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  • The Noise of Art
  • Kenneth Goldsmith (bio)
Review of: Alan Licht, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. New York: Rizzoli, 2007.

Alex Ross, classical music critic for the New Yorker, recently published a chronicle of twentieth-century music called The Rest is Noise. The book made several bestseller lists and was nominated for a National Book Circle Award. Mr. Ross has appeared on numerous TV shows, even bantering with Stephen Colbert about the foibles of Karlheinz Stockhausen on Comedy Central. Earlier overviews of the twentieth-century classical avant-garde were penned by Paul Griffiths and H.H. Stuckenschmidt, yet both were deemed specialty books intended for a small audience. Ross's book is bigger in scope and more generous in tone; it makes clear the connections between politics, history, and music that are remarkably of interest to a general readership. Ross hits all the high notes-- Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Debussy, Stravinsky, Ellington, Ives, Sibelius, Shostakovich, Boulez, Britten, Cage, Messiaen, Ligeti, Reich, and Adams, to name a few--and strings the whole story together in a compelling way that could only happen from the perspective of the twenty-first century. But Ross tells a twentieth-century story and one that is, in many ways, finished.

The Rest is Noise sticks to the narrative of what happened inside the concert hall, but there was an awful lot of music and sound that eschewed formal classical presentation, opting instead for the art gallery, the airwaves, or outdoors in nature. Much of this activity, time-based and ephemeral, either went undocumented or was written about in art magazines, obscure journals, or fanzines. When recordings were made, they were generally released on limited-edition LPs or cassettes that were passed hand-to-hand to members of an inside coterie. Over the years, various attempts have been made by university or small presses to gather aspects of these scenes between the covers of a book, most notably Michael Nyman's Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Douglas Kahn's Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, Robin James's Cassette Mythos, and Dan Lander and Micah Lexier's Sound By Artists. But like the proverbial blind man and the elephant, each book was able to describe only a portion of the unwieldy practice that has come to be known as sound art.

The term "sound art" was coined by Dan Lander in the mid-1980s and stood as shorthand for much of what happened outside the concert hall. Brian Eno proposed that sound art's ideal situation was "a place poised between a club, a gallery, a church, a square, and a park, and sharing aspects of all of these" (Licht 210). The number of disciplines that fell under this rubric can get obscure and exhaustive: fluxus, minimalism, futurism, new music, transmission arts, sounds by artists, performance art, sound sculpture, turntablism, various strains of improv, no wave, sound poetry, aleatory works, process works, and cassette networks. These are just a few ways of working that have been lumped together as "sound art." While not everyone agrees exactly what sound art is, there is a general concurrence that the godfathers of the movement include F.T. Marinetti, John Cage, and Marcel Duchamp; current prominent practitioners are Max Neuhaus, Christian Marclay, Christiana Kubisch, and Stephen Vitiello. Alan Licht's Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories is the first attempt to tame the beast. From the outset, Licht works under one very clear assumption: that for it to be sound art, it must "belong in an exhibition situation rather than in a performance situation" (14). He adds two correlatives: 1) sound art is non-narrative, and 2) sound art "rarely attempts to create a portrait or capture the soul of a human being, or express something about the interaction of human beings" (14). Often, though, these precepts don't hold up: Licht cites numerous examples of sound art that do, in fact, strongly reflect aspects of the humanism he adamantly denies. He also describes a number of compelling performance-based as well as narrative works. While Licht's desire to make these assumptions is understandable, it's clear that he is too much in love with his...

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