Composer vs. Sound Artist

Whether we are trained as composers, media artists, or visual artists, when working with electroacoustics we all are using similar technologies and looking for suitable venues for our work. And while there still exists some confusion about the differences between music, soundscape, and sound art, for the purposes of this post I am thinking of them in the following ways. Music is best experienced from beginning to end—in general, composers intend that their work be experienced in its entirety. Soundscapes may be experienced from beginning to end, but in general this is a much looser requirement, as it is often possible to get the piece without experiencing all of it. Sound art is experienced in a gallery, museum, or site-specific location where the creator cannot control how much time a listener spends with the piece.

While it may be possible to communicate many things through a piece of music, the only thing a composer fundamentally communicates to any initiated listener is the music’s form—the particular structure of the interactions of its sonic parts. Each composer’s approach to form constitutes a critical element in creating his/her style, and that approach may be highly structured or may be highly intuitive, but usually involves both. Often musical form has to do with an assumed ability in one’s listeners to remember musical details, or a conscious reaction against the need for memory (aleatoric music, for example).

Sound art is a time-based art, but while composers create movement in time that becomes music, sonic artists create sound objects that move in time. Whether it exists in performance or in exhibition, there are dramatic differences between the work that one creates for these venues, whether we choose to call it music, sound art, or soundscape. But for composers there is always memory and for artists there is always the object. I think that soundscape falls in between. While we share color, duration, frequency, and amplitude, we enter the work with fundamentally different concepts of the whole.

The environment in which one experiences these art forms also constitutes a radical difference: music resounds in the concert hall and sound art resounds in the museum and gallery. Soundscape and sound art are not necessarily intended to be listened to from beginning to end, and so the creators do not shape them formally as the composer must in a piece of music. When these boundaries are crossed—when music is exhibited as a “walk-thorough” form, when sound art is performed for a seated audience in a concert hall, and when composers and artists are unaware of the difference—they thwart the communication of the work.

30 thoughts on “Composer vs. Sound Artist

  1. dalgas

    I rummaged around & found a quote from an interview with Francis Dhomont, on of the greatest influences on modern electroacoustic music:

    One of the reasons [I call my music "sound art"] is that in the past 25 years the public, the people who listen to our art, don’t believe that what we do is music. They ask, “Why don’t you make real music?” It’s because of this that I asked myself the question, and I think it’s better to say that we make art. It’s more “sound art” than it is “music”. People perceive it this way also, because it involves noise and other sounds, not articulating a musical language. Therefore, removing the word “music” and replacing it with “art” made the statement much clearer. Art can be something new. I consider that what I do is music, but I find it boring to always answer the question of why we don’t do real music. In the people’s mind, music has a lot of tradition and historical background, a lot of dimension, such as people on stage, a manuscript, melody, harmony, a beat, and instruments. None of those things are present in electroacoustic music. The word art can always be redefined, and is much more broad – it leaves the door open. (Laughing) Many of my colleagues don’t agree with me on this, maybe because they think that the word “music” is more noble, and also because there might be performing rights concerns. The performing rights societies might not decide to represent that art form.

    I also can’t help but think of this Stockhausen quote:

    Electronic music has liberated the inner world, for one knows that there is nothing to be seen outside oneself, and that there can be no sense in asking with what and by what means the sounds and acoustical forms are produced… The inner world is as true as the outer.

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    Its interesting Linda that you title your post about the differences between electroacoustic composers and sound artists this way.

    Are they at odds?

    They must be in some ways as they both compete for many of the same grants, fellowships, and jobs.

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  3. rtanaka

    Looks like Stockhausen slipped a little bit into solipsism at that point. No wonder he managed to convince himself that he was from another planet — he never wanted to believe that he outer world ever existed. I’m guessing that this point of view has a lot to do with growing up in Nazi Germany and watching the world destroy itself — there was a reason for people to have the desire to escape humanity during those time periods. Electronics allow for the possibility of eliminating the performer all together as well, which I think is related.

    One interesting thing probably worth pointing out is the effect that the Space Race had on electronic music. During the Cold War, funding for humanities studies were dwindling in favor of scientific ones, and there was a strong pressure for the arts to “scientificize” their work. The theories of integral serialism often read like science papers, I think, to give it that type of feel. (Even if the numbers don’t really mean anything in themselves.) Along with that, a boom in electronic and computer musics, largely funded by government institutions.

    But now that synthesizers are available to pretty much everyone (and often cheaper than acoustic instruments) what kind of stuff do we write now?

    Reply
  4. dalgas

    I’m not sure you’re getting the K.S. quote OK, Ryan. The whole statement is specifically in relation to the electronic medium. That for the listener there’s no performer, no instrument to watch being played, no hall to sit in (even though each of these may be present at some point or other). There doesn’t need to be anything moderating the direct contact of sound and listener; the “inner life” of the listener creates its own image of what the piece is, in concert with the pure sound itself.

    As someone who’s spent a good thirty years with this medium, it seems a particularly apt and beautiful description of one way to approach this kind of work.

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  5. rtanaka

    I think I understand what it means — striving for “pure” sound, right? Stockhausen’s and your statements aren’t in conflict with what I said, really — that part of the point was to dehumanize music from both the process and its perception. This is a fairly common sentiment that you find among modern art (not just limited to music), especially among the avant-garde.

    Reply
  6. dalgas

    Where do you get the idea that any of this is about dehumanization, Ryan? There’s *none* of that in what Stockhausen was saying. On the contrary, it’s an intensely humanistic experience. The whole of this kind of music’s reality is interior.

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  7. rtanaka

    Stockhausen sez: …for one knows that there is nothing to be seen outside oneself….You say: …reality is interior.

    This is solipsism, which is an idea which has been around a very long time, despite it being disproven over and over since the beginnings of philosophical inquiry. It’s dehumanizing mainly because it refuses to acknowledge a world outside of an individual’s own perspective, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch to speculate that such an attitude can lead to a self-centered, egomanical, out-of-touch-with-reality type of existence. And let’s face it, these things describe the composer’s personality fairly well…all I’m doing is connecting the dots.

    Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of psuedo-Zen management self-help books which often say the same thing as above. “It’s all in your mind”, “reality is just an illusion”, “outcomes don’t matter”. Course all of these have nothing to do with the core teachings of Buddhism but instead nitpick a few catch-phrases that fit in with the solipsist viewpoint so that management types can feel good about themselves when they’re over there being incompetent and dicking people over. If the world outside doesn’t really matter, then there’s no reason to blink twice when you’re responsible for problems that you’ve caused — it’s all just subjective, man!

    I understand it, I just don’t agree with it. But this has nothing to do with the electronic medium in itself, just how it’s applied.

    Reply
  8. macroboy

    Earle Brown
    I think there is an Earle Brown quote about there being 2 kinds of composers- note composers and sound composers.

    Reply
  9. dalgas

    Wow Ryan, we’re just hoeing this little row and you’re chewing up the whole field!

    Let’s straighten one thing out right now: no philosophy has ever “proven” anything, ever, outside itself. (Ahh, that feels better already…)

    None of this is about the wider world of the general human condition; we’re only talking about electronic (& electroacoustic) music — and more specifically, mostly recorded electronic music.

    And it’s not about relativism or subjectivism. It’s about it’s about a creative synergy between two interiors: that of the music/sound, and that of the listener. At this most intimate point of contact, there can be a place where the exterior circumstances of both piece and listener stop mattering any more.

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  10. rtanaka

    None of this is about the wider world of the general human condition…At this most intimate point of contact, there can be a place where the exterior circumstances of both piece and listener stop mattering any more.

    You’re just reinforcing my argument here, in saying that electronic music’s purpose is to severe ties with the external world. And if this is indeed the the objective, then the medium has done a very good job of making this happen. I’m just saying that this type of solipsism has negative consequences and we should be learn to be very critical of it, because it’s typically known as the philosophy for the sociopath.

    The reason why I bring it up is because this is very much relevant to what’s happening in Wall Street right now. Greed and power combined with a little bit of solipsism results in a kind of environment that lacks transparency, concern, and accountability amongst those in executive positions. Sorry, there’s no escaping the human condition whether you like it or not — people have been ignoring it for decades on end now, but it eventually all comes crashing down. I think it’s best if we not repeat the same mistakes.

    Reply
  11. dusman

    titles/terms
    Hi–Just wanted to let you know that I have not been titling my posts–I think maybe Molly Sheridan does these?

    Anyway, I think it is not a bad title, as I do feel there are very different perspectives being expressed, depending on the background of the creator. And yeah, there is a bit of competition between the two groups as we do apply for similar funding, etc.

    Having worked in the sound art field a bit, the gallery/museum world is truly a world apart from concerted music–and incredibly difficult to break into if you don’t come from an art background–maybe there is a bit of distrust if you are trained as a musician?

    Reply
  12. dusman

    henry brant
    And by the way, Henry Brant writes music! He intends it to be performed–so I wouldn’t put it in the category of sound art. And I think it is more easily understood if you come at it from the point of view that it IS music.

    Reply
  13. pgblu

    complexities
    Henry Brant wrote music. He no longer does so, nor does he do much else, either. R.I.P.

    Ryan, Stockhausen had a lot of flaws, but he was also a pretty complex person, so your simplistic analysis of his motivations and his biography (“…this point of view has a lot to do with growing up in Nazi Germany…”) are really not of much use. Just because he considered some aspects of ‘reality’ to be disruptive of the experience of music, or thought that music could awake in us a kind of distance from and skepticism toward the nature of the real does not make him a solipsist. A real solipsist probably would not have bothered to compose, happy to let madeleines dissolve on his tongue all day instead.

    OK, time for bed.

    Reply
  14. rtanaka

    True, and I don’t think anybody here will deny that. But it’s different when you use those quotes, which almost word for word, reiterates a kind of a solipsist viewpoint in order to make a case for what electronic music ought to be. And Stockhausen was, at least in his earlier years, not too shy about claiming that he had create “the way” of doing electronic music for everybody. I’m not disregarding him entirely as a composer. He definitely did contribute a lot to the medium, but that particular idea just doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

    And you’re right, if he was a true sociopath, he probably wouldn’t have bothered composing. So why argue the point to begin with? It’s either self-contradictory or simply not true. Seem disingenuous.

    Reply
  15. pgblu

    Stockhausen was, at least in his earlier years, not too shy about claiming that he had created “the way” of doing electronic music for everybody.

    I know this is not a scholarly journal, but where did he say that, please? He did claim that his work was prophetic, that it pointed in radically new directions, but that’s a different claim than that he had found “the way”. Big ego? Yes. Aesthetic dictator? No.

    And you’re right, if he was a true sociopath, he probably wouldn’t have bothered composing.

    sociopath? I thought we were talking about solipsism.

    So why argue the point to begin with? It’s either self-contradictory or simply not true. Seems disingenuous

    You said it, not I.

    Reply
  16. rtanaka

    Solipsism is directly linked to sociopathic tendencies precisely because it argues a world in which nothing really exists out side of the individual’s perspective. It’s a world where the individuals’ actions have no consequence or repercussions, and where ethics and common decency does not really exist. Especially when the idea is taken to an extreme, I think this much is self-evident.

    I don’t have a direct quote off-hand, but I think most people here have at least heard of rumors and anecdotes about the composer’s massive ego, combined with his tendency to be extremely controlling during rehearsals. (Which caused people like Vinko Globokar and Cornelius Cardew to break from his dogmatism.) People tend to think that he produced some of his ideas “in spite of” his weird personality and lapses into delusion, but at least from what I understand of it, his persona makes perfect logical sense with the types of ideas that the argued for.

    I was just responding to the Stockhausen quote above, provided by Steve, which I think is fairly outdated at tihs point. Globokar is a good example of having different attitude toward the electronic medium because he views the technology more as a tool, rather treating it as a spiritual entity like Stockhausen did. So yes, if you work with it and listen to it long enough you do develop an intimate relationship with the sound and its tendencies. The difference is that because Globokar uses electronics primarily for its live-processing value, it becomes an extension of an instrument rather than the electronics itself replacing the concert experience, which the quote above seems to be arguing for.

    Live-processing was generally not feasible during Stockhausen’s time, so maybe you could say that he was doing the best that he can, given what he had. But his methodology is pretty old by contemporary standards, both in technique and in its ideas. And there’s lots about it that simply doesn’t work, or can be outright harmful to the health of society. We’re seeing a lot of the neo-liberal/conservative policies of his generation come crashing down as we speak, so this is all relevent to what’s happening today.

    Reply
  17. rtanaka

    Well if you ain’t gonna bother debunking it in specific terms, then my point will still stand. Nobody is forcing you to defend him.

    To be more blunt, while the avant-garde definitely contributed to advances in technology and technique, they really didn’t contribute all that much in terms of new ideas. Almost every single time they attempt to philosophize, it tends to refer back to an idea which has been around for centuries before. This is primarily the reason why philosophers have paid very little attention to classical music after Adorno, who was a champion of Shoenberg. We’ve been shooting ourselves in the foot for over 50 years now — maybe it’s time for something different?

    Reply
  18. philmusic

    “Well if you ain’t gonna bother debunking it in specific terms, then my point will still stand…”

    No Ryan. Actually you have merely made an assertion.

    Ryan do you honestly intend to hold others to a high slandered of “evidencef” when you don’t do so for yourself?

    Phil Fried

    Reply
  19. rtanaka

    Keep in mind we’re talking about a guy who literally claimed that he was from the planet Syrius here…am I the only one who thinks that something’s really messed up when these are the types of figureheads that we’re forced to look up to?

    Reply
  20. Chris Becker

    “Keep in mind we’re talking about a guy who literally claimed that he was from the planet Syrius here…”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing!

    For a portion of my childhood, I was convinced I had seen and perhaps traveled on a spaceship. Now, as an adult, I realize I only feel like I’m from outer space :)

    Reply
  21. philmusic

    “Well if you ain’t gonna bother debunking it in specific terms, then my point will still stand…”

    No Ryan. Actually you have merely made an assertion.

    Ryan do you honestly intend to hold others to a high standard of “evidence” when you don’t do so for yourself?

    Phil Fried, I feel better already

    Reply
  22. rtanaka

    Well, it’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself — we all need to escape from reality sometimes. But towards what? That’s the thing.

    Sun Ra similarly claimed that he was from Saturn, but his reasons striving towards such a thing is clearer — he believed that he could transport African-Americans away from the brutalities of life and racial oppression through the power of music, towards a more peaceful and tolerant society.

    I simply don’t see any of that in Stockhausen’s music or his ideas.

    Reply
  23. colin holter

    am I the only one who thinks that something’s really messed up when these are the types of figureheads that we’re forced to look up to?

    You’re probably the only person who thinks he’s been “forced” to admire Stockhausen.

    Reply
  24. rtanaka

    You’re probably the only person who thinks he’s been “forced” to admire Stockhausen.

    Well, I can speak from experience, having gone through two very different types of compositional programs in my education. When I was doing my undergraduate degree in a school that had a strong integral serialist leaning, you couldn’t really go on a day without hearing something about Boulez, Stockhausen, Babbitt, etc. When I moved out to the west coast, it was all about Cage and the experimental music tradition.

    Sure, nobody’s “forcing” you to do or like any particular thing, except that schools have grades, scholarships, admissions, grants and job opportunities which they use to influence the outcome of enrollment and funding. Funny thing, because sometimes guest composers would come to do workshops and during lessons would whisper into a student’s ear, “well, if you want to keep your scholarship, for now, you should probably write that kind of music.” Ideologies might change here and there depending on the school, but the process of leveraging is all over the place.

    Say, do you believe that the composer, being in a type of administrative position and all, should be held accountable for their ideas? That’s the whole reason why I kept this thread going to begin with. Half the time all I see around here is composers deferring responsibility away from themselves and onto the audience, even though they’re the ones put into power. Personally I find this pretty disturbing.

    Reply
  25. Chris Becker

    “Electronic music has liberated the inner world, for one knows that there is nothing to be seen outside oneself, and that there can be no sense in asking with what and by what means the sounds and acoustical forms are produced… The inner world is as true as the outer.”

    I’ll hazard a guess here and say that Stockhausen was talking about a genre of electronic music that made every effort to disguise the source material utilized for its sounds. The quote does read to me like a product of its time (that’s assuming I’m correct and that it comes from the early 1960′s – please correct me if I’m wrong). So many sounds that once seemed so mysterious over time became a part of the vernacular of popular music.

    And the development of electronic music was not isolated to Western Europe or Columbia / Princeton. Ryan, you might want to check out Michael Veal’s excellent recent book Dub for another more fluid take on the history of the development of electronic music.

    Chris Becker
    Human From Earth

    Reply
  26. rtanaka

    Thanks for the recommendation, Chris, I’ll check it out. Early electronic music was mostly utilized for sci-fi films because it produced that type of “out of the earth” sound that couldn’t be gotten anywhere else. Sure does make you feel like you’re on the planet Syrius, at times.

    The point is that there are reasons why certain ideas come about and are championed in the schools and in certain institutions, why certain composers are put into the limelight and why others fall into obscurity. These can be derived from historical and social trends, and can be talked about in specific terms if there is an interest in it. There seems to be an aversion around here to talk about musical gestures in relation to things that happen in reality, which I don’t think is doing us any good.

    Reply
  27. Chris Becker

    “There seems to be an aversion around here to talk about musical gestures in relation to things that happen in reality, which I don’t think is doing us any good.”

    Well, hang on. Please don’t mistake my humor for a lack of engagement with the world.

    I think like Sun Ra, Stockhausen may have used the mythology he created for himself to question and comment upon “reality” here on planet Earth. Scriabin, Charles Mingus, and Pauline Oliveros (in a crazy interview with Robert Ashley where she had a masked woman apply cosmetic make up and wig among other things to her during the conversation) are all artists who embraced with varying degrees of self-awareness a stretching of the perception of “reality” (I don’t know how else to put it…) and the artist’s relationship to the world. I don’t think we should ever be afraid to go there – to push the limits of our imagination and preconceptions of what music “is” or “isn’t” – even if it means people think we’re selfish, self-serving, or just plain crazy.

    And maybe this goes back to the quote that Steve dropped into this thread. Maybe Stockhausen was simply encouraging the notion that a musical language has come into existence for which previous handles don’t apply. Even if it’s a stretch, it’s a provocative and perhaps inspiring message. And I don’t think it negates the concert hall or “non-electronic” repertoire of music. In retrospect, as I said earlier, what once sounded crazy is now a part of our vernacular.

    Reply
  28. colin holter

    I was going to write a lengthy rebuttal, but I’ll save everyone the effort of reading it and instead offer the following, for the record:

    Sirius is a star, not a planet.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.