So, what is sound? It’s a cliche opener, but the answer is easy enough.
Sound is just wiggly air.
It’s as good a definition as any and brings up an interesting issue – the sheer inability of the English language to describe sounds on their own. When we try to talk about sounds, we usually end up talking about the physical objects that produce the sound, rather than the sound itself as an abstract entity. We might describe a “drumbeat” or a “guitar strum” or a “cymbal clash,” but we lack any specific words in our vernacular to talk about what these sounds actually are, outside of a few crude descriptors for volume and pitch. Try and describe your favourite song without referencing the instruments used to create it and you’ll see what I mean. This deficiency in our language represents the historical attitude towards sounds as being inherently tied to the objects that create them and disentangling this assumption is one of the key goals of contemporary sound art practice today.
The human experience of sound is instinctively tied to the real world. Our primate brains are hardwired to try and detect the source of sounds, to try and figure out a “story” to a series of sounds, to detect danger and gather coherent information about our surroundings whenever we can. By detaching sound from its creator, sound art can confuse and even intimidate us by presenting us with a dense impenetrable soundscape or a stripped-back ethereal one.
This primal instinct for understanding is well-displayed in possibly the most famous piece of sound art, sometimes controversial but undeniably revolutionary, John Cage’s 1952 work 4’33”, a musical score that instructs its performers not to play anything at all for the duration of the piece. Primed to consciously listen instead of merely “hearing” by the expectation of a concert setting, the listeners apply their heightened focus to the natural quiet soundscape of the audience itself in lieu of any actual performance and find themselves instead straining to pick up all the tiny natural sounds that humans are constantly making without realising. The overall effect ends up being a slow and exploratory one, as each audience member carefully picks up one tiny sound at a time and then examines the sound from all angles to try and figure out its source – a fidgeting child crinkling a sweet wrapper, a man scratching his stubble, a shoe brushing the floor, etc, before moving onto the next mysterious microsound one can detect and trying to solve it too.
In the opposite direction, some sound artists delight in presenting the listener with completely alien sounds, produced by complex synthesizers and scrambled by digital processing until they have become so abstract any link to the real world is nigh-impossible. A good example of this is the process of “sonification”, where non-audio data is converted to sound form by a computer program and played back. A ubiquitous real life example of sonification you possibly have never thought about is the ticking/chiming of a clock – the idea of time passing having a “sound” is absurd, and yet we have been contextually taught by our surroundings to associate the ticking of a clock integrally with the abstract concept of “time” – ticks speeding up to indicate time passing faster and slowing down to indicate the opposite. Sonification is used for practical purposes in Geiger counters, altimeters in planes, and sonar displays in ships but sound artists can also take this process and apply it to more abstract and unfamiliar concepts to great effect. Mario De Vega’s 2015 “DOLMEN” installation of receivers and bundled radio scanners worked to intercept the everpresent but invisible torrent of radio and infrared signals passing through the air and turn them into audible sounds. If one made a phone call in the vicinity of his radio mast, one could hear the squawk and howl of their phone’s outgoing signals being picked up and rebroadcast by his piece. This interactivity guided the audience to a deeper appreciation for the sounds that aren’t there, the silent chatter of digital signals all around us temporarily given a voice by De Vega to express themselves with.
But sound art isn’t just self-reflective, it can connect people too. Live performances of sound art produce a rare intimacy between listener and artist, akin to watching a painter working with their brush in real-time rather than just observing a static end-product. The tilted head of the practitioner as they delicately tweak dials, the furrowed brow as they gently position a microphone just so, the understated quietness of someone carefully considering their next noise, these things are captivating in a way few other experiences are as a performer (or performers) gently coax sounds from a box. Unlike a painting, a film or a commercial song, these performances only exist in the moment and then in memory – the moment you are sharing with the artist is a special one that you will never be able to experience again, adding a deep poignancy to the experience, and that transient aspect and lack of a fixed material context elevates sound art performance to an almost unparalleled level of intensity.