Sound Art offers the first comprehensive introduction to sound art written for undergraduate students.
Bridging and blending aspects of the visual and sonic arts, modern sound art first emerged in the early 20th century and has grown into a thriving and varied field. In 13 thematic chapters, this book enables students to clearly grasp both the concepts behind this unique area of art, and its history and practice. Each chapter begins with an exploration of key ideas and theories, followed by an in-depth discussion of selected relevant works, both classic and current.
Drawing on a broad, diverse range of examples, and firmly interdisciplinary, this book will be essential reading for anyone studying or teaching the theory, history, appreciation, or practice of sound art.
If you were living 100 years ago and asked for a definition of “sound art,” what do you think the answer might be? Would it be different today? Surprisingly, it might not. Although the term “sound art” has been in general use since the 1980s, the concept is a difficult one to convey.1 Whereas painting is painting, sound is sound, and sculpture is sculpture, sound art might be the combination of any and all of these, plus other media. People generally define things by excluding other things. In the case of sound art, maybe that’s not such a good idea.
A goal of this book is to prepare you to have a discussion about sound art. By focusing on theories and practices for making sound art, I hope you will be able to have a more informed conversation around sound and its many applications in this field.
I have purposefully drawn upon examples of sound art across time as well as across nations. There are 170 works of sound art described in the course of the core chapters. These represent the work of artists from 24 countries. While historic works comprise a significant part of the discussion, of the 170 works, half date from the year 2000 to the present. This balance of historic works and contemporary experiments provides a view of the maturation of sound art in keeping with changing materials, technology, and the influence of those who came before.
The examples in this book are not intended as a canon for the field: the cited works are representative examples of the various approaches to sound art as defined by the goals of each chapter. Some will include historically early and significant works designed around a given approach, while the balance of examples represent contemporary creations that illustrate how foundational ideas can translate over time and changes to prevailing technology.
The practice of sound art is one in which women artists have long had a leading role, especially among contemporary works. The book reflects the evolution of female participation in sound art over time, particularly during the last 30 years in which their work makes up more than 40% of the examples we’ve discussed.
The book is organized as a sequence of topics from the introduction of sound art and the science of sound through chapters exploring various kinds of audio phenomenon and how they have been used by artists. Chapter 1, Launching a Study of Sound Art, defines sound art and discusses foundational topics, approaches, and historic examples. Chapter 2, How Sound Works, explains the underlying science of audio phenomena that often inspires artists to create sound art.
The next sequence of nine chapters explores sound art concepts, history, and practices, and comprises the heart of the book. These chapters are topical and reflect many different, ongoing practices that make up diverse approaches to sound art. I hesitate to call the selected examples a “canon” for the reasons stated above. It would be challenging to define a canon even as the definition of sound art itself is controversial. So, within the definitions provided in this book for what sound art is and is not, I’ve selected key examples to illustrate the approaches described in this set of chapters.
It is my hope that these chapters comprising the core of the book will inspire your own ideas around the many possibilities for sound art. Each chapter focuses on a topic such as noise, the environment, voice and language, captured sound, and others to present a comprehensive overview of sound art practices. In these chapters, you will read about technical approaches and the ways in which artists have applied these in their own work.
Chapter 12 provides guidance for the curator: the curation of sound art, its preservations and documentation. Chapter 13 addresses an important topic that should be considered when producing any exhibit of sound art: how to provide accessibility for all visitors.
Chapters 3–11 follow a consistent learning design intended to reinforce sound art techniques and practices. These chapters each have two sections: The Elements in which the given approach is explained both historically and from a present-day perspective. The Elements discussion engages in current theories while remaining focused on the interests of the practicing artist. In Practice consists of examples that represent the various approaches discussed in The Elements. The book draws on artists from across the globe to represent the universal appeal and language of sound art.
New terms important to the understanding of sound art are highlighted in bold and defined in the reading. Each chapter concludes with a summary of key points.
A goal has been to find representative examples of artistic practices in this medium but not to create a comprehensive directory of known works. By drawing upon the world’s sound art community, the book provides a sense for the diversity that exists in this medium. Because containing the wide spectrum of sound art in a single primer is impossible, I hope you can forgive any obvious omissions. Instead, please realize that each chapter can serve as a launching point not only to learn about the artists whom are discussed, but to inspire your own work in this exciting endeavor.
This book began as a conversation with friend and sound artist Stephan Moore. Many of the formative concepts for this book took shape over the course of a year as we imagined the kind of book that a sound art instructor might want to use. There has been much publishing around the topic of sound art, but most of the books take the form of multiauthored essay collections, deep debates over theories, articles chronicling specific exhibits, or personal artist statements. We wanted to write a book that could serve a different purpose. We believed that the world needed a primer on sound art basics for the instructor and student alike. The book endeavors to embrace an objective point of view on the subject.
Stephan not only contributed to conversation around the book but also invented the lovely figure found in Chapter 1 and contributed a draft of Chapter 2. This book would not exist without his initial involvement and I want to acknowledge that. He, of course, remains very active in the world of sound art as a practitioner and contributes continually to the field in significant ways.
I also want to thank the lovely people at Routledge for supporting this project. Editors Constance Ditzel and Genevieve Aoki have been constant supporters, and I have been happy to contribute this book to their bookshelf to sit alongside my previous endeavor, Electronic and Experimental Music (sixth edition).
I also want to thank John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein for allowing me to become a part of the David Tudor Rainforest IV road trip for a couple of years; and Matt Rogalsky and You Nakai for sharing their separate but unique scholarship around David Tudor, whose work continues to inspire each and every one of us.