Conceptual Correlations of Sound and Image

by Sabeth Buchmann, Rainer Bellenbaum

1 From the Work to the Idea: Protoconcepts and New Music

2 Aspects of Serialism and the Formal Idiom of Minimalism

3 Instructions and Notations

4 Presence and Place

5 Perception as Activity in Space and Time

6 Media Encroachments

7 Perception as Participation and a Critique of Representation

8 Dissolution of Boundaries


Sound-image relationships in conceptual art reflect, above all, the interconnections of postwar avant-garde movements in the visual arts and in New Music. Categories of intuition and of chance thereby constitute not only a direct line of thought from Marcel Duchamp’s concept of anti-retinal art by way of John Cage’s indeterminism to the contingent processes of George Brecht’s events. Protoconceptual methods in visual arts can also be compared at the formal level: the structural principles of minimalism with the related structuring model of minimal music, for example. Relational analogies exist, for instance, in a formal idiom based on geometry or patterns and in significant permutation methods such as phase shifting, as demonstrated both by the compositions of Steve Reich and by the minimalist works of Sol LeWitt. The accumulative principle of serialism and the repetition that ensues from it are particularly important principles of this method: form based on repetition is premised on a type of reception in which perception evolves as a proactive, creative activity in space and time. Such visualization of processes of perception, which also characterizes the work of Michael Snow and Tony Conrad, constitutes a crucial aspect of audiovisuality in conceptual art.


1 From the Work to the Idea: Protoconcepts and New Music

To aspire to characterize the connections between sound and image in conceptual art by reference to specific artworks is necessarily to challenge those established canons that restrict themselves to classifying this trend—which emerged in the 1960s and remained predominant up to the mid-1970s—in terms of visual art.[1] The importance of the term concept Art, coined in 1961 by American avant-garde musician and philosopher Henry Flynt and developed with explicit reference to structuring principles in music, must be noted in this regard.[2]

If one considers the interconnections of postwar avant-garde movements in the visual arts and New Music, the historiographic problem of clearly delimiting the bounds of conceptual art becomes particularly obvious. The reception given John Cage, La Monte Young, and Steve Reich in particular demonstrates that links between conceptual art and the musical and performative practices that predated or paralleled it were not limited to the circles associated with Fluxus and minimal art. The Judson Dance Theater was to revive works of New Music, such as those of Erik Satie, on the contemporary art scene. Such ongoing interaction and exchange are evident particularly in New York’s art, music, dance, and film scenes of the time, which are the primary focus of this article. The choreographic works of Trisha Brown, Simone Fortis, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer demonstrate what may be called protoconceptual analogies with musical notation.

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.

3 Instructions and Notations

Morris’s object is comparable to image-sound models in conceptual art because of the significance assigned to its self-referential, if not to say tautological, demonstration of the making-of process. Insofar as the measure of manual labor is emphasized in consciously exaggerated fashion in Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, the work already implies a commentary on those minimalist-conceptual forms of practice in visual art, which, in the tradition of Duchamp’s readymades, gave preference to industrial materials, manufacturing processes, and prefabrication over more traditional studio production. Mention must be made in this regard of the how-to instructions typical of Fluxus and happenings, minimalism, and conceptual art, which is also to return to the notation model mentioned in the introduction. Instructions were intended to facilitate the performability or (re)production of a work by someone other than the artist. Whereas some instructions comprised linguistic information on the realization of a work-idea according to the discretion of each performer, others gave exact instructions with regard to both its reception and its use.[4] As with notation, the serialist aspect here implies, above all, a principle of repetition and reproducibility with regard to the material realization of a work. Whoever beholds a work thus becomes a coproducer, insofar as he or she interprets a piece of information, hence a text, and therefore cocreates it.

4 Presence and Place

Toward the end of the 1960s, works conceived as conceptual art by artists such as Hanne Darboven and Sol LeWitt demonstrated not only the influence of intuition and chance occurrences: the structuring principles of Steve Reich’s minimal music, for example, were also of enormous significance for an artistic trend that sought to renegotiate the primacy of the visual in visual arts.[5] Even though, strictly speaking, compositional methods such as phase shifting have little to do with sound-image relationships proper, they were indispensable to serialist conceptual art formats such as Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes (1974). Instead of representing time and space (in the illusionist tradition), artists recognized in repetitive procedures the potential for a tactile-phenomenological experience of spatialization and temporalization. A linear and organic concept of time ceded to a presence- and place-oriented concept of synchronicity in the sense of spatially located time. Recourse to the structural principles of minimal music, as identified by Pamela M. Lee in LeWitt’s serial methods, allowed not only the moment of in situ production—that is, the work models designed for the specific site of presentation—to become imaginable in visual arts, but also a decentralization of the work structure, insofar as the linear principle of sequentiality was interlinked with the accumulative principle of juxtaposition: a moment that aimed for a real experience of time and space as a recursive structure, the rhythm of which was to generate new stylistic impulses.[6]

5 Perception as Activity in Space and Time

As Morris’s Box clearly demonstrates, the reception-oriented (auto)genesis of perception as activity in space and time is a further crucial aspect of audiovisuality in conceptual art. La Monte Young’s Composition 1961, No. 1, January 1, with its instruction Draw a straight line and follow it, is an example of this, and furthermore illustrates the intermediate orientation of music in the Fluxus context. La Monte Young’s model points to a relationship to a work created by the observer-subject through the physically comprehending act of drawing: hence an act that represents itself on the one hand as a real event generating time and place yet evinces at the same time a metaphysical aspect: for whoever follows Young’s Composition systematically stands a good chance of turning the dominant space-time continuum on its head. Indeed, production, perception/reception, and activity here appear to be short-circuited in a way that seems to point to a virtual space beyond predominant time-space conceptions. The logic of Composition 1961, No. 1, January 1 thus recalls the complete erosion of the periodic theme in romanticism, which in Richard Wagner’s work is extended to the infinite melody—a historic caesura that points to a rhetoric of the delimitation of borders that was of significance also to conceptual art in the 1960s. According to Michael Maierhof, only with Schoenberg and his pupils’ dissolution of tonality around 1908 […] was repetition as a generator of form also challenged radically.[7]

6 Media Encroachments

To hypostatize the act of perception as an active process was the intention also of those artists who sought to reconceptualize cinematic representation on the premise of an affinity to musical experimentation and thus extended the sensory sphere of influence of these various modes of expression to an intermedial form of expanded cinema. Notable in this context are the Canadian musician, filmmaker, graphic artist, and sculptor Michael Snow and the American musician, performance artist, filmmaker, graphic artist, and painter Tony Conrad. Mathematical, geometric, or physical formulas function in their work not only as a formal principle in the sense of a model-like depiction, but at times purely and simply as a laconic cliché. The ensuing relationship of the visual to the musical or auditory level was partly of an analogous, partly of a heteronomous nature.

That the pertinent literature discusses Snow and Conrad above all under the label of structural film[8] or structural materialist film,[9] thereby deducing in particular both artists’ attention to the inherent sensory logic of cinematographic equipment or the interplay of the film strip, camera, and projection, has distorted perspectives somewhat on the intermedial constellations that they created from cinematic and musical/sounding elements. The diversity and excitement of these constellations derived, not least, from the fact that for Snow and Conrad, to develop film projects and to work as a musician (Snow as a jazz musician and Conrad as an avant-garde rock musician and a minimalist musician) were two largely independent activities. Only rarely did their cinema and music practices converge, in the sense of a musical work being used as a soundtrack for one of their films. Snow expressly insisted on the independence of visual and musical modes of expression. A crossover tended rather to occur when he experimented with transposing acoustic parameters of sound such as frequency or wavelength to the cinematic realm (and vice versa). Thus, in Wavelength (1967), he counters the gradually increasing frequency of a sine wave with continual shifts in a camera zoom lens, and also reflects the physically abstract notion of wavelengths in a photographic representation of ocean waves.

For Snow and other protagonists of structural film in the avant-garde tradition the issue was, first, to debunk the media’s growing technical potential to generate mimetic illusion and, second, to thus accelerate an analytic challenge to precisely those systems of codification of cinematic language that they themselves used in developing their interdisciplinary practice. In contrast to the collage methods of deconstructing meaning, so typical of previous avant-garde practice, they focused more on the phenomenological materiality of sound-image correlations, and hence on the appearance and representation of temporality and spatiality, ratio and volume, rhythm and combinatorics. In emphasizing media-technological procedures—such as the variability of recording and projection speeds, or the oscillations, sampling, echo, or feedback effects of film or auditory material—the artists did not so much speculate about semantic procedures for the production of meaning as about physically immediate, perceptive-reflexive, hypnotic, or even hallucinatory experience.

7 Perception as Participation and a Critique of Representation

Snow’s film Presents makes it clear that he did not even remotely limit the visualization of processes of perception to the methods of abstraction or minimalism. Completed in 1981, the film consists of several parts. A series of staged scenes, characterized in particular by the alternation of a mobile stage and a mobile camera tripod,[10] is followed by a one-hour sequence of documentary takes of various length, all of which were filmed with a handheld camera: panning shots that follow birds or parachutes in the sky, waterfalls or sled rides, urban or rural impressions, or intimate bedroom scenes. Common to all these takes is a short, dry sound: a pulse that keeps time with each cut. Although each time the sound is a repetition of the same drumbeat, the combinations of sound and image nevertheless appear to conjure different auditory impressions, as if the drumbeats actually differ from one another depending on whether the camera movement in a take begins at the very moment of the cut; whether, after the cut, the image first remains still before something moves; or whether the camera and motif move in tandem or counter to one another.

While for Michael Snow it is overwhelmingly the heteronomous combinatorics of elements of formalism and a critique of representation that raise awareness of the autogenesis of sensory perception, Tony Conrad focuses as well on the observer’s or listener’s interactive and physical participation in his works. His instrumental arrangement String Loop (1962) is an early example of such work. Essentially, it consisted of a string formed into a loop by means of a slipknot, which was then attached at its two ends to a fixed object such as the floor. The listener is requested to place the string over his or her head in such a way that the loop is stretched tautly over his or her ears to a bridge fastened to the floor, which transmits the sound. When the person thus equipped applies a violin bow to the string to vibrate it, only he or she can hear the stereophonic tone that ensues. Thus, in this instrumental arrangement, the status of listener converges completely with that of musician.

8 Dissolution of Boundaries

Conrad’s lasting concern is to subvert a superficially induced state of contemplative reception. That he thereby relies largely on improvised procedures attests not least to a certain reserve vis-à-vis conceptual work formats that depend on strict instructions. Conrad suspects these formats of an authoritarian compositional practice; his music would instead be structured around pragmatic activity, around direct gratification in the realization of the moment, and around discipline.[11] For Conrad, sustained sound on a violin in particular creates opportunities for compositional collaboration between an author and an interpreter—a technique which he developed in the 1960s, in cooperation with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, and John Cale (Theatre of Eternal Music, known also as the Dream Syndicate).

A few years later, Conrad transposed the ideas he garnered in the acoustic, musical realm to the realm of film. His most famous work, Flicker (1966), consists of alternating sequences of black and completely transparent film frames, whereby the frequency or the alternating rhythm of the respective frames corresponds to mathematical formulas. The film thus develops a stroboscopic effect when projected. Far removed from any linguistic codification, the projection couples the sensory material directly with the bodies of the viewers, who thus experience dissolution of the boundaries of sensory and physiological perception. Moreover, when Conrad projects the film not onto a screen but onto part of the audience, thus enabling the viewers to watch each other as well as the film, the dissolution of boundaries is pushed even further—as the dissolution now also takes place between the various modalities of perception and the state of being perceived.

The spectrum of methods outlined in this article, ranging from chance to instructions and improvisation, may serve to demonstrate that reflection on sound-image relationships in the post-avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s can bring out a dimension of meaning in the term conceptual art that is as diverse as it is contradictory.

all footnotes

[1] This has already been shown in Christoph Metzger, ed., Conceptualisms: Zeitgenössische Tendenzen in Musik, Kunst und Film (Saarbrücken: Pfau, 2003).

[2] Flynt used the term avant la lettre (i.e., a term had not yet existed); it is described today as conceptual art.

[3] See Dieter Daniels, “Der Dualismus von Konzept und Technik in Musik und Kunst von Duchamp und Cage bis zur Konzeptkunst,” in Metzger, Conceptualisms, 31–40.

[4] See Gregor Stemmrich, “Kunst in einem pragmatischen Kontinuum,” in Maria Eichhorn, Douglas Gordon, and Lawrence Weiner, Kopfbahnhof/Terminal, ed. Förderkreis der Leipziger Galerie für zeitgenössische Kunst (Leipzig: Galerie für zeitgenössische Kunst, 1995), 10–27, esp. 24.

[5] Pamela M. Lee, “Phase Piece,” in Sol LeWitt: Incomplete Open Cubes, exh. cat., ed. Nicholas Baume (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), 49–58.

[6] See Michael Maierhof, “Der Standard-Kilometer des Komponisten: Echo, Raum und Wiederholung in der Musik,” in Wenn sonst nichts klappt: Wiederholung wiederholen in Kunst, Popkultur, Film, Musik, Alltag, Theorie und Praxis, ed. Sabeth Buchmann et al. (Berlin: b_books, 2005), 132–136.

[7] Maierhof, “Der Standard-Kilometer des Komponisten,” 133.

[8] See P. Adam Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974), and Birgit Hein and Wulf Herzogenrath, eds., Film als Film: 1910 bis heute; Vom Animationsfilm der zwanziger zum Filmenvironment der siebziger Jahre (Stuttgart: Hatje, 1977).

[9] See Peter Gidal, Structural Film Anthology (London: bfi, 1976).

[10] The rumbling to-and-fro movements of the stage are demonstrated not least by the skipping and sliding of a pickup on a record player.

[11] Tony Conrad, “LYssophobia: On Four Violins,” in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, ed. Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner (New York: Continuum, 2004), 316.

List of books in this text

2003, Author: Metzger, Christoph Publisher: Pfau

Der Dualismus von Konzept und Technik in Musik und Kunst von Duchamp und Cage bis zur Konzeptkunst
2003, Author: Daniels, Dieter Publisher: Pfau

Der Standard-Kilometer des Komponisten: Echo, Raum und Wiederholung in der Musik
2005, Author: Maierhof, Michael Publisher: Materialverl.; b-books

Film als Film: 1910 bis heute
1977, Publisher: Hatje

Kunst in einem pragmatischen Kontinuum
1995, Author: Stemmrich, Gregor Publisher: Förderkreis der Leipziger Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst

LYssophobia: On Four Violins
2004, Author: Conrad, Tony Publisher: Continuum

Phase Piece
2001, Author: Lee, Pamela M. Publisher: MIT Press

Structural film anthology
1976, Author: Gidal, Peter Publisher: Brit. Film Inst.

Visionary film: The American avant-garde
1974, Author: Sitney, P. Adams Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

see aswell

  • George Brecht
  • Trisha Brown
  • John Cage
  • John Cale
  • Tony Conrad
  • Hanne Darboven
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • Teeny Duchamp
  • Henry Flynt
  • Simone Forti
  • Philip Glass
  • Pamela Lee
  • Sol LeWitt
  • Michael Maierhof
  • Robert Morris
  • Steve Paxton
  • Yvonne Rainer
  • Steve Reich
  • Terry Riley
  • Erik Satie
  • Michael Snow
  • Richard Wagner
  • La Monte Young
  • Marian Zazeela
  • Works
  • 4′33″
  • Box with the Sound of its own Making
  • Composition 1961, No. I, January I
  • Compositions
  • Incomplete Open Cubes
  • Presents
  • String Loop
  • The Flicker
  • Wavelength
  • With Hidden Noise

  • Timelines
    1900 until today

    All Keywords
  • Bewußtseinserweiterung (Chap. 6)
  • Entgrenzung (Chap. 8)
  • Flicker (Chap. 8)
  • Intermedialität (Chap. 6)
  • Materialität (Chap. 6, 8)
  • Minimalismus (Chap. 1, 2, 4)
  • Performativität (Chap. 1, 3, 8)
  • Serialität (Chap. 3)
  • Verräumlichung (Chap. 4)
  • Verzeitlichung (Chap. 4)
  • Wechselspiel der Künste / Paragone (Chap. 5)
  • Zufallsverfahren (Chap. 2, 4)
  • collage (Chap. 6)
  • improvisation (Chap. 8)
  • indeterminism (Chap. 2)
  • notation (Chap. 3)
  • participation (Chap. 3, 7)
  • rhythm (Chap. 4)
  • synchronicity (Chap. 4, 6)

  • Socialbodies
  • Judson Dance Theater
  • Theatre of Eternal Music