On Sound Art

I just finished reading an incredibly frustrating yet nonetheless fairly informative book on sound art called Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories by Alan Licht (Rizzoli 2007). I think Mr. Licht and I were doomed from the beginning not to get along; he set out to write a book that defines and differentiates sound art from other media, whereas the main crux of my artistic endeavor is to demonstrate the connections between seemingly disparate disciplines. Yet even after acknowledging this fundamental difference in perspective, there were occasions when my furious margin notes could scarcely contain my indignation!

The overarching problem with the book is organization. The table of contents tips you off: there are only three misshapen chapters entitled “What is Sound Art?” “Environment and Soundscapes,” and “Sound and the Art World.” Threads are started, then dropped, topics change mid-paragraph. Instead of persuasive arguments and cohesive ideas, rambling lists substitute for synthesis. The text too frequently diverges into only mildly relevant territory: a history of film sound, the development of earth art, a section on “art bands,” another section on film sound unlinked to the first.

I thought the subsection entitled “Art and Pop Envy” that started out with Laurie Anderson exhibiting a jukebox at Holly Solomon Gallery (p. 151) raised some interesting questions, but then it dropped them all in favor of a dull parade of “art bands” (strangely omitting Velvet Underground, whose link to Andy Warhol as a sonic facet of his practice was tipped in the previous section, p.136). Laurie Anderson’s tape loops in boxes are included in the “art band” section, not the sound sculpture section, where they would seem to belong (p. 151). The section on site specificity is strangely not part of the “Environment and Soundscapes” chapter, although that chapter does include mention of David Dunn’s pieces scored specifically to be performed in the Grand Canyon and the Anza-Borrego Desert; if that’s not site-specific, what is? A specially tuned La Monte Young piano is also included as a site specific work, just because it’s heavy and hard to move (p. 45). That’s not site specific; that’s just lazy!

Mr. Licht never settles on a persuasive tone for the book. He drops periodic anecdotes of sometimes questionable relevance, for example, recounting his experience of a baby crying at a Morton Feldman concert (p. 85) or watching Lighting Bolt perform in an alley (p. 155). His first person “I” floats in and out of the book, between long, dull lists of names and events. Twice he inexplicably switches to the present tense (p. 143, and again on p. 150). In a book that seems to be attempting an objective, historical overview, he sometimes makes what come across as arbitrary jabs at artists who don’t meet his criteria for sound artist.

Certain artists are treated rather dismissively, on no cited grounds. Ed Tomney “must” be categorized as a professional musician (rather than a sound artist), despite a list of his art world activities; I’ve never heard of the guy, but given his treatment here, I’m on his side. Similarly Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger (also new to me) are dismissed as “anti-Russolo, and maybe even anti-Cage” (p. 118) for using resonators to tune ambient sounds in a public space (an idea I’ve actually been wanting to play with for a while, but it looks like they beat me to it); this is notwithstanding the quotation from Russolo a few pages earlier that “we want to give pitches to these diverse noises, regulating them harmonically and rhythmically” (p. 74). There’s a very odd jab at Dolby surround sound (p. 123), in which the author seems to confuse the difference between the number of sound channels and the relative loudness of sounds on those channels, although Dolby is later discussed in quite a positive light (p. 209). Steven Vitiello’s pieces “are perhaps more a consolidation of ideas gleaned from other sound artworks and gestures that may not add more than a few new wrinkles to the form” (p. 285), which strikes me as unnecessarily condescending.

And there’s a pervasive confusion regarding metaphor: “sculptural sound” (p. 203), the “surface of sound” (p. 136), “dirt as noise” (p. 80). The discussion of “sculptural sound” (p. 203) does not make clear the distinction between a sculptural object that emits or suggests sound, and a sound (including music) that suggests a physical object in its cohesion, scale, stasis, or palpability (I’m thinking particularly of some of the high-volume “noise” concerts I’ve been to). “Noise” as a genre or theoretical category (p. 77) is already incredibly problematic (I’ll elaborate on that matter another time), and the meandering section on “dirt as noise” (p. 136) only confuses things further, conflating noise with land art and tossing in radio (p. 118) for no apparent reason. The section on music and painting, which talks about the “surface of sound,” particularly struggles to make a point (p. 135 ff), especially when citing the writings of Morton Feldman, who has a very idiosyncratic way of talking about music’s “surface” that seems taken out of context here.

The heft of this hardcover book belies its modest content. While it’s nice to have a lot of pictures, it feels a bit cheeky to use them all twice: in addition to the full page version, they’re printed again in the lower margins of the pages (which also means less text on each page). Photographs of speakers in bottles are presented with no explanation that might convey something of the actual experience of the piece; only from reading the biographies in the back of the book can you glean an idea of what, for example, Steve Roden and Steve Vitiello’s installations might be like (pp. 26-31). And the photos are disproportionate to the text; for example, Hermann Nitsch is only mentioned in passing (p. 149) in a list alongside other Vienna Actionists, and yet he gets eight pages of photos (pp. 168-175)!

The selections on the CD accompanying this book are frustrating, too, containing only two or maybe three examples of sound art, even by the author’s own definition! Alongside eleven minutes of Bill Fontana’s masterful Harmonic Bridge and Bernhard Gal’s 57A, we get composer Alvin Lucier’s Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, multitracked free improv of Jean Dubuffet, and an “untutored foray into electronic noise” (p. 149) by art/noise band Destroy All Monsters (like Nitsch, mentioned only very briefly in the text, and similarly overrepresented in photos, pp. 176-179). Steve Roden’s rust, and really Gal’s piece, too, adhere more closely to the definition of electro-acoustic composition (there’s no indication that they were excerpted from an installation) than with any definition of sound art Licht provides (and the fact that Roden’s sound source was a Harry Bertoia chair doesn’t change that). Furthermore, disappointingly, Bernhard Gal isn’t even mentioned in the text, although I’m happy to have him on the CD (I had dinner with him after he played a NOIShanghai show at Yu Yin Tang in 2007 or so, quite an accomplished and personable fellow).

OK, those are my objections as a writer. More egregious are my objections as a sound artist.

I think Mr. Licht knows what he’s trying to say, but he’s got a hard time getting it across. He talks around a definition of sound art without supplying one in any concrete terms. “Sound art is not about a stage show” (p. 13), he writes; it occurs in “an exhibition situation rather than a performance situation” (p. 14). He quotes Stockhausen: “You have to compose differently when you know that the listeners are coming and going” (p. 44). So far, so good.

But the idea that sound art “comes from the appreciation of the total environment of sounds, both wanted and unwanted” (p. 116) is an unsupported and inaccurate generalization; as a practicing sound artist, one of my biggest concerns is keeping unwanted sounds from interfering with my pieces (a challenge the author somewhat duplicitously goes on to admit on the subsequent page). He asserts that sound art is involved in an investigation of “extended time duration and repetition” (p. 121), and that “sound artists sought the elimination of time” (p. 124). While these statements are often true, they cannot be used as absolute criteria for categorizing work as sound art or not; in fact one of my major concerns is avoiding repetition in my pieces.

In fact, there is no specific quality, parameter, or attribute of sound art that categorically distinguishes it from music. What characterizes sound art is rather a question of emphasis. Generally, yes, sound art tends to be more interested in the phenomenology of sound, in space and site-specificity, and in developing continuous or non-teleological behaviors (or if not developing new ones, simply reusing the oldest one in the book: “loop it!”). Max Neuhaus’s beautiful comment (not included in this book, but you can read it here) that he sought to fix sound in space, rather than time, to allow listeners to make their own time, sums up this aesthetic quite succinctly.

The historical precedent in music seems to me a necessary point of departure for any useful introduction to sound art. I bristle at the suggestion that occurs in these pages (p. 136) that sound or music may serve as a new medium for artists, when of course, an artist whose medium is sound has been known for millennia simply as a musician. (While I appreciate a cow with a subtile nose as much as the next guy, the recording of Jean Dubuffet scraping away on a violin on the CD accompanying this book is nothing more than a historical curiosity, contributing absolutely nothing to the evolution of sonic discourse). Allegations are often made about the limitations of music (e.g., Rolf Julius’s assertion that a composer “doesn’t know about texture” on p. 267), and they all stem from a shallow understanding of what music is, has been, and can be. Many of the artists cited as pioneers of sound art identify primarily as musicians: John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Edgard Varèse, Karlheinz Stockhausen, et al. Several times the truism that music is somehow more “time-based” than sound art seems to be taken at face value, but of course sound, by definition, can only exist in time (and if all sound artists are as inherently phenomenologically oriented as Mr. Licht suggests, this physical fact should scarcely bear repeating). What remains, then, for many artists working with sound (and this is also an important focus of my work), is to find a new approach to time that functions as landscape, rather than narrative.

Mr. Licht burned the last shred of my goodwill with the last paragraph of his book, which is sheer folly, if not nonsense. In it, he asserts that, unlike music, sound art’s “effect on the listener is between categories. It’s not emotional nor is it necessarily intellectual.” On the other hand, “music either stimulates, reinforces, or touches on emotional experiences either directly (through lyrics) or indirectly (through melody and harmony),” it “deals with human thought processes, technology, and behavior. Music speaks to a listener as a human being, with all of the complexity that entails, but sound art, unless it’s employing speech, speaks to the listener as a living denizen of the planet, reacting to sound and environment as any animal would” (p. 218). I’m sure many sound artists will be as dismayed as I to learn that the possibility of intellectual rigor or emotional depth is denied to our medium. The comments about of speech and “lyrics” come out of nowhere, a blindside that would seem to dismiss the expressive and communicative power of pure sound. Unfortunately for Mr. Licht, those characteristics he assigns here to music, the logical structure of those “human” and “intellectual” thought processes, are also what make for compelling reading; he has essentially underlined the major failings of his book.

Nonetheless, I admit there’s a lot of good information here, a lot of important names (I was particularly pleased to make the aquaintance of Michael J. Schumacher), all well indexed; I’ll definitely keep this book around as a useful reference. The artist biographies at the back of the book are also useful, although like the CD, only loosely related to the text. (For reasons that the text does not care to explicate, Hermann Nitsch is also included in the bio section.) Perhaps the reason I found this book so frustrating is that, in fact, we agree on quite a bit about sound art, which makes our differences of opinion all the more acute. He makes a lot of the points I would like to make, but he doesn’t make points in the way that I would have made them, and of course, that’s much more frustrating than disagreeing completely.

Here, if you want to make a book on sound art, these are the sections I would like to see:

-Sound as object (going back to Satie and Varèse, culminating in Cage; tie in sound poetry as well, Schwitters et al; if you had lots of time, you could even start with a discussion of “materials” and “themes” in traditional music theory)
-Sound as physical phenomenon (in fact, the logical extension of taking sound as object, touch on acoustics, including psychoacoustics)
-Sound in space (in compositions by Stockhausen and Henry Brant, also as part of the environment, furniture music, ambient music, wallpaper music, Muzak)
-Sound sculpture (sculpture that makes sound as well as sculpture that suggests sound, which would include lots of Christian Marclay’s stuff, as well as Bruce Nauman’s chair tuned DEAD, touching on instrument construction, Partch, Trimpin, et al)
-Sound in time (musical form, durational structures, narrative and drama, non-linearity, sound of indeterminate duration, correlation to other media, including abstract painting [Klee, Kandinsky, and many others], the dubious category of “visual music”)
-Acousmatic sound (i.e., sound abstracted from original source; talk about recording technology, musique concrète)
-Documentary and conceptual sound (relating back to sound sculpture, Marclay, “Box with the Sound of its own Making,” Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman)
-Sound as a multimedia component (start with history of sound in opera, ballet, theater, touch [briefly] on film sound, radios and tape recorders as sculptural elements, sound in an installation)

A lot of these ideas flit through the pages of Alan Licht’s “Sound Art,” but no clear case is made. If anyone wants to write that book for me, I’d be happy to read it. If you’re lucky, I’ll compensate you with a longwinded, rambling, unsolicited review on my blog!

It’s for this experimental film that nobody knows about and which I’m still figuring out what’s going to go in my experimental film.

Hey, look at this thing I made:

Study for Insomnia from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

This is what I spent the last 4 days doing, instead of everything else I should have been doing instead. I’m calling it “Study for Insomnia.”

It began as a demo for artist Cindy Ng 吴少英, whose video work is presented in the same room as my 路口 sound installation at Art+Shanghai (you have until November 1 to see the show, so hurry!). She was asking how my piece was constructed (audio “phrases” strung together and overlapped in real-time by a computer, providing constant variation), and I suggested that it would be possible to use the same technique to deploy her video work. I made a quick demo to show her last weekend before we collaborated on one of her “Ink Walk” performances, and she was intrigued to the point that we’re now planning a full-on collaboration. I’ve continued to flesh out my little demo over the last few days into something I’m pretty happy with, and it ought to serve as a pretty good template for whatever we end up doing together.

Like most of my electronic pieces, there’s no pure synthesis going on; everything is manipulated from source recordings, in this case, video and audio recordings of rumpled bed sheets (yes, the inspiration came while lying awake a few nights ago). The unpredictable patterns that result are similar to other kinds of natural phenomena from which I draw inspiration (e.g., rain, fireworks, traffic), chaotic on a small scale, but consistent on a large scale. Like my other installation work, the piece can continue indefinitely, with no beginning or end; here, for convenience, I’ve recorded only a brief excerpt.

I guess you could call this my first video piece. I’ve been using Jitter, the video-processing add-on for Max/MSP for over a year, although this is the first time I’m presenting the results publicly. The first time I used it was in the software I developed for my performance (together with Yan Jun 颜峻 and Bruce Gremo) of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play at the Shanghai eArts Festival in October 2008, but it was used only to prepare cues for myself, not projected for the audience to see. (In fact, in the very first version of this little demo, I used a snippet from Screen Play as video source, a shot of rolling waves.) I’ve also used Jitter in some consulting I did for a videogame company last winter, analyzing audio signals to generate game levels.

I’m not sure yet if this will ultimately serve as the background texture of a bigger piece later on, or if it’s fine just as it is, as a super ambient standalone piece. I could see it working as a backdrop for a live performance. Or it could work in a gallery setting (ideally with 4 channels of sound). For what it’s worth, in terms of scale and mood, the 4-day process of putting this program together felt very much like writing a pop song.

What’s happening in the program is pretty simple. I’m picking little bits of my original bed sheet video and slowing them down, rotating them, and fading in and out from black. There are four asynchronous layers of this activity happening at once. The speeds are different, and there are slight hue offsets for each phrase. I adjust the contrast, hue, and saturation, and I add some feedback. For each video phrase, I pick an audio phrase from my original wave file (recorded separately from the video), and fade in and out, in time with the video. I’m also analyzing the average brightness of each video stream and using that to control the pitch of a bank of filters that the audio runs through before hitting the speakers. For each phrase I pick a different pitch multiplier (over roughly 4 octaves of a just intonation minor scale, not that it matters). Hue, feedback, filter Q, cutoff frequency, and probably a few other things are slowly modulated by random offsets to keep things interesting. I found there are lots of settings that produce different outcomes, all acceptable, so I implemented the old John Cage dictum: “Say we have a problem and 100 solutions; instead of chosing just one of them, we use them all.”

I ran into a tricky little trigonometry problem while working on this piece. I had to figure out the zoom ratio while rotating the images so that I wouldn’t go off the image and add weird black edges to the composite. I pondered long and hard, and I think I was at least looking in the right direction, but I eventually had to enlist the help of my pal Micah Sittig, who teaches physics over at SMIC Private School, and to whose class I gave a little presentation on music acoustics last March. He solved the problem in about a minute. It’s good to have smart friends. Thanks, Micah!

Crazy coincidence: yesterday while working on this piece, I thought I’d take a break and listen to something new, and a CD of music by Esa-Pekka Salonen came to mind. I picked up this disk following one of the premiere performances of his fellow Finn Kaija Saariaho’s second opera Adriana Mater in Paris in 2006, but I had never listened to it. I feel like a CD, if I have any reason to believe it will be good, really ought to have a focused and concentrated first listening, and consequently, I have a huge stack of shame of CD’s I’ve purchased, but haven’t yet had the time to devote to a proper first listen. Especially with all the hoo-ha about the new music director Gustavo Dudamel taking Salonen’s place at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I’ve been thinking lately I really ought to listen to it. So today I picked it up and unwrapped it, and to my amazement, the last piece is also called Insomnia! I’d already been planning to call this new piece of mine something about insomnia for a few days, so I swear I didn’t steal the idea, unless it was buried somewhere deep in my subconscious. Anyway, I just listened to it, and it’s really a really nice piece, though somewhat more detailed than mine. Isn’t that nuts?

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

I developed a small crush on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha about a year and a half ago in Los Angeles. While I was in town to kick off our monumental dialog recording sessions for EndWar, I checked out a show called WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution at the Geffen Contemporary satellite of the Museum of Contemporary Art, down in Little Tokyo.

It was not a great show, which is often true when the message is more important than the work itself. The only pieces to captivate me were two small black and white videos by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. They were very simple, very lo-fi (dating, as they did, from the 70’s), just some plain images with written and spoken text in English, French, and Korean. They felt very personal and intimate, like I was being let in on a secret, or even sneaking a peek at a diary.

I did a little more research when I got back home and I found out that she died very young, only 30 or 31, murdered a few days after her only book was published in 1982. So I ordered the book, entitled Dictee, to find out more about her work and her world. The book dives deeper than the video pieces I saw, and while it’s much less crush-inducing, it’s notable for a number of reasons.

I want to call it Dictée, but all over the book the title is written without the accent, so Dictee it is. Like the video works, the book mixes French and English and just a few words of Korean (rendered either in Roman letters or in Chinese characters, as used to be the standard for official communication in Korea). From my years of French lessons, I can testify that a dictée is an oral test, during which the teacher reads some text, and the students have to transcribe it as accurately as possible. This act embodies two major themes of the book, memory and language. Language is inextricably linked to identity, and the act of expressing a memory in language and recording it inevitably alters it.

Dictee is broad in scope, using the nine Greek muses to represent the work’s primary divisions, and at other times reflecting aspects of Christian rite. It addresses Korean culture from a national level as well as a personal perspective. The work serves as a biography of several women, not only of the author herself, but also her mother and the Korean national martyr Yu Guan Soon, among others. The French lesson that opens the book builds in resonance later on, as the narrative turns to Koreans living in Japanese-occupied Manchuria, who were forbidden from speaking their native tongue.

While the book is fascinating to me as a student of Asian culture, the aspects that intrigued me most were structural, which is not what I had expected when I first cracked the cover. The book is a multimedia collage, weaving different kinds of text together with images, including photographs, a map, a diagram of the vocal tract, a still from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, and copies of letters. At times, Ms. Cha treats the two adjacent pages as two streams of information proceeding at the same pace. Sometimes it’s English and French, sometimes it’s narrative and commentary, and other times the relationship between the streams is more oblique.

The most distinctive feature of the book, and one of the most intriguing ideas, is also the thing that makes it a real slog at times. Much of it is written in a kind of perpetual present tense, evoking a steady state with no forward impetus; this is a real trick to pull off in writing, as reading is an inherently linear activity. But by fragmenting sentences and repeating the same idea with only minute variations of text, Ms. Cha at times succeeds in achieving a sort of constant incredulity, as though she never wants to give the reader time to grow too comfortable with the idea being presented. It’s not hard to imagine why she’d want to do this, when the subject is personal or national subjugation; this specialized writing style never lets the reader lapse into complacent acceptance, keeping the shock and indignation ever fresh. But the problem with trying to make each word a revelation is that after a while, after a while they all start to sound the same.

It did occur to me a few times while reading that this effect might be well served by a non-linear musical setting. I could imagine shuffling up pieces of the text, deploying them in real time, creating a kind of indefinite, almost devotional space, dedicated to rumination and memory, and allowing for unforeseen juxtapositions to emerge through multiple streams of sound.

Then again, I kind of have musical states on the brain a lot these days, so perhaps I’m just finding in the work the kinds of ideas that are already on my mind. But that’s kind of what everyone does, isn’t it?