Sound Sculptors of the Earth: A Chromium Future Awaits You!

By Angus Carlyle

“Francesco Santoliquido’s office was deep, high, consciously impressive. In one corner stood a sound sculpture, the work of Anton Kozak: a beautiful piece, all flowing lines and delicate rhythms, emitting a gentle white hiss that swiftly infiltrated itself into one’s consciousness and became rooted there.”. [Robert Silverberg To Live Again (London: Fontana, 1969) p. 39]
<< Anthony Elliot's 'Ear'

While the world is not yet inundated by a prestigious caste of sonic sculptors akin to those that populated the pages of 60’s pulp science fiction, it is nevertheless possible to discern something of an upswing in the fortunes of those operating on the interface between sound and experimental practice. The symptoms are there for diagnosis: an increasing number of high profile exhibitions; a proliferation of prizes contentiously rewarding perceived merit; an expansion of dedicated books, journals, and web-sites animated by a commitment to mapping of the territory; a great expansion in the higher education courses dedicated to the artistic side of sound; a perhaps yet more revealing migration of debates from the confines of a self-reflexive discourse to more ‘generic’ publications; and, ultimately, in the explosion of work – both recorded and performed – that, initially at least, invite absorption within the definitional category of sound art.

Sound art has not, of course, always exhibited these vital signs that distinguish its contemporary practice. Indeed, the marginalisation of sound art can be contextualised as a parallel to the wider marginalisation of sound itself within Western culture, a phenomenon explored through authors as diverse as Marshall McLuhan, R. Murray Schaeffer and Michel Chion. In the analysis William Furlong conducted in 1994, he ventured that “[s]ound has never become a distinct or discrete area of art practice such as other manifestations and activities were to become in the 1960s and 1970s. Although it has been used consistently by artists throughout the century, there has never been an identifiable group working exclusively in sound, so one is not confronted with an area of art practice labelled ‘sound art’ in the same way as one might be with categories such as Pop Art, Minimal Art, Land Art, Body Art, Video Art, and so on”. [William Furlong “Sound in Recent Art” in ed. William Furlong AudioArts (London: Academy Editions, 1994) p. 128]. Although Furlong does moderate this conclusion by attempting to isolate distinctive activities that emerge from the ebbing and flowing tides of audio activity in the 80’s and 90’s, the reader is left with the impression that his survey is struggling to identify any seepage from a relatively enclosed reservoir of High Art practice. Today, however, it is just such a seepage, just such a problematisation of the imperviousness of definitional boundaries that is one factor that energises the area of sound art. Indeed so profound is the leakage of experimental audio from such semantic containers as ‘High’, ‘Low’, ‘Popular’ and ‘Avant Garde’ that the very terminology of sound art demands suspicion.

The Japanese artists sheltering under the umbrella term of onyko, a term that can be approximately translated as noise music, offer powerful illustration of these leakages. A performer like Merzbow is able to signal in his very nom de guerre a commitment to confronting European histories of experimental sound (referencing Kurt Schwitter’s Merz project) with conflicting aesthetic trajectories that Merzbow insists issue from a variety of vernacular and non-vernacular Japanese sources while simultaneously drawing inspiration from the more pop-orientated Industrial sound movement of the 70’s and 80’s [See David Keenan ‘Signal to Noise’ Wire 159]. Other Japanese sonic sculptors foreground their engagement with colloquial currents. It is the vernacular idiom of techno that provides the launch pad from which Ryoji Ikeda sends his sound probes into orbits of increasingly charged complexity and it is the vernacular idiom of hip hop that equips Nobukazu Takemura with the sonic weaponry that assaults his listener.

Yet, to define techno and hip hop as vernacular is itself problematic once their own experimentalism is acknowledged [See Michel Gaillot Multiple Meaning: Techno: An Artistic and Political Laboratory of the Present (Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1999), Ulf Poschardt DJ Culture (London: Quartet, 1998) and Kodwo Eshun More Brilliant than the Sun (London: Quartet, 1998)]. The growing global scratch orchestra exploring the textural and rhythmic potentials of the manipulated turntable render meaningless any gestures of classification. The work of Christian Marclay, Q*Bert, Martin Tetrault, Roc Raida, Otomo Yoshihide, El-P, Philip Jeck, and DJs Premier and Krush persistently propel the collapsing of boundaries as a new sound world emerges. A world in which it matters very little that Mr. Thing of the Scratch Perverts is a DMC competition finalist or Janek Schaeffer a graduate of London’s Royal College of Art because what counts instead is that both arrive on a plane of consistency where the hand-turntable interface is a vehicle for experimental aural journeying.

A parallel process materialises in the realm of environmental sound. Only the indifferent or inattentive ear would demand a rigid demarcation of the acoustic atmospheres developed in the laboratories of Jake Tilson, Justin Bennett and Peter Cusack [This latter displayed with powerful magnetism on his recent recording The Horse Was Alive, The Cow Was Dead] from the work of Ultra-Red, Muslimgauze, and Disinformation or even from the somnolent soundscapes available from your local New Age store. This is not to say that no relevant distinctions can be attached to these ambient audio enterprises - of course they can. Rather, the distinctions should not carry the weight of categorical, quantitative imperatives but instead be cast in more qualitative terms of affect - for example, intensity, sensory stimulation, acoustic innovation or durability - that cut across classifications.

These intersections and interstices provisionalise the security of aesthetic boundaries that otherwise fence regions off into uninviting enclaves. Consequently, what emerges is a world with the listening barriers down; in which sound, no longer required to declare its provenance, can become nomadic. This nomadic world is one where the popularity and the constituency of sound works becomes as unstable as the assumed categories. Surprise becomes again an imminent possibility.

If the very porosity of the contemporary nomadic sound world is one factor in its reinvigoration, the technological dimension is another. The democratisation of the means of phonic production afforded by the reduction in cost of both hardware and software (this latter, irrespective of intellectual property issues, reduced through the availability of warez to the negligible expense of CD blanks) is of paramount significance. The potential of the desktop (and increasingly laptop) resources reinforces the nomadic status of sound, enabling production and performance to acquire a truly portable dynamic [For a critique of the notion of democratisation in sound that I am employing here see Alan Durant “A New Day for Music? Digital Technologies in Contemporary Music-Making” in ed. Philip Hayward Technology and Creativity]. Bob Ostertag’s recent claim that “as the technical capabilities have expanded, the range of musical possibilities has become increasingly restricted” does not ring true to me [See http://www.l-m-c.org.uk/texts/ostertag.html]. Yes, there are architectural restrictions built into some commercial synthesis and sequencing packages and, yes, these can generate predictability and standardisation. Yet such restrictions must be seen in the context of individuals willing either to employ such systems to introduce chance and improvisation or to corrupt the conformity of the coded software defaults. Indeed, the last few years of the previous millennium were characterised by a ghosting of the machine by vibrant investigation of faults and arythmic percussive patterns. Again, these occurred across the board, with little respect for the boundaries of ‘art’ or ‘popular’: Chain Reaction’s, Oval’s and Pan Sonic’s interference techno, Timbaland’s and Missy ‘Misdemeanour’ Elliot’s massively influential ‘stutter’ beat, Sachiko M’s malfunctioning samplers and Toshimaru Nakamura’s feeding-back mixing desk. More than this, the software itself is incorporating the glitch with various non-intuitive filters, Akira Rabelais’ Agreiphontes Lyre, the AudioMulch processor, the more estoreic MAX/MSP patches that invite download, are all applications that can locate noise at the heart of the sound production. Of course, it is appreciated that experimental audio is not synonymous with digital audio, nor even with technology, but efforts to chart the development of the former cannot ignore the corresponding proliferation of the latter, especially when the two tendencies occupy a synchronous time-frame. Moreover, I want to make clear that technology does not spontaneously liberate the audio experimenter from all difficulties: “[n]omadic sound machines are not only linked to chaos through snatching something from it, arbitrary singularities and tone molecules, but they are also threatened by blockades and bonding processes that block up the machines and their productions” [Gilles Deleuze “This Evening a Concert Will Take Place”].

The final factor that may assist in accounting for the reinvigoration of the experimental sound world is the evolution of new spaces and new channels of distribution. There remain, of course, the official auditoriums and but while these may occasionally adopt a more adventurous curatorial programme - demonstrated with some aplomb by London’s Hayward Gallery commissioning David Toop to co-ordinate Sonic Boom - to the extent that these are established institutions they are perhaps unlikely to have contributed to any recent developments, being if anything responses to those developments. A more viable candidate resides in the smaller commercial club environments at which, from my experiences of South-Eastern England, seem to have cautiously embarked upon a more ambitious booking policy, with irregular, well-attended nights playing host to visiting luminaries alongside home-grown talent. In the United Kingdom, these hesitant moves might have been frustrated by the almost total absence of any radio presence for interesting sounds were it not for the fact that the internet is rapidly becoming the medium of choice for audition, exposition and distribution. London’s ResonanceFM, broadcasting at 104.4 and streaming on the web, must here be singled out as a truly fantastic listening environment, one whose brilliance is only slightly tempered by the fact that it is never just audio wallpaper but is always sufficiently solicitous of our undivided attention that publishing deadlines, children’s bathtimes and equally important events frequently pass this listener by. Such virtual spaces networked into more concrete locations enable “[n]omadic waves or flows of deterritorialisation [that] go from the central layer to the periphery, then from the new centre to the new periphery, falling back to the old centre and launching forth to the new” [Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Volume 2 (London: Athlone Press, 1987) p. 54].

No prestigious sound sculptors just yet. But, through the interaction of leaking aesthetic boundaries, democratising, dynamic and deconstructable technologies and emerging new spaces and new distributions, sound has the opportunity to become audibly nomadic. “Increasingly appreciated as much for abstract sonic qualities as for ostensible musical ‘content’, able to employ a vast range of sonic resources, ‘performed’ unceremoniously everyday and everywhere, music is drawing nearer to an immanence with ambient sound”[Robin Mackay “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Wildstyle in Full Effect” in ed. Keith Ansell Pearson Deleuze and Philosophy: The Difference Machine (London: Routledge, 1998)].

Further Reading

Jacques Attali, Noise
David Toop, Haunted Weather
Douglas Kahn, Noise Water Meat
Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun

Further Listening

Resonance FM (104.4 FM in London, http://www.resonancefm.com/ worldwide)
UbuWeb (http://www.ubu.com)

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