In Conversation with Brandon LaBelle
Molly Sheridan: If you were to Venn diagram for me in words how you view the worlds of “sound art” and “music,” how would they intersect? What do we get from one that we cannot from the other?
Brandon LaBelle: This question often comes up, and while I think it is important to ask and to probe these differences, at the same time I’m very open to the notion that such definitions will inevitably run up against their own contradictions, discrepancies, and tensions. And so I want to keep such contradictions intact with any form of articulating what sound art is and what music is or is not. Your use of the word “intersect” I think is very appropriate in this regard, because it suggests not so much a separation, but a conversation that is both a meeting as well as a tension. To say that sound art is the use of sound within spatial environments that are more aligned with or involved in a visual arts culture, and that music, in contrast, is concerned with forms of composition and their relationship to structures, temporal presentations, and media formats, such as CDs, is to maybe edge up against an initial distinction. But I’d also emphasize that what sound art is and what music is has so many variations, so many complexities in themselves, that inevitably we have to speak generally, which is also a way of honouring the messiness or irregularity of the culture.
I’d probably add also something about history, which is that sound art arrives for me at a stage in cultural history in which notions of “material truth” are unsettled. (I’m thinking of the tail end of modernism in which Western metaphysics takes audacious steps toward its own unravelling.) Couple this with advances in media technologies and, in particular, sound reproduction capabilities, and sound art surfaces as a potent medium for questioning notions of “truth” and “representation” while lacing this with the promise of new media to grant such questioning a form of optimism around “making connections.”
Molly Sheridan: Why does sound art sit more comfortably inside the world of visual art than composition? Is it the artists making the work, the needs of the work?
Brandon LaBelle: I think on one hand you do have this drift toward spatializing music—to make a space out of composition, and maybe to musicalizing space—to apply tonalities and timbre to spaces, and our experience of being somewhere. This I feel is partly an aesthetic interest that surfaces. At the same time, the move toward the visual arts is also opened up by certain changes in the visual arts from the mid-50s through the 60s, in which forms of “class” were really broken down in favor of DIY, participatory, social organizing that totally undid aesthetics as a form of “taste,” which I think maybe music—that is, classical music—may have continued to be involved with, making some musicians, such as Max Neuhaus and Christina Kubisch, leave behind that cultural space in favor of the “freedom” surfacing in the visual arts at this time.
In addition, as I was saying earlier, the questioning of certain metaphysical truths that arrives at this time, which does blossom into forms of conceptual art, seems to define sound art, as I’m seeing it, as what I’d call a “critical practice.” For me, I can’t hear sound art, as a history and culture, without recognizing that its relation to being critical is totally different than from music (again, generalizations!). Sound art seems to truly strive to leave behind representational form and musical structures in favor of a kind of affective purity—a total space of sonic intensity.
Molly Sheridan: Background Noise follows the evolution of sound art through the decades. How does such work fit into and influence the larger world of creative culture today as compared to the early years?
Brandon LaBelle: As we’ve witnessed over the last five or so years now, sound art has taken a front seat, in some regards, in terms of being a valued or sought after culture and practice. And probably now even more so, the “music” / “sound art” divide has become more blurry as forms of electronic music, and even pop music, incorporate a lot of aesthetic elements, such as more varied textural sounds, atmospheres, and samples, that often appear within sound art work. And in reverse, sound art is often appearing more steadily within music festivals or symposia in which the question of music is being debated. So, we might say that sound art has a place today that certainly it did not have 40 or 20 years ago, and that it has this new attention for a reason, which may be artistic—forms of media art in general becoming more integrated into other forms of curating, exhibiting, commissioning—as well as cultural—that at this time sound may offer a productive and generative medium for not only making art, but for being in the world, a world which demands an intensified level of communicative nuance. That is, we might be an increasingly auditive culture because to listen is helpful in not only appreciating composition, but also in locating our place within an ever-changing scenery.
Molly Sheridan: What has been the role and influence of technology development in this field, especially with regard to the spatial connectivity of the Internet?
Brandon LaBelle: Technological advances parallel sound art as a history and culture, and often lend radical influence on how sound art is made or imagined. You could definitely engage its history, and music as well, from a technological viewpoint, beginning with recording technology through to current streaming capabilities, which make sound and its construction increasingly available. Part of the project of Background Noise is based on this lineage, but from a spatial and aesthetic perspective: how sound has been carried further and deeper into geographic proportions, from the ability to transport sound, from local spaces through its recording and diffusion, to its live sharing, on the Internet, and the ability to generate endless patterns and multiply inputs and outputs to limitless degrees. This on one hand is technologically advanced, and at the same time is infiltrating basic levels of ordinary life, where mobile phones, mp3 players, PDAs, etc., become small and personal media compositional tools, where jpegs, mpegs, and sound files function as story-telling devices, party snapshots, social organizational media in which questions of permanency or the hard copy totally disappears.
Molly Sheridan: We often lament that our world is visually and aurally polluted. In what ways have sound artists used their art to direct our listening in such increasingly chaotic times?
Brandon LaBelle: There is a strong community of practitioners working with field recordings, acoustic ecology, and soundscape work that more forcefully address the question of noise and pollution, from the perspective of trying to direct attention to the details of auditory life. Listening becomes a way in to recognizing both the diverse richness of auditory life while also accentuating what is common to all, or forms of shared and communal sound. Most of this has to do with working with found sounds, environmental sounds, hidden sounds found in different environments, and sculpting these into forms of composition or presentation, to align human perception with these other life forms, locations, or narratives. To be able to reflect upon the existing auditory world, a lot of this work tends towards forms of meditative listening, which may try and come into deeper contact with the question of how sound affects us and in what ways should we care for auditory life.
Molly Sheridan: What’s exciting to me about this area is how open to possibilities the field seems to be, maybe because of its relative newness. What do you see as some of the possible “next big ideas” or roads of exploration that will be opened up in the near future?
Brandon LaBelle: I think on one hand that while sound art is actually becoming increasingly rich as well as defined as a distinct field, I feel it may find its most exciting realization through its integration with other fields, disciplines, practices, and cultures that are artistic, as well as industrial, architectural, and scientific. I think probably sound artists will become increasingly sought after as interior designers of acoustic spaces, consultants for interface design, composers for video games or airplane travel, all of which may become very interesting. At the same time, I question the degree to which sound art can be critical of itself, and whether its function as a medium for escaping discourse and its related structures, or for remaining out of bounds of established codes through being affective / effective, will only make it useful to the world of fashion and design. Not that this is inherently problematic, but it is my interest to see sound art enter such areas while continuing to remain difficult, messy, and somewhat excessive. I think sound art should become more bold in not only being purely itself, but in engaging more with things outside itself.