Article by Linnea Semmerling, published initially in Dutch in Metropolis M art Magazine, (5) 2017.
Up until a few years ago, a considerable fear of music was widespread among many artists working with sound. In 2013, the philosopher and music theorist Brian Kane has diagnosed this ‘musicophobia’ among many of the artists and theorists more or less adequately associated with so-called sound art. Broadly defined, sound art can be understood as an artistic practice that uses sound as its medium, that is dedicated to sound conceptually, or that presents sound – or ideas about sound – in ways that elude the realm of traditional music institutions. Over the years, artists and theorists have given a variety of perceptual, conceptual, and institutional arguments for a sound art separate from music. For writers like Christoph Cox, Salomé Voegelin, or Seth Kim-Cohen, the thinking terms of sound have followed those of music either as a kind of elevated abstraction or as a return to its origins with pieces like John Cage’s 4’33’’, Alvin Lucier’s I am Sitting in a Room, or Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète. However, there has also been ample protest from artists who feel restricted by the medium-specificity that the term sound art implies and from theorists who consider the notion to be regressive, if not anachronistic almost two decades after Rosalind Krauss’ inauguration of the post-medium condition. Despite their objections, the term continues to persist – maybe because it is catchy, maybe because it has some actual descriptive relevance, or maybe because it is simply too successful in securing funding. Consequently, the German Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl and the North Rhine-Westphalian broadcasting organization WDR 3 are still issuing the European Sound Art Award on a biannual basis. However, something was different about the 2016 award, and my subtle feelings about some kind of musical transformation were confirmed this summer in Kassel, Venice, and Münster. I would like to try to capture this change as a critical engagement with music, which relies on sound art as a foundation, but may no longer need to distinguish itself as sound art. The artists that I have come across are seriously invested in sound, but their practice is intertwined with music to a degree that overcomes the formerly steadfast boundaries between the two.
Our journey starts in Marl, where Gilles Aubry’s selection for the European Sound Art award has suggested this development to me for the first time. In a way, the 15-year history of this prize reads like a history of sound art in Germany with its focus on site-specific investigations of urban and architectural spaces. However, rather than devoting all his attention to the acoustics and the ambient sounds of Marl city hall, Aubry readily integrates them into a piece that dares to draw on the site’s symbolic power in relation to the representational qualities of music. The thinking terms of music and sound art merge in his confrontation of the Western and Arabic musical tuning systems right under the mayor’s office. Marl city hall is located in a brutalist building by van den Broek and Bakema with the highest offices hovering over a pedestrian passage. Under the passage’s oppressively low concrete ceiling, Aubry has installed six discrete loudspeakers that loop the tuning process of an oud, a middle-Eastern type of lute, from its Arab tuning (a-f-a-D-G-C) to the Western tuning (e-a-D-G-B-E) and back again. A Space of Attunement emerges with the strings bending towards the different musical systems under a solid bureaucratic structure firmly in place. This exploration of musical traditions, cultural conventions, and political systems is quite typical for Aubry’s artistic practice, which mostly relies on archival research and ethnographic methods. Many of his works scrutinize audio recording as a technology of the colonizer and trace its progressive appropriation by the colonized cultures. This has led to archive-based pieces about funeral music in India as well as to field-recording-based works about the soundscape of Bollywood. His documenta_14 radio piece is a collaboration with Robert Millis on the Grammophone Effect, dramatizing the practices of pioneer colonialist recording industries in India in their attempts to market exotic musical cultures. The composition is a strangely haptic experience based on experiments with acoustic gramophones, field recordings from the Indian-Bangladeshi border area, sounds from instrument makers in Bengaluru and Kolkata, as well as early Indian shellac records. It seems to me that Aubry’s critically investigative practice opens out a new perspective on musical cultures that the art world has not yet known – neither from musicians nor from sound artists. With his poststructuralist vocabulary and his ethnomusicological methodology, Aubry achieves something that was not possible before sound art, but is not necessarily sound art anymore. Even though the documenta radio provides other examples of related practices, such as Hong-Kai Wang’s Southern Clairaudience devoted to the worker’s songs of a Taiwanese sugarcane factory, we should move on to Venice.
Right opposite the entrance to the Arsenale, an inconspicuous door leads to Samson Young’s Songs for Disaster Relief at the Hong Kong pavilion. His exhibition is conceived as a charity music album unfolding in space, with multiple installations extending across the entire Venetian estate. His Palazzo Gundane (homage to the myth-maker who fell to earth) inside the building may be the hit single of this album. For some time, the classically trained composer and visual artist has been interested in the Western charity single industry of the 1980s when popstar super groups such as Band Aid formed to record songs like Do they know it’s Christmas? in order to raise funds for African famines. His searches led him to a fake news story about the fictitious Cape Town music group Plaster Cast’s charity single Yes, We Do, aimed at fundraising for contraception in schools in the UK. The producer of this group was supposed to be the singer-songwriter Boomtown Gundane, who Young tried to contact only to find out that he did not actually exist. At his palazzo, visitors now encounter Gundane as a Janus-faced plaster cast of Ronald Reagan and Pythagoras merged with a space station, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and a military bugle horn. He thus symbolizes the curious concurrence of the rise of neoliberalism with its confidence in everlasting progress and a society’s honest belief in the possibility of a world united in the fight for a good cause. For Young, this paradox is connected to his difficulties of reconciling a profitable pop music industry carefully designing tear-jerking products with its compassionate consumers’ honest emotional responses even despite their better knowledge. Gundane’s world has the atmosphere of a hip hotel lobby with a strangely mutated Muzak ranging from comforting jazz and lounge music to eerie synthesizer sounds accompanying high-pitched vocals hushing and squeaking at visitors to “Heal the world!”. In a projection, Gundane is impersonated by the vocalist Michael Schiefel as a Bono-esque figure in a fur coat standing in front of a pump jack on a snowy oil well in Williston, North Dakota, whispering “Thank god it’s them instead of you.” References abound in the room’s elaborate furnishings and decorations, but the most peculiar among them must be Young’s disobedient animations of the Victorian cut-out children that the British pop artist Peter Blake has collaged back in 1984 for the cover of the Christmas hit single. In this fantastical world, music industries, power politics, and helpless emotions seductively merge in a dystopian capitalist dreamscape. Young describes his artistic strategy as a deliberate repurposing and creative misreading of the music, which he develops in a manner that constantly shifts between fact, fake, and fiction. His piece is neither a structural analysis of political incorrectness nor a cynical commentary on emotional manipulation, but rather an honest attempt at understanding the kinds of systems that begin with genuinely good aspirations but eventually turn vicious. It thus not only contemplates the charitably commodified musical product by itself, but also lends a sensitive ear to the processes of the specifically targeted studio production and the compassionate listening practices that are involved. While this does not need to be sound art, it requires an expanded understanding of composition and an awareness of the sociology of music that have been hitherto unheard in the art world.
A very different kind of charity comes into play in Emeka Ogboh’s Passage Through Moondog at Skulptur Projekte Münster. The artist has chosen the pedestrian tunnel by the train station as the site for his 16-channel sound installation, which is a busy pathway for people crossing under the train tracks as well as a hangout for homeless people begging and a prime spot for musicians busking. The piece honors the city’s and possibly the world’s most famous busker, composer and musician Louis Thomas Hardin aka Moondog. After having conquered New York, where he earned the respect of Leonard Bernstein, inspired Artur Rodziński, and lived together with Philip Glass, he came to Germany for a concert series in the 1970s and spontaneously decided to stay. He lived in various German cities before settling in Münster shortly before his death in 1999. Ogboh’s piece for, about, and through Moondog is a combination of field recordings that Ogboh has made in the city, couplets from Moondog’s poetry read by the Skulptur Projekte staff with very German accents, and a performance of Moondog associate Stefan Lakatos jamming on the trimba, a triangular percussion instrument that Moondog has invented. Whereas the curatorial team of the Skulptur Projekte describes the piece as a soundscape for the tunnel supposedly transforming the public space into a Cagean concert hall, I would prefer to think of it as an intervention in the tunnel. The passage is a complex social space by itself with its fragile coexistence of pedestrians and bicycles as well as buskers and beggars. Now the walls, covered in posters and graffiti, are elaborated with loudspeakers mounted in metal cases that are supposed to protect them from theft or vandalism. The sounds from these fierce grey boxes resonate loudly and somewhat metallically throughout the entire tunnel, and one cannot help but think that some people may have a fair reason for wanting the speakers down or at least damaged. Whereas Moondog would have just sat down on the pavement to play with the space’s natural acoustics as many of the current Münster buskers do, this piece takes over the space and claims it all for itself. It thereby not only precludes any attempts at busking, but also turns it into a rather unwelcoming place for people in search of shelter. The practices of municipalities and public transport organizations come to mind that drive buskers and homeless people away by playing classical music in their subway stations. Street music is no longer about entertainment as it reveals its existential dimensions spanning from the loss of livelihood to the deprivation of shelter. Making music in public space becomes a political act of consequence.
This year, Ogboh, Young, and Aubry are by no means alone in their investigations of the musical cultures surrounding urban busking, charity single industries, and indigenous music recording. With Ogboh in Münster, there is Hito Steyerl’s pointer to chart industry lyrics as well as Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca’s amiable exploration of German schlager music. Back in Venice, Kader Attia has collected footage of female Algerian superstar singers. The documenta artist Mattin is interested in noise concerts and the Made in Germany 3 artists Henning Fehr & Philipp Rühr have studied the scene surrounding a New York reggae and dub music label. More established artistic positions like Wolfgang Tilmans or Carsten Nicolai aka (alva) noto come to mind, whose work is deeply rooted in musical subcultures. However, the ways in which these artists conceptualize and aestheticize the different musical cultures does not involve the same critical scrutiny, imaginative elaboration, and daring intervention that have come forth in the committed engagements of Aubry, Young, or Ogboh. While there are many overlaps and entanglements among these artists’ interests in and approaches to musical cultures, I am under the impression that the artists who have been working with sound in depth for an extended period of time tend to develop a body of work that is interested in these cultures not only for the social dynamics they surface or the aesthetics they bring forth, but for the ways in which they produce meaning, stir emotions, and transform public spaces. What they develop is a critical practice with music as sound that we only just learn to read theoretically at the intersections of art and music scholarship, and the social sciences. It leads us into new realms where artists like Hassan Khan or Lawrence Abu Hamdan explore Sufi poetry and Egyptian cassette sermons as media archeologists, activist musicologists, and noise pollution composers. Their ensuing works are not about music, but in music. To me, this suggests that the sound arts may not only be able to overcome their musicophobia, but even enter a fruitful dialogue with the formerly segregated visual arts through their newly inspired engagement with musical cultures. Never underestimate the power of music.