in Notes on Sound Art

Not-Defining Sound Art

(1) One should become a Bodhisattva…
(2) There is no such thing as a Bodhisattva…
The solution of this dilemma lies in nothing else than the fearless acceptance of both contradictory facts.
 Conze, “Introduction” to The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom

Max Neuhaus famously asserted that “sound art” is about as meaningless a term as “steel art.”1 Accepting that it may be meaningless, it is nevertheless neither useless nor unnecessary: lacking essence, meaning nothing in particular, it can and does operate as a useful void in which to place meaning provisionally. Unlike sound, steel as a material is not affected by inherited presumptions analogous to what Douglas Kahn has called the musical conceit, i.e. “the subsumption of all sonic production under the aegis of music.” For artists to freely work with sound as a material requires a protected domain outside the concerns, expectations and traditions of music. It is this need which explains why some may perceive, as Steve Roden has put it, “the folks who wave the flag of sound art are somewhat conservative, exclusive and protective.”2


What might sounds artists be working to protect? Protection is a covering, a wrapping like paper or a hard shell like armor, around soft and tender contents. Sound, by its nature ephemeral and intangible, withers or dissipates without protection. The materiality of sound depends upon recording, the possibility of sound’s repetition. Taking words seriously, one could say that it music which is conservative, insofar as it is valorizes traditional methods of repetition; it is music which is exclusive, since it rests upon the exclusion of sounds and noises that cannot perform as tones. But sound art is definitely protective, in fact it may be nothing but protection—an umbrella, if you will.

(From the Introduction to Sound Generation, 2007 version)


1 As quoted by Regine Basha at Murmers conference.

2 From ARTFORUM symposium, concurrent with New Sound New York.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email