Sound Art Revisited

Sound Art Revisited
by Alan Licht

Bloomsbury Press, NY, NY, 2019
208 pp., illus. 25 b/w. Trade, $99.00
ISBN: 9781501333132.

Reviewed by
John F. Barber
March 2020

Sound Art Revisited, by Alan Licht, published by Bloomsbury in 2019, is the second edition of an important resource for those considering the definition and history of the emerging field of sound art.

The first edition, also by Licht, published in 2007 as Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories, was groundbreaking in its efforts to document the development of sound art. In that first edition, Licht located the roots of sound art in Italian Futurism, Dada, and Fluxus. He examined the pioneering efforts of American composer and artist John Cage, simultaneously linking yet distancing sound art and music. Licht traced the history of sound art from the convergence of world indie bands and the art world. He introduced sound artists like Christian Marclay, LaMonte Young, Janet Cardiff, Rodney Graham, Laurie Anderson, and others, briefly describing their various works in light of a growing aesthetic for sound art as an emerging field of study.

The result was not only an introduction and review of sound art, but as well an attempt to differentiate sound art from music and sound artists from musicians. This second edition, Sound Art Revisited, continues to avoid overlapping experimental music and sound art, even while showing how the boundaries and practices of sound art have expanded with respect to mixed-media hybridization over more than a decade between the publication of each edition. It also notably expands the number of identifiable sound artists and provides discussions of their works. Artist biographies are incorporated into the main text, as are anecdotal materials from the endnotes of the first edition.

To demonstrate the messy history and continued evolution of sound art, Licht expands the divisions of the book's main text, from three in the first edition, to four in this second edition. Part One, "Introduction," continues to grapple with the term "sound art" itself, noting its relation to music, but defining sound art as being non-time based, non-programmatic, and thus different from noise music, sampling, and musical collage. Licht proposes a fundamental definition that limits sound art to works of sound installation and sound sculpture. A sound installation, he says, is "an installed sound environment that is defined by the physical and/or acoustic space it occupies rather than time and can be exhibited as a visual artwork would be." A sound sculpture is "a visual artwork that also has a sound-producing function" (6). In either case, sound art involves movement of the audience through some space or environment in order to experience sound(s). In contrast, records or concerts of music are often listened to from fixed positions.

Part Two, "Prehistories and Early Manifestations," considers technologies and aesthetics that led to sound installations, including telephone, radio, recording, all of which separate sound(s) from its original context(s), enable its transmission over long distance(s), and reinstitute sound(s) in new, different contexts, spaces, and places. He considers music concrète, which prompted sounds to be distorted beyond recognizable forms and into unique, independent entities. Finally, Licht considers the reintroduction of spatialization into modern compositions. Examples and analysis are drawn from John Cage, Max Neuhaus, Luigi Russolo, Bill Fontana, and Maryanne Amacher.

Part Three, "Sound and the Art World," considers sound by visual artists utilizing sound and early sound exhibitions, arguing they go hand-in-hand and that such works constituted the majority of sound exhibitions until the 1990s, when the aesthetics of audio-only exhibitions began to emerge.

Part Four, "Recent Sound Art," reviews contemporary trends to blend music, sound art, musical instruments, sound sculpture, and interpersonal communication.

In Sound Art Revisited, Licht says the state of sound art in the 21st century is closely connected to listening to sounds from people, from each other, and from inanimate objects, history, and the environment. The fundamental concept of sound art, he says, is to frame sound within society, rather than, as he suggested in the first edition of this book, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories, a subset of the sonic planet as a whole. Listening to sounds can be, Licht concludes, regarded as a tool for understanding human culture, past and present. What remains is "to reconcile the human and the universal within the scope of sound and create new sound art works that possess a balanced sense of the genre's past, present, and future" (157). Sound Art Revisited provides a worthy road map and resource.