“Soundings” is MoMA’s first exhibition dedicated solely to “sound art”. It features installations by 16 contemporary artists working with sound – these include notables such as Susan Philipsz (Scotland), Stephen Vitiello (America), Richard Garet (Uruguay), Marco Fusinato (Australia).
Recent reviews for “Soundings” have revealed some interesting attitudes held by critics towards the discipline of “sound art”. As each review contains common reactions to the show some general conclusions can be drawn about the type of sound-art critics prefer:
1. Installations using recognisable sounds or familiar melodic structures are received favourably.
2. Installations that utilise abstracted or dissonant sounds are received unfavourably.
Installations featuring voice, strings, and field recordings fared well in the reviews, these sounds being melodic or familiar to the listener. Thus, for sound art to be “successful”, must the audience recognise the source of the sounding object, or do the reviews merely reflect a conservatism on the part of the critics? Either way, these are critical questions to ponder.
What ensues is a brief overview of some early reviews:
James Davidson, critic for Vulture, notes, “The most effective installations are the simplest and most direct”. Davidson approvingly describes field recordings of bats and fish by Jana Winderen, and a collection of bell sounds by Stephen Vitiello.
In a New York Times article by Blake Gopnik favourable opinions are held towards installations incorporating recognisable sounds. These especially refer to the emotional power of installations re-working classical music such as Janet Cardiff’s “Forty Part Motet”, a choral work using 40 speakers which Gopnik claims is so moving it has often reduced patrons to tears.
Gopnik also praises the orchestral work of Susan Philipsz. Here Philipsz fragments a 1943 orchestral piece composed in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
In a second review Gopnik writes “the best new pieces of so-called sound art are almost all representational: That is, they find new ways to present sonic “images” that we already know and care about, and to comment on them”.
It is established. The sounds of the familiar are praised. Strings, voice, bells, bats … as an audience we have had prior experience with these sounds. We interpret the installations through our own subjective histories.
Conversely, unfavourable reviews generally target abstract works, that is, those which are less “musical” or whose source point is unrecognisable.
Richard Garet, (image courtesy of the artist)
In a review titled “Museum tortures with screechy stylus, LED frame” Lance Esplund mocks the work of Richard Garet whose work uses retro sound technologies. A ball rises and falls on a turntable to symbolise the plight of Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology who was forced to roll a boulder up a hill only to see it fall back down. Esplund writes, “When an artist invokes Sisyphus, you know that it’s you, the viewer, who is in for an uphill climb”. Perhaps Esplund’s own bias is revealed when he writes, “the most compelling pieces here are films”.
Jacob Kirkegaard. (image courtesy of the artist)
Similarly Jacob Kirkegaard’s installation featuring layered room tones from the Chernobyl fallout zone is quickly dismissed. In a review by Justin Davidson the work is simply described as “like listening closely to a session with a dental hygienist”. The responsibility of the reviewer to explore the subject is absent here.
Gopnik’s New York Times review finishes with a quick discussion of the division that, apparently, exists between sound artists: those who are “art trained” like Philipsz and Cardiff who “work around the sounds we most care about”, and the “honk-tweeters” who are “interested in strange beeps and buzzings for their own sakes”. Again the bias towards the sounds of the
familiar is revealed. Where would visual art be today if this same prescriptive attitude prevailed in its domain?
These reviews are highly relevant to anyone who works with field-recordings, acousmatic compositions and sound installations. It seems the confusion between sound-art and music is proving to be problematic for the audience and the artist. Listening to sound-art we anticipate melodic structures or rhythms and lose patience when they don’t appear. We are comforted by the sounds of the quotidian, the bells and bats, yet are repelled by the abstract. Is this a failing on the part of the artist or the listener? We know that the paintings of Dali, Picasso, and Pollack were once similarly regarded as shocking and unapproachable. Their bold artistic works needed to be considered away from the prevailing zeitgeist. The same is true for sound-based installations but are we, and the critics, prepared to dedicate the time necessary to listen attentively?