Sound Art? An archive

Below is an ongoing archive of responses to the final question posed to each interviewee: ‘what does the term “sound art” mean to you?’



Christof Migone | 19.05.15

While I do appreciate Max Neuhaus’ polemical statement regarding the term, it is clearly here to stay. I relish this vexed moment of inception in fact (not that I want to pin down this as the single birthing of the field). In the over twenty years I have been active in the field I’ve been encouraged by the influx of women in all facets of the field: practitioners, historians and theorists. But ultimately I try not to have a stake in the term. The arbitrariness of territorial determinations seems to indicate its relative lack of importance. Sound as unsound.


Seth Kim-Cohen | 04.12.13

What it means to me doesn’t matter. Time will decide. Probably, it will fade away like “video art” and those who utter the phrase will seem quaintly out of touch, like a grandpa with a flower in his lapel.


Christopher DeLaurenti | 06.08.13

A sound artist is someone who hates Beethoven. Just kidding! But seriously, I confess my use of “sound art” began as purely reactionary and oblivious to the gradations among “Audio Art,” “Music,” “Listening Art,” the recent “Non-Cochlear Art” and their respective scholarly, critical, and institutional origins and ideology. When I call myself a sound artist, what I’m really saying is that sound and listening remain THE vital component you’ll encounter in my work whether its in my installations, videos, plundercomics, prose, compositions for acoustic instruments, text-sound pieces, performances, and so on.

My installations contain material objects, all of which always remain secondary: Remove a chair and the installation should still feel somewhat complete. Remove sound and the installation deflates into a bunch of junk in a room, or on a good day, a worthy sculpture. (As an aside, I believe painting is form of sculpture, much like music is a form of sound art.) With little or nothing to hear, meaning gets depleted.

Today, “sound art” telegraphs that a work might not conform to established ideas of “music,” “sound,” or “performance.” Additionally, it is a handy avenue of escape for artists and curators to avoid the seeming contradiction rooted in loving (and advocating for) what is visually and haptically pathbreaking while still digging the Doobie Brothers or Nicki Minaj. Although I believe in making distinctions between essential and elemental differences, I don’t see a conflict but a continuum, but that’s just me. In the 1990s I used to bemoan the vague fog surrounding “sound art.” Now I find those cloudy vapors valuable. Morton Feldman once declared, “What was great about the Fifties is that for one brief moment – maybe, say, six weeks – nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened.” I think you can say the same thing about sound art and especially phonography.

The web has extended these six weeks into 60 years. There is no writer, curator, or institution that has a handle on what is happening or has happened during the previous decades. (Is there a reasonably paid, canny, full-time writer covering adventurous listening anywhere in the world right now?) Every month a new, lost progenitor is admitted into the historical “now.” Such transtemporal flux compels anyone interested in sound art to investigate, experience, and assess the artist herself – which is what we should be doing in the first place.


Dawn Scarfe | 12.05.13

It is a label, useful for research. Sound art can be hard to distinguish from a work of art or music but for me that’s part of the attraction.


Ernst Karel | 14.02.13

Oh, I suppose I go along with the Carsten Seiffarth-type definition of sound art as an exploration of sound in a particular space, and of the relationship of sound to and in a specific context of its hearing. The idea here is that it’s generally distinguishable from concerts/performances or published sound works. But the lines are not always clear, and arguably shouldn’t be, because more important than what things are called is whether they are interesting to listen to.


Jed Speare | 05.11.12

This is a very free-associative question – it makes me think about the trace and influence of the sound environment on music as a path to understand the gradual emergence of sound as source material and sonic art, beyond music. Going back to Schafer, he made some observations about sounds in Western music that seem obvious but are compelling, like the evolution of and increase in percussion instruments in the orchestra from the 18th to 20th century, as a reflection of the environment; or Alberti bass as derived from or unconsciously referencing horse-hooves on cobblestone streets, as well as the flam coming from the sound of trains over bolted, repetitive track sections. Fast forwarding over many more references and the proliferation of ideas and tools, sound art comes from these kinds of influences and occurrences, evolved into a conscious, creative realm. Schafer also says simply that art is defined by the activities of artists, and for me this confers an openness and generosity to sound art and its many forms, that it will always continue to change and grow.


Daniela Cascella | 01.09.12

I like to think of sound art as a non-canonised way of shaping listening – wandering around and being surprised. The less you can grasp it in a definition, the more I’m attracted to it: at its most self-effacing. Working in ‘sound art’ always meant for me the freedom to be in a field that, not being defined, allowed me to play with and ponder on thoughts and words which wouldn’t be able to exist together otherwise. The relation between sound art and the attempt to define it is like the relation in geometry between a curve and its asymptote line: they do not fall together. The former tends to touch the latter ad infinitum. And the curve will never be straight. I think sound art is a way of being elsewhere, and never quite straight.


Salomé Voegelin | 01.07.12

It means to do all sorts of things with sound, I do not actually see a limit to what is possible to do under that term, but think it is nevertheless important to have that term. That is not a contradiction but rather the more open and multifaceted the work done the more important is the disciplinary focus and marking out. I realise that many sound artists, or artists working with sound, disagree with me here, but the name, the discipline gives you the authority with which comes trust and institutional recognition through which in turn you get funding and status: university courses, professorships, gallery space, concert hall access, magazines, etc. etc. Sound is always in danger of being sublimated to other disciplines, its invisible nature makes it a natural interdisciplinary second, and I do not think interdisciplinarity is useful unless the disciplines that interact are equal and autonomous: have their own discourse and institutional support. You can then of course say oh we do not need institutions, we can live in in-official networks and connections, but the problem with that is that in-official networks are by their very nature discriminatory, more discriminatory even than institutional networks. Sound Art is an extremely white male dominated area and if you leave it to in-official networks you will find it much harder to broaden participation and appreciation.


Cathy Lane | 02.05.12

I always prefer to think of it as sound arts because to me that recognises the plurality of influences, practices and most importantly possibilities. I guess to me it means exploring the unique specifics of the sonic and “doing interesting stuff with sound”.


Brandon LaBelle | 01.03.12

For sure I think it becomes a position for investigating the conditions of sound, so as an artistic project how do you explore what it means to listen? I would say this is probably a primary theme that I would imagine sound art dealing with. But what I think is important is that in that model it doesn’t have to be a sound, it’s about sound. So for instance Steve Roden may make a painting that has everything to do with listening. And I think that’s really key for me to distinguish sound practice from music, music is a sound production but it doesn’t necessarily ask us to think about sound, it can of course but I think generally it doesn’t strive for that. So I think Sound Art for me starts to ask those questions.


Craig Colorusso | 01.11.11

Making art using sound.


Hildegard Westerkamp | 06.07.11

That I am free to do what I want to do with sound! It is a liberating term, free of constraints of classical music traditions as well as of visual art traditions. Many sound artists come from the visual arts and experience sound art as a liberation from the silence of galleries and museums. It has given them licence to use sound as an expressive medium and insert noise, sound and music into a traditionally silent medium.


Sarah van Sonsbeeck | 04.05.11

I would rather not make categories. For me there is just Art. And of course there is sound. Without sound there would be no silence but without silence there would be no music, as rhythm is made by intervals of silence and sound – how strange that would be! My favorite quote by someone who says it better than ever I could:

‘When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings or about his ideas, of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on sixth avenue for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking, I have the feeling that a sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower. And it gets longer and shorter. I’m completely satisfied with that; I don’t need sound to talk to me. We don’t see much difference between time and space; we don’t know where one begins and the other stops. (…) People expect listening to be more than listening. And sometimes they speak of inner listening, or the meaning of sound. When I talk about music, it finally comes to people’s minds that I’m talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything. That is not inner, but is just outer. And they say, these people who finally understand that say, you mean it’s just sounds? To mean that for something to just be a sound is to be useless. Whereas I love sounds, just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more. I don’t want sound to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s a president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound. And I’m not so stupid either. There was a German philosopher who is very well known, his name was Emmanuel Kant, and he said there are two things that don’t have to mean anything, one is music and the other is laughter. Don’t have to mean anything that is, in order to give us deep pleasure. The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.’ (John Cage: In Love with Another Sound (1992) by Miroslav Sebestik).


Ian Rawes (London Sound Survey) | 01.03.11

Sound art is part of the general expansion of art over the last two or three decades, due to great changes in the economy and the growth of higher education. It’s one of the countless ways in which people are adapting to labour casualisation. I haven’t met many sound artists, but those I have strike me as imaginative and technically inventive people. 30 or 40 years ago they’d likely have been working in the electronics industry, in research and development, or education. Education is now almost the only route by which some can eventually stabilise their incomes. I tend to think of sound art as something that happens in galleries or as part of an installation somewhere, like the Singing Ringing Tree sculpture in the Pennines. There’s all sorts of ways in which sound art could be disseminated – through iPhone apps, websites, memory sticks, you name it. But social events and physical objects will probably always be more highly thought of than the delivery of pure data, because they’re what our minds have evolved to grapple with and to appreciate.


Zimoun | 01.01.11

Well, categories in art and culture, or even in general are not really something I’m interested in. Of course it does somehow help to order things a little bit. But on the other hand it’s always the single, individual piece, thing or human which/who makes the interesting difference or not. It’s not the category itself. For that reason ‘sound art’ does not really mean much to me. But to try a definition I’d say sound art could be; to wake up in the morning, move into the kitchen and sit for a while as you realize how beautiful the fridge is sounding that day.


Aura Satz | 01.11.10

That’s a difficult question, as I don’t tend to categorize my practise in this way, nor am I convinced of the usefulness of such categories for artists. I usually make the work that suits my area of interest and enables me to explore my query in the best possible materialisation. Sometimes it happens to be film, other times performance, and on some occasions sound. They all feel very closely related, and the fact that sound features in the work doesn’t necessarily make it sound art, whatever that term means.


Francisco López | 01.09.10

I don’t really care about terms. That’s actually the way music was often called in the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries, so go figure!


Ray Lee | 01.07.10

Sound art is an evolving term. For me it describes a spectrum of activity that ranges from Sonic Art, (i.e. a practice emerging out of contemporary composers working with electro-acoustic studio-based work) to visual artists working with sound as a carrier of meaning. It’s also a problematic term as any umbrella term tends to be. For me it’s similar to the way Live Art is used to encompass a broad range of vaguely related activities. Whether what I do is sound art or not shouldn’t be something I spend too much time thinking about.


Lawrence English | 01.05.10

Art concerned primarily with, or celebrating the matter of ‘sound’ – physical, conceptual, acoustic and more.


Eric Leonardson | 01.03.10

The term sound art includes a wide range of practices and, as Douglas Kahn pointed out several years ago, is a term that’s somewhat flawed. I’ll chalk it up to language’s inability to be an accurate reflection of what its users actually do. For me, depending on the context, I’m happy with defining sound art as artists who use sound as their primary medium to make art. Of course that logic conflates music into the category of art. Having been influenced by the ideas of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and other artists and movements that blurred the boundaries separating traditional art disciplines, I’m less interested in maintaining those traditional separations. I favor a multi- or trans-disciplinary approach to making and thinking about the arts and culture.


Andrea Polli | 02.01.10

For me it’s really stretching the limits of the possibilities of sound, for example exploring and questioning the way music functions in society, mixing sound with other sensory media, creating systems for distributed sound, etc.


Seth Cluett | 01.12.09

As I said before regarding the archive, I don’t see ‘sound art’ as a very productive term. That said, what the term does suggests to me is a community. Painters are not paint artists, they’re painters. When they speak with one another they are part of a community of people who draw on a similar set of references, techniques, histories, influences, materials. “Sound artist” is the closest thing we have to that kind of community-marking moniker.. As an artist who works with sound, I find it very helpful to feel like I’m part of a community of people who, whether they share my particular concerns, understand (in a very real way) the vocabulary with which I work, and the problems and joys I encounter in the studio. For better or for worse, I think that there is a certain kind of translation necessary to talk to people who don’t work with sound as their medium. This has become less and less of a problem in recent years, but it is still refreshing to be able to speak natively to other practitioners. The gathering of artists under the banner of ‘sound art’ is an easy way to locate those conversations.


Loren Chasse | 01.11.09

It doesn’t really mean all that much to me, yet it’s helpful to have some term ready when I find myself cornered into discussions about music and musicianship. There’s often contempt for this term among the artists it’s used to describe. I think this is because of the associations with the Art Establishment, the appropriation of this tag by the MOMAs of the world and the all the scrambling for grants, commissions, residencies, and overall, the recognition and validation coming from a place that ‘sound art’, with all its DIY (anti-Establishment/punk origins), would historically and by nature reject. There’s just a lot of tension here because, after all, wouldn’t everyone just like to be supported full-time as an artist? Yet in making the certain ‘moves’ that are required to get this recognition, often the impulses in an artist that are truly forward-thinking or ‘experimental’ need to be tamed. Art has so many different goals. It might be to influence perception, or to represent one thing with another, or to tell a story, or to stimulate an emotional response, or to indicate some sort of meaning through a relationship, and certainly it can be a combination of these. So it’s hard to pin down what makes sound ‘art’. Generally though, this term seems to refer to the use of sound for purposes other than musical, where the listening experience is framed differently than it would be for a musical event.


John Grzinich | 01.10.09

I often use the term “sound art” in quotes because of its highly flexible and subjective nature. The use of “sound art” by myself, a recent art school graduate or a curator probably means something completely different to each one. The more accepted use of the term in recent years, I suspect, has to do with the fact that one who works with sound as medium can easily shift between music contexts (composition, concerts and improvisational settings) and art contexts (installation, sculpture, performance in gallery settings). The boundaries of which are increasingly blurring however as I’m extending my research into education, art therapy, and areas of social, cultural and environmental science.


Steve Peters | 01.09.09

In spite of Max Neuhaus’ repudiation of the term he basically invented, and in spite of the fact that it is by now so over-used as to have been rendered essentially meaningless (see also “installation”), I actually find Sound Art to be a useful distinction. “Music” is problematic – people have such rigid ideas about what qualifies, and/or they identify with it so personally. I don’t really care about making “music.” Most of my work does not use musical instruments, steady rhythm, pitch, harmony, or anything else that most people (including so-called musicians) associate with music. And I have no interest in trying to convince anyone that it is music. Referring to it as Sound (Art) side-steps such preconceptions, and allows people to experience it without feeling like they “don’t understand.” Everyone who can hear is capable of listening, so we all start at the same place: sound. In fact, I’m a little wary of this colonial mentality that insists, “Every sound is music!” Of course it can be, but why must we be prepared to call something music in order to allow ourselves to listen to it? The implication is that anything that is not music is not worthy of our attention, and unless someone is prepared to make that conceptual leap, they can’t possibly appreciate it. So when I use instruments and notes etc… I am happy to call that music. And for the rest, Sound Art works perfectly well for me. And most of the time I just call it Sound.


Janek Schaefer | 15.08.09

Life, love, and a living!


Jez Riley French | 01.04.09

The term ‘sound art’ is one that has mostly been applied to my work by other people. I rarely use it simply because it actually means something increasingly specific these days. Perhaps not in terms of the actual work presented but rather in the processes and various other aspects that are expected by some. The foundations of explorations with sound are often ignored, rejected and theoretically dismissed. If or when I use it I mean an artist who works with sounds and for me that means musicians, composers, artists etc. Simple.


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