sound art vs. music

October 28, 2010

Sound art–though it has a rich history stretching back to the early-20th century avant-garde–is a hard subject to pin down. Unlike visual art which has a canon of standards and recognizable aesthetics, much of sound art’s history has been concerned with defining the nature of what constitutes sound art with many of its most important contributions addressing issues of public vs. private noise, “the inescapably of sound,” the idea of building sonic environments and other experiments that “blur the distinction between sound art and experimental music.”One part of Licht’s piece on the “Origins, developments and ambiguities” of sound art that attracted me the most was this question of what is sound art? Licht bluntly asks: “Does a piece of music become sound art simply when it is presented in a museum?” But I don’t think that the location of the presentation can denote it as art or non-art. Instead, I prefer his other offering of sound art as “sound without a specific timeline” as opposed to music which “has a fixed time duration.”

But there is always grey area between music and sound art as proven by musicians-turned-artists such as Brian Eno and–more recently, Los Angeles band-cum-art-collective Lucky Dragons.

This time last year, the visionary behind the idea of ambient music–or “music that must be as ignorable as it is interesting”–brought an exhibit titled “77 Million Paintings” to Cal State Long Beach’s University Art Museum. In his multimedia display, Eno blends sound art with visual art, inviting viewers to (as the L.A. Times article says) “see the music” by creating a computer program that cycles a series of projections through abstract and found images while playing an ambient soundtrack of “generative music,” or music he created using synthesizers and other electronic instruments. The result is a sonic environment that at times is piercing and other times silent, swaying the emphasis between the aural and the visual while destroying concepts of time and spacial orientation.


Lucky Dragons has also had the pleasure of being placed in an art museum–which may or may not automatically elevate music to sound art status–most recently performing at MOCA’s engagement party series. The duo of Sara Andersen (a current MFA student at Roski!) and Luke Fishbeck have been playing traditional concerts as Lucky Dragons for years, but have found many of their sonic experiments to be too schizophonic and interactive for normal concert structure. Take, for instance, their “Live Sprawl” interactive performance piece which is comprised of a literal sprawl of live performances featuring a mixture of traditional instruments, computer-generated sounds and visitor-stimulated machines that produce unique noises with each touch:

This performance was based on another sound art performance of theirs called “Make a Baby,” in which Luke and Sara created a conductive textile fabric (basically a blanket full of braided tin connected to a computer program) that “listens” to those near it and creates sounds that morph and change with each new person who attaches themselves to the interaction. The result is an experiment in how skin contact between performers can create a new sonic environment–translating artistic ideas into concrete aural output and, again, blurring the lines between music and sound art.

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