Ever heard of sound art? If yes, how would you describe it to somebody who doesn’t know what it is? Your answer might differ a lot from what other people say when asked the same question. Even though it sounds quite simple – art that involves sound – it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint what it really is.
Early sound art
Ever since the beginning of this phenomenon, it has been hard to tell whether sound art should be classified as music or visual art. Especially since artists and musicians often mix it with visual media.
Some of its roots can be traced back to the early 1900s when Luigi Russolo built noise machines called Intonarumori. He was convinced that machine noise, traffic noise, and other noises could be just as beautiful as music. Basically, Russolo was interested in learning how the sounds of everyday life affect us.
But it was not until the early 1980s that the concept got its name – sound art – at an exhibition in New York at The Sculpture Centre.
Common factors in sound art
To find out what people normally mean when they talk about sound art, we need to know the common factors that make it possible to identify something as sound art.
Most sound art includes both visual things and sounds. It can be sculptures that make sounds, for example. It can also be sonic art, like when somebody uses the electric signals from plants to make music.
The line between music and sound art is often quite thin. But one thing that often separates them is the time frame. Music has a set time limit. A song you hear on the radio might be three minutes long, while a symphony can last for 1,5 hours. But you always know that there is an ending. Meanwhile, a sculpture producing sounds with the help of the wind may keep going on and off forever and could for that reason be classified as sound art, not an instrument.
Even though it’s hard to describe what sound art is, it’s often identified by being an installation or a performance that combines sound and visual factors that cannot be classified as traditional art or traditional music. It is created to stir emotion and often comes across as innovative and inventive, even playful.
Examples of modern sound art
To give you an idea of what sound art is, we’re going to look at a few examples.
The Singing Ringing Tree
This sculpture is situated in Lancashire Pennine Hills, England, and is made from tubes. The shape resembles a tornado. When the wind blows into the tubes, sound is produced.
In 2010, the Glaswegian sound artist Susan Philipsz won the British Turner Prize. This was the first time a sound installation ever was nominated for this art prize. Lowlands was performed under three bridges in Glasgow. It features a Scottish lament about a man who drowned at sea.
The Wave Organ in San Francisco uses PVC pipes to create sounds from the waves of the ocean. Peter Richards, who wanted to create it, teamed up with George Gonzales who built the organ from old cemetery stones.
As technology advances, we are going to see more and more sound art. As things stand, it is sometimes hard to tell if something is sound art or music, or maybe even just regular art. But chances are that it will become clearer with time. Meanwhile, let’s just enjoy what other people have created and not get hung up on words!
Did you find this brief discussion on sound art interesting? In that case, you should definitely check out our new book on the history of electronic music, where we also bring up the topic of sound art.