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.