What is sound art? Liquid Architecture provides some clues

Styles vary, but an interest in listening as a creative act is central. Ars Electronica

Liquid Architecture 2014 will take place in various locations in Australia and Singapore from tomorrow to October 11. And, as Australia’s largest sonic arts festival, it raises an obvious question: what is sound art?

Histories of sound art place particular importance on the late American composer John Cage’s work 4’33" – a piece premiered in 1952 that calls for the performer to not play his or her instrument. When it is performed audiences hear the noises of the surrounding environment, which become the music. The idea that any and all sound can be music is one that artists have relished and struggled with since.

John Cage’s 4'33".

Cage considered his work to be experimental music and, by his definition, that meant music of which the outcome is unknown.

Initially he didn’t like the “experimental” tag. He argued that composers knew what they were doing. But he changed his mind.

He came to realise that the outcome of his music was unknown to listeners. “I have become a listener and the music has become something to hear”, he subsequently announced.

There have been many who have adopted experimental music as a term since. Also, there are a great number who have avoided it, preferring terms such as “exploratory music”, “sound sculpture” and, increasingly, “sound art”.

“Sound art” began to be used in the 1980s both to account for existing art and to open new artistic possibilities.

The term has been used increasingly widely since. It is applied to everything from ambient electronic music to media art and installations but its usage and meaning remain points of contention.

A pivotal moment in the public recognition of sound art came in 2010 when Scottish artist Susan Philipsz was awarded the Turner Prize for Lowlands.

The prize is one of the most well respected art prizes in the world. Philipsz’s win, the first for a sound artist, drew significant attention.

A site-specific work staged on the River Clyde in Glasgow, Lowlands consists of renditions of three versions of a 16th century Scottish lament. The song is about a sailor who drowns and then comes back to farewell his loved one.

Susan Philipsz’s Lowlands.

Recordings of each version of the song sung by the artist were played simultaneously under the three bridges that cross the river. This places the music in a site that is acoustically and emotionally resonant and in so doing draws listeners’ attention both to the song itself and their surroundings. The work demonstrates some of the frequent preoccupations of sound art – site-specificity, how sound can define space and, above all, listening.

Glasgow-born artist Susan Philipsz was named winner of the Turner Prize in 2010. EPA/Taavetti Alin/Ho

The Museum of Modern Art in New York last year held an exhibition of sound art called Soundings: A Contemporary Score, featuring work from Philipsz alongside pieces from renowned field recordist Toshiya Tsunoda, celebrated musicians Florian Hecker and Carsten Nicolai, Australian artist Marco Fusinato and Taiwanese artist Hong-Kai Wang, among others.

There has been debate as to the politics, quality and significance of the show. Much sonic arts practice occurs outside of established arts institutions and many, myself included, are concerned at the way sonic practice is at times appropriated by such institutions. Nevertheless, the show garnered much attention for sound art and demonstrates the diverse practices that can be considered part of the field.

Soundings: A Contemporary Score.

Once focused predominantly on what we hear, Liquid Architecture is widening its scope this year to engage the cultural, social, political and economic conditions in which we hear sound. In many ways this reflects the development of sound art, following the work of Philipsz and others.

The festival will feature Canadian artist Christof Migone and his work Hit Parade, that calls for 50 participants to each lie face down and pound a microphone into the ground 1,000 times.

Christof Migone’s Hit Parade.

Also visiting is Italian artist Alessandro Bosetti, who will perform his work Mask Mirror, in which he improvises with recordings of his own voice. Hong-Kai Wang, meanwhile, will facilitate her work Conceptual Biography of Chris Mann, for which she is enlisting participants to help play out a history of the influential Australian artist. The conceptual, social and political overtones are clear.

The field of sound art includes a huge variety of work and the concerns of artists are by no means always the same. But an interest in listening as a creative act is central. In particular, sound artists have become increasingly concerned with the ways in which listening raises and addresses political, social and economic questions.

Sound art can involve language, music, installation and everything in between, key to it all is listening.