MoMA’s “Soundings” exhibition: critiquing the critics

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.
garet                                 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”.

kirkegaard                                      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?

5 thoughts on “MoMA’s “Soundings” exhibition: critiquing the critics

  1. perhaps it’s not simply that the abstract sounds are unfavourable because they are unfamiliar to the ear, but when the art is mainly about the concept of the set up and historical references then the sound is merely the means of execution and not the experience itself, and it loses parts of its impact as a sound. just like some (poor) conceptual art, if the idea can be better represented/written out with an essay, then the art object looses its power. but i agree with you that what may be detestable now can be amazing in the future.


  2. As discussed before somewhere in the comments of another blog here, the discourse surrounding sonic art (or whatever term you like), though quite extensive, is a little more than a few easy google searches away; perhaps a few clicks too far for the average New York art critic with a deadline. I am not making excuses for them – I think it is ignorance at best and arrogance at worst. It’s surprising, as sonic art is hardly an infant. Moreover, dismissal of the abstract and obtuse is by no means a new thing in art criticism, and one might suggest that the past has more than a few lessons for Davidson and Gopnik.
    Readers and writers here are of course immersed in this discourse. We understand that there are ways to stretch the mind around a meaning of organised sounds. As sound artists, we do sometimes ask a high degree of interpretation of an audience, but surely no more that that of someone viewing a Pollock. Familiarity might assist the uninitiated, however it shouldn’t be mandatory to the “success” of a work. Surely we are not meant to be confined to producing talking books.
    What irks me is the perceived need for justification or legitimisation of the art form. I have no problem with the sound artist who works with the familiar, or with the use of artist statements to reveal ideas attached to a work (I write artist statements, and blather on for hours at artist talks and lectures about the “guts” of my ideas). However, I do think there’s a place for a bit of punk rock in our response to what seems to be ignorance or arrogance. Plenty of people do “get” sound art, and I’m ok with the head-scratchers as well. Let them try and work it out…


    1. Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment, Brent. It’s good to see that there is such a clear voice to present a contrasting opinion to the early reviews of the show/sound-art.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s