Though ill-considered as an artistic medium, sound recordings have been produced by visual artists within a variety of contexts since the beginning of the twentieth century and are numerous. Artists and individual works discussed in the following pages have been selected with an ear toward their individual merits, as representative of more general formal and aesthetic currents and for their significance within the broader context of twentieth century art and popular culture.
Taking off from Walter Benjamin's assessment of gramaphone records as enabling 'the original to meet the beholder halfway, I have traced my way to the contradictory notion of the recording as the 'original,' ill-suited for live 'reproduction,' through the application of an essentially formalist, and ultimately photographic, critical apparatus.
The very idea of an Audio Art implies a genre defined foremost by formalist concerns. The recordings discussed cover a broad spectrum, including poetry, music, text and drama. The foundation upon which my arguments for sound recordings as works of art are based, is the popular understanding of mechanically reproduced media as accurate transcriptions of reality. Both photography and sound recording developed, not within the fine arts community, but rather within popular culture. Their substantial popular histories are inextricably linked to their capacity to 'capture' that specific time and place and to transform it into a piece of documentary evidence, whether it be Matthew Brady's Civil War or RCAs Caruso concert.
Music, in fact, has been one of the more problematic aspects of this study. For many, the Audio Arts are merely an extension of the musical avant garde and, as euphemisms go, only slightly less derogartory than 'experimental.' Many of the major advances in the Audio Arts have indeed been made by avant-garde composers. John Cage, in many ways, serves as a pivotal figure in this history. Having produced work in several media, he is nonetheless best known as a composer. One of Cages best known pieces, consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence (4'33" 1952). Rather than attempt to draw that nebulous line between composers and sound artists, it will suffice to state that superficial distinctions, such as whether or not a particular individuall works in a visual medium as well, or whether or not a particular individual has a record on the pop charts, will be kept to a minimum. I have instead tried to focus on the medium of sound recording itself and the seeds of its practice as we know it.
As the primary product of the recording industry, music represents a substantial percentage of audio artworks. Regardless of what one chooses to call it, the influence of the recording medium itself has affected much of the 'music' recorded during our time, by rock musicians as well as 'experimental' or 'serious' composers and artists. When audio recording and playback equipment came into general use, the very nature of being a composer or musician changed drastically. Composer Glenn Gould personifies this shift within the world of classical music, combining many takes of the same piece for the perfect (recorded) performance. Many recording artists are more competent with a recording studio than any traditional musical instrument. This trend has accellerated recently with the mass availability of digital processing and recording equipment. The genre of pop music currently known as urban contemporary vividly demonstrates the shift in general use of the medium from 'accurate transcriiption of reality' to material for plastic manipulation.' Using prerecorded discs of various beats and rhythm phrases, contemporary musicians compose today's hip-hop, scratch and funk. Even within the realm of pop music there exists a demonstrable concern with the intrinsic qualities of the medium. The band Bonzo Goes To Washington achieved a modest commercial success with Five More Minutes, a dance record sculpted around a recording of Ronald Reagan's infamous slip up, 'My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that we have just passed legisilation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.' By processing the tape through a sampler, the President of the United States was transformed into a parody of the popular raving rap star, or vice-versa.
The one minute silence that concludes the third piece leaves the listener- in doubt as to when the piece actually ends. The Lombirdi reconstruction first came to my attention through an Austrian radio producer who mentioned that she had doubts about its suitability for airplay as silence is commonly considered as 'dead air' and frowned upon by radio regulators. Michael Kirby asserts that the nature of radio programming in the 1930s was much different than it is now, and at the time when Marinettis scores were written, listeners were more likely to tune in for a specific program and less likely to be station scanning as is the general custom today. John Cage would later become famous for his piece, 4'33", which consisted of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Cage's silence, however, was not 'pure' and allowed for the ambient sounds of the concert hall. Marinettis silence, of course, could not have been 'pure' in any radio broadcast then or now unless white noise constitutes purity.
Marinetti and Masnata also called for 'fights of sounds and different distances, namely the spatial drama added to the temporal drama. If the spatial drama of' which the manifesto speaks seems improbable in a sculptural sense, as the later score suggests, the Drama of Distances might fulfill a more literal interpretation:
If The Buildiiig of Silence failed to create a physical sense of distance due to the technical limitations of the era, Drama of Distances would certainly have conveyed at least a referential sense of distance with its juxtaposition of easily identified sounds from specific places.
While it is unclear whether or not Marinetti ever realized these scores, Kurt Schwitters was among the first to approach sound recording as a plastic medium. Using sound film, Schwitters edited and collaged his nonsense poems after he recorded them and before he pressed them into records. Everett C. Frost cites Klaus Schöning's talk given at theInternational Congress on the Evolution of Broadcasting:
With the introduction of tape recording technology many years later, this idea of editing sound became more commonplace, no doubt taking its lead from cinematic technique.
The notion of collaging sounds from life to create music is most commonly associated with Pierre Schaeffer, head of the Radiodiffusion Broadcast Studios in Paris, in the 1940s. It is to Schaeffer that the term musique concrète is attributed. Using his Paris broadcast studios, he began his experiments in 1942. In the United States, John Cage was the first to create a musique concrète work. In the same year that he presented the notorious 4'33" (1952), he introduced his first piece composed specifically for magnetic tape. Williams Mix was constructed from a library of recorded sounds divided into six types: country sounds, city sounds, electronic or synthetic sounds, windproduced sounds (including songs), manually-produced sounds and small sounds requiring amplification to be heard with the others. The various sounds were played on eight discrete tracks of recording tape so that they overlapped. The score for the piece was determined using the I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes which Cage used often throughout his career. The use of tape libraries and chance operations would later become common compositional techniques for experimental composers.
To some extent, Cage was influenced by Futurist and Dada art. He cites the work of Marinetti and Russolo in his early writings and he was a close friend to Marcel Duchamp. The extended capabilities of new recording technology made possible the realization of most (largely) theoretical work proposed in the early part of the century. Artists were not, however, the only people to realize this. When Leopold Stokowski began broadcasting in 1929, he was astonished to discover that in addition to a carefully planned seating arrangement of his orchestra, certain instruments could be emphasized or buried with the use of the mixing console. Encouraged by his experience, in 1931 he proclaimed that 'the composer of the future will create his harmonies directly in tone by means of electrical-musical instruments which will record his idea exactly.' Working in colliboration with Bell Laboratory, Stokowski, by the late 1930s, had created stereophonic recordings twenty-five years before stereo was introduced.
In addition to the use of prepared tapes, by the 1970s rock began to perform live using technology that had previously been limited to the recording studio. Brian Eno, as a member of the art-rock band Roxy Music, began playing synthesizers and treating other instruments with electronic filters during live performances. In his subsequent solo studio recordings, Eno adopted chance techniques of composition in addition to his extreme manipulation and collaging of sound. He has acknowledged the influence Cage specifically in relation to his tape music and chance operations. Along with painter Peter Schmidt, he created Oblique Strategies (1975), a set of cards with instructions and suggestions that may be applied to a variety of creative activities. While recording in the studio, he would place the cards face down around the room. When confronted with a creative problem, one or several cards could be consulted for inspiration and direction. Over 100 cards offered a variety of suggestions:
The collage sensibility has been appropriated by recording artists of all sensibilities. In the 1950s, Buchanan and Goodman predicted the postmodern fever of 1980s with their hit, The Flying Saucer, in which they pieced together bits of hits such is I Hear You Knockin and Earth Angel with segues of newscaster patter about platters from outer space. They even released a novelty Christmas record called Santa and the Satellite using the same formula. As with many of the contemporary collage platters, Buchanan and Goodman soon found themselves facing lawsuits for copyright infringement. A current example of this problem concerns a piece by Steinski and the Mass Media that cannot be sold commercially due to the legal complications involved with the appropriated bits, but was included free with New Music Express (February 1987). The Motorcade Sped On begins with Ed McMahon's famous introduction, 'Here's Johnny,' is followed by John Kennedy's 'Ask not what your country can do for your ...' rap, and is mixed with Walter Cronkite's 1963 coverage of the JFK assassination, all anchored by a funk beat.
Meanwhile, in the world of 'serious' music, Steve Reich had begun his tape recorder experiments in 1965. It's Gonna Rain featured the voice of Brother Walter, a Pentecostal preacher whom Reich recorded on the streets of San Francisco. Reich created two identical tape loops of the preacher's sermon about the end of the world. The loops are played simultaneously and allowed to gradually shift out of phase with one another creating, as Reich calls it, a controlled chaos.' Brian Eno, among others, has cited Reich as an inspiration for his own work with tape loops.
Throughout the 1960s, Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs worked with tape recorders and scissors to create audio cut-ups. Burroughs cites the early Dada experiments of Tristan Tzara and others as influences on his tape recorder experiments along with the writing method of Gysin. Burroughs later came to exert a tremendous influence on rock musicians of the 1970s. Artists ranging from Patti Smith to David Bowie have acknowledged him as a source for their own work. The industrial band Throbbing Gristle released a collection of Burrough's cut-ups on their Industrial Records Label. The album was entitled Nothing Here Now But The Recordings (1959-1980), (1981).
By the 1970s, performance art had experienced a tremendous growth. Laurie Anderson's first performance in 1972, Automotive, took place in Rochester, Vermont. It was a concert of automobile horns inspired, says the artist, by the local custom of blowing horns instead of applauding at local concerts. While its inspiration was apparently more contemporary, the piece reflects the aesthetic of Futurist performance in its use of 'noise.' Another precedent would be the Concert of the Factory Whistle (1922), in Baku, USSR.
By 1974 Anderson had begun to use pre-recorded elements in her performances. For Duets on Ice she wore ice skites embedded in blocks of ice. A hidden tape recorder played songs that she accompanied on violin. When the ice melted, the performance ended. Different performances featured cowboy songs and classical pieces by other performers who became unknowing 'collaborators.' In 1975 she invented her tape-bow violin, for which she wrote Ethics is the Esthetics of the Few-Ture (Lenin) and Song for Juanita. Lengths of magnetic tape with spoken texts on them replaced the horsehair of the violin bow; to the bridge of the violin, she attached a tape recorder play-back head wired to an amplifier. By moving the tape (bow) against the play-back head at different points along the tape, and by reversing the direction of tape travel, she manipulated the text. Song for Juanita is a particularly clever work. From the word Jaunita, she created a triangaural translation.' As Anderson explains:
The first syllable Juan- or one- reverses as no, producing a rhythmic no-one-no-one; the last syllable -ta is variously ellided with -an to produce ata-nta ata nta (anata).
The tape-bow violin works are not really songs in the popular sense. They are language pieces that extend the cut-up verse of the Dada and Futurist poets in a way that is much more sophisticated both semantically and technologically. However, that same year, Anderson created several pop-style records for her Jukebox installation. One of the songs, It's Not, the Bullet (A Reggae Tune for Chris Burden), was issued in a small edition. The title and the lyrics refer to Burden's performance, Shoot (1971), in which a marksman, standing five steps away, shot the artist in the arm. According to Janet Kardon, Anderson had originally intended to release the Jukebox songs as an album but decided against it being not fully satisfied with them.
Anderson's songs surfaced on two records in 1977: New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media and Airwaves. The former featured the works of women electronic composers including Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros and Megan Roberts; the latter included work by conceptual, performance and visual artists such is Vito Acconci, Terry Fox, Jacki Apple, Meredith Monk and Richard Nonas. In 1981, Anderson's single 0 Superman reached number two on the British pop charts and she signed a record deal with Warner Brothers. The record had originally been released on the One Ten label. Concurrent with Anderson's successful cross-over from performance art venues to the pop charts, performance artists surfaced on several anthologies of recorded works by artists.
Revolutions Per Minute: The Art Record was issued by the Ronald Feldman Gallery in 1982. Chris Burden contributed a poem, The Atomic Alphabet; other artists contributions consist of spoken texts and documentary recordings of lectures and interviews. Les Levine contributed a country and western tune. Hannah Wilke's Stand Up is a feminist anthem. David Smyth orchestrated three typewriters for his piece, Typewriter in D.
Another important compilation, Live To Air: artists sound works, was edited by Bill Furlong and Michael Archer and published by Audio Arts in 1982. Included on these three cassette tapes are works by 45 artists categorized under the following headings: Rock Idioms, lmages and Narrative, Technological and Audial Space, and Urban Reference. This diverse and international collection featured artists such as Art & Language, Clive Robertson, Arleen Schloss, David Cunningham, Helen Chadwick and Stuart Brisley. Making reference to the space that the soundworks in this compilation occupy, Bill Furlong states in his introduction:
In many respects this audial/technological 'space' is parallel to the physical space of a gallery, yet extends it through the potential of widespread dissemination inherent in the multiple production of cassettes and through broadcasting.
Citing the growing number of performance artists who write and perform songs, editor Burnham states that "[f]rom talking to each of these artists, I have found that commercial success is among their goals, but not at the cost of compromise." At least one of the contributing artists, Terry Allen, had met with some success in the business when his New Delhi Freight Train was recorded by the rock group Little Feat in 1979. Allen recorded the song himself on his 1979 album Lubbock (on everything) (Fate Records). Like many of his tunes, New Delhi Freight Train is a pretty straightforward country and western song. A few poke fun at the art world, Truckload of Art is about an accident:
Yeah a truckload of art
Artsounds Collection (Philips/Polygram Records, 1986) was produced by Jeff and Juanita Gordon and contains songs, readings and interviews by and with artists. As with the earlier Revolutiuons Per Minute, this set was issued in two versions; standard editions including a poster and a deluxe limited edition with signed and numbered artist's prints. Highlights of Artsounds Collection include a Larry Rivers jazz track, a Jonathan Borofsky song with electronic score and a song by Michael Cotton and Prairie Prince of the rock band The Tubes. The decade of the 'cross-over artist' has apparently come full circle.
Many other visual artists have made records. Yves Klein issued a record in I959, Concert of Vacuum, which contained no sound at all, reinforcing his concept of the 'void.' In the 1960s and 1970s, a few recordings of sound sculptures were made to document that work; conceptual artists also employed phonograph records for documentary purposes during this period. Fluxus artist Yoko Ono has made several records in collaboration with John Lennon and solo recordings prior to and since Lennon's death. Her own recorded work has evolved from pre-Fluxus performance (in a 1961 performance of her AOS, for example, successively recording live sounds throughout her performance which were later played back as successive layers of audio tape, one over the other) to more commercial rock records such as the 1985 Starpeace that contains hard-rock and conventional ballads and her stunning 1995 Rising. Painter and musician A.R. Penck has recorded several albums of improvised jazz in recent years.
Artist Jonathan Borofsky has been using audio in his multimedia installations since 1983. In 1982 he began noticing that the sound energy that occurred naturally in his exhibitions gave the installations a special character. At the time, the energy emanated from the ping-pong tables that he frequently included in his shows or more precisely from the gallery visitors playing ping-pong - and from the enormous mechanized sculptures of Hammering Men. The whining of the Hammering Men's motors and the gasps and cries of the ping-pong players sparked Borofsky's interest in sound as yet another element of his multi-media installations. He soon began collaborating on sound works with New York musician, painter and filmmaker Ed Tomney.
A carnival-like atmosphere characterizes Borofsky's exhibitions. Paintings sing, sculptures sing, and Sounds of the World resonate throughout, catalogued one after the other on tape. Another tape-music piece that appears in Borofsky's shows, Music for Numbers, Computer and Voice (Reggie), was issued in cassette format by Reach Out International Records in 1987 (ROIR A-149) as Opus for Voice, Movements /, 2, 3, under the name The Radical Songbirds of Islam (Borofsky and Tomney). The piece is based on Borofsky's counting. He began counting from zero in 1969 and is up to over 3 million now. Tomney designed a computer program to translate the numbers that Borofsky sporadically gives him into a score constructed from a library of tones sung by Borofsky and stored on audiotape. The aleatory nature of the piece suggests the influence of composers ranging from Eno to Cage and the numbered balls of Duchamp, with which he composed his The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even. Erratum Musical.
A more recent cassette of Borofsky/Tomney music, with the working title Three Dogs in Your Helmut, combines a selection of real events, treated and re-configured into a new formal framework. They use both analogue (tape) and digital (microchip) samples of recorded sounds citing a distinct difference between the quality of reproduction, to weave together everything from guitar tracks to the sound of spilling pebbles:
It's rather like making a drawing or painting with which you start with no specific idea other than to begin to have fun with the brush or the colour and to just let it happen.
Jack Goldstein, known for his paintings of astral phenomena based on photographs, is another contemporary artist who makes records using sounds of the world. He made three series of them between 1976 and 1979 that were compiled from existing sound effects records and in some cases minimally altered. The first of the three suites of records were made in a seven-inch 45 RPM format on coloured vinyl. The titles and the vinyl colours reflected the sound effects contained on the records. The Dying Wind was pressed on clear vinyl, suggesting the ephemeral quality of the wind. The third series was pressed on ten-inch discs (a nonstandard format) of black vinyl with different coloured labels on each side. On one record the white label side contained the sound of an airpline landing, while the opposite, silver label side preserved the sounds of dropping bombs whistling to their destination but never making contact. Many of these records emphasize the 'framing' of sound in a manner analogous to photographic recording. The 'view' from the plane as the bombs drop is contrasted with the 'view' from the ground as the plane lands. In The Lost Ocean Liner from the first series, one side contains a 'close-up' of water lapping, while the other contains the 'distant' sounds of foghorns.
At the beginning of the century, too, there was a considerable interest in records, if not fetishization of them. As early as 1925, artists developed an interest in records as objects, In 1922, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy advocated the use of phonograph records for purposes of production as well as reproduction. By this he meant that rather than simply using records to transcribe audio material from the 'real' world, they be manipulated manually to produce original as well as mimetic sounds. The following year, Moholy-Nagy elaborated on this proposal suggesting that conventional records be examined to determine went types of grooves make what types of sounds so that a phonetic groove-script alphabet could be established:
The idea of damaging records was manifested in a number of other works at this time, and continues today. New York artist Christian Marclay employs some of these same techniques to create his altered discs, but with more specific intention in terms of the resulting sound. In his performances, Marclay spins up to eight altered records simultaneously on individual turntables. He composes with several piles of records that he prepares and sorts in advance, thus knowing from what pile to select a disc for a desired effect at any time during the performance. The individual records are notated with stickers that identify specific passages and are sometimes applied to create loops. He drops the needle on to the record after the first of two stickers and when it hits the second it jumps back to the first and repeats. Sometimes the records are played at non-standard speeds. Into other records, he drills additional centre holes (off-axis), creating a wobbly effect. His Record Without a Cover is a recording of one of these performances. The studio performance is pressed onto one side of the disc. On the other, embossed lettering instructs the owner not to store the record in a protective sleeve. The scratches that result from handling enhance the quality of the sound and make each copy unique.
Marclay also makes unique objects, cutting intricate patterns out of several records with a jeweller's saw, he then glues the different pieces back together to construct a collaged disc, His Dialogue LP with Two Profiles, for example, fuses two profiles of faces cut from black vinyl spoken word discs onto an orange musical disc. As the record spins, music plays until the needle pops at the splice and a voice speaks when the needle passes over the black vinyl figure. The cycle then repeats, resulting in a conversation between the two figures. Other pieces use geometric designs and discs with different content. The splices in all of these records create pops that become rhythmic elements of the total piece.
San Fransisco performer Boyd Rice comes out of the punk movement of the late 1970s. Since 1977 he has released several altered recordings. Early pieces were made on tape, splicing pieces of different recordings together. One consists of every recording of Lesley Gore singing the word 'cry.' Later records utilized off-axis holes and instructed the listener to play 'at any speed.' Still other records include several sound-tracks of endless loops pressed deliberately into the record that endlessly repeat short sound effects. Listeners are encouraged to listen to these closed grooves as songs.
Boston composer Roger Miller (not the country and western singer) emerged from the new wave band, Mission of Burma. His Pop Record is an acetate pressing (used for test pressings of commercial records and not a stable enough process to withstand more than a few plays before deteriorating) on which he assembled the scratchy sounds from in-between songs of his favourite records. As the record of these 'pops' is played, new pops are quickly created. A protective cover becomes irrelevant because playing it actually destroys it. It is certainly not a pop record in the generally held sense of that term. As extreme as Miller's brand of pop seems to us today, it has its precedence in Marinetti's use of radio static in 1933.
The ideas in the air at the beginning of the century are still very much present in the work of many contemporary artists. Perfomance artists still use records to preserve their work. Pop artists have realized and extended the notion of concrete composition that Marinetti and his contemporaries began. In the streets of Baku, the cabarets of Zurich and Berlin and the auditoriums of Paris and Milan, artists of the early twentieth century turned music, as it had once been known, on its head. Speech became abstract and music became concrete. And today a generation of art students has seized that once sacred and magical phonograph record and profaned it to the point that the line between the fine art and popular practice of record-making is as tenuous as the grooves of Miller's record.