In the last few decades, the term sound art has arisen within both the musical and artistic communities through an avant-garde use of sound to incentivize its interpretation.
Components of Sound
The unsuspecting acoustic environment supplies the medium for sound art. As all sounds in an environment collectively compose a soundscape of the acoustic space, the sounds for a work of sound art must break the trend of the contemporary society’s audio perception. In order to comprehend this idea within the context of this page, a hierarchy of sound types must be established.
Background Noise and Mobile Sounds
In the simplest manner, noise is the common ground to any soundscape. Christoph Cox, a professor of philosophy with focus on sound at Hampshire College, refers to the term “noise” as encompassing all the sounds that actively “[fill] the auditory field,” or what we commonly note as background noise (Cox 2009, 20). In various instances, the ear interprets the background noise as silence, which permits the sounds within an acoustic environment to resonate. The quality of background noise then becomes critical in establishing a sense of silence within an environment. In this practice of silence, the listener is subjected “not [to] the absence of sound but the beginning of listening” (Voegelin 2010, 83).
A similar idea, based on the compositions of Luigi Nono, is that of mobile sound; in both instances of noise and mobile sound, the sounds that we focus on are those that are native to their respective acoustic environment (Pape 1999, 58). However, there remains a crucial distinction between the two ideas; noise serves as a significant component to the mobile sound, yet certain elements within the mobile sound do not constitute noise. This occurs because noise refers exclusively to the sounds produced under vibrations that are audible to the human ear. The term mobile sound covers a much broader field, including sounds that are inaudible at their respective frequency. In retrospect, the mobile sound essentially constitutes a non-theoretical interpretation of silence, referring to the sounds that lie partially undetected by our attention span and auditory perception.
In most instances, the first misconception may arise during the discussion of sound art is the confusion between sound art and music. This misinterpretation is understandable, for music generally refers to a composition of sounds produced by a musician, an accepted type of artist. The distinction between sound art and music becomes more definite through Cox’s establishment of a signal, a characteristic of particular sounds. According to his argument, “the distinction [between signal and noise] is relative rather than absolute,” such that a certain criteria within the social context must be met in order for a signal to surface from the noise (Cox 2009, 20). Through this development, it seems that each signal originates from the general noise of its surroundings. In this instance, purpose and meaning serve as determining factors that cause a signal to “come to the fore, temporarily drawing our attention to it and away from the background noise” (Cox 2009, 20). In other words, a signal is a type of sound that has successfully drawn one’s attention. Based on this information, a composed series of sound that simultaneously serve as a signal typically constitute what we identify as music. In sound art, however, the priority of sound as a signal becomes inverted; the conventional background becomes the foreground.
Musical Silence and Dada
John Cage’s musical composition, 4’33”, demonstrates the sound art concept of inverting the sounds that serve as signals (Voegelin 2010, 80). The composition of this piece is situated around three different orchestral movements comprised of silence. In this situation, the audience recognizes the presence of the orchestra and likely expects to hear some sort of instrumental music –this represents the conventional form of a signal. Because this piece is composed entirely of silence, the social context of the scene, the visualization of the orchestra seemingly preparing to play, engages the audience to listen to the silence. The resulting effect is the inversion of the sounds that serve as signals, creating an atmosphere of “musical silence not a sonic silence,” urging the audience to listen to the noises within the acoustic space (Voegelin 2010, 80).
In addition, this piece serves to challenge the pre-established conventions of art in a manner reminiscent to the movement of Dada artworks. For instance, Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture, Fountain, features a “porcelain urinal inscribed ‘R. Mutt’ with the purpose of questioning the idea of art for the sake of art” (Voegelin 2010, 80). Both of these pieces serve to “[defy] conventions to contest what was artistically doable” (Voegelin 2010, 80). One particular notion embodied in Duchamp’s work, art for the sake of art, is prevalent within the Dada style of art and wrought to challenge the definition of art, stretching the boundaries of what classified as art. In order to accomplish this, Dada artists sought to create art out of seemingly ordinary objects and materials, often called “ready mades.” By taking this approach to art, Marcel Duchamp, in particular, instilled the idea that “art can be whatever the artist decides it is” (Wireless Imagination 1992, 105). Sound art applies a similar tactic within the field of sonic art. Furthermore, Voegelin extended the term “ready made” to encompass the work of John Cage, who brought the element of silence “into the concert hall, and thereby [asked] comparable questions of musical materiality and its conventions of performance” (Voegelin 2010, 80). Thus, the two pieces are once again similar to one another by the mundane nature of their mediums; John Cage brought the thin buzz of background noises within silence into the context of art just as Marcel Duchamp took an ordinary urinal and converted it into a sculpture.
Effect on Audial Perception
One subject matter of sound art deals with a realm of unconsciously perceived elements. Cox explained this phenomenon as “a vast swarm of elements that do not reach conscious thought” (Cox 2009, 21). Within an unconscious perception of sound, the listener can not distinguish between the noise and a signal, yet the potential to recognize the signal remains present. In other words, the ear recognizes the audial environment but can not clearly determine the exact source of any given sound. Therefore, noise constitutes the foundation for unconscious perception: “noise [is] the ground, the condition of possibility for every significant sound…[to emerge] and to which it returns” (Cox 2009, 22).
The effect of unconscious perceptions serves as a key factor in Ælab’s installation L’espace du milieu. Within this piece, the body’s sensory perception becomes warped under three distinct simulations. In the first installment, the visitors enter a dark room where they sit on a bench that produces vibrations beneath them, confusing the body’s sense of orientation. Next, the visitors sit on an “illuminated sonic chair” where they listen to sounds but are unable to see past the light-source. Lastly, the visitors view a black screen projecting abstract patterns, warping the way the brain processes images (Ikoniadou 2014, 55). The purpose of this work explores the body’s ability to make sense out of the unconscious realm of perception, thus, permitting sound art to explore the body’s unconscious sensory perception.
In creating an alternative listening experience, sound art also delves into the effect of inaudible frequencies on the body. The hypersonic effect, for instance, occurs when the body engages in hypersonic sensation. Such an experience results from “a deeper look into a region of potential that adds a felt surplus to actual perception and experience” –a sensorial stimulant to the sounds that we hear (Ikoniadou 2014, 45). In other words, hypersonic sensation is the energy produced by the human body from engaging in a dense sonic environment, opening up a whole new realm of audial interpretation termed by Tsutomu Oohashi as the hypersonic effect (Ikoniadou 2014, 46). In his research, Oohashi discovered that the presence of low, audible frequencies paired with high, inaudible frequencies could maximize the body’s sensorial capacity. Instead of receiving these inaudible frequencies as sounds, the body collects the wavelengths as vibrations that produce no sound. This phenomenon supposedly results in the elevation of energy during hypersonic sensation. Furthermore, this idea draws upon Nono’s theory of mobile sound, which includes high-pitched sounds that are inaudible to the human ear alone. The discovery of the hypersonic effect brings into perspective the notion that certain elements within the mobile sounds can be perceived by the human body through vibrations if not solely through sound.
Technology in Practice
Technological aid can also simulate distinct listening experiences. For instance, certain properties of the mobile sound can only be interpreted with the aid of live electronic transformations, such as with sounds that possess frequencies too high for the human ear. With modern technology, the implementation of sound art allows for the exploration of an extended scope of sound perception. One work that accomplishes this effect is Nick Knouf’s Aestherspace, a collar-like device that receives and transforms electromagnetic waves into sounds that humans can hear (Ikoniadou 2014, 56). While wearing this device, the listener becomes exposed to both the electrical and acoustical soundscape of a given environment. In this manner, the experience serves to simulate a rather evolutionary audial experience by introducing the question of how humans would perceive sounds if our hearing range increased.
Cox, Christoph. 2009. “Sound Art and the Sonic Unconscious”. Organised Sound 14 (1): 19-26.
Edwards, Jessica. 2014. “A Non-Linear History of Mobile Sound Systems in the Arts” In Booster: Kunst Sound Maschine = Art Sound Machine. edited by Marta Herford Friederike Fast, Nik Nowak, and Chris Abbey. translation, Chris Abbey, Friederike Fast, Marta Herford and Nik Nowak. Bielefeld, Germany: Kerber. 148–165.
Ikoniadou, Eleni. 2014. The Rhythmic Event: Art, Media, and the Sonic. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Kahn, Douglas, and Gregory Whitehead, eds. 1992. Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant garde. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Licht, Alan. 2007. Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. New York, N.Y: Rizzoli International Publications.
London, Barbara J. 1946-. 2013. Soundings: A Contemporary Score, eds. Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.), Anne Hilde Neset. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
Pape, Gerard. 1999. “Luigi Nono and His Fellow Travellers”. Contemporary Music Review 18(1): 57-65.
Voegelin, Salomé. 2010. Listening to Noise and Silence Electronic Resource: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. New York: Continuum. See esp. Chap. 3, “Silence.”