Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art



Kenneth Goldsmith

Over the past few years, sound art has been more visible in America. The Whitney has been including it in its Biennials and it even had its own section in their “The American Century” retrospective a few years ago. As a matter of fact all over the country, it’s not too unusual to walk into a museum, art gallery, or university-sponsored exhibition space and hear nothing but sound. Websites like my own UbuWeb, the San Francisco-based Other Minds, and numerous independent sites of American composers are sprouting up, offering dozens of hours worth of sound art MP3s for free. Once relegated to specialty shops like Printed Matter, Inc. even record stores seem to be carrying these sort of discs. If you’re interested in sound art, a trip to Other Music in New York City or to the new airplane-hanger sized Amoeba in Los Angeles will prove fruitful, with offerings from everyone from Vito Acconci to Mike Kelley cramming the racks.

Having helped curate some of these shows at the Whitney, I’ve found it’s a difficult thing to define what sound art is. Where does, say, experimental music end and sound art begin? Or, take spoken word: can a sound poem—language meant to be heard not necessarily seen—be construed as sound art? But what about opera that slides into performance art? It’s a fabulous mess, where the lines are ill-defined and disciplines overflow into one another and co-mingle in ways that are not easily categorized.

Any survey of this stuff is going to be messy. And incomplete… It’s such a vast field that I’m bound to miss a lot of work that, say, you might consider vital. Fair enough. Let’s call it a start. What follows is a subjective first attempt at breezy chronology from 1902-2002 (when I lecture on this the title of my talk is “100 Years of Sound Art in 90 Minutes”). I don’t have room to talk about more than one or two pieces by each artist. Frankly, every artist here deserves a monograph about him or herself (and many already have one).

We’ll start in Paris with Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp and the early Futurists, and then look at how experimental literature connects to sound art. The story pretty much stays in Europe until the end of World War II, when the art world packs up and moves to New York. By the early ’60s, the whole scene shifts to America for the next two decades, kicked off by the publication of John Cage’s Silence. From there we’ll make our way through the various art movements, to performance scenes, gallery scenes, clubs, and TV shows. Other history meets up with everyone from Karen Finley to Marie Osmond and Michael Jackson, and winds up in the digital age when much of the action has migrated onto our vast computer networks. Finally, we’ll take a brief tour of a few fascinating projects I’ve recently come across.

I’ve always loved the art world. It’s a place where actors who are too weird to make it on Broadway end up as performance artists; writers that don’t write conventionally end up as text artists; and musicians who fall outside of mainstream concerns—be it jazz, classical, or rock—end up as sound artists. I love things that fall in between the cracks. I love people working outside of their disciplines, working outside of what they know. It drove punk rock — DYI: It’s one of the great paths to innovation. And what follows is an edgy survey of informed ignorance; people busting down walls of sound in the name of art.

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  1. Pingback: Archives, Access, and the Sounds of New York City: An Interview with Kenneth Goldsmith - Radio Survivor

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