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Sound Art

These research notes consider sound art as an interdisciplinary art practice in several forms, each considering sound, listening, and hearing as real and concrete participatory practices across a wide range of contemporary theory and practice. In this regard, sound art presupposes close, attentive listening, or as sound artist Francisco López suggests, "profound listening," to denote listening without constraints in order to explore and affirm all the information inside any sound (López 2004). Results might include detaching listening experiences from a place of listening and moving them to the sites where the narratives actually take place. For example, consider 38 North 118 West by Jeremy Hight, Jeff Knowlton, and Naomi Spellman. A common theme throughout these notes is that the sound artist uses sound(s) to make art.

Sound art considers sound(s) as a medium for creativity and communication. A diverse catalog of sounds are available to the sound artist, from a number of different sources. As a result, works of sound art can be interdisciplinary and take several forms: documentary, electroacoustic music, experimental / locative narrative, found sound, field recordings, noise, phonography, sound poetry, soundscapes, and spoken word.

I prefer not to include radio-audio drama, radio art, or transmission art under sound art's umbrella. I think each is a more specific endeavor with sound as I explain in other inquiries. To me, sound art focuses on sounds conveyed in installations, exhibitions, festivals, and concerts, all often site specific. This inquiry follows this orientation. Examples, resources, and listening opportunities follow.

Works Cited

Lopez, Francisco. "Profound Listening and Environmental Sound Matter." Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner, Continuum, 2004, pp. 82-83.

Background

Sound art might be considered as an overarching framework for creative works created in real time and combining "sound, music, speech, and image, color and gesture" (Zurbrugg 1989).

The Art of Noises

A significant starting point for this thinking is surely L'arte dei Rumori (The Art of Noises), by Luigi Russolo (1885-1947). The Art of Noises is considered one of the most influential texts regarding musical aesthetics of the 20th century and the start of sound art because of its insistence on the musical value of environment sound(s). Many consider this 1913 letter / futurist manifesto as the start of sound art, because of its insistence on the musical value of environment sounds(s).

In his 1913 letter / Futurist manifesto to friend and Futurist composer Francesco Balilla Pratella, Russolo says contemporary music no longer excites or inspires its audience. He urges musicians to explore the city and listen carefully to noises taken for granted but potentially musical in nature. Such sounds might include explosions, whistling, hissing, puffing, whispering, murmuring, gurgling, screeching, scraping, creaking, crackling, sounds created by beating on metal, wood, stone, pottery, and sounds of humans and animals. Future technology, he says, will allow for the manipulation of the pitch and timbre of these sounds in ways that cannot be accomplished with contemporary musical instruments. Russolo's letter/manifesto published as Direction du Mouvement Futuriste, Milan, 11 March 1913.
Published in book form as L'Arte dei Rumori (Corso Venezia, Milan: Italy, 1916).
Full text of Russolo's L'Art des bruits [The Art of Noises] available at Ubu website.

Russolo was inspired by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's (1876-1944) "Zang Tumb Tumb. Adrianopoli, Ottobre 1912 [Zang Tumb Tumb. Adrianople, October 1912]" (Milan: Edizioni Futuriste de "Poesia," 1914), an account of the sounds and noises of the battle of Adrianopolis (Turkey) in 1912 during the Italo-Turkish War (1911-1912), Marinetti provides poetic and literary impressions of mechanized warfare, artillery shelling, bombs, and explosions in a variety of typefaces.

Intonarumori

To experiment with his ideas about noises and sounds, Russolo, with painter Ugo Piatti, built several noise-generating devices called intonarumori (noise intoners). They were oblong wooden boxes with metal megaphones to amplify the sounds produced mechanically inside. Hand cranks turned wooden or metal wheels which in turn vibrated metal or cat gut strings connected to vibrating membranes. Levers moderated tensions on the strings, producing pitches. Sounds produced were transmitted by the speakers. Some intonarumori used bellows to create wind and breathing noises.

Intonarumori were designed to produce twenty-seven "families" (varieties) of sounds including: whistles, hisses, and puffs, whispers, murmurs, and grumbles, screeches, creaks, and rustles, percussive noises, and imitations of animal and human vocalizations. The intonarumori had names like buzzer, crackler, croaker, gurgler, hooter, and exploder. An excellent, and very detailed examination of Russolo's instruments and music is "Intona Rumori" by Hugh Davies.

The first public performance of an intonarumori was in 1913 at Teatro Storchi, a Modena, Italy, opera house, where Russolo presented an exploder. Russolo's first concert with an entire orchestra of intonarumori was 21 April 1914 at the Teatro Dal Verme in Milan, Italy. Russolo and Filippo Tommaso Martinetti presided. The program was four "networks of noises" entitled "Meeting of cars and aeroplanes," "Dining on the terrace of the Casino," "Skirmish in the oasis," and "Risveglio di una citta [Awakening of a City]."

The audience, disturbed by this departure from traditional music, threw rotten fruit and vegetables at the performers throughout the concert. After, Martinetti and Russolo were arrested for inciting a riot.

Following this introduction, Russolo gave concerts in Genoa (at Politeama), and in June 1914, Russolo and Marinetti presented a series of twelve concerts in the London Coliseum. In 1921, Russolo presented three concerts in Paris (Théatre des Champs-Elysées) and, in 1922, participated in Filippo Tommaso Marinetti's play Il tamburo di fuoco with some musical backgrounds made with the intonarumori. See Valerio Saggini, "Intonarumori". Thereminvox.com, 21 Feb. 2004.

All Russolo's intonarumori and music scores were lost during World War II, and only a few low fidelity recordings of their performance were made between 1913 and 1921. The only known surviving recording is from a 1921 phonograph record by Russolo and his brother, Antonio Russolo, a Futurist composer. The phonograph record, Antonio Russolo: Corale & Serenata (Voce del Padrone 6919, 78 RPM, 1921), featured two works, "Corale"

and "Serenata."

Source: Musica Futurista: The Art of Noises. Cramps Records Collana Multhipla, 5204 002, edited by Daniele Lombardi, two vinyl LP set, 1980.
Cramps Records discography notes Musica Futurista as catalog #5204 002 released with Cramps number and Multhipla label; catalog #5206 308-309 is perhaps a 100 copies box set limited edition
http://www.italianprog.com/l_cramps.htm
See also MedienKunstNetz website

Efforts to recreate Russolo's Intonarumori began in the 1970s and have continued with contemporary efforts using tape recorders and computers. This recreation of "Awakening of a City," which paid homage to the tumult, speed, and noise of a modern city, by Daniel Lombardi using multitracked recordings of reconstructed Intonarumori is an example.

Source: Musica Futurista: The Art of Noises. Cramps Records Collana Multhipla, 5204 002, edited by Daniele Lombardi, two vinyl LP set, 1980.

Resources

Collected Recordings of Luigi Russolo at Ubu website.

Frame Lock

One may find it hard to imagine sound(s) (musical, noise, mechanical, environmental, and other) rather than human voice creating immersive contexts rich with aural and acousmatic narrative opportunities. Charles Bernstein calls this "frame lock" and says it denotes how a focus on one particular aspect within any frame of reference diverts attention from others. Bernstein, following Erving Goffman's idea of "frame analysis", calls these overlooked features the "disattend track" and notes, "within text-bound literary studies, the disattend track may include such features as the visual representation of the language as well as its acoustic structure [emphasis added]" (Bernstein 1994).

Appropriation / Remix / Sampling

Sound art can be created and experienced as many different forms. Appropriation, remix, and/or sampling is an example. Jon Leidecker (aka Wobbly) created an engaging and insightful seven-part history of appropriative collage in music, that is, compositions made using recordings of older compositions. This history begins in 1908 and continues to the 1990s. Each part, or "variation" is one hour in length. A common theme throughout is communal influence musicians and composers have on each other. Leidecker's seven Variations and more is available at UBU web.

Variations #1-#7 are available as podcasts through the Radio MACBA website. MACBA = Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Spain. Links to the sound files and more information about each variation are provided, along with links to download .PDF transcripts.

Field Recording / Phonography

Field recording refers to audio recordings produced outside the controlled environment of a sound studio. Such recordings might be musicians in familiar or casual surroundings. Ethnomusicology and/or live performance recordings are good examples. Field recordings might also be environmental sounds. In both cases, recordings might be made with portable, but high quality audio recording equipment. Both the results and the practice are considered art forms. A good example is Framework Radio.

Phonography (literally, "sound writing") refers to recording environmental / mechanical sounds using portable audio recording equipment outside the controlled environment of sound studios. Phonography might be considered an art form where the recording of the sound is privileged over its production, reflecting a bias toward discovery rather than invention.

Resources
Phonography.org
Features a number of phonographies, as well as information about recording gear, and links to other resources, sounds, and recording labels.

Frameworkradio.net
Frameworkradio.net is dedicated to field recording of sonic sources and their use in compositions. As the tagline says, phonography ::: field recording ::: the art of sound-hunting ::: open your ears and listen. LEARN more.

Wandering Ear
Field recording-oriented sound from around the world, available for free download.

The Last Quiet Places
From the Radio show/podcast "On Being," hosted by Krista Tippett, this is an interview with Gordon Hempton who argues that silence is an endangered species. Quiet places are "the think tank of the soul."

Sounds Outside: The Art of Field Recording
Provided by Ableton, this resource offers lots of resources for field recording.

Found Sound

Found sound describes audio objects created from undisguised, but often modified, sound files that are not normally considered art, often because they already have a non-art function. A good example is home recorded tapes or messages from telephone answering machines that often turn up in garage sales and thrift stores. Much of the identity of found sound as an art form comes from the designation placed upon it by the individual artist and the opportunity for both the artist and the audience to contemplate the original sound file(s), as well as their recombination. FoundSounds Podcast, by Ben Wolf is a good example. Wolf combined samples from cassette tapes, talking books, and audio visual learning programs to create twenty six episodes, all available at the Internet Archive website.

Here is another example, "Ghost Story," which I created using found home recorded cassette tapes.

Resources
Documentary Sound
A partial discography and guide to resources for unedited, unprocessed, publicly available field recordings and found sound. Very interesting sounds here.

Eavesdrop: A Wealth of Found Sound
A collection of anonymous recordings taken from audio diaries, tape letters, telephone messages, and other sources, all curated by Jacob Smigel. The work includes track notes, transcripts, background information, and a collage of found photographs. Eavesdrop only available as a CD. Other work available at Bandcamp website.

Sweet Thunder
An archive for "found home recordings and other cassette deck oddities." Finds are contributed weekly by guests, or the curator. Check out the "Links" section for several interesting applications of found sound. For example, "The Voicemail Project" presents "a collection of weird/sentimental/interesting voice mails left on other people's phones.

murmer
The personal website for Patrick McGinley (aka murmer), sound, performance, and radio artist, who, since 1996 has been building a collection of found sounds and using them as the basis of his work. One project is framework radio (see above). Other projects and resources are detailed in this website. See especially the "Links" section.

Sound Installation / Performance
Jacki Apple

Created an 8-track stereo mix audio tape soundtrack to accompany the 1979 Super-8 film The Mexican Tapes. The movie, with its soundtrack, was shown in the United States, Canada, and Ireland. The Mexican Tapes is a combination of archival recordings, fictional investigation, and spoken word combined as a multi-layered narrative (Jacki Apple—The Mexican Tapes by blogger Continuo). Male and female voices read from Inside the Company—CIA Diary (Phillip Agee, 1975), The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence (Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, 1974), The Labyrinth of Solitude (Octavio Paz, 1950), The Pleasure of the Text (Roland Barthes, 1975), The Children of the Sun (Martin Green, 1976), Guide to Ancient Mexican Ruins (C. Bruce Hunter, 1977), Many Mexicos (Lesley Byrd Simpson, Facts on File Annual News Index, 1966-1978), and Manchester Guardian Weekly (July, August 1978). Under this narrative is heard ambient whistling, percussion, and flute sounds, and various sound effects. The cast included Jacki Apple, Joseph Armillos, Eric Bogosian, Jude Dozier, Henry Korn, Peter Stroud, and Zephryn.

In 1980, One Ten Records (New York) released an LP record (catalog #OX 003) of the soundtrack. The work comprises both sides of the record album. Side one: 24:54. Side two: 26:20. Total time: 51:14.

From the album notes regarding the movie's plot . . .
"Parallels are drawn between politics and sports, the mapping of events and individual lives, the form of the game vs. its underlying goal, international diplomacy vs. covert action / the disparity between that which is presented (surface) and that which is intended (meaning). Idealogies become ambiguous, indistinguishable, as they disintegrate into patterns of behavior. 'The only survivors are the systems, the fictions . . .'"

Also from the album notes, regarding the multilayered sounds of the work. . .
"The music tracks use synthesizer, electric keyboard, percussion, and vocals, polyrhythmic repetitive phrasing, references to Mayan, Aztec, and Peruvian ritual music, and environmental sound. The recording process itself is used as an instrument.

"The text is layered, track upon track. The scoring is based on music structure, each voice track functioning as a different instrument. The narrative is fragmented, deconstructed, rearranged, repeated, recontextualized. It is comprised of strips of information, a fictional narrative based on actual events, dialogues, factual data dealing with political and historical events, myths, personal histories, attitudes and procedures, implied relationships, juxtapositions of actions, emotions, and ideas in fractured time, held together by a network of underlying structural patterns and relationships. The text incorporates material on the clandestine mentality and the 'cult of intelligence,' the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Trotsky's assassination in Mexico, the rules and significance of the ancient Meso-American ballgame, quotes from [John F.] Kennedy, [Henry] Kissinger, [Richard] Nixon, [Gerald] Ford, and [William] Colby, and news broadcasts."

John Cage

John Cage is noted as the most influential composer of the twentieth century. See John Cage Complete Works. Of particular note is his series entitled "Imaginary Landscapes." As Richard Kostelanetz noted, "It's not a physical landscape. It's a term reserved for the new technologies. It's a landscape in the future. It's as though you used technology to take you off the ground and go like Alice through the looking glass" (Kostelanetz 1986).

"Imaginary Landscape No. 1"
(1939)
Written and premiered on March 24, 1939 at Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, Washington, by John Cage, Xenia Cage, Doris Dennison, and Margaret Jansen. Instrumentation called for two variable-speed turntables, frequency recordings (a Victor frequency record (84522B) and a constant note record (nr.24) are played on the first turntable; on the second, another Victor frequency record (84522A) is played), muted piano, and cymbal.

Source: John Cage Imaginary Landscapes (Percussion Ensemble directed by Jan Williams) hat ART Switzerland CD 6179 Compact Disk 1995.

"Imaginary Landscape No. 2"
(1940)
Premiered 7 May 1940, Seattle, Washington, at Cornish College of the Arts(?). Recorded in a radio station with four players, two assistants, and a technician using test-tone recordings (2 players, changing the turntable-speed between 33 1/3 and 78 rpm), prepared piano (one player), and percussion (one player, employing tam-tam and large Chinese cymbal). The assistants picked up the sounds of the players (2 players each), and the technician recorded everything. Cage later withdrew this work and used its title for another work (see below).

"Imaginary Landscape No. 2"
(March No. 1) (1942)
Premiered 7 May 1942, San Francisco, California, as "Fourth Construction." Renamed, after the first performance, by Cage, to its present title. Instrumentation called for tin cans, conch shell, ratchet, bass drum, buzzers, water gong, metal wastebasket, lion's roar and amplified coil of wire.

Source: John Cage Imaginary Landscapes (Percussion Ensemble directed by Jan Williams) hat ART Switzerland CD 6179 Compact Disk 1995.

"Imaginary Landscape No. 3"
(1942)
Premiered 1 March 1942, Chicago, Illinois. Instrumentation called for tin cans, muted gongs, audio frequency oscillators, variable speed turntables with frequency recordings and recordings of generator whines, amplified coil of wire, amplified marimbula (a Caribbean instrument similar to the African thumb piano), and electric buzzer.

Source: John Cage Imaginary Landscapes (Percussion Ensemble directed by Jan Williams) hat ART Switzerland CD 6179 Compact Disk 1995.

"Imaginary Landscape No. 4"
(March No. 2) (1951)
Instrumentation called for twenty four performers, two each at twelve radios, one controlling the tuning, the other controlling amplitude and timbre, and a conductor. Instructions for tuning provided by the score. The idea was to tune the twelve radios independently. The work itself would consist of whatever sounds the radio stations produced at the moment of their particular tuning.

John Cage Imaginary Landscapes (Percussion Ensemble directed by Jan Williams) hat ART Switzerland CD 6179 Compact Disk 1995.

"Imaginary Landscape No. 4"
(Premiere dress rehearsal)
This recording of a dress rehearsal in preparation for the 10 May 1951 premiere in New York is the only recording of this work directly associated with Cage. It is possible that he was present. This dress rehearsal performance began after midnight, after many radio stations had ceased broadcasting for the day. Consequently, there is more sound from the audience than the radios, not exactly what Cage imagined.

"Imaginary Landscape No. 5"
(1952)
Premiered 18 January 1952, New York. This piece is a collage of fragments from any forty two long-playing phonograph records recorded on magnetic tape. The score was realized as a magnetic tape recording.

John Cage Imaginary Landscapes (Percussion Ensemble directed by Jan Williams) hat ART Switzerland CD 6179 Compact Disk 1995.

Tarikh Korula

"Chop 10"
(2005)
Korula explores sound through improvisation, field recording, and handmade electronics. Recalling John Cage's "Imaginary Landscape No. 4" (1951), Korula's "Chop 10" (2005) utilizes ten identical radios to scan New York City radio stations, much like the scan feature on automobile radio. As the samples of each station played become shorter and shorter, radio broadcasts become abstract textures and noise. The result is that all the stations scanned sound the same. This is the point of Korula's installation: commercial radio has lost any individual identity, and is driven by fundamentally identical formulas applied to management and content. "Chop 10" remixes live radio streams as a commentary on the current state of regulated radio.

Melissa Dubbin and Aaron S. Davidson

"Last Transmissions"
(2005)
A sound work including sign-off broadcasts from former radio stations, last addresses of public figures, and last radio contacts with planes, ships, and satellites. These transmissions mark times of crises and cultural importance and they often register as more significant than all previous transmissions. "Last Transmissions" was first exhibited in 2005 at Airborne II: Transmissions, a show co-curated by the New Museum and free103point9. Another sound work by Dubbin and Davidson was also part of the show: "Lost Transmissions," a collection of messages received but intended for someone other than the recipient. By broadcasting these lost messages, the artists hoped they might reach their intended audience. LEARN more about and listen to The Last Transmissions.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. "Framelock." College Literature, vol. 21, no. 2, June 1994, p. 119.
Accessible at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/bernstein/essays/frame-lock.html
See also 1992 Modern Language Association conference as part of a panel entitled "Framing the Frame: Theory and Practice."

Kostelanetz, Richard. "John Cage and Richard Kostelanetz: A Conversation about Radio." The Musical Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 2, 1986, pp. 216-227.

Zurbrugg, Nicholas. Sound Art, Radio Art, and Post-Radio Performance in Australia. Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture. vol.2, no. 2, 1989, pp. 26-49.

Resources

Sound Art > General

Anonymous. Sound Art.
An introduction to sound art and works that have been exhibited at the Tate Modern, London, England.

Butler, Shane. 2015. The Ancient Phonograph. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Considers the human voice in resonant worlds before the invention of recording technologies.

Dunaway, Judy. The Forgotten 1979 MoMA Sound Art Exhibition. Resonance: The Journal of Sound and Culture, vol. 1, no. 1, 7 May 2020, pp. 25-46.
The first instance of the term sound art was as the title for the first exhibition of sound-based works at a major museum—Sound Art, Metropoltan Museum of Modern Art, New York, 25 June-5 August 1979. The exhibition, curated by Barbara London, featured sound works by three woman: Maggi Payne, Connie Beckley, and Julia Heyward. LEARN more.

Kahn, Douglas. 2001. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Papenburg, Jens Gerrit and Holger Schulze, eds. 2016. Sound As Popular Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Chapters by international sound arts discuss conceptual and research interests, analyze case studies of listening in different sound cultures, and consider ways of contemporary sound generation.

Weibel, Peter. 2016. Sound Art: Sound as a Medium of Art. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
A definitive history of sound as media art by ZKM | Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, Germany, CEO Weibel. International essays examine sound art research and practice.

12 Sound Artists Changing Your Perception of Art

Martinique, Elena. Sound Art: Focus and Hear the Arts. WideWalls

Pollack, Barbara. Now Hear This: Sound Art Has Arrived. Art News 14 November 2013.

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