Can You Hear That? It’s Sound Art

Recycled Record, Christian Marclay, 1980. Image courtesy of artist collection.

If you’ve ever pursed your lips and blown into an empty glass bottle, you’ve participated in creating an art form known as sound art. Sure, blowing some hot air in a bottle and calling it a sound installation is a bit of a stretch, but the point is, sound art is around us in so many random, mundane ways. It’s often defined as any three-dimensional object manipulated to produce sound, so the bottle trick fits. While I agree with this definition, it is somewhat limited because sound art takes many forms. And to prove it, this article highlights a variety of these “many forms.” 

Like any art genre, there are those considered the “greats” of sound sculpture like John Cage with 4’33”  (1952), Max Nehaus’ Times Square (1977-92), and Christian Marclay’s Recycled Records (1980-86). While these artists opened new doors and paved paths for their contemporaries, today, sound art is taking on new forms. Early sound sculpture existed as more of an experiential form of music making, recording, and even a way to showcase sound in unthinkable locations (think Bill Fontana’s 1984 Distant Trains.) Current sound installations exist in a variety of forms, such as performance, digital, in nature, and as sculpture. So, let’s take a look at some more current examples of sound art.

Interactive Sound Mural, Thomas Detour Evans, 2023. Photo Courtesy of artist's Instagram.

Remember the empty bottle trick? Well, Artist Diane Landry took empty bottles to new heights by creating a motorized sound installation called Knight of Infinite Resignation back in 2009. Using bicycle wheels, plastic bottles of water, sand, and LED lights, Landry crafted a moving sound sculpture that, according to the artist, shows “human time and eternity condensed into [the] enigmatic wheels, as is that between human and cosmic scales: the viewer oscillates between recognizing the hand-held water bottle and seeing star systems in their arrangement.” This combination of audiovisual and motion creates a multi-layered effect, ultimately calling to humankind’s limited time on Earth through one of our world’s most precious resources, clean water. Knight of Infinite Resignation has remained relevant and continues to exhibit all over the country for over a decade. 

Now that we’ve seen a sculptural form of multimedia sound art, let’s talk about interactive sound painting. In recent months, Denver-based artist Thomas “Detour” Evans has been on a musical sound art kick. He creates geometric, bright murals that can actually be played like an electronic instrument. When a part of the mural is touched, a different musical sound plays. Detour posted a video of the sound installation featuring several smiling faces glued to the wall, pressing shapes, making beats, laughing, looking, and listening to the sounds. This installation truly demonstrates what a multi-sensory experience sound art can be. And it is versatile and accessible. If you cannot hear the sound, you can touch the wall, if you cannot touch the wall, you can see it–a multitude of options that many art forms do not make room for. 

The Wave Organ, Peter Richards and George Gonzalez, 1986. Photo courtesy of exploratorium website.

Now we’ve seen installed, sculptural sound art and interactive sound art, but there’s also sound sculpture that relies on the natural world around it like The Wave Organ at King Tide in San Francisco. According to art blog Mental Floss, artist “Peter Richards developed the idea for the Wave Organ in the 1970s and tapped sculptor George Gonzales to help him bring the concept to life. The installation was finished in 1986 and has been delighting visitors in San Francisco Bay ever since. The sound is created when waves interact with 25 organ pipes made out of PVC and concrete that are installed at different elevations.” Although I have never seen it in person, I imagine the Wave Organ as one big seashell, singing the songs of the ocean sounds. There is something so fascinating about sound sculpture that is vulnerable to its surrounding atmosphere, just like this unusual organ. Its sound changes depending upon the weather, specifically the wind gusts, that day. 

The magic of Vinyl Terror & Horror, Camilla Sørensen and Greta Christensen, 2018. Photo courtesy of artist website.

And what about performance sound art? Artists Camilla Sørensen and Greta Christensen took performative sound art to a destructive new level by cutting, gluing, recontextualizing, and purposefully ruining vinyl records back in the mid-2000s. The group calls themselves Vinyl Terror & Horror, for good reason. Vinyl music lovers may watch in horror as Christensen and Sørensen place torn up records onto record players and hit play. The screeching and scratching that comes from this unthinkable occurrence, according to the artist’s website, “is focused on the relationship between objects and sound. It is presented in different situations as installation, sculpture, composition work or as live concerts. The work—whether it is presented as an installation or a concert—uses sound to create a narrative that always directly refers to the medium playing it or the situation it is presented in.” Sometimes it's nice to know that art can be destructive, and Vinyl Terror & Horror reminds us of that.

And finally, what about digital sound art? It happens, too. Later this year, the NY MoMA will showcase Portuguese artist Alexandre Estrela’s Flat Bells which, according to the MoMA’s website, draws on “elements of geometric abstraction, graphic design, and experimental music. Flat Bells orchestrates sonic tempo and visual rhythm across multiple screens to examine how visual culture is experienced and marked by technological obsolescence.”

Sound art is among one of the most versatile genres of art. It can be made from recycled materials, installed, painted, or touched, it can be musical, it can be seen or heard, it can be natural, destroyed, turned into something new, and it can be electronic. Sound art is an incredible realm of endless possibilities—with so much more sound, mediums, and ideas to explore.

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