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Reviewed by:
  • Klangkunst: Tönende Objekte und klingende Räume
  • M. J. Grant
Helga de la Motte-Haber , Editor: Klangkunst: Tönende Objekte und klingende Räume Hardcover, Handbuch der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert 12, 1999, ISBN 3-89007-432-4, 352 pages, illustrated, index of terms, index of persons, bibliography, € 98; Laaber-Verlag GmbH, Regensburger Str. 19, 93164 Laaber, Germany; telephone (+49) 9498-2307; fax (+49) 9498-2543; electronic mail; Web

Resounding objects, resounding spaces: the subtitle of this book could just as well describe a symphony concert in one of the world's great venues, or the endeavors of a lone busker in a metro station. Without resounding objects and places to resound them in we would not have music. But rarely do the objects and the rooms have such a central, indeed defining, role as in what in Germany is called Klangkunst, or "sound art," one of the most distinctive forms of artistic activity to emerge in the 20th century.

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The subtitle has another function: this is the second book bearing the title Klangkunst to be overseen by Helga de la Motte-Haber, but whereas the first was a sumptuously illustrated catalog for the Sonambiente Festival held in Berlin in 1996, consisting for the most part of biographies of artists/composers, this later text attempts to provide a comprehensive and systematic guide to the history, technology, and aesthetics of this art form. Whereas the previous volume presented no less than 19 short texts (quite apart from the biographies), the present book has contributions from only five different authors, but its aim is in every way more ambitious, to lay the groundwork for the theoretical discussion and understanding of sound art.

This brings me to the problem of [End Page 89] terminology and categorization; I cannot go any further without at least mentioning what has fast become a major pain in the art of composing this review. I started with references to musical forms, then talked of artistic forms, got in a real muddle over what to call the practitioners, and yet there can be no disguising that Klangkunst seems to have more connections to music than to other arts. After all, this volume comes in a series dedicated to 20th-century music. Certainly, we are dealing here with a phenomenon which is in many senses intermedial and interdisciplinary, and the historical backgrounds sketched in many of the chapters in this book show how sound art derived equally from developments in sculpture and installation art as well as from electroacoustic music in particular.

In her opening discussion, Ms. de la Motte-Haber traces the influences of abstract art and of early experimental music and the Fluxus movement which they helped spawn. Her definition of Klangkunst—"Klangkunst is intended to be seen and heard" (p. 13)—echoes through the book as a whole. She picks out the crossing of boundaries and the central role of the observer as two of its central characteristics, and it says much for the quality of the writing in this publication that a discussion of these almost ubiquitous features of modern aesthetic theory can be made to feel compelling once more. Whereas many an author might be content to side-step any attempt at re-categorization (on the belief that such would run contrary to the aesthetic in question), this book's strength lies precisely in covering the basics and in attempting to define theoretical criteria for approaching the subject systematically. The result is as useful to advanced scholars as it is to students new to the field.

What, then, is sound art? It is not merely a hybrid of music and the plastic arts; its form (generally non-developmental, and intermedial), its debt to and application of technology (mechanical, analog, and digital), its specific communicative structures (very often interactive), its locations (in public spaces, for example), and its effects (which can be surmised in part from the many excellent photographs in the book) mark it off as perhaps one of the few genuinely new artistic constellations to have emerged in a century which prided itself on newness. These...


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