Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art
Steve Reich began his work with language. And to this day, he’s never stopped using it. Early on, by using tape loops, he managed to do something with the voice that had never been done before. In pieces like Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain (both from 1965), Reich merged the pioneering technical work of Pierre Schaeffer with the repetition of Gertrude Stein. Come Out begins with a sound sample of Daniel Hamm, then 19, describing a beating he took in Harlem’s 28th precinct station. By swiping a snippet of Hamm’s speech—”come out to show them”—and playing it simultaneously on two reel-to-reel tape-recorders which gradually fell out of sync with each other, what began as “transparent” speech was gradually (and organically) transformed into an echoed abstraction.
A few years later, Alvin Lucier extended Reich’s work with language. Although he used a different method, the process by which he transformed his speech and the resulting work, was strikingly similar. I Am Sitting In A Room (1970) is a process piece whereby the artist utters a series of sentences describing exactly what he is doing into a tape recorder in an empty room. The resultant recording is played back into the room and re-recorded, then played back again and re-recorded, and so forth; what he ends up with is a wash of abstraction, sounding more like electronic music than speech.
La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela took the idea of using a room as filter and pushed it in another direction by literally devising a playable room. Begun in 1979, his Dreamhouse contains sine-wave generators in the corners of the room that emit identical tones. Depending on where you stand in the room, the sounds change. Tilt your head to the right, the sounds change; tilt it to the left, it changes again. The room can be full of people, each one adjusting to the room as they see fit, all hearing a different song.
The West Coast artist Terry Fox also made situational music, using history as his filter. From 1972 to 1978, Fox made works based on the labyrinth that is set into the stone floor at the Cathedral at Chartres in France. Various sculptures and drawings emerged from this body of work but my favorite is a sound work, “The Labyrinth Scored for the Purrs of 11 Different Cats,” which is literally the sound of eleven purring cats all layered on top of one another. The way he structured his composition of cat purrs was based on the form of the labyrinth at Chartres. It’s an aural translation of a physical experience; in art terms, it’s called a “displacement,” much like Robert Smithson sticking a mirror into a pile of rocks to reflect a shard of blue sky. Like much of what’s been discussed here, it ends up sounding more like electronic music than it does like the source from which it’s derived. To my ears, the purrs sound like car engines, particularly the sound the old Volkswagens used to make, or humming machinery. It’s gorgeous stuff and one recording of it goes on for nearly an hour. This piece, too, has prompted strong reactions from WFMU listeners.
The minimalist musicians, unable early on to find venues in established concert halls, often found themselves performing in art galleries and museums, thereby attracting a large following of painters and sculptors. John Cage, too, said that in the 1950s, his audience was primarily visual artists; the music world was not interested in his brand of radical innovation. So it was no surprise that the artists themselves began working with sound in similar ways. In 1969, the artist Bruce Nauman made a record called Record of him playing violin. Now, Nauman really didn’t know how to play violin in the traditional sense — he had no formal training, but that wasn’t going to stop him. He made some wonderful video tapes of himself fulfilling simple tasks on the instrument such as playing two notes together as close together as he could. What emerges is microtonal music made not by a composer intentionally out to explore microtonality, but as the results of a performance. Nonetheless, it sounds a lot like Tony Conrad‘s Four Violins.
A whole generation of artists working in process-oriented ways took it upon themselves to create soundworks. Vito Acconci recorded himself jogging and counting for an hour. Roman Opalka recorded himself counting numbers while he painted the numbers he was recording. There are dozens of such works, all of which crossover with the kind of music that was simultaneously being explored by Downtown composers.
The legacy of these sound artists found its most fruitful legacy in the work of a group of art grad students from CalArts in the 1970s known as The Poetics. Mike Kelley (who was in the Detroit-based punk band Destroy All Monsters as an undergraduate), Jim Shaw, Tony Oursler — to name a few — all went on to major gallery careers whilst simultaneously exploring the role of sound. Their work is best documented by a three-disc set, Listening to Poetics: Remixes of Recordings 1977-1983, which contains dozens of short cuts ranging from electronic music to Shaw and Oursler’s spoken dreamscapes. Kelley would go on to perform with Sonic Youth in the mid-’80s in a piece called, “Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile” (an excerpt can be found on UbuWeb). All of Kelley’s recorded output can be obtained through his label, Compound Annex. (Simultaneously in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Free Music Society was in full-force, covering much of the same ground as The Poetics, with a blend of proto-punk rock, tape loops, and musique concrète, all filtered through Hollywood B-grade movie culture.)