“A sound has no legs to stand on” – John Cage

Sound is very strange stuff. In fact, it’s not ‘stuff’ at all because it has no discernable substance or mass. It’s actually a process, a complicated process – of particles moving, of objects moving, of air moving and, sometimes, liquids moving. You cannot get hold of it, you cannot touch it, you cannot feel it in your hand. It’s not a ‘thing’. Things make sounds, and things have to move to produce sound, but sounds are definitely not things. When a sound has gone there’s nothing left but a memory. It’s like the complex gestures made by a calligrapher’s hand, wrist and arm; there are movements, time passes, something happens. But where a calligrapher’s gestures leave a mark on paper, a physical residue that can be seen, sound moves the air and leaves nothing behind. A sound unfolds in its own time and then it’s gone …. forever. Only a memory survives. And memory fades quickly.

To help the memory, we usually focus on the things that make sound – a guitar, a telephone, a motor vehicle, whatever – rather than sounds themselves. And the things that make sound usually give sounds their name. In the West we generally have no words that name sounds specifically. There is no word for the sound made by a guitar or a telephone or a motor vehicle, so we have to refer to the object that produced the sound to give the sound a name. And, because of this, people do not talk about sounds, they talk about objects that make sounds; they talk about ‘things’ and, consequently, sounds cease to be sounds and they become things.

We find ourselves more concerned with things than with sounds. We become obsessed with what it was that produced a sound; if we cannot identify what made a sound then we become disorientated, disinterested and even distressed. The meaning of a sound is often invested in the object that created it and we put these objects together in our minds to make some kind of narrative. We like stories. If we cannot identify what made a sound it becomes abstract and making meaning can be difficult, we cannot invent a story, or at least it becomes harder to invent a story, and so we have work to do.

To engage with sound, the work that really needs be done is the process of listening. Hearing and listening are not the same. People tend not to listen very much, they hear sound but they rarely listen. Hearing is a physical, physiological, biological process. Sound is (usually) fast moving air. The moving air comes into the ear and moves the ear drum. Inside the ear, the ear drum is connected, via the three smallest bones in the body, to the cochlea and here the mechanical vibrations travelling through the inner ear are turned into electrical signals that are then transferred to the brain via the auditory nerve. Kinetic energy is transformed into electrical energy. This is hearing and this process is going on continuously.

Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties. Hearing is a physical process, listening is a psychological act. And when we listen to sound we are beginning the process of generating meaning with it. If we are listening properly our curiosity is aroused and we might begin to ask questions about the sound; not just the usual questions about what produced the sound but questions about what we are hearing: How loud is it? For how long does it continue? Is it pitched? If it is pitched, how high is it? How low is it? How far away is it? Is it moving? In which direction? How fast? Is it changing? How is it changing? What is changing? And, if there is more than one sound, how many sounds are there? How do they relate to one another? How do individual sounds relate to the mass of sound? There are many, many questions of this type we can ask and, if we ask them, they help us to perceive sounds with greater clarity. This aroused perception generates more detail and raises our consciousness. We have more to say about sound and we can comprehend it in greater detail. All of this may, in turn, help us to generate feelings about what we can hear and it may help to generate meaning from what we are able to hear.

Listening is an art. It is an art just as composing and performing are arts. Listening involves action, we cannot listen and remain passive. If we are passive and uninvolved then we are only hearing. Listening is creative and it is this auditory creativity that has given rise to what is now called sound art.

The term ‘sound art’ is relatively new, it became commonplace only in the 1990s although sound artists had been practicing their art and presenting their work for decades previously. Before the 1990s sound art was usually considered as a type of experimental music or performance, it was work made with unconventional sounds not normally associated with musical performance. The art of putting sounds together was then considered to be the exclusive activity of composers and musicians, although in some quarters the art of sound poetry was well established although it was viewed as an extension of written poetry rather than an art of sound.

The history of sound art has many strands and threads and they don’t join together neatly at one convenient source like the branches of a tree. Tradition plays an important role here. Some sound artists feel an affinity with traditions firmly rooted in music, others associate themselves with the fine arts, with sculpture, installation, performance art and conceptual art. Some are connected with the spoken word, with poetry, text and the voice. There is a tradition rooted in environmental concerns, noise pollution and ecology. Soundscape composers use sound to articulate something of the characteristics of a particular place or places. Radio and broadcasting have established their own traditions within the broad sweep of sound art. Some sound artists also work in film, video and photography. And, of course, there are sound artists, many sound artists, working across these traditions, borrowing ideas, aesthetics and techniques to make work that refuses to be neatly categorised or labelled. So the various threads of sound art weave together rather like the fabric of a tapestry and unpicking them into historical strands can be quite difficult.

But there is one place mentioned time after time whenever the history of sound art is discussed – Italy. Here, in the years just before the First World War, the Futurists were hard at work. They were a group of artists, writers and musicians who were embracing the radical changes that were sweeping into modern life in the early 20th century. They celebrated the dynamics of the mechanical age, the bustle and speed of the city and they particularly celebrated noise. They were given to producing brash manifestos, often boastful and flamboyant, and their performances frequently ended up in chaos with divided audiences brawling in the streets. Although the Futurists had their composers and musicians it was a painter, Luigi Russolo, who wrote the manifesto ‘The Art Of Noises’ in 1913. Here he berated the limitations of the modern orchestra –

“ …. musical sound is too limited in its qualitative variety of tones …. This limited circle of pure sounds must be broken, and the infinite variety of ‘Noise-Sound’ conquered … we find far more enjoyment in the combination of the noises of trams, backfiring motors, carriages and bawling crowds than in rehearsing, for example, the ‘Eroica’ or the ‘Pastoral’ [symphonies by Beethoven].”

A few years later, in the middle of the First World war, in 1916, in cafés and galleries in Zurich, another iconoclastic group were developing their own art of sound. These were the Dadaists and a few key protagonists presented work that had not been heard before. One artist, Hugo Ball, described one of his performances –

“I wore a special costume designed by Janco and myself. My legs were encased in a tight-fitting cylindrical pillar of shiny blue cardboard which reached to my hips so that I looked like an obelisk. Above this I wore a huge cardboard coat-collar, scarlet inside and gold outside, which was fastened at the neck in such a way that I could flap it like a pair of wings by moving my elbows. I also wore a high, cylindrical, blue and white striped witch-doctor’s hat …. So, as an obelisk cannot walk, I had myself carried to the platform in a blackout. Then I began slowly and majestically,

“gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomni …”

This was too much. Recovering from their initial bafflement at this totally new sound, the audience finally exploded.”

Although he was in costume, and there was crude lighting, the focus of his performance was on the sounds he made. He was telling no story, this was not narrative theatre but it was a theatrical presentation of sound. The whole purpose of his being there was to make sound and the sounds were unlike anything the public knew.

Between 1922 and 1932, Kurt Schwitters, another artist associated with Dada, composed the Ursonate, a piece for solo voice that is neither singing nor speaking. It’s over 40 minutes long and has some conventional musical structure – strong and weak rhythms, repetition, loud and quiet passages – but it comprises vocal utterance, vowels and consonants, invented words that make no sense. It is sound art.

The person who, within living memory, did the most to make possible what we now call sound art was the American composer John Cage. He was born in 1912 and worked with sound until the day he died in 1992. His early work was firmly rooted in the traditions of Western classical music, he studied with Arnold Schoenberg and he thought of himself as a composer. But he quickly moved beyond the confines of conventional musical structures, bound up with pitch and harmony, and was soon advocating a ‘music’ made with any sounds at all. In 1937 he wrote –

“I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music, produced through the aid of electrical instruments, which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard …. The present methods of writing music, principally those which employ harmony and its reference to particular steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will be faced with the entire field of sound.”

Cage’s most notorious piece is commonly known as ‘4’ 33”’. It is in three movements (a very conventional Western musical structure) and the notation for each movement simply reads ‘Tacet’. This is the musical term meaning ‘Be silent’. Cage is asking the performer to be silent for three consecutive movements. The piece does not instruct the performer to ‘do nothing’ (a common misconception) but it does require the performer to ‘be silent’. During the first performance, in 1952, the pianist, David Tudor, indicated the passage of the three movements by closing the piano lid at the beginning of each movement and opening it at the end. Hopefully he made no sound. But there was plenty to hear. Four minutes thirty three seconds is quite a long time, for an unsuspecting public, to sit and listen. The sound of the audience twitching, coughing and nervously shuffling filled the space and sounds drifted into the auditorium from outside. Cage had outlined a situation in which sound could be heard but he had no control over those sounds. The conventional roles of composer, performer and listener had been completely subverted. It was difficult to say who was the composer or who was the performer or who was the listener. The listeners were making the sounds so, in conventional terms, they were the performers. The performer, David Tudor, was also a listener. The composer had no hand in crafting what was heard, this was done entirely by the listeners, so, in effect, they were the composers. Cage had turned conventional music making inside out. In 1955 he wrote –

“Composing is one thing, performing is another, listening is yet a third. What can they have to do with one another?”

He questioned all the traditions and conventions of Western music and its established purposes and functions. He devised many techniques for composing, most of them involved the use of chance – especially the consultation of the I-Ching – to determine structural relationships between sounds. And he advocated an art of sound saying, “Don’t call it music if the term offends you.”

In the late 1950s Cage taught a class in experimental music at the New School For Social Research in New York. Those attending his class were not all musicians, there were artists, poets, theatre performers and others. Some of those in the class went on to be key figures in ‘Fluxus’, a loosely knit artistic movement which seemed to spring up in several countries simultaneously. Many Fluxus artists were concerned with ‘internedia’, the tiny gaps between different disciplines. They were very much influenced by previous iconoclastic art movements – Futurism, Dada, Surrealism – as well as contemporary practice in music, theatre and poetry.

The painter George Brecht was one of Cage’s pupils and a senior protagonist of Fluxus. His Water Yam is a jumbled box of cards, of different sizes, that contain short texts with instructions for performances – usually related to sound. The card labelled Drip Music instructs the performer to arrange a source of dripping water and an empty vessel so that the water falls into the vessel. The second version simply says ‘Dripping’. The only instruction in Concert For Orchestra is ‘(exchanging)’. The text/score for 3 Piano Pieces is ‘● standing ● sitting ● walking’. Air Conditioning instructs the performer to ‘( move through the place )’. Interestingly, this pre-dates a series of pieces, realised between 1966 and 1968, by Max Neuhaus (also associated with Cage) entitled Field Trips Thru Found Sound Environments where an audience, who were expecting a conventional concert, were bussed away from the venue, had the word ‘LISTEN’ stamped onto their hands and were guided through a sonically rich location – a power station, a busy street, etc. This is a pre-cursor of the ‘sound walk’ a form of sound art practice commonplace today.

La Monte Young was another student in Cage’s experimental music class. He later became well known for his work with extended duration – pieces that last several weeks, of not months or years! – and immaculately constructed tuning systems based on prime numbers. Like George Brecht, some of Young’s work operates at the threshold of the real and the imaginary. His Composition 1960 # 5 calls for a butterfly (or any number of butterflies) to be turned loose in the performance space. He presumed that butterflies made sounds, this is not a conceptual piece, it is simply very quiet.

There are strands of sound art threaded through conceptual art. The Dadaist Marcel Duchamp introduced the idea of, what he called, ‘non-retinal’ art – the art of ideas rather than the art of visual images and when artists moved beyond the art of the visual it was inevitable that sound would become part of their work. In 1969 Bruce Nauman proposed the following – “ Drill a hole into the heart of a large tree and insert a microphone. Mount the amplifier and speaker in an empty room and adjust the volume to make audible any sound that might come from the tree.” Like La Monte Young’s piece, this piece suggests sound but precisely what might be heard is uncertain. Similarly, the score of Tape Piece I by Yoko Ono reads ‘Stone Piece. Take the sound of the stone aging’. This is poetic and conceptual and refers to sound, it suggests sound rather than directly presenting anything that can be heard. And because it is a tape piece its realisation also involves sound recording.

Perhaps the single most significant force that has driven the possibilities and development of sound art, and indeed almost anything connected with sound, was the invention of sound recording. Recorded sound, pouring from loudspeakers, is now so commonplace that it is hard to imagine what life was like without it. Things must have been much quieter. Sound recording is modern magic, it captures and stores something that has no mass, no substance and no clear physical form. It allows a fleeting moment a life after death. When a sound is recorded it doesn’t disappear forever, it can be heard again and again – although the process of recording, and playback, changes the sound very slightly. This opportunity for repetition enables close scrutinization, analysis and a revelation of inner detail that may well be hidden in a single listening. When a sound is recorded, the recording medium has the effect of transforming the sound into a physical thing – a few centimetres of tape, a series of grooves on a phonograph disc, magnetic patterns on a hard disk, etched patterns on an optical disk or whatever. Manipulation of the recording medium – cutting, splicing, speeding up, slowing down, reversing direction of travel, etc – causes changes in the sound. In this way sound can be treated as though it really is physical stuff, almost as if it did have a tactile physical form like clay or paint. It ceases to be untouchable, ethereal and forever out of reach, artists can now hold it, pull it around and play with it. And, by radically transforming the sound, they can make totally new sounds, sounds that do not exist in nature, sounds that have never been heard before. A whole new world opens up.

It was this new world that Pierre Schaefer inhabited in 1948. He was the inventor of musique concrète – the art of recorded sound. He was a radio engineer, not a trained composer, and, in his studio in Paris, he worked with recorded sound making pieces that, at the time, must have sounded like something from another world. By cutting and splicing and reversing and changing speed he was able to make sounds that previously did not exist. Today, using computers, new sounds can be made with the click of a mouse but, in the late 40s, it had never been done before. It is hard to imagine quite how the listeners responded; it must have been like seeing new colours or objects beyond our imagination.

While Schaeffer worked in Paris, the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was working, in Cologne, with sounds made electronically. He too was making sounds that had not been heard before, but he was fusing together pure sine tones – the atoms and molecules of all sounds – to make these new sounds. In those days it took months and months of daily labour to make pieces that lasted only a few minutes. But the effects of these new sound worlds are still being felt today.

Sound recording did not just open up a world of new sound, it also enabled artists to capture, document and work with existing sound – the everyday sounds of the environment. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the work of John Cage had opened the ears of the listening public. The idea that all sounds could be included in music making became more acceptable and this made some people more aware of sound. In the late 1960s the Canadian composer and teacher R. Murray Schafer noticed that children with whom he was working had little awareness of sound; because of the dominance of what he called ‘eye culture’ their listening skills had become greatly diminished. He devised a number of exercises to encourage and develop the art of listening and wrote books for teachers one of which is entitled Ear Cleaning. In the early 1970s Schafer, and others, began work on The World Soundscape Project by undertaking detailed documentation and analysis of the soundscape of the city of Vancouver. In the course of his work Schaefer devised terminology to classify what could be heard and how individual sounds occupied a place in the great mass of sound making up the soundscape. This commitment to listening and the environment has given rise to what is now often called ‘acoustic ecology’ – a neat, convenient term covering a broad range of work.

‘Soundscape’ composition is also a term becoming more commonplace and again is rooted in engagement with listening and the unique sonic characteristics of a particular place or places. Soundscape artists work with the sounds of rooms, streets, factories, markets, the open countryside, the highest mountain tops and the deepest oceans. With the sounds of people, animals, birds, fishes, insects and plants. Weather, wilderness and sounds at the edges of outer space. Pieces are presented as installation in a gallery, as music in a concert setting, on CD, on the radio or on the Internet; in any situation where sound art is made public. Although the recorded sounds maybe transformed, some degree of recognisability is important so that the listener’s knowledge and experience of the sounds contributes to the meaning of the work.

The multiple threads of sound art practice weave a fabulously rich tapestry. It celebrates the ear in a world that we mostly perceive with our eyes. Language, our tool for thought, is very much orientated towards what we can see. Sound art encourages us to listen, it sharpens the ears and the imagination and so develops what it is to be human.

© 2006 Robert Worby

This text originally appeared in Sound and the City, published in Beijing and London, by the British Council.