Sound Art

1 Precursors of Sound Art

Precursors of sound art can be found among composers shortly after 1900. Spatial effects by Charles Ives (The Unanswered Question, 1908) and the impression of dynamic sound surfaces and volumes by Edgard Varèse (Amérique, 1918–1921) provided the act of composing with spatial references, thus pointing to the constitutive function of place and spatial movement in music. Erik Satie’s concept of musique d’ameublement (1920) was to lend a subtle and specific background to a location and thus to produce an effect which is comparable to warmth or light.

Also of importance were some attempts from 1910 onwards which aimed at finding analogies for musical structure in painting (e.g., František Kupka, Fuge in zwei Farben (Amorpha), 1912) and later in sound film (e.g., Oskar Fischinger, Tönende Ornamente, 1932). During the second half of the twentieth century, textual, graphic, and sculptural scores by among others Mauricio Kagel (Transición II, 1959), Earle Brown (Calder Piece, 1965/66), and Dieter Schnebel (Mo-No: Musik zum Lesen, 1969) were discussed as a connecting link between the fine arts.

At the same time that visual collage techniques were being introduced, style collage (e.g., Charles Ives, Central Park in the Dark, 1906/1946) and noise collage in futurism and in sound poetry expanded musical sound material beyond conventional compositional and instrumental concepts. Both Allan Kaprow’s concept of happenings (1959) as events which mobilize or actively integrate the audience and the artistic synthetic actions in the Fluxus circle provide further examples of sound art’s conceptual foundations. Subsequently, Nam June Paik created the concept of sound installation avant la lettre in Symphonie für 20 Räume (1961), which was partially realized in Exposition of Music – Electronic Television in 1963.

In kinetic art, Jean Tinguely’s resounding scrap sculptures established the temporalization of sculpture (e.g., Metamechanisches Relief, 1954). In Mauricio Kagel’s Musica para la torre (1953/54) and in the spatio-dynamic towers by Nicolas Schöffer (1954; with sounds provided by Pierre Henry and Henri Pousseur), the sound sphere of urban space is integrated into the oeuvre.