Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art

Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art

Reprinted from Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art by Brandon LaBelle, published by The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc. Copyright 2006. All Rights Reserved. Featured here with permission of the author and the publisher.

  • READ an interview with author Brandon LaBelle.


    Brandon LaBelle

    Public Supply: Buildings, Constructions, and Locational Listening

    Aural phenomena are much more characteristically vectorized in time, with an irreversible beginning, middle and end, than are visual phenomena.1

    Traditionally composers have located the elements of a composition in time. One idea which I am interested in is locating them, instead, in space, and letting the listener place them in his own time. I’m not interested in making music exclusively for musicians or musically initiated audiences. I am interested in making music for people.2


    To speak about architecture and sound is to confront a complex situation, for the acoustical possibility of space amplifying, cutting off, or affecting the experience of sound has seen its articulation in a history of “acoustic architectures,” from concert halls, cathedrals, and cinema houses to sound studios and recording facilities.3 The science of acoustics mathematically charts out the potential for creating sound spaces for the experience of listening through construction, proportional exactness, and usage of various materials; in turn, such science may decrease, block out, or thwart sound’s physical presence by deadening reverberation and diffusing vibration. In this way, acoustical experience is always embedded in the conversation of sound and space, as a reciprocal exchange, for sounds are positioned within given spatialities and are thus affected by their materiality, their relation to other spaces, and the general environmental geography. Such effects flow in reverse, for space is partially given definition by the acoustical presence of environmental sounds, whether outside the given space or within, from a space’s own internal infrastructural workings, such as the hum of air-conditioning and ventilation or lighting systems.

    The sound-space interplay is inherently conversational in so far as one speaks to the other—when sounds occur, they are partially formed by their spatial counterpart, and spatial experience is given character by the eccentricities of sound events. This conversational interaction has not gone unnoticed by practitioners, from composers to artists to performers to architects, from Greek amphitheaters to Medieval churches, renaissance cathedrals to recent concert halls, as in the Tokyo Opera City hall designed by Takahiko Yanagisawa4 or the Jean Nouvel concert hall in Copenhagen, both of which utilized advanced technologies in determining acoustical fidelity. While acoustics offers insight into the relational exchange occurring between sound and space, it does so by often remaining “true” to the sound source, in terms of fidelity, or by controlling the more idiosyncratic moments of sound’s emanation and ultimate trajectory.5 Such idiosyncrasies are, in fact, what I am seeking here. It is my intention to engage such interaction by addressing the development of sound installation. To move from the making of a musical object or work to the construction of environmentally and architecturally active “music” entails a shift in compositional and performative approach, for such work incorporates the complexity of acoustical events informed by the presence of a broader set of terms. Sound installation seeks the acoustical conversation so as to chart out new spatial coordinates, to stage relational intensities that often threaten architecture and bodies, and to network spaces with other locations, proximate and distant. The locational intensities charted out by Acconci and Lucier lead out toward a broader social architectural environment cultivated overtly in sound installation, outside the confines of single rooms, staircases, and galleries.

    Beyond acoustical interplay, sound and architecture bring to the fore different sets of terms that oscillate between aurality and visuality, and their differences. Architectural understanding and practice may be seen to operate through a general emphasis on visuality: the rendering of architectural drawings, the continual demand for visual information, the plethora of graphic information architecture generates, amplified in digital software, and the ultimate construction of fixed forms and stable objects, all governed by the logic of sightlines, visuality, and material texture. Architecture is a sophisticated graphic practice.6 In contrast, sound operates through zones of intensity, ephemeral events, immersive and noisy, vibrating through walls, from under floors, from bodies. It operates according to a different notion of borders and perspective—it is unfixed, ethereal, evanescent, and vibratory; whereas architecture is fixed, drawn, charted out, and built. To bring sound into play as an architectural material or experience thus partially counters the inherent dynamic of building, lending to space and the architectural imagination an element of the experiential and sensual immediacy.

    While we may underscore such relations as oppositional or dichotomous, the project of sound installation, and sound art in general, stages the integration of the sonic with the built, nurturing mutuality between sound and space, which at times must also be heard as argumentative, antagonistic, and problematic. Sound installation activates this intersection, intervening with architectural spaces and making sonic additions. Thus, we locate our listening within a spatial scene, drawing the architectural experience into an investigation of acoustical space.

    Sonic Geographies

    It has been my intention to chart out an historical overview of sound’s development as an artistic medium and its particular relation to location and modes of spatiality, so as to uncover sound art’s relational dynamic. In order to do so, I have attempted to continually juxtapose artists with composers, thereby highlighting the often underrepresented crossover between the visual arts and the sonic arts. As has been discussed, from the early 1950s through to the 1970s, sound played an integral part in visual and musical practices, expanding the disciplines of music composition, art installation, and performance practices by utilizing the intensities of aurality, from language and speech, recorded sound, and spatial noise to amplified and acoustic events, within space and inside the ear. With the development of Installation art in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sound is further defined as a spatial and environmental element through sound installation (as already seen in the work of Michael Asher). Sound installation positions a listener inside a complex space defined by a general relation of the found and the constructed. The appropriation of found sound and its location in the making of music, as can be heard in Cage’s work from the late 1940s, and through Fluxus, which sought the everyday as place of artistic experience, can be distinguished from sound installation as it firmly moves away from the time of sound and toward its spatial location. Or, more accurately, it frees up sound’s durational performance to emphasize spatial and environmental conditions. It leads a listener toward the everyday, not by staging a happening but by insinuating itself into the found, so as to heighten spatial perception, bridging music/aurality with questions of site-specificity, exemplified in the works of Max Neuhaus, whose inauguration of sound installation incites an integration of the visual and sonic arts.

    The developments of sound installation provide a heightened articulation of sound to perform as an artistic medium, making explicit “sound art” as a unique and identifiable practice. In bridging the visual arts with the sonic arts, creating an interdisciplinary practice, sound art fosters the cultivation of sonic materiality in relation to the conceptualization of auditory potentiality. While at times incorporating, referring to, or drawing upon materials, ideas, and concerns outside of sound per se, sound art nonetheless seems to position such things in relation to aurality, the processes and promises of audition, and sonic culture. Such potentiality must be glimpsed in the ways in which sound art transgresses the hierarchy of the senses, seeking the dramas of the aural to make objects, create narrative, amplify or unsettle meaning, and invade space. Overlapping and at times drawing from musical culture, the practice of sound art pursues more active relations to spatial presentations, durational structures beyond the concert experience, and within more general public environments that often engage other media, inciting the auditory imagination.7

    Sound installation arises out of the general historical moment in which Installation art gains definition. Though what it adds to such work is the legacy of experimental music and its performative vocabularies, developed by Fluxus and Minimalism. Often credited to Neuhaus,8 sound installation brings together sound and space in a provocative and stimulating manner, often drawing upon architectural elements and construction, social events, environmental noise, and acoustical dynamics, in and out of the gallery, while drawing upon musical understanding. In this way, sound installation replaces the insular domain of musical performance with spatial geographies, the investigations of electronic systems (which Neuhaus was well aware of) and their subsequent noises9 with the conditions of urban space and its planning, positioning a listener inside a greater geographic field.

    In conjunction with the work of Max Neuhaus, artists such as Maryanne Amacher, Michael Brewster, and Bernhard Leitner lend further definition to the field of sound installation, each pursuing sound’s dialogue with architecture, spatiality, and environmental situations in more depth. Such artistic work finds a unique echo in the more overt architectural projects developed by the composer Iannis Xenakis. By following their works, it is my intent to locate sound’s architectural features. While their works arise from within distinct geographic and cultural settings, each contributes to the argument that sound and places are inherently conversational, reciprocally conducive, and actively integrated as a potential sounding instrument. Sound installation thus furthers the relational dynamic of sound by wedding it more firmly to a spatial operation that necessarily extends out, beyond walls and the limits of buildings, while delving further inward, toward the proximity of the skin and the inner soundscape of the mind.



    1. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision, trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia Univer- sity Press, 1994), p. 19.

    2. Max Neuhaus, Max Neuhaus: inscription, sound works vol. 1 (Ostfildern, Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1994), p. 34.

    3. For an important study of early and modern developments of acoustic architectures, see Emily Thompson, The Soundscapes of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002) and Soundspace: Architecture for Sound and Vision, ed. Peter Grueneisen (Basel: Birkhiiuser, 2003).

    4. James Glanz, “Art + Physics = Beautiful Music,” in The New York Times (18 April 2000).

    5. With this in mind, it is important to highlight a few examples in which sound and its spatial architecture create opportunities for exploring the dramas of their exchange. IRCAM, in Paris, and built in 1973, contains a sound studio purposefully designed for spatial definition of sound: sound diffusion through multiple speaker system, and modulated baffles for attenuating and “sculpting” sound, the studio allows for the manipulation of sound through acoustic positioning. In conjunction with IRCAM, the newly opened SARC, at Queen’s University in Belfast, allows for creative and scientific sound manipulation and creation through its sonic laboratory that contain movable acoustic wall panels, flexible ceiling panels that position overhead speaker systems at various heights, and the transmission of audio from below the floor. Another recent acoustic project is Arup’s SoundLab, which allows for acoustic testing for architectural projects. The SoundLab essentially enables a client to actually listen to the acoustic space before it’s been built: through computer modeling and sound distribution, through a twelve-speaker system, a series of “sound scenarios” can be presented in the Lab, from cocktail parties to concerts, enabling adjustments to be made.

    6. In a lecture given at the Bartlett School of Architecture in 2001, Mark Wigley suggested that architects are experts in the field of “typography” because of their understanding of graphic marks to signify and convey meaning.

    7. While sound art has taken a definitive surge in cultural attention in the last five years, I want to underscore that such entrance occurs tentatively and ambivalently. For it seems sound art continues to hold an unsettled place within artistic institutions, which could be said to unearth the impasse between an overtly “visual” institutional structure with an intensely “sonic” medium. Bernd Schulz (curator from the Stadtgalerie Saarbrticken in Germany, whose program of sound art exhibitions started in 1985) provides an interesting observation when he says: “The inexpressibility and cognitive impenetrability of the phenomenal experience make it difficult to secure for sound art the place it deserves in the art world.” (See Bernd Schulz, Introduction to the exhibition catalog Resonances: Aspects of Sound Art [Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer Verlag, 2002], p. 15.) Attributing this to both technical needs required to set up sound work, along with a general mistrust in the media intrusion of sound and musical vocabulary into the museum setting, Schulz points out an ongoing question as to sound’s presence within visual art institutions. This is further echoed in what curator Christine van Assche identifies as a “museological” problem, that of exhibition architecture built to accommodate sound art. (See Christina van Assche, “Sonic Process: A New Geography of Sound” in Sonic Process [Barcelona: ACTAR, 2002], p. 5.) That van Assche has found a solution in the architecture of the “sound studio” as the optimum spatial configuration to which the museum should turn in presenting sound art (as realized in “Sonic Process” which van Assche curated for the Pompidou Centre in 2002) does not so much resolve the issue as skirt its persistence. While the darkened and isolated sound studio may overcome certain problems by lessening interference and sound bleed between respective sound works, it falls short in fostering the full dimensionality of sound art as a complex, rich, and dynamic practice to which interference itself bespeaks.

    8. While it is not my interest to argue who did what first, I do want to highlight that sound installation as a production finds earlier incarnations in the work of Yasunao Tone (discussed as part of Group Ongaku in Chapter 3): his project for the Yomiuri Independent Salon in 1962 (a group exhibition related to the early days of Fluxus) at the Minami Gallery in Tokyo consisted of a tape recorder with a mechanical loop device that played a continuous, recorded sound from under a crumpled sheet of white cloth.

    9. Neuhaus’s work with percussion led him to engage more acutely with electronics as a means to extend the instrument. Between 1964 and 1968, he toured the United States and Europe performing a version of Cage’s Fontana Mix. Coined Fontana Mix—Feed, Neuhaus realized Cage’s work by creating acoustic feedback loops through kettle drums: by placing the drum between a loudspeaker and a contact microphone, turning up the volume on the microphone, and controlling the subsequent loop of feedback, Neuhaus was able to mix four channels of feedback into an orchestra of shrilling, piercing, and surprisingly tonal work. See Max Neuhaus, Fontana Mix—Feed, Audio CD (Milan: Alga Marghen, 2003).

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