Sound Art: A Historical Miscarriage?

by Bret Schneider


In an interview discussing mediums, art historian Harry Cooper noted that painters have always been jealous of musicians because there is such a rich store of technical systems in music, whereas painters only have a pathetic color wheel. Assessing Modernism, Greenberg observed that modernist painting’s success took music as its inspiration, as it possessed a seemingly innate ability to express something both primal and reasoned. However, musical knowledge has advanced so far today as to be nearly impossible to discuss without technical expertise, highly specialized jargon, and second-hand information. Nevertheless, even to the uninitiated, some of the most exciting work being done today falls under the heading ‘sound art’. Yet ‘sound art’ as such has offered little in the way of gripping theoretical substance: it eschews its own medium specificity even as it requires it. Institutionally, it has proven itself a pet fad of contemporary art—so says a founder of sound art himself, Max Neuhaus. One of the first to use sound as a medium in contemporary art exhibitions in the 70s, Neuhaus thought the categorization ‘sound art’ was miserable: after all, we don’t call Anthony Caro a ‘steel artist’ but a sculptor. There are periodic flares of interest in sound art, from top ten lists to comprehensive sound art exhibitions, and yet no one is really certain what this term means, and what the whole thing is about. It seems to exist out of institutional obligation or even charity. It is often a category for leftovers: if a visual artist utilizes sound but it isn’t listenable as music, it is lumped into ‘sound art’, and left alone to fester in that grey area. It is the grey area itself that people are often attracted to, and so the half-baked attempts to build a theory of sound is as necessary as it is undesirable.

The differentiation from music is the most problematic and interesting specter haunting sound art, and has come to be a defining characteristic of sound art. A differentiation began to take form around the 1960s, even though it wasn’t exactly theorized as a ‘sound art’. Certainly, there were the Futurists who used sound in non-musical, ‘arty’ ways, but it wasn’t thought of as an autonomous artistic movement for ‘sound art’, and falls into the category of the many tendentious historical revisionists who “muckrake” art history (to borrow Hobsbawm’s term). Sound art as such originated as a rebellion against the modern theme of time. If modernist music was primarily a time-based medium par excellence, coming to fruition in the leisure free-time of the avant-garde, sound art became primarily about space in post-modernism. Witness the interests of LaMonte Young’s Dream House, Maryanne Amacher’s Music for Sound Joined Rooms, Pauline Oliveros’ recordings in cisterns, the efflorescence of field recordings e.g. Jakob Kierkegaard, Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room, and so on and so on. In retrospect, sound art appears as a movement to cure people of the affliction of time. Whereas modern music developed to the point of raising the awareness of time--Adorno noted that Varese’s compositions often sounded like alarms sounding--sound art has been divided by contradiction: it is on the one hand about therapizing techniques to deal with the modern feeling that there are always alarms going off, while on the other it aims to carry the torch of avant-gardism that once thought to express the feeling of alarm itself. Sound art is a reaction, but also the leftover of music—it is music outside itself, music in exile. Because of this, contemporary sound art usually takes the form of a requiem for modernist music today, but a requiem without a community, or within a broader enlightenment community of disenchantment. See for instance Jennie C. Jones’ or Janet Cardiff’s melancholic installations that dissect rather than reproduce music tradition. But it remains to be seen if sound art is an important or meaningless leftover; if it is mere vestige, like a wisdom tooth that only causes pain, or like T-Rex’s useless arm.

Sound art is only now beginning to show it’s foundational form: in its own moment in the 60s the move towards a spatially oriented sound art was impulsive, it’s theories lacking. It was, in many ways, a reaction against temporal organization by presuming an aesthetic in which no thought developed in time, but only sensation—a sensory aesthetic—could thrive. Ever since, sound art has been successful on it’s own limited, self-undermining terms. As a result, its success is ambivalent: it has proved formulaic in its recourse to vulgar, scientistic ideas of ‘pure sound’ and postmodernism’s latent phenomenological orientations that are now becoming archaic. It's reliance on a purely philosophical assumption about sensation has become a tautology—sound sounds like sound! This means it is also ideological where it attempts to be purely experiential. Sound art’s ideological, historically specific makeup contradicts its claims to a transhistorical phenomenology of sound. But above all, it's abandonment of a concept of development—listeners walk into a seemingly infinite sound space usually—has meant that it's content to reaffirm the mysterious invention of ‘sound’ in the enlightenment age. That this impasse is very real does not contradict the fact that, on the other hand, sound art has cultivated a highly sensible ear for minutiae, and a sharpening of the listening faculty. What this faculty may be good for, however, is hard to say. Because of this, sound art often partakes in the therapeutic, self-enrichment turn of culture more generally--yoga for the ears. What good is it, after all, to be able to listen better? In a world in which art is expected to do more than self-enrichment, the question must be asked.

The common denominator of all sound art as such has become acoustics, and sensory ‘experience’. The way vibrations resonate in a room, the technical means of recording and producing sounds, the psychoacoustics of the ear interacting with the brain, and so forth. Sound art exhibitions so often are illustrations of biological or acoustic phenomena, the kind of demonstrations that one would find in a science museum (e.g. the interest in Chladni patterns). Recently, the anti-intellectualism of sound art’s acoustic, spatial, and therapeutic turn has been challenged, for instance by Seth Kim-Cohen’s ‘non-cochlear’ theory of sound art. Recognizing the impasse, Kim-Cohen follows a contemporary art first principle in Duchamp’s ‘non-retinal’ visual art, with the practical goal being the overcoming of sensorially reductive sound. Nevertheless, it’s pendulum swing to contemporary art’s conceptualist basis has not cultivated more truly conceptual or provocative sound art, but evinces the late academicization of sound art.

Sound art today can be seen as either science demonstrations, or a return to, and exposure of, the foundational ideas of a sonic art. The latter is more interesting, and is probably what is most at stake with the ‘modular revolution’, the practice where there may be an acute ‘art of sound’ as a leftover of music. The past decade has seen a huge industrial boom in modular synthesis, influenced by the post-techno academic turn that thoroughly muckraked (and continues to muckrake) mid-century electronic music labs, expressing a curiosity for foundational principles. This curiosity has exceeded academic research, and broken out into a historical practice mediated by industry: an attempt to refeel a moment. It’s hard to say exactly why it is one of the most interesting things happening today, but it may have something simply to do with the great amount of productive energy invested in the practice globally. I.e., it isn’t about the ‘modularity’ of electronic music per se because this industriousness could have conceivably been invested into other areas, such as tracker programs, flute production, etc. Why this, why now? may be important. Electricity has been known for thousands of years, and electronics as we know it since the 19th century (arguably even more innovative over a century ago). So why in music now, and why is it electronic sound art that aspires to the acute expression of our moment?

The general reactions to Kim-Cohen’s ‘noncochlear’ sound art point in some direction, because on the one hand he was articulating the dullness of acoustical science demonstrations, but on the other his critics were very suspicious of the literary tendency, or the prioritization of the conceptual over the sensory: a false, and postmodern dichotomy. One gets the sense that so many electronic musicians  have pursued what might be considered a sound art practice because there is something ‘scientific’ about it: circuits and mathematical functions don’t lie (or bullshit) the way contemporary art does, but building generative sound compositions—sui generis—is nevertheless a creative and expressive endeavor, far afield from science or math. It’s really about connecting things and constructing. Our closest analogy might be Russian Constructivism, which attempted to radicalize the organization of space, and imagined new visual concepts and tools towards aesthetic ends. It was influenced by mathematical and geometric concepts, but was also very distinct from that history. Or perhaps another analogy would be the open-endedness of connecting things children experience via toys like Kinex or Legos (It’s not nothing that Lissitsky made children’s books). Likewise, electronic musicians have slowly been developing a palette of organizational tools that is highly specific to time and pitch, but also quite playful on its own terms. Such tools are already social and conceptual in nature in their attempt to redeem infantile intelligence, as if adulthood in our society has proven to be a wrong turn. But play also remains an ideal or a task. In our current society play becomes, at least in part, social conditioning for technological domination. It's not really just 'play'. When one thinks of 'play', Schiller comes less to mind than Google's adult playgrounds that are calculated to increase productivity. 'Play' is also a demand or a compulsion, something artists are assigned to do as a distraction from reality. Sound artists today may have more conflicted, and less positive feelings about play. As such, sound artists often have an aesthetic of busywork.

In other words, so many more people perceive something more socially real in electronic fart noises and infantile bleeps than the dinner table prattle of contemporary art’s cultural turn. Sound art today has become more interested in the forms of the sonic sensorium, which is at base also conceptual. A point of comparison might be the early 00s work of the Line or Raster Noton labels to the sound art tape music scene evinced by Phinery. The former was often mediated via sound installations, whereas the latter’s mediation lies more in performance or home listening--it can be considered more concisely ‘formal’. There has been a shift back towards time-based listening. The sound art groundwork laid in the early 00s has allowed a more expressive music to flourish.

Not to mention that industry has a way of pushing productive material forward, for better or worse. It takes industry to create the conditions whereby an aesthetic of sound can emerge. But this polarization of ‘sensory’ and ‘conceptual’ is itself symptomatic: what modern aesthetic philosophers like Hegel and Benjamin advanced was the ‘sensibility of the idea’, as well as the idea of ‘nonsensuous similarity’ respectively. Meaning, these two poles would not be antagonistic, but capable of being unified. The idea would gain substance and practical traction that points beyond itself because it is mediated--here by medium specificity--and not simply a demonstration of itself. It can be said that the current polarization evidences the lack of both ideas and sensory experience. Where sound art is literary, it is in its truly onomatopoetic origins: its ability to imitate, however abstractly. It is not nothing that arty music is experimental in that it has developed a formal palette of primitive utterances: pew, zap, bleep, pft, etc. This is, at best, how it is described, and this in turn is how it reproduces itself.

Likewise, the most interesting claim sound art today might make would be the refeeling of Nietzsche’s ideas of modern art more generally: a synthesis (pun intended!) of science and art. The experimental electronic turn in sound art shows in part a sense of Enlightenment discovery that is in sharp contrast to the many Romantic ideals endemic of contemporary art. The expressive qualities--for instance the sonic humor in Autechre’s music--derive in part from the fact that science, like art, is still enthralled in the growing pains of enlightenment crawling out of prehistory. One thinks of the way Michael Fried analyzes the portrayals of absorption into the discovery of soap bubbles: scientific but in a deranged and playful sort of way. One attraction to modular synthesis and likeminded experimentalism is in the hard empirical nature of electricity as a medium. Electricity in modern practice is very simply about directing current. Even the most dynamic of modular electronic music composition is about voltage being modified in time, and channeled into different directions. But the electrical impulse, despite its scientific aspect, also reaches back into the primalness of experience: Philip Sherburne’s critique of Surgeon’s From Farthest Known Objects as a sort of ‘waveform transmission’ of electrical energy unleashed by the pandora’s box of modernity gets at the relationship of the primordial and the modern. In a sound art like this, the cosmic telos of civilization reaching back to the big bang is aestheticized in our present moment.

To the extent that this can be considered sound art today, it embodies a shift back into the domain of time and history, and very minute decisions on a micro-scale as well as enormous epochal sound masses. As with traditional synthesis, the voltages actual vie with each other (perhaps analogously to the way streams of water converge) to find the path of least resistance. The setting up of systems where voltages are in conflict to find a path forward is a compositional attempt to remove the artist’s hand, and force the mysterious nature of electricity to run its own course as it reacts to a stress imparted by the creative, unnatural concept of bourgeois expression. It is, in layman words, a way of forcing nature’s hand.

Such is the synthetic program staked by a great deal of electronic musicians, but perhaps exemplified by Hecker’s early Sun Pandemonium. While on the one hand it is a basic implementation of Xenakian quasi-scientific concepts, such basic and highly alienated calculations when applied in a deranged society seem to unlock some sort of primordial beast: it is as if the Pandora’s Box of sound was opened and primal auditory spectres have come wailing forth. The wager of sound art is that music tradition in Bourgeois society has kept this box closed rather than prying it open.


The early 20th century saw composers sequencing permutations of all sound material, and so it was possible for e.g. Stockhausen to write an explicit study of time in music (How Time Passes). However, with the spatial turn in critical music towards sound art (e.g. multi-channel spatialization, sound installation etc.), time appears to have passed, if time is also understood as a plaything of modernization. The interest of time as an organizational tool has been truncated, while inevitably being the continuing raison d’etre for anything that organizes sound. The attempt to escape the temporal constraints of music (Amacher) haven’t succeeded in abolishing time, but rather extended the meaning of time. What results in the spatial turn is the longing for time-structures, overdetermined arrangements, and the  hyper-organization of sound. Time appears as a contradiction: to have already passed, creating static or crystallized objects, as well as being an open-ended dynamic process. This condition then also suffers from a repetition or iteration complex: the tendency towards loops and cycle systems is an allegory for a historical moment in which time is paramount. It is the aestheticization of a complex with music history. It is the overdevelopment of music that has pushed it into the clinical white cube, where it is exposed rather than lived. Where it is melancholic and mourning for music, it is actually not mourning for the end of music, as one might expect, but rather the meaningless persistence of music, or the surplus of music. It is mourning for music’s forced enrollment in a barbaric society that knows little other than the weaponization of culture.

Such historical consciousness is the practice of Jennie C. Jones, for instance, when she lines galleries with acoustic absorber panels. Material exists to undermine itself in that it is used to absorb and nullify what has become of (bourgeois) music. It is a self-canceling aesthetic, and creates auditory black holes (or squares), so to speak, in the pathological cultural turn of music. Jones has borrowed from Fred Moten’s concept of the ‘break’, which might be seen as a reconceptualization of the bourgeois form of caesura, albeit today within the broader overdevelopment of culture. Jones has expressed a deep ambivalence about the supposed freedom of music, stating that with black American experience (as essence of American experience) music is all that we have, and yet not enough. “Music is everywhere--it’s drowning us from the street, we listen to it on our phones--so I’m trying to offer something else that’s an alternative to our usual consumption of sound”. Later theories of sound art had proposed that an art of sound would be important because there is so much ambient noise. But this has always been insufficient: the ‘noise’ is nothing other than bourgeois culture overripe and decaying. Sound art here is a moment of pause, a break from culture from within culture. In other words, culture is rounded out as a self-negating phenomenon of our current society. It is a practice like this which poses a challenge to the mass industrialization of e.g. electronic music or jazz, or the attempt to turn sound art into a kitsch workshop complete with all the tools and gadgets one might think up; a sort of deranged Bauhaus. Such tools will add up to very little besides contributing to the current white noise of culture--a white noise that is motivated by the cultural turn’s interest in the antiquated romantic myth that art has the power to move mountains. But this form of sound art is also an outpouring of the overdevelopment of culture as well: it wouldn’t exist without the current general overripeness of art, and in a different historical moment. The Appolonian, ‘scientific’ side of sound art takes such romance to task, and the Dionysian aspect is not the Bacchanalian orgy but rather the mournful requiem in the Dionysian myth when the god parades into the village in silence.

Even in the modular music realm, the more work that is done leads to a more thoroughly empty aesthetic, not a complete one. More completely empty, perhaps. And even in countless online videos of modular synth jungles, the maximalist vision undermines itself: the thousands of sounds are scanned in rapid succession, as if they are being tested and immediately discarded. By analogy, the pulsating intricacies are like thickets of dotted lines, drawing just as much attention to the emptiness in between, and becoming ever more elliptical.  Sound art is just as much about non-experience. William Basinski once described his tape loops as something like burning comets of junk hurtling throughout the night sky, to which one might add ‘the night sky of humanist music history’. That is, 'music' is untouchable refuse that seems to take a life of its own. As long as there is unimportant music everywhere, there will be a sound art that questions and seeks to aestheticize music’s inessential contribution to society. But it is also the case that an art of sound may only finer tune the more petty, unimportant qualities of the music industry, serving as little more than an avant-garde of a cultural lack.



Cover image: Bernhard Leitner



A good intro film on the not-sound-artist sound- artist Max Neuhaus, written and edited by Adel Souto.


Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009): Living sound, for "Sound-joined Rooms" series (1980). 

Maryanne Amacher's Music For Sound-Joined Rooms series utilized architecture to experiment with a unique acoustic form of 'structure-borne sound'.


Jacob Kierkegaard is well regarded for his field recordings at sites such as Chernobyl, but his Labyrinthitis is also influenced by Maryanne Amacher's experiments with the psychoacoustic phenomenon of otoacoustic emissions, wherein the human ear (cochlea) not only receives, but transmits sound. Official stream from Touch. Distributed by Kudos Records.

Carsten Nicolai's Milch features experiments with Chladni patterns.

Carsten Nicolai's Milch features experiments with Chladni patterns.


Richard Chartier's Incidence exemplified a late 90s/00s interest in austere, digital minimalism, implementing tones on the threshold of perception. 

Label: Raster-Noton ‎- r-n 75 Format: CD Country: Germany Released: Nov 2006 

El Lissitsky's children's book, About Two Squares

El Lissitsky's children's book, About Two Squares


Surgeon isn't technically a sound artist, but some of his more experimental post-techno productions make use of sound art sensibilities.


Hecker's Sun Pandemonium (2003) was a watershed for unleashing the potential of granular synthesis, an electronic music technique theorized by Iannis Xenakis decades earlier.


Autechre's Sublimit, from Untilted (2005) is sometimes noted for expressing an uncanny humorous element, while also being a masterful percussive composition.

Installation shot of Jennie C. Jones's paintings using acoustic absorber panels.

Installation shot of Jennie C. Jones's paintings using acoustic absorber panels.

Ben Vida, cover of Damaged Particulates, released on Shelter Press. Like some of the artist's other works, DP features fragments of onomatopoeisis, utilizing both the voice and electronics.

Ben Vida, cover of Damaged Particulates, released on Shelter Press. Like some of the artist's other works, DP features fragments of onomatopoeisis, utilizing both the voice and electronics.