Conceptual Correlations of Sound and Image

2 Aspects of Serialism and the Formal Idiom of Minimalism

On the level of form, the method of identical and differential repetition (e.g., accumulation, interval formation, sequencing, and permutation) symptomatic of minimal and conceptual art may be compared with structural principles in the minimal music of Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley. In contrast to those aspects of the production of objects that focus on the author—such as intention, the original, and the completely finished piece of work—these processes were based on open and closed systems and on categories of intuition and chance, duration and reproduction. If one understands duration in this context as an infinite, contingent process of accumulating noises, sound fragments, and moments of silence, a line of thought can be traced from Marcel Duchamp by way of John Cage’s 4′33″ (1952) to George Brecht’s so-called events (from the late 1950s onward).[3]

Even though such aspects of the formal idiom of minimalism represent only one facet of sound-image relationships in conceptual art of the 1960s, they nonetheless make apparent aspirations to counter the formalism predominant until that time with a new concept of the work of art that was not limited simply to its visual qualities. This phenomenon must of course be seen in terms of Duchamp’s anti-retinal stance and also as a parallel to the influence of Cage’s musical work on the art and dance scenes of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States and elsewhere. Sound thereby becomes an ally in the post-avant-garde critique of artistic discourse that is limited to the authorial image or object production. Flynt’s definition of conceptual art coincided with Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961), which was an unmistakable reference to Duchamp’s object With Hidden Noise (1916/1964); the object in question comprised a form resembling a ball of linen set between two metal plates, and it emitted peculiar sounds when shaken. Inspired by the geometric style vocabulary of minimalism, Morris’s Box consists of a simple, handcrafted wooden box, from the interior of which issue such clearly identifiable sounds as sawing, hammering, and sanding. These sounds were recorded throughout the three hours it took to construct the sculpture. One might refer to such works as pre- or quasi-conceptual works, insofar as they are not so much the result of a material or formal process immanent to the work, as of a construed object-idea that addresses the question of the work’s meaning not solely as a visual issue but as an acoustic one, too. The invisible source of noise thus undermines the traditional form-content dualism both literally and in a playful, dadaist fashion.