Colloquium: Sound Art and Music

Colloquium: Sound Art and Music

by Thomas Gardner, Salomé Voegelin

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In 2012, Thomas Gardner and Salomé Voegelin hosted a colloquium, entitled "Music - Sound Art: Historical Continuum and Mimetic Fissures", at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. This colloquium dealt with the current fervent debate concerning the relationship between sound art and music. This book proposes the opening of the colloquium to a wider readership through the publication of a decisive range of the material that defined the event.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782798941
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 09/30/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Thomas Gardner is a musician who is specially interested in the relations between sound art and music, both in terms of the schizophonic splits introduced by electronic media and the new collaborative practices which emerge from them. He is course director of the MA in Sound Arts at the London College of Communication.

Salomé Voegelin is an artist and writer engaged in listening and hearing as a socio-political practice of sound. She is the author of Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art and Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. She is a Reader in Sound Arts at the London College of Communication.
Salomé Voegelin is an artist and writer engaged in listening and hearing as a socio-political practice of sound. She is the author of Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art and Sonic Possible Worlds: Hearing the Continuum of Sound. She is a Reader in Sound Arts at the London College of Communication.

Read an Excerpt

Colloquium: Sound Art and Music

By Thomas Gardner, Salomé Voegelin

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2015 Thomas Gardner and Salomé Voegelin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-895-8



Tradition, Codification, and Materiality



Allen S. Weiss

The 20 century has seen music at the centre of a continuing polemic about its forms and limits: tonal vs atonal, music vs noise, high vs low, and now music vs sound art. In fact, our modalities of listening as well as the use-value of sounds are in constant transformation, and the above dichotomies reveal the richness of organised sound. According to historical circumstances, one and the same sound can be transformed from noise to mystery to imitation of nature to imitation of music to music. A fascinating case in point is the suikinkutsu (literally 'water zither cave'), a Japanese instrument created in the early Edo period: a sort of pot buried underneath the laver where one ritually purifies oneself before the tea ceremony, such that the water overflowing the laver enters the chamber and drips into a pool, creating sounds akin to that of the kin, a sort of Japanese zither. Originally, the mysterious presence of these sounds emanating from the earth would have served as a prelude to the highly codified sounds of the tea ceremony. But the confluence of modern noise pollution, the advent of nontraditional instruments, and the conception of the soundscape have annulled the mystery of these sounds and made of the suikinkutsu a new form of instrument.

Salomé Voegelin

At present traditional musical composition (which can be brought together under the terms contemporary classical, new classical or art music) and a contemporary sonic output (summarised in the term sound art) represent distinctly different practices and are approached through separate critical languages. While contemporary classical music is investigated via traditional musicology, most other sonic works are theorised in relation to visual arts discourse. Even as this visual affiliation has aided sound art's recognition, making it more visible, it has hidden its musical heritage and those aspects of its practice that recall that history. Consequently contemporary sonic output is rarely appreciated and approached as a critical response to previous and concurrent musical works but is mostly considered in relation to the concerns of visual practice and theory. In this opening statement I will articulate my desire for a comparative framework for sound art and traditional music that seeks not to simply affiliate sound art to music but aims to open music, musicology, its funding networks and performance platforms to sound art. What I want to put forward for discussion is the notion of a 'continuum of sound': to reconnect sound art with traditional music and to produce an analytical framework that can access and investigate both within one critical language.

First Provocation – Allen S. Weiss

The Limits of Representation: a case study of transformations in the sonic aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony

One of the most beautiful, though relatively unknown, types of Japanese sonic installations is the suikinkutsu (water zither cave), said to have been invented by the great tea master Kobori Enshu (1579–1647). The water that is used to purify the hands and mouth before the tea ceremony overflows from the chozubachi (laver) into the tsukubai (the stone arrangement in which the laver is placed), and is then evacuated into the suikinkutsu (a small buried jar or chamber) where the water drips into a pool at the bottom, creating sounds akin to those of the kin, a type of zither. As the guests kneel down in a gesture of ablution, they are met with a mysterious aquatic sound emanating from the earth. The suikinkutsu is usually made of pottery, with an irregular unglazed surface that causes numerous droplets of water to form and drip in irregular patterns, thus creating a complex sonic environment which we would now characterise in stochastic terms, where the earth resonates with the song of water. This aleatory 'music', as if of liquified earth, variously serves as purification of body and soul, as an anticipation of the pleasures of the tea ceremony, and as a prefiguration of the rare sounds that punctuate the stillness of the tea hut during the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu): hot water for tea. And yet this sound can not be named, situated or classified.

As it takes approximately twenty years to begin to master the tea ceremony, and here we have but a few minutes to grasp its essence, I would like to suggest its ambiance and synthesise its aesthetic with the help of several short lists. To harmonise the terms of these lists would be to imagine the proper mind-set required to appreciate tea aesthetics, stressing the role of the roji (dewy path) and the tea room as a site of extreme aesthetic concentration that functions in various parameters, each of which establishes a precise and codified set of sonic expectations, notably: the performance of the choreography of tea; the exhibition of objects in the tokonoma (alcove); the critical and ritualised examination and discussion of the art objects.

(1) The 'three sounds of tea': the clink of the lid on the kettle; the tap of the tea bowl on the mat; the clink of the tea spoon on the tea bowl: metal on metal, pottery on straw, wood on pottery – a sonic combinatory of the materials intrinsic to tea. But there is yet another sound, metaphoric and metonymic, one which links inside to outside, microcosm to macrocosm: the strains of the boiling kettle, which is said to sound like the wind in the pines, not coincidentally, what is heard in one of the most famous traditional works for shakuhachi flute, Matsukaze. The novelist Kawabata Yasunari describes this effect in a scene from Snow Country: 'The innkeeper had lent him an old Kyoto teakettle, skilfully inlaid in silver with flowers and birds, and from it came the sound of wind in the pines. He could make out two pine breezes, as a matter of fact, a near one and a far one. Just beyond the far breeze he heard faintly the tinkling of a bell.' Thus the tea ceremony establishes a codified set of sonic expectations, in this case of water heard as wind.

(2) The four basic precepts of tea: harmony, respect, purity, tranquillity (wa kei sei jaku). A mix of Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, Buddhism.

(3) Three forms of beauty (according to Haga Koshiro): simple and unpretentious, imperfect and irregular, austere and stark.

(4) Four pertinent aesthetic features (according to Donald Keene): suggestion, irregularity, simplicity, perishability.

(5) Seven characteristics particular to the Zen sensibility (according to Hisamatsu Shin'ichi): asymmetry, simplicity, austere sublimity or lofty dryness, naturalness, subtle profundity or deep reserve, freedom from attachment, tranquillity.

(6) Aesthetic principles of wabi / sabi / shibui.

(a) Wabi: poverty, quietness, tranquillity, solitude, humbleness, frugality, unobtrusiveness, asymmetrical harmony, elegant rusticity.

(b) Sabi: literally rust; wear and patination by age and use; sabi denotes a sense of familiarity, continuity, history, antiquity, and a corresponding feeling of passing and loss, loneliness and melancholy; by extrapolation, in its extreme instances, it evokes bleakness, chilliness, desiccation, desolation, extinction.

(c) Shibui: literally 'astringent'; understatement, suggestion, restraint, modesty, discrimination, formality, serenity, quiet taste, refined simplicity, noble austerity.

To synthesise all of the above, impossible as it may be, would be to establish the mindset in which one could listen to the sound of the suikinkutsu in the context of a 17-century tea ceremony. The most famous suikinkutsu extant is to be found in the Enko-ji temple in Kyoto. However, the changes wrought by modernisation – vastly increased ambient noise and intensive tourism – have resulted in a radical transformation of the social and symbolic functions of this instrument, as well as changes in its form.

In a monumental paradigm shift, the foundational aesthetic Zen discourse has given way to modernist Western modes of listening, in the epoch where, ironically, the democratisation of the tea ceremony has made its form available to everybody, but its depth all the more hidden. This new form of listening, according to which such sounds could be heard as music, needs to be considered according to both Western and Japanese musical genealogies, for example: Henry Cowell, Aeolian Harp (1923); Henry Cowell, The Banshee (1925); Edgar Varèse, Ionisation (1931); Pierre Schaeffer, Études aux chemins de fer (1948); John Cage, 4'33" (1952); Olivier Messiaen, Le merle bleu (1956–58); Iannis Xenakis, Concrète PH (1958); Takemitsu Toru, Water Music (1960). With these sonic innovations in mind, we may now imagine the sounds of the suikinkutsu in both the context of a traditional tea ceremony and that of modernist music, as in Steve Feld's Suikinkutsu (2006), which begins with the raw recording of the suikinkutsu of Enko-ji (Kyoto) with the ambient sound of cicadas, followed by a Cage-inspired mix of these very same sounds.

No longer do the sounds of this suikinkutsu offer an occult surprise for the privileged few chosen to attend a tea ceremony, since for the vast majority of attendees – who are now tourists – it has been turned into the mere curiosity of an unusual musical instrument. The secret, symbolic, esoteric sounds previously linked to the tea ceremony have been transmogrified into a public sonic event, a new form of music. This change is instantiated by the revised form of the instrument: previously, the entirety of the suikinkutsu was buried underground creating an invisibility that led to astonishment; but now wooden bamboo tubes have been inserted into the echo chamber to amplify and transmit the sound, so as to countervene the noisy ambiance. Ironically, this tube system also serves as a barrier, so that the laver cannot be approached and utilised, effectively transforming the suikinkutsu into a sculpture, a situation reinforced by the fact that the ladle that normally would be laid across the bamboo support spanning the chozubachi is now usually absent. The suikinkutsu thus loses its surprise effect just as the chozubachi is deprived of its purifying function. It is no longer the gesture of purification that creates the sound, but rather the water's constant flow, without human intervention. We experience modern music of a sort, not the poetic resonance of the tea ceremony as a performance of purification.

Second Provocation – Salomé Voegelin

Historical Interest: a pragmatic provocation for a continuum of sound

My short statement that was sent out to you with the invitation to this colloquium, and that is represented here by the abstract, articulates my desire to reconnect sound art with music and to produce an analytical framework that can access and investigate both within one theoretical context. What I want to put forward for discussion is the notion of a 'continuum of sound' understood not as an unproblematic, homogenous line of attribution and reference, but as a complex, contradictory, even antagonistic field within which a comparative study of all that sounds can take place.

In the background of this desire for a comparative study of sonic works across genres and times is my sense that there is something we do not hear in contemporary musical and sound art works because our perception is at once enabled and limited by disciplinary frameworks, pedagogic schemes, habits, and expectations, rather than through an open and pluralistic listening. I am persuaded that there is the potential for a different listening, hearing, and theorisation that we cannot achieve because, hindered by 'disciplinary correctness', we lack a joint critical framework to analyse, study, and interpret traditional musical composition and a contemporary sonic output. I believe that there is something we cannot hear, that remains inaudible in the works we listen to if we do not hear them within the holistic and plural complexity of influences and histories, and if instead we seek to explain and explore them within separate frameworks and in relation to non-sounding paradigms.

I will try to briefly clarify what I mean and take 1950 as a not entirely accurate but not entirely arbitrary date either: at that point some sonic expressions left the classical musical trajectory and under the term electroacoustic composition built their own context, still as music, but to the side of what was going on in conservatoires. Then, in and around the 1960s and 1970s, other musicians developed soundscape compositions and soundscape research that have found a context within and without musical theorisation towards anthropology, social geography, and social studies. Most other sonic work that does not play within those two groups, and yet also does not conform to conservatory expectations, has found a home, through the legacy of Fluxus, within the context of visual arts. (I am aware that I am leaving radio art to one side here for now.)

While this visual arts context has given sound art visibility and popularity it has not necessarily made it more audible. In fact I would argue that the heavy contextual and conceptual focus of contemporary visual art's discourse has impeded the development of a critical listening practice that could make accessible, audible, and thinkable the sound in the work. The visual discourse does not invite listening as a generative practice or as exploration of the work's materiality. Consequently sonic works in the visual art's context are mainly talked about for what they look like and what concepts they represent rather than what they sound like and thus what concepts they produce. They are rarely considered for their sonic materiality or understood to be produced through an auditory experience, but for meanings and concepts that are staged and signalled but not realised in sound, and that are at best illustrative of but never produced or explored through its material.

Some may think this is a small price to pay for visibility and popularity and are happy to work on visual terrain, but I think the price is far too high and indeed that it is not only sound art but visual art itself that is missing a chance to invigorate its flat conceptuality with the demanding materiality of sound.

On this background and for this reason, I want to claim some of music's heritage for sound art. I want to lay claim to music's history as one of sound art's histories, and propose that considering sound art in relation to music can bring about a new focus on sound in art: on its materiality and its conceptuality, on how we produce and how we participate in works, and on the demand of the invisible, which challenges and augments what we see, and can help us access what remains inaudible within other contexts too. This is, importantly, not a laying-claim to music theory and musicology's history, but to the history of musical practice, its processes and outcomes, as an important provenance of sound art that in turn it gives its future.

This musical heritage, I believe, would enable a theorisation of works with sound from listening rather than through ideas of concept, structure and context alone: from the material as it were rather than from ideas. In this way it would reveal and disregard the limitations of the conceptual and contextual focus of visual discourse, and it would also contest a musicological attention on the score, on biography and more recently on context, implode its traditional frame of reference, and allow us to listen to music as a listening to sound, to write about it from the heard rather than from the infrastructure of its theorisation. From there music and sound art could share a plural listening, offering a comparative field that could purview visual arts too.

By claiming music's heritage for sound art I do not mean to plot a homogenous line or to make an orderly historical chronology, and neither do I want to use a conventional musicology or music theory to explore and identify contemporary sonic works. Rather, I believe that my reaffiliation of sound work with music has the more radical consequence of not only reconsidering and augmenting how we talk about sound arts, what references we pursue, and what histories we construct, but that it will also radicalise the classic musical paradigm: challenging its aesthetic, theoretical, educational as well as its financial homogeneity and hegemony.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements viii

Preface 1

Part 1 Tradition, Codification, and Materiality 5

Provocations 6

First Provocation Allen S. Weiss. The Limits of Representation: a case study of transformations in the sonic aesthetics of the Japanese tea ceremony 8

Second Provocation Salomé Vocgelin. Historical Interest: a pragmatic provocation for a continuum of sound 13

Transcript of First Colloquium Discussion 19

Responses 29

First Response Nye Parry. Notation and the Work-Concept in Conceptions of Music and Sound Art 31

Second Response David Toop. Interviewed by Salomé Voegelin at the V&A: seeing Harpo Marx play the piano, destroy it, and play it as a harp 56

Part 2 Commodification, Rhythms, and Experience 69

Provocations 70

First Provocation Volkmar Klien. Consonances, Community, and Reflexivity: remarks on the relationship of music and the (sound) arts 71

Second Provocation Cathy Lane. Why Am I a Sound Artist? Am I a Sound Artist?: some thoughts on the relationship between music and sound art 78

Transcript of Second Colloquium Discussion 83

Responses 98

First Response Leigh Landy. Sound Art 'vs' Electroacoustic Music: finding value for the heart and the brain 100

Second Response Aura Satz. Out of Step | A Rhythm That Marches: Aura Satz in conversation with Thomas Gardner 109

Part 3 Participation, Listening, and Place 121

Provocations 122

First Provocation Simon Emmerson. Ritual, Sound, and Music 124

Second Provocation Thomas Gardner. Reciprocal Mimesis and Grounded Mimesis 135

Transcript of Third Colloquium Discussion 144

Responses 170

First Response Claudia Molitor. The Taste of the Apple: composing as a process of listening, looking, drawing, and writing 171

Second Response Kathy Hinde. Three Phone Conversations in the Field: recording pink-footed geese in the Montrose Basin in Scotland 179

Postscript Kate Lacey. Reading the Colloquium: undisciplined reflections 203

Biographies 213

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