I was reading a very interesting article by Andreas Engström & Åsa Stjerna about the different things people mean when they say sound art. Engström & Stjerna do a great job pointing out differences between the German sense of Klangkunst and the English concept of sound art, and that got me thinking about all of the various things people mean when they use the phrase. Very roughly (and at considerable theoretical peril, I know), here is a rough taxonomy (provisional, draft, straw-person, &c — I just want to make sure my intent is clear: not hegemonic, merely helpful):
1. Experimental or Avant Guard Musicians
First, and probably the largest camp would be what I would call experimental or Avant guard musicians. These are artists who find the traditional theory, structure, performance expectations (or some other feature) of traditional music (whatever that is) too restrictive and are looking to explore the edges and beyond.
A couple of “sub-camps” within this group:
- Digital Experimentalists — artists experimenting with sound and technology but still taking the rough conceptual framework of music. The art form produced has conventional duration, tends not to be associated with a particular physical manifestation, object, or space and is the kind of thing that you would easily post on SoundCloud. This can be everything from retro 8-bit sound to mapping techniques (the “sonification” of data sets, for example) but for these artists, the emphasis seems to be on an integration of sound, technology within the framework of musical expectations.
- Traditional Experimentalist — like the digital experimentalists but working with sound created by traditional or modified traditional instruments. On the most familiar end of this spectrum even someone like Schoenberg could be called a “sound artist” instead of a musician. Works can be either improvisational or based upon some notation/score. Again, the reason I’d lump these in with the experimental music crowd has to do with the avenues and expectations surrounding performance. The pieces tend to be built to feel like music — its hard to precisely define this but you have the intuitive knowledge that the artist sees her work consisting of “tracks” or longer compositional pieces.
- Found Sound Experimentalists — Same thing as the digital and the traditional, but with sounds found or created in the environment. The main difference between this group and the “field recordings” crowd below tends to be the amount of structure added. If there’s a lot of sampling and mixing and compositional structure to found sound, I’d say the person is working within this tradition.
A branch of the musical tree is represented by the work and the followers of John Cage. I’d give him his own branch (as opposed to lumping him in with the traditional experimentalists) because of his emphasis on what he calls “silence.” This concept (most clearly exemplified by his work 4’33”) serves as the bridge between the experimental musicians and a form of sound art which breaks from the music camp. 4″33″ wasn’t about silence — it was saying that the work of art was the sound being created in the venue during the 4’33” and thus it was as much a piece of conceptual (performance of fluxus) work as anything. Cage himself, obviously, was a musician, but he went further than most of the traditional experimentalists and thus gets his own branch.
2. Field Recordings
Elsewhere I’ve referred to this tradition as “acoustic Ansell Adams,” and I want to make sure I’m not being seen as dismissive with this description. Theoretically, the field recordings crowd seems to have much more in common with photography as an art form than with traditional music. You’ll hear the word “phonography” used a lot in these contexts and that is the way in which it should be understood — as a direct parallel to photography.
3. Sound and Space
I’m on my weakest theoretical ground, here but there does seem to be a distinct sub-genre of artists working in sound and space. Philipsz pops to mind here and much of the artistic effect she seeks to pursue is not the sound in isolation but the sound reflecting (or not reflecting) of elements of the environment. What does it sound like when sound echoes between buildings? What does it sound like when sound is absorbed by muffled hedges or interacts with the waveforms of passing traffic. The conceptual difference here seems to be the creation of a sound and its subsequent interaction with the environment. This is neither field recordings nor experimental music, and thus gets its own category.
4. Semantic Sound
I’m a partisan here and I want to be clear about my agenda: I want what feels to be an under-represented camp — the semantic sound crowd — to have an equal seat at the table. Two artists who might fall (occasionally) within this tradition I’ve written about on this site are Vladan Radovanovic or some of the work of Robb Kunz. In this tradition, the artistic impact of the sound comes from its meaning. This makes it conceptually similar to “word art” and shares some of the synesthetic goals of concrete poetry.
Taxonomies shouldn’t be procrustean beds, but they do help us to understand who shares which assumptions and goals and, hopefully, encourages a healthier dialogue between a group of people who share a passion about a fascinating phenomenon: sound. Other taxonomies might work better and many might prefer to work with no taxonomies at all. For those of us who have their studios ordered into neat rows, they provide comfort.
It makes for a wonderful party.