Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories
by Alan Licht; (forthcoming) Rizzoli, 2007
In the opening paragraphs of his new book, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories, Alan Licht quotes Max Neuhaus saying, “Much of what has been called ‘Sound Art’ has not much to do with either sound or art.” Licht proceeds to deal with the question of what actually constitutes sound art, and how it developed from music, sculpture, cinema, theater and performance to stake a claim as a distinct medium. Although he is careful about distinguishing it from other types of work, Licht is never reluctant to muddy the waters. After positing spatiality (as opposed to temporality) as a defining characteristic, he goes on to discuss examples of spatial composition and recording throughout the history of music, ranging from works by sixteenth-century composer Giovanni Gabrieli on up to Led Zeppelin IV.
Licht’s lavishly illustrated volume examines characteristics of sound art but simultaneously demonstrates why it has been so difficult to clearly delineate the boundaries that separate it from certain kinds of music, sculpture and installation. The history of sound art is the story of a dialogue: composer Morton Feldman explicitly drew inspiration from Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder; Mike Kelley wanted to create “sculpture out of a rock band situation” with Destroy All Monsters; John Cage was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings to create his canonical composition 4' 33", and so on.
Ultimately, Licht concludes that sound art “is indeed between categories,” and so, despite discussing characteristics that might separate it from music or multimedia art, he never gives the reader a precise definition. After reading one short section entitled “What Sound Sculpture Is Not,” I was left wondering why exactly some of the sampling techniques mentioned would not be considered sound sculpture.
There are numerous books dedicated to the topic of sound art but none with either the historical breadth or artistic scope of this volume. The most complete previous attempt (in English) is probably Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art, which covers a range of artists dealing with sound. However, LaBelle’s work is narrowly focused on the interaction between architectural space and sound, and reads more like a treatise trying to expound a philosophical framework than the historical overview of an art form.
Licht, in contrast, never attempts to develop a unifying theory but instead describes a complex history of influences including things as seemingly disparate as the Watergate tapes and sound engineering on the film The Godfather. However, because of this approach, Licht devotes considerable space to topics such as music composed by visual artists at the expense of detailed discussion of works that could be unambiguously considered sound art. For the reader who accepts Licht’s premise—that sound art is truly “between categories”—the volume is a satisfying exploration of the artistic use of sound throughout diverse artistic communities. Readers searching for an unequivocal categorization and exposition on “pure” sound art will be disappointed. However, anyone interested in the medium will have to admit that Licht has made a significant contribution to the available literature on the subject, which is in itself an achievement.
Ben Judson is the Director of Salon Mijangos and a freelance writer based in San Antonio.