the bibliography, 16 were published in European countries. Apparently these books are hard to come by nowadays, so this one is a welcomed introduction to an important work. This is arguably the most beautiful book on sound art I have ever read, with a perfect balance between art criticism and detailed descriptions, a wonderful layout and exquisite typesetting. It only lacks an index to lift it to reference book status.

Neuhaus appears rather liberal on matters of sound and noise, not surprisingly for someone who started organizing sound events in the 1960s with the LISTEN! Series, 1966-76 – these promenade tours without commentary consisted in walks to inaccessible industrial locations and noisy neighborhoods, including visiting a power plant or a freeway (Lynne Cooke, p29). As much as he was reluctant to be pigeonholed into categories, his attitude toward all sounds was un-patronizing, and he never ceased to let the sounds live their own life. Neuhaus is famously credited as the ‘founding father of sound art’ (Cooke, p23), though he rejected the term in a 2000 article (Cox, p118, note 21). To go beyond the contradiction, Christoph Cox cunningly dubs him ‘the founding father of sound installation’ (p129). It is the role of an artist, after all, to refuse categories or to create uncharted, new ones, even if art critics will always bring him back into the comfort zone of familiar categories, thus admitedly helping wider public recognition of a difficult artwork.

Branden W. Joseph notices how Neuhaus was concerned with muzak (a genre scorned by Cage and R. M. Schafer as well), which he regarded as a manipulative sound targeting a specific audience (p71), at odds with the freedom implied by Neuhaus’ own works, where the public is offered the possibility to notice the sound work or not, to choose the way they perceive it and add their own interpretation of it. As already said, Neuhaus rejected any hierarchization between sounds themselves. No discrimination between sounds implies no discrimination between people, and is a political stance in itself (pp63-4). In this regard, Joseph mentions connexions with left-field activists like Henry Flynt and Cornelius Cardew (p63). A response to a federal campaign on noise, Neuhaus’ famous 1974 NY Times editorial (read full article here) rejected the idea of good and bad noise, stating that, by linking noise pollution to urban sounds, public officials ‘in effect robbed us of the ability to listen to our environment . . . By arbitrarily condemning most man-made sounds as noise, [bureaucrats] were making noise where it never existed before’ (Cooke, p32).

As most American writers today, Liz Kotz misquotes John Cage for the definition of music as ‘organized sound’ (p95). The quote is actually from Edgar Varèse (see Wikipedia article) and, frankly, there’s no need to add to the already large list of borrowings in Cage’s oeuvre. When appreciating Neuhaus’ urban installation work as pioneering, it would be interesting to mention Arseni Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, 1922, using the entire city of Baku as sound stage – Neuhaus himself conceived a Sirens project in 1978 (see p58 & 135). Instead of that, writers in this book connect Neuhaus with contemporary Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd, Robert Morris and Carl Andre (Alex Potts, p46 and 48), also drawing parallels with Richard Serra (p41, note 11). One article mentions Keith Sonnier’s sound pieces of the 1960s as a comparison (Peter Pakesch & Ulrich Loock, p88) and Liz Kotz mentions Japanese Atsuko Tanaka (p98), both artists deserving further investigation. Kotz also compares David Tudor moving from contemporary music to electronics, and Neuhaus moving from contemporary music to sound art (pp100-101).

The book emphasizes the 2 sound installations Dia Art Foundation helped funding: the NY Times Square permanent sound piece installed in a subway ventilator shaft, and Time Piece Beacon, a permanent installation at Dia’s museum in Beacon, NY. The first belongs to what Neuhaus himself called his Place works, involving continuous sound without beginning or end ; the second is part of his Moment works, or Times Pieces according to several authors, ‘where a sound that blends with the aural texture of an environment suddenly draws attention to itself by coming to an end’ (Potts, p21). The Place works includes the 1974-77 Underwater Music concerts and Times Square, 1977, a sound installation where ‘rich metallic drones’ (Cox, p124) subtly alter the noisy Times Square environment ; the Moment works includes the Silent Alarm Clock, the Max-Feed, the Time Piece Bern, Graz, DiaBeacon, Sommeln-Pulheim, etc, that is, outdoor sound installations where ‘a regular temporal interval is marked by a slow sonic crescendo that abruptly ceases, leaving what Neuhaus describes as an afterimage’ (Cox, p126). After noting how classical European music is time-bound, Cox praises Neuhaus’ Time Pieces as dealing with a different relationship with time, yet these sound installations more or less work as hourly clocks, he says (‘it marks time’, p128). The difference is that the time measured by Neuhaus in his Time Pieces is the time of ‘the community’s collective rhythms’ (Cox, p126-7). For Neuhaus, music is sound in time, while sound art is time in space (Joseph, p67).

The Silent Alarm Clock, 1979

The Silent Alarm Clock (pictured above) belongs to the Time Pieces category. This prototype was build by Neuhaus in 1979 to awake the sleeper with silence. It’s a device emitting a continuous tone slowly increasing in volume until it suddenly stops at the appointed time, thus awaking the sleeper. It’s not the subtle sound that actually awakes, but its disappearing. The other Time Pieces/Moment works are derived from this concept, i.e. you notice their sound when it disappears.

Water Whistle event, 1974

The various Water Whistle events organized in swimming pools between 1971 and 77 (part of the Underwater Music concerts) used submerged plastic hoses to transmit high-pitch tonalities to swimmers (see picture above). It’s an early example of a Place Piece. An interesting definition of the Place Pieces is given by Alex Potts when he qualifies Neuhaus’s work as ‘staging an aesthetic experience’ (p46). The key point is that Neuhaus’ work doesn’t intrude or alter the surrounding space, as it ‘does not strive to transform the environment’ (p54) but rather ‘alter one’s perception of the space’ (p54). Time Pieces let ‘the listener place [the elements of a sound composition] in his own time’ (Joseph, p67), and as such, are a radical departure from European avantgarde music. This input from visitors and passersby should not be confused with interactivity, though, a trick Neuhaus opposed to. It would best be defined as araising public awareness to specific sonic properties. Though his sound installations require the same level of attention a work of art would to be fully perceived as a work of art (Potts, p50), Neuhaus’ sound pieces can even be ignored and the public has the possibility of bypassing the artwork completely (Joseph, p67). Which is what happened to me in 2008 when visiting New York for the first time: my hotel was located in Times Square and though I noticed the subway ventilating system made an unusual noise there, I wasn’t aware I was stepping on a Max Neuhaus’ masterpiece everytime I went to the subway station!

To Max Neuhaus’ official web presence

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?

‘Varieties of Audio Mimesis’ book review

Allen S. Weiss
Varieties of Audio Mimesis: Musical Evocations of Landscape

Errant Bodies Press, Los Angeles, 2008

I knew Allen S. Weiss from his penetrating book ‘Phantasmatic Radio’, Duke University Press, 1995, an overview of the extremes of phonetics in art and disembodied language (Artaud, Novarina, Whitehead, Migone) that the author calls onomatopeia. Weiss wrote nearly 40 books on such diverse topics as acousmatic theater, experimental radio, French literature or French gastronomy (on the latter, see this article for Cabinet magazine).

Cover-front‘Varieties of Audio Mimesis’ offers a typology of imitation strategies in music, bringing new examples to the old debate of music being abstract or representational (p11). The author’s definition of Mimesis is imitation and creation (p37), whereas the classical definition, according to Aristotle, is basically imitation of life in art. The author mentions Ligeti’s composition for organ ‘Harmonics’, 1967, as imitating electronics, which pushes the mimesis definition a bit too far (p69).

Weiss notes the gardens multiple correspondences with the other arts: dance, theater, mathematics, architecture, perspective,… (p12) and he considers Gardening the 17th century’s gesamtkunstwerk, a synthesis of the different contemporary art forms. Weiss attributes a different gesamtkunstwerk to each century (p12):

  • 16th = opera
  • 17th = gardens
  • 18th = encyclopedia
  • 19th = Wagner and novels
  • 20th = cinema and multimedia
  • 21st = virtual reality

‘Speech is musical’ (p31) and what follows is an overview of linguistics’ imitation strategies, with various examples of phonemes imitating nature  from the writings of Jakobson, Rimbaud and Genette. According to Bachelard: ‘It is by imitating that we invent’ (p33). Hence, after Busoni, nature’s sounds are considered a source for expanding musical possibilities (p10).

Glissando or noise?: the Cat's Concert, from the book under reviewBased on examples from Gregoy Whitehead or Scott Konzelmann’s 1997 Dry Hole,  Weiss examines unwanted noise and precarious elements such as natural reverb, technical recording errors, aleatory or static, as constitutive of many sound works, not only noise music (pp60-63). He tends to favor analogous techniques as more prone to ‘happy accidents’ than digital, and praises ‘serendipity’ in audio creation (p63). Weiss stresses the key role of glissando technique in avantgarde music’s development, with examples from Edgar Varèse’s Amériques, Michael Snow’s Wavelength and Xenakis (pp70-75). For instance, an orchestra of sirens was apparently devised by mathematician Henri A. Naber in 1903 (note 122, p106). Interesting mention of the Futurists’ Intonarumori as instruments for communicating with the dead, according to Luciano Chessa’s book ‘Luigi Russolo and the Occult’, 2004 (p80).

As much as I enjoyed the examples above, I wasn’t convinced by the 8 categories created by Weiss (p44) to describe all existing sound works, based on the following musical styles: concrete, notated, hyperreal, stylized, evocative or ambient, with any combinations possible. These are self-limiting, arbitrary and not very useful tools and, besides, Weiss aknowledges their permeability. The all concept looks like a mere frame to structure his book. A style-based approach of music would be rather superficial compared to, say: structure, extra-musical elements or performance properties investigation. Anyway, this is a substantial if short book from a fine publisher (see also the Radio Territories book review).


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