Sound Art. Sound as a Medium of Art – Peter Weibel

Modern art began with a previously unknown sound: noise – rejected, repressed and illegitimate noise. In 1913 the Futurist painter and composer Luigi Russolo published his manifesto L’arte dei rumori [The Art of Noises] describing the noises he had discovered in the metropolis. Beyond that, he created an assortment of instruments for generating noise, the intonarumori [noise instruments], boxes with sound funnels containing specially treated membranes that created a variety of sounds. A well-known photo portrays Russolo in the midst of his gigantic loudspeakers. Noise was given a face, sound acquired an image. The age of the Stratocaster, armies of guitars and gigantic stacks of amplifiers (Walls of Sound) reared its Gorgon’s head from the musical twilight. Already in 1907 Ferruccio Busoni had published his paper Entwurf einer neuen Ästhetik der Tonkunst [Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music] with reflections on new musical scales, sixth-tone systems, and the first ideas about the possibilities of electronically generated sounds. The publication of the revised version in 1916 unleashed a storm of controversy. Hans Pfitzner responded on behalf of the conservative faction in 1917 with his pamphlet Futuristengefahr [The Danger of Futurists]. But the virus of noise, introduced into illustrious concert halls by the Futurists, could no longer be suppressed. Noise emancipated itself and, along with sound, with tones and silence, became an equally valid compositional material. Therefore Edgar Varèse later preferred to speak not of music, but of “organized sound”.  In a lecture he delivered at Princeton University in 1959, he gave us the themes: “My fight for the liberation of sound and for my right to make music with any sound and all sounds has sometimes been construed as a desire to disparage and even to discard the great music of the past.” But the emancipation of sound is not to be understood as a disparagement of music, rather “[o]ur musical alphabet must be enriched,” as Varèse had already advocated in the New York Morning Telegraph in 1916. Ever since, the operative principle has been: everything that makes sound belongs to the art of sound. Whether it is the hissing of hot lead poured into cold water, the sound of wooden sticks striking rusty shutters, or the sounds of prepared pianos – all tones, noises and sounds are part of the new sonic cosmos. All objects that make noise can become sound instruments. Sound is liberated from the prison of music. All kinds of sounds can be art. For the first time, the musical alphabet is coextensive with the universe.

From Futurism to Dada, from Fluxus to the Happening, the aesthetic avant-garde of the twentieth century developed these ideas in numerous actions and with many newly created instruments. Sound art and noise art became part of the visual arts. In the 1950s and 1960s, exponents of Musique concrète and artists of the Happening and Fluxus movements (from Yoko Ono to La Monte Young) expanded the performative aspect of music so greatly that instead of composition there might be chance, instead of music, silence (John Cage, Silence, 1961), instead of an orchestra, the sea, and instead of a musician, a horse. In the 1970s and 1980s, even pop music and punk music were influenced by industrial noise (Sonic Youth, The Art of Noise, Throbbing Gristle, etc.).
With the fusion of pop and art, more and more visual artists discovered the vinyl record itself as a medium for visual practices, from Milan Knížák to Christian Marclay, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 2011. Even record covers, not just vinyl discs, could be thought of as art. Like telegrams, books, video, and other media, vinyl records were gaining the status of works of art (Germano Celant, Record as Artwork 1959–73, exhibition catalogue 1973). Starting in the 1950s, experimenters with graphic notation, from Earl Brown to Anestis Logothetis, were opening sound-space to the interpreter and to new sounds. By the 1960s, visual artists had embraced the medium of radio drama. From the mid-1960s, media artists and conceptual artists were in the vanguard when it came to establishing a new foundation for sound art and pushing its development. Sound art became an independent art form within the visual arts. It was not composers or musicians, but architects and visual artists who created advancements in the world of sound. The noise that infiltrated the world of music did not destroy music, instead it enlarged the cosmos of sound: from Varèse to his student Frank Zappa.

With the invention of the synthesizer around 1960, it became possible to generate sounds electronically via sound synthesis. The world of sound underwent an evolution from the real world to an artificial, purely technical world that opened up utterly new aural terrain. With the help of electronic switches, it also became possible to control the movement of sound in space. Spatial music was created – ambient music, for instance. The computer made possible not only new forms of sound, but also new forms of composition. Temporal and sonic deformations and distortions, multi-channel recordings and repetitions, modulations and stochastic and aleatoric mathematical methods opened up the field of acousmatic music, which La Monte Young had already initiated with his new and unusual relations of frequencies. The synthesizer and computer launched the era of techno sound. Varèse had understood the essence of electronic music, namely as composing liberated from detours:  “Our new liberating medium – the electronic – is not meant to replace the old musical instruments, which composers, including myself, will continue to use. Electronics is an additive, not a destructive, factor in the art and science of music,” he said in 1959. With electronics, instead of having a score and an interpreter, sound can be worked with directly: “To me, working with electronic music is composing with living sounds, as paradoxical as that may seem,” he stated in 1965.

So electronics first made the sound cosmos into a living experience, and therefore one speaks of “live electronics”. Second, electronics opened the sound cosmos for the listener: every listener is potentially a composer who can work directly with the sounds – without a score. The freedom of sound art thus liberates not only the sound, but also the interpreter and the listener.

In order to grant true significance to the liberation of sound and the emancipation of noise, one must subscribe to Jacques Attali’s thesis that “the world is not for the beholding. It is for hearing. It is not legible, but audible,” as he maintained in his book Bruits (1977) [published in English as NOISE: The Political Economy of Music, 1985]. Subscribing to Plato’s dictum that when modes of music change, those of the State always change with them, Attali hears music as the mimesis of social order.

Attali distinguishes three great periods in the evolution of Western music, describing the strategic use of music by power: ritual, representation and repetition. Ritual is the first phase, in which music is a struggle against noise. An aristocratic society defends itself musically against the noise of the streets, the populace, slaves. Music arises as a court ritual. Gradually music socializes noise and through its order demonstrates that a society is possible. In the second phase, that of representation, music becomes spectacle, society stages itself in the concert. The harmony of notes placates social orders. Domesticated sound is designed to make people believe in the harmony of the world, the order of exchange, the legitimacy of money. But money slowly degrades the construct. Stars emerge, masterpieces, a repertoire. Bourgeois society puts itself on display. The orchestra, with conductor, soloist, ensemble, becomes the political metaphor for authoritarian bourgeois society. Ever since, from William Godwin, author of Political Justice (1793) and Caleb Williams (1794), to Federico Fellini’s film The Orchestra Rehearsal (1979), the orchestra has been considered a metaphor and a playing field for testing anarchist rebellion, the utopia of no authority, the destruction of the bourgeoisie. The musical route from Richard Wagner to Arnold Schönberg, from Anton Webern to John Cage, mirrors wars and economic crises. Pathos, dissonance and aleatorics are steps toward the dissolution of harmony, and illustrate the ruptures in society.

The third epoch, after ritual and representation, is repetition. In the techno culture of the post-industrial age, technical inventions such as radio, television, Magnetophon (tape recorder), record, DVD, MP3 player, and the Smartphone have upended musical conventions, relocating the act of listening to music from the concert hall to the home, from a fixed place to a mobile one. Representational music naturally thus becomes the locus of mere social representation, of spectacle sans music, where the stars, the maestro, are the actual event. In the shift from live music concerts to technically endlessly repeatable canned music, music has changed from festive to ordinary as a matter of course. From the elevator to the kitchen, there’s practically no place left where there’s no music. Music has become inseparable from daily life.

This is naturally echoed in the musical oeuvre itself, from beat music’s repetitive structure and minimal music to Cage’s commonplace music, which opened musical sound-space for banal quotidian noises. The various forms of bruitism (punk music in general, specifically Einstürzende Neubauten, Throbbing Gristle, etc.) are therefore attempts to lend a voice to reality. The noise of the streets must also be heard in the concert hall. Noise as a rebellion against representational music is a rebellion against bourgeois culture and social order – that is, an invasion of real life, the real life scorned by the bourgeois elite and capital, into the luxurious soundscape of bourgeois society (= the concert hall), which is typically cleansed of all traces of work, exploitation and real life. Early forms of rock’n’roll, New Wave, and noise music, with their noise and accelerated speed, were such invasions, the roar of the real. Music that really wants to be music is intelligible music, which is more than audible music. Classical music is silent about reality. Roaring, noise, din, thus are often the legitimate sound of the real. Liberated sound (sought after from Bussoni to Russolo, from Varèse to Cage) gives reality the freedom and the space to have a voice. When Cage threw open the windows and doors of the concert hall to admit the noise of the streets, in a single gesture he accomplished the liberation and opening of music that Russolo and Varèse had initiated, along with the demise of representational music. Since classical music is silent about reality, Cage had to render music silent in order to allow the noises, the sounds, the voices, and the clamor of reality itself to be audible. When he sits silently in front of the piano for 4'33", music is rendered still; it is an indictment of music’s silence (about reality). The audience is forced to hear the clamor of the real (instead of music). What Cage wrote about Varèse in 1958: “He established the present nature of music. This nature [...] arises from an acceptance of all audible phenomena as material proper for music. While others were still discriminating ‘musical’ tones from noises, Varèse moved into the field of sound itself. That he fathered forth noise [...] makes him even more relative to present musical necessity than even the Viennese masters [...]” applies to Cage himself as well. Here the sources of sound art are identified: all audible phenomena are accepted as musical material.

Eric Satie, who greatly influenced Varèse, was one of the first to stake out this new field of sound with his musique d’ameumblement, where he called for music that would be like furniture. This new field of music as a field of sound, of noises, of tones, and of silence, was described by Cage in “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937/58), which opens his book Silence (1961): “I BELIEVE THAT THE USE OF NOISE […] TO MAKE MUSIC  [If this word “music” is sacred and reserved for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.] WILL CONTINUE AND INCREASE UNTIL WE REACH A MUSIC PRODUCED THROUGH THE USE OF ELECTRICAL INSTRUMENTS [...] WHICH WILL MAKE AVAILABLE FOR MUSICAL PURPOSES ANY AND ALL SOUNDS THAT CAN BE HEARD. PHOTOELECTRIC, FILM, AND MECHANICAL MEDIUMS FOR THE SYNTHETIC PRODUCTION OF MUSIC [...] WILL BE EXPLORED. WHEREAS IN THE PAST, THE POINT OF DISAGREEMENT HAS BEEN BETWEEN DISSONANCE AND CONSONANCE, IT WILL BE, IN THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE, BETWEEN NOISE AND SO-CALLED MUSICAL SOUNDS.”

In the Sound Art exhibition we see and hear not only “the Future of Music”, but most of all, what has become present: sound events, sound sculptures, sound objects, sound installations, sound environments. All audible sounds that previously were not heard as music; more precisely, all previously unheard sounds constitute the new sonic art of the twentieth century:

I) new instruments, custom-made devices that eliminate the difference between musical and non-musical, as well as between musical and non-musical sounds

II) incorporation of the noises, tones, clamor, and silence of the environment

III) disappearance of the interpreter and the composer

IV) exploration of new compositional techniques

V) autonomy of sounds

VI) spatialization and objectification – the advance of the sound liberation movement from tape machine to sound sculpture, from acoustic object to acoustic space

VII) emancipation of the listener (after the emancipation of the pause by Webern and the emancipation of silence by Cage) – the recipient becomes a participant

ZKM has become a unique and unrivaled architecture of sound where you can dive into a world of previously unheard sounds and unseen instruments. For the duration of the exhibition, ZKM is the navel of the sonic world, a palace of sounds, a parliament of all possible sounds and sound events.