Sunday, June 22, 2008

why listen to sound art?

Richard Lerman "Border Fences" installation

Note: This is partially written for people who are not very familar
with sound art and will hopefully spark some interest for further
investigation. I consider this an article in progress, so it is by no
means finished and will undergo periodic editing.
After the article is a short list of links for further research.
Thank you very much for your time.


With all the intense events that we read about in the news,
it seems apparent that basic survival remains the number one
priority for most humans, even in a world where it seems like so
many advances to alleviate such a concern have been made.
Granted, in many cultures where such advances have somehow
elluded them, they "make do" with what they have, which is all
any of us can do anyway, yet it must be noted that "advances"
for one culture don't always mean the same thing for another.

For those of us who have access to certain technology, and the
means to obtain it, we also have access to a staggering variety
of "personal inspiration resources" at our disposal as well. One
kind of resource that many of us turn to is music. That being
the case, one would have to wonder why a current era individual
would want to limit themself to just one or two types of music.

Fortunately, there has been a steadily growing number of people
who are tired of the old "music = commodity" paradigm and
have found themselves wandering far outside the societal box
in search of something that speaks to them in different ways
and in turn, opens their minds to alternative possibilities that
they never knew existed. Somewhere along the way, one will
eventually run into what is sometimes refered to as "sound art".
Other terms such as "avant-garde" or "experimental music"
have been used as well.

To clarify, I will paraphrase Wikipedia with the following

description: Sound art is a diverse group of sonic art practices
that considers wide notions of sound, listening and hearing as
its predominant focus. This might require a shift in perception
for a listener because at first it might seem very strange and
alien from what they were raised to think of as "music".
What the Wikipedia definition points to is a mindset that
considers all sound has having the potential of being enjoyed
as music (whether it's organized by humans or not). In this
light, anyone trying to proclaim that particular sounds are
"not music" are expressing an entirely subjective opinion.

As with visual art, there are many different levels of sound art
which can range from people recording and assembling sounds
in their bedroom, to people writing music for academically
trained ensembles to perform. It is not my intention to go into
the history of sound art. Instead, what I would like to bring
attention to is why people listen to sound art, and for those
who have not yet delved into much of it, briefly discuss why
one would even want to listen to some of it.

The reasons for listening to sound art are more numerous

than one might realize. It can provide a particular "spice" to
our personal atmosphere, a "soundtrack" for various aspects
of our lives - our moods, imagination, creativity, and leisure
activities (i.e. reading, hobbies, etc) that no other type of
music might do. Of course, some artists reading this might
cringe at this utilitarian line of thought, but they should
understand that artists can't expect everyone to have time
to drop everything they're doing and sit inside a sound proof
room to completely focus on an artist's work. One beauty of
sound is that it doesn't have to prevent people from doing
other things while they are experiencing it. In fact, some of
my best listening comes when I am doing graphic design work,
and it obviously inspires what I'm doing as well.

So sound art should not appeal only to art professionals and
CD / record collectors. Nor should it go ignored by people
who've been raised to believe that anything without a beat
and melody is not music. In fact, some sound art does have

these traits, and many have used this as an entry point to
delve into more challenging work later. As a curator of a
recording label myself, it's been a personal mission to help
open people's minds and ears to listen to a wider variety of
sound than that which is officiated, sponsored and promoted
by corporate and academic establishments, and this goes
the other way around as well. Artists (or anyone else for
that matter) shouldn't feel embarrased to admit that they
pull out a Madonna CD right after listening to Francisco Lopez.
In fact, the semi-regular "office ambience" list that I post on
the a/O MySpace blog clearly illustrates what I'm talking about.
Bottom line: It's all good. It's all sound.

Further Research:
UBU Web:
What Is Sound Art? - article and interviews:


Jeremy Bible said...

Its interesting you post this today as the thought of how to explain the appreciation of sound as a form of fine art was on my mind this weekend after performing at a local 'arts' event and being asked if the intention of our work was to make people uncomfortable. I am planning on doing some writing on the subject myself but until then I have a few unorganized thoughts to share.
Its difficult for me to understand how the same people that can appreciate abstract visual art can't understand, approach, and appreciate sound as a valid medium of abstract expression. Sound, in my opinion just might be the most expressive medium for creative outlet. And maybe that is the issue...maybe sound is so expressive and has the ability to impact one on a level that many cant handle...therefore making them uncomfortable.
Decades of pop music overload seem to have sensitized the general population's auditory perceptions to only be able to decode traditional musical structures limiting its enjoyment and degrading its value down to strictly social lubricant.
I honestly feel that auditory stimuli is taken for granted. We seem to live in a time where most crave constant visual stimuli and disregard their other senses.

and/OAR said...

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for reading and thanks for your comment! This helps me re-evaluate some of the text and better clarify what I'm trying to say.

I've had the same exact questions regarding people involved with not only visual arts, but with film as well. Some of them can appreciate arthouse films or challenging visual art, yet when it comes to sound, their mind shuts off.

I tend to see evidence that the big factor as to why people might not "get" experimental music has to do with how people are raised and to a certain extent, how they are conditioned to think. Many people might like to consider themselves free from the so-called trappings of how they were raised, but usually there are still some minor biases that were instilled from a young age.

I mentioned listening to sound art while doing other things because a lot of people do have a hard time just settling down and listening to music. However, many people tend to watch a lot of TV, so this alone would prevent any interest in expanded listening.

Maybe I should pose this question to the Sound Art list group and see if I get any more reasons why people like to listen to it, so I can add them to the article. Maybe the bottom line with sound art is that it's "art that you can use"?


billy gomberg said...

Maybe the bottom line with sound art is that it's "art that you can use"?

hi dale,

I'd really like to see this idea expanded upon!

other notes (besides a general "well put. we do need more thought and writing along these lines."

Something you touch upon that hadn't occurred to me is a lack of "training" needed to enjoy sound art/experimental music. One of the things that many find daunting about anything labelled "experimental" is that they won't be "in" on the work as they haven't had the necessary schooling to "get" it. I feel there is much contemporary sound work that even benefits from a listener's naiveté - even a passive listening experience can yield minor wonders.

lots of ideas to think on here....


and/OAR said...

Hi Billy,

Well, I think a "problem" some people might have about art in the current age of "busy-ness", is that it might seem like it demands too much of their time in order to experience it. This is where sound art has an advantage and this is why I think the phrase "art you can use" is appropriate. Music is more than something you hang on the wall and occasionally look at. Sound can permeate a space and enhance a person's mood, imagination and effect a general state of mind while they are doing other things.

About a year ago, I started to explore labels like Hic Sunt Leones and Amplexus because I heard something in some of their releases that felt like something I needed. We all have some kind of music that puts us in a particular mental frame that we like to be in. It's like comfort food. I think this might be one reason why drone and ambient music is so popular. Some of it can place people inside a protective mental space - like a "womb".
Drone music is also very similar to nature in terms of vibratory fields and resonance. I suspect that this otherwise simple music speaks to people's DNA without them realizing it.

As for what you mentioned about people feeling like they need education to listen to sound art, I don't know where they get that idea, but it's not true at all. All they have to do is listen. If they don't like it, then they should move on to the next thing. That's what everyone does anyway.
Even with what I release on the label. If I'm not moved enough by the end result of a demo, or the sonic aspect doesn't intrigue me enough to want to read about it, then that's all I need to know to make a decision.

Even if a person likes what they hear, there is no reason to learn more about the artistic process or history unless they are naturally interested for some reason. Do people need to know art history
in order to appreciate a painting by Rothko or Magritte? No, of course not. Exposure is the most important factor. Once exposed, they decide for themselves whether or not they want to pursue something. If they are raised in an environment that doesn't expose them (or encourage them) to investigate something, then they obviously won't know about it until they leave and/or meet others who know about it.