Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art
Buckminster Fuller has pointed out that wars drastically speed up the pace of technological innovation. The upside is that after wars end, those innovations are immediately adapted for civilian use: so it was with the tape recorder. In 1948, the French composer Pierre Schaeffer formulated the theory of musique concrète or tape music. By rhythmic acceleration and deceleration, changing the pitch and dynamics, and modifying the nature of the instrumental timbre, suddenly sound was freed from traditional notation and instrumentation. Like the Russian Futurist’s use of language, sound was freed from its long-held conventions and the field was rife with new possibilities. His “Etude aux Chemins de Fer” from 1948, demonstrates just how much can be done with the mundane sounds of a railway station. The cyclical rhythms inherent in railroading become elements of looped minimalism, whistles become flutes, and what sounds like the wheels on the tracks are transformed into xylophones.
In Cologne at the WDR studios in the mid-1950s, Karlheinz Stockhausen was working toward similar ends using different means: electronic music. His Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) gives an electronic treatment to human voices and alters them in ways that the Russian Futurists could only dream of. In addition to the extensions of the human voice, Stockhausen presented the work through five loudspeaker groups arranged around a concert hall, thus opening up a spatial element to sound art.
The curious thing is that, in general, sound art quietly absorbed these technological breakthroughs into its practice, but rarely made them their content. In fact, artists using sound, in general, tended toward lo-tech rather than high. Take Antonin Artaud, for example. His famously banned radio play, Pour en finir le jugement de dieu (To Have Done With The Judgment of God, 1947), emphasized the more primal aspects of the human body and emotion — the scream, for one. Artaud opened up new modes of performance art that would find their full expression in the body art movement of the 1970s. While the distribution and recording of Artaud’s work embraced technology—the tape-recorder and the radio—technology, per se, didn’t particularly influence his content.
However, technology was crucial to the explorations of the French sound poet Henri Chopin. By manipulating tape recordings of his throat made using contact mics, Chopin was able to manipulate his voice so radically that it sounded more like the abstractions of musique concrète than it did like a voice. Chopin explored the potential of the body itself as sound source, paving the way for a generation of artists exploring the body such as Chris Burden and Karen Finley in the 1970s.