Prompted by Nathan Hall.
On Medium, “Sound Art in the Age of Necessary Listening” By Miranda Lash, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Art & Sound
No concrete definition exists for what exactly constitutes sound art, but we often know it when we hear it. In the most basic sense, we consider a work to be sound art if sound is the primary subject. Sound exists, of course, as vibrations through a medium that our ears receive and interpret. And sound art can include recordings, performances, sculptures, videos, installations, and conceptual pieces; it can involve listening, imagining sound in our minds, representing sound through visual means, and exploring the opposite of sound: silence.
Music has been described as “organized sound.”* Music is sometimes included under the umbrella of sound art, as is noise. Noise is often considered undesirable or unintentional sound, but this definition is hotly debated. Exactly what makes a sound pleasant or unpleasant, music or noise, forgettable or art-worthy, can be just as subjective as what qualifies a work as “Art” with a capital A.
Sound art’s place within the art world is often problematic. It has remained an outsider medium for galleries, and it can be just as awkward in the concert hall, so it is frequently experienced in site-specific installations. Unlike visual art, which we can often take in fairly immediately with our eyes, sound must unfold over time. It’s quite difficult to place a value on and sell a medium that one can’t physically grasp.
Sound art also presents challenges when included in group shows. (Indeed, it is only contained by amplitude and the medium through which it travels.) One artist in a show may not want their work disrupted or affected by the bleeding-over of someone else’s sound work. And headphones or other means of mediating sound can impact the way that people interact with the work and risk diminishing the artist’s intentions or even negating them entirely. Finally, the means and resources frequently required to showcase sound art—live performers, sound-proofed spaces, technology, etc.—can be cost-prohibitive.
In reflecting upon how sound and art can exist together, how can institutions, galleries, music venues, etc. better serve sound art? How do we make space to hear from diverse voices and diverse media? How can we experience our world in a way that pays better attention, even homage, to our sonic environment? What are we missing from our sonic landscape? What should we be protecting? Can we grieve or memorialize lost sounds? And in the largest sense, we might ask: how can we be listening more–to our world and to each other?
*Definition often attributed to composer Edgar Varèse.
Suggested Background Materials and Readings
John Cage water walk
Janet Cardiff, Motet
Pamela Z, Suite for Voice and Electronics
Camille Norment, Lull (video embedded in web page)
Robert Morris: Musical Form, Expectation, Attention, and Quality (PDF)
R Murray Schafer, The Soundscape (introduction)
Mauricio Kagel, Dressur
Annea Lockwood, Danube
Westword Magazine has called composer and artist Nathan Hall “a try-anything aural dreamer with the skills and programming genius to mount ideas both intriguing and outrageous.” Nathan uses music as an artistic medium to explore a variety of fields including science, nature, the fine arts, history, and sexuality. There is an emotional resonance present in all of his works, from his traditional classical pieces for chamber ensembles, to experimental electronic pieces, sound sculptures, and multimedia projects. Nathan’s drive for making site-specific work is tied to his passion for travel and cultural exchange, while other works are inspired by his sexuality and experiences as a gay man, creating a special intimacy between performer, place, and audience.
Nathan Hall is a former Fulbright fellow to Iceland and a McKnight visiting composer. He holds his doctorate in musical arts (DMA) from CU Boulder, an MM from Carnegie Mellon, and a BA from Vassar College. His works have been performed and exhibited in 14 countries and 12 US States, by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, Buntport Theater, Tenth Intervention, GALA Choruses, Playground Ensemble, the Gay/Lesbian Chorus of San Francisco, Icelandic choirs, pianist Adam Tendler, a convention of roller coaster enthusiasts, and porn star Dirk Caber, among others. Recent residencies have included the Mattress Factory (Pittsburgh, PA) and Skaftfell Art Center (Seyðisfjörður, Iceland). Nathan was also the Denver Art Museum’s first creative in residence. He is currently an adjunct faculty member in music composition at the University of Denver.