Recent exhibitions in major institutions are bringing sound art to new ears and raising questions about listening in the museum.
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Many works of contemporary art in museum installations emit sound—video and multi-media presentations, performance, mechanical constructions, and even pieces made up of buzzing LED lights. Even if an artistic practice does not seek to make sound central to its purpose, sound can occur. Yet there is a type of art that makes sound its fundamental concern, either by causing sound to happen or by calling attention to the fact that sound does happen. While it may employ many other artistic practices, they are at the service of sound, not byproducts of sound.
But the “all divers can swim, but not all swimmers can dive” phenomenon aside, sound art—as well as the question of how it is to be categorized as such and how it will be disseminated—is still noisy, if a pun will be forgiven. It’s hardly a new concept, considering the fact that avant-garde groups such as the Futurists and Dada in the early 20th century tested the waters with sound, as did Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète and Fluxus did later, followed by performances at SoHo’s experimental space the Kitchen in the ’60s.
Yet the recent presence of sound art pieces and installations in major intuitions—namely MoMA, the Cloisters, and the Whitney—has brought new sonic experiences to large groups of viewers/listeners, and also aroused curiosity about the nature of listening, especially within the traditional museum or gallery setting.
Janet Cardiff’s sound installation The Forty Part Motet opened at the Cloisters—The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s upper-Manhattan outpost for Medieval European art—on September 10 (through December 8). To all appearences, the installation, the first contemporary work ever shown in the museum, is an oval ring of 40 speakers perched on stands that reach an appropriate height for the average adult ear. Each speaker plays one of the 40 vocal parts from Tudor composer Thomas Tallis’ 16th-century (1556?/1573?) 11-minute motet Spem in alium nunquam habui (In No Other Is My Hope), sung by contemporary singers. It sits within the Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel, a sizable stone-walled room that contains the apse of the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña, Spain, dating to 1125–1200.
Viewers, or rather listeners, can stand next to one speaker in particular to engage sonically with one specific vocal part (there are bass, baritone, alto, tenor, and child soprano). But listeners can also stand within the oval of the speakers to experience the piece of music more holistically, or in front of it, or for the most part in any other exhibition room in the museum, and still engage with the piece. In fact, the sounds of Forty Part Motet pervade the Cloisters to such an extent that the building and the installation reverberate with one another.
The power of the exhibition is not due only the beauty of the music, or the opportunity it affords to hear in (somewhat) isolated parts what was initially designed to be taken as a whole, but also in its command over the museum-goer. It surrounds the visitor, and also follows him. The sound is, in this case, pleasantly inescapable. Yet, when it comes to placing sound in a museum setting, especially one that isn’t designed expressly for the purpose of accommodating music or noise, controlling where it goes and how the viewers interact with it is a curatorial and artistic concern.
Starting in August, MoMA staged its first full-scale sound installation, “Soundings: A Contemporary Score” (through November 4), featuring work by 16 contemporary artists working with the media. Programming associated with the exhibition included video pieces and performances.
Commenting on the creative challenges of producing a major show in such a high-traffic setting, Barbara London, the exhibition’s curator—who incidentally curated the museum’s very first sound installation in 1979, simply called “Sound Art,” which was made up of three pieces that had to play in a rotation—says, “The biggest limitation is space. Sound bleeds—how do you contain it? How are you equitable? I wanted to have a cohesive experience, I wanted the public to slow down, but how do you get them to slow down when something might have no visuals? So okay, I thought, carpet on the floor, soft seating, and some are intrigued enough to stay or come back. Then I also wanted to have visual richness.” Not using headphones to disseminate sound was also important to London. All of the sound in the show was public.
The pieces in “Soundings” were tactically separated from one another, like kids in a “time out.” Sound bleed was minimal throughout the installation, though there was sonic crossover here and there. Jacob Kirkegaard’s AION (2006), field recordings and accompanying video projections of four abandoned spaces in Chernobyl, as well as Jana Winderen’s piece Ultrafield (2013), which pitched down animal sounds that are above human hearing capacity, played in their own darkened rooms with plush rectangular seating. Whereas Haroon Mirza’s Frame for a Painting, which surrounded Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Yellow, Blue, and White (1937) with LED lights and pulsing electro-noise, had its own narrow walled-off corner—with sound proofing batting, picked by the artist on one wall. Tristan Perich’s 25-foot, 1,500-speaker work Microtonal Wall (2011), had its own long corridor.
But there were also silent pieces and purely visual pieces, which took sound as their subject rather than as their medium. Christina Sun Kim, an artist who was born deaf, had drawings from her series Score and Transcripts (2012) on view. The pieces incorporate the ways in which Kim understands sound, through notations associated with American Sign Language, musical notation and body language.
Susan Philipsz’s Study for Strings (2012) was given its own room, though the sound did travel a bit. Like Cardiff, Philipsz used a pre-existing musical composition and manipulated its parts. In this case, the cello and viola parts of Pavel Haas’ eponymous 1943 orchestral work for 24 instruments, were isolated, leaving spurts of music and periods of silence. The musicality of the parts being played is familiar, yet there is an oddness, and perhaps even a loneliness, to its presentation.
The relationship sound art has with music, particularly what is deemed “experimental music,” is precarious. At a press event for the Cardiff piece, one attendee perplexedly asked a curator what the difference was between Cardiff’s piece and Tallis’ music, because he could not find one. Anne L. Strauss, the exhibition’s curator, asserted that the artist’s goal was not to provide a transcendent experience of the music, but to use the music to draw attention to the sculptural aspects of sound.
Seth Kim Cohen, a sound artist, musician, and author of the book The Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, notes, “It’s hard to say this is where music ends and this is where sound art begins. Still, I can say that 90 percent of people in sound art also come from musical practice.” John Cage’s seminal work 4’33” functioned on the illusion of being a performance of a piece of music, yet conceptually it could be seen as a piece of sound art. Christian Marclay, whose name is probably the one most commonly referred to with regard to sound in the fine-art context, has used turntables, vinyl records and instruments to produce sound collages and other sound-based projects. Yet David Kiehl, the curator of the Whitney’s “Christian Marclay Festival” in 2010, says that the production and performance of Marclay’s experimental “graphic scores” that took place daily at the museum were decidedly not sound art. “It was closely rooted to music, but is it sound art?” says Kiehl. “Music and sound can be interpreted in different ways, but I think the show was an entirely different and new thing. The whole focus was on the scores.”
Cohen advocates a form of sound experimentation that follows the model of Duchamp’s Fountain. “Non-cochlear art comes in the tradition of non-retinal art,” he says. “That idea was assimilated into the art world by the ’70s. In sound art that idea hasn’t landed very well—even Cage wanted us to really listen. People really want something that sounds good; they still want it to be about the ear, and I don’t see why we need that. The urinal is something to look at, but it’s not about looking, so the exclusive focus should not be on the sound.” “Soundings” represents this type of conceptual sound art with Carsten Nicolai’s piece Wellenwanne Ifo (2000/2012), which shows visually the reverberation of the room’s ambient sound in a seemingly still body of water.
Motet and the pieces in “Soundings” for the most part look and sound good. Visitors have the impetus to stop and ponder as they would with a piece of visual art. Given the pervasiveness of the audio tour in major museums—arguably a sound installation in and of itself—museum-goers are used to plugging into sound in these spaces, though they’re not used to sharing it or being unable to control it. With seemingly more sound pieces entering these spaces, one thing to expect is the rise of the “shush” inside the installation space.