I’m re-reading Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato (and Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy) and I’m excited by the implications of their work for sound art. Havelock’s thesis is that the attack on poetry in Plato’s Republic only makes sense as an attack on what was an oral educational system in which what today would be called poems served as the primary vehicle to carry Greek culture from generation to generation. Everything from how to tie knots to the appropriate definition of male and female conduct was conveyed in specific epic “poems” with rhyme and song and cadence and tone, ritualized, memorized to preserve the frail fire that was Greek culture.
Which would fall nicely into any definition of sound art. I like the idea — and it is a literal description, not an analogy — that a piece of sound art served as the binding mechanism for an entire culture. Half poem, half song, half something that doesn’t even exist anymore, because our minds have been restructured by 2400 years of professional and general literacy. That our debates about, “is it music;” “is it poetry;” “is it sound-as-sound” are simply us picking at the shards of what was once something whole. Practical, beautiful, emotional, educational, critically important sound art. We’ll never go back, of course, but it is comforting to know that there was a world before the fall.