Boundaries and Definitions
The SoundAsArt Conference, Aberdeen Scotland (24–26 November, 2006)
University of Birmingham, UK
The SoundAsArt conference, which took place in Fall 2006 at the University of Aberdeen, was organised around an interesting, provocative and potentially very fruitful idea. Subtitled “Blurring the Boundaries” the event aimed to bring together leading practitioners from three different areas — sound installations, experimental music, and acousmatic music — in an environment encouraging dialog, interaction, and the sharing of each other’s work. The event posited “Sound Art” as an emerging umbrella field, which encompassed all three of these; a definition which turned out to be not entirely uncontroversial, as I shall discuss below.
The conference, organised by Bill Thompson, Urban November, and the University of Aberdeen, dovetailed well with the tail end of the Sound Scotland Festival, which ran throughout November. The event combined paper sessions with concerts, installations, and a round table discussion.
In keeping with the tripartite nature of the conference, there were three keynote presentations. The first, by the well known German sound artist Christina Kubisch, was entitled “A Personal History of Sound Art 1976–2006,” and outlined her experiences in the midst of the emergence of the sound installation as a distinct art form. Focusing on “the first generation of sound artists” the presentation explored the development of Kubisch’s own work, as well as that of her colleagues Hans Peter Kuhn and Bernhard Leitner, among others. The talk traced the interesting paths that this group of people followed; often coming originally from musical backgrounds but slowly finding connections with the broader art world, even if that world was not always open to the unique challenges that sound-based art work presents. In fact, these often very site-specific pieces posed as many problems within the gallery-based economies of the art world as they did within traditional concert spaces. Kubisch stressed the importance of this site-specific emphasis, and in the first of many boundary defining (rather than “blurring”) moments that occurred throughout the weekend mused that she found it surprising that anyone who simply “put up a couple of speakers” now called themselves a sound artist. (Her definition of “sound art” being rather more specific than that implied by the conference’s official terminology.) It was interesting (and perhaps refreshing) that Kubisch seemed often to emphasise the beautiful or even “magical” aspects of the works she discussed, a rather stark difference in language to that which often prevails in some musical circles.
The second keynote was by the Indian-American composer-performer Rajesh Mehta, who nominally represented the experimental music side of things. He discussed a number of aspects of his work, including his Sounding Buildings: New Music and New Architecture project. This involved the use of what he called “imaginational maps”, which are drawings and graphics which lend themselves to interpretation as notation. He used these to craft compositions to be realised in specific buildings, such as at the opening of MIT’s Simmons Hall, or for an event at the Glucksman Gallery in Cork during its year as European City of Culture. He also discussed his activities as a performer, specifically his development of extended and hybrid trumpets, stressing the “architectural” aspects of these constructions as well. Although his talk was interesting, there didn’t seem to be any essential engagement with architecture in the way that one might find in the music of say Alvin Lucier or Gordon Mumma, which given Mehta’s billing as the “experimental” keynote speaker, seemed a little surprising. This is probably more a problem with the billing than with Mehta himself however; more on this below.
The final keynote was by the University of Birmingham’s Jonty Harrison. Entitled “Dilemmas, Dichotomies and Definitions: Acousmatic music and its precarious situation in the arts” his talk was a frank, amusing, and impassioned discussion of the history of acousmatic music, and a plea for and defence of its ongoing importance. Noting that it currently seems to have an “identity crisis” (at least for everyone except its practitioners) Harrison went to great lengths to discuss and delineate its boundaries. Turning to the broader issue of terminology, he argued that while music may be a subset of sound art (perhaps meant in the general sense implied by the conference organisers), not all sound art is music, since not all of it places crucial importance on the aspect of time. He argued against the characterisation (in some circles) of acousmatic music as “academic”, saying that if that was true it was only in terms of the historical need to be associated with an institution in order to have access to the necessary resources. This was rapidly changing he felt, and he stressed that there was nothing “æsthetically academic” about the music.
The talk was full to overflowing (it ran slightly over as it was, to be fair), but unfortunately to my mind didn’t explore acousmatic music as a culture or in stylistic terms. Harrison’s assertion that acousmatic music is not a style, while true in terms of strict definition, doesn’t really acknowledge the strong historical role that particular styles of acousmatic music have played in the cultural development of electroacoustic music as a whole. However, I felt that he was right in his assessment that the boundaries of acousmatic music are being blurred, for instance through practices of hybridisation (and indeed the rather fluid movement between forms and styles of some its practitioners), and in his arguments for the continued importance of this practice, both to its direct proponents and others.
The talk certainly inspired strong reactions (something which I for one had been waiting for all weekend!), and Kubisch immediately leapt in once the question period began, challenging the characterisation of acousmatic music as “not academic”, pointing out that it was still largely based in academies, and dependent upon them for its resources, systems of training, etc. As well, she pointed out that Harrison’s talk had largely been concerned with delineating the boundaries of the form, in itself perhaps an “academic” activity which arguably had something to do with exclusion. Harrison pointed out to her that she was perhaps as concerned in her own keynote with the boundaries of sound art as he was with those of acousmatic music. (One might also have asked her about her personal definitions of “academic”, given that she is a professor at the Hochschule der Bildenden Künste Saar in Saarbrücken.) To be fair however, her words seemed an impassioned response to Harrison’s equally emotionally charged presentation, which in both cases were probably partly responses to their personal experiences and interactions as practitioners within their individual fields. The ensuing discussion on boundaries, definitions, and intentions, while too diffuse to relay here in detail, was one of the highlights of the weekend for me.
As one might expect, the academic aspects of the conference involved a diverse mixture of papers, some of which fit the theme of the conference well, others of which felt like they’d been shoehorned in. Naturally this is pretty much par for the course with themed academic meetings, and the papers presented in any case put forth an interesting if sometimes tangential mix of ideas which added to the general discourse. A full discussion of the papers presented would of course be far beyond the scope of this review (I believe they call that a “proceedings”), but I will say that the mixture of presentations by practitioners and scholars (or at least people who leaned more to one side or the other to some degree) was useful and refreshing. Most of the texts are available online, so I refer interested readers to the SoundAsArt site for more information.
As noted above, the conference elided with the Sound Scotland Festival, which happily meant that we were treated in the afternoon of the Saturday to a lecture / concert of Xenakis’ music with cellist Rohan de Saram and author Nouritza Mattosian, along with various local musicians. De Saram performed two solo cello works, Nomos Alpha and Kottos, providing an interesting contrast between Xenakis’ early and later approaches to the instrument, and the concert ended with the strangely crude Epicycles for cello and ensemble. This final piece was quite odd, but was given what seemed to be a somewhat heroic performance given the lack of rehearsal time (a fact which was publicly announced, oddly enough.) Overall the event was quite interesting musically and intellectually.
The experimental music concert on Saturday evening was a bit of a letdown after the afternoon’s proceedings. It involved two sets, the first of which featured an improvisation by de Saram, Mehta, and Keith Rowe (of AMM fame). Rowe’s collection of amplified objects was very interesting, and Mehta ran through the same bag of tricks he’d presented earlier in the day at his keynote to some good effect (one climactic moment early in the set which involved Mehta spinning a hose in a great extended bass trumpet roar was a definite highlight), but overall the performance left me a little cold. The normally phenomenal de Saram seemed particularly off his game, and his contributions generally added little to the overall proceedings.
The second set featured conference organiser and University of Aberdeen postgraduate student Bill Thompson and undergraduate student Patrick Keenan doing what seemed to be essentially laptop based improvisation, supplemented by a few devices, sound making and otherwise. (Yes the disco light was amusing.) The noisy palettes which they explored seemed rather conventional by today’s experimental standards, and although the set was pleasant enough, nothing much too exciting transpired here either.
Echoing Kubisch’s thoughts about the blurring boundaries of the term “sound art” the concert left me musing on the increasingly fuzzy borders of “experimental music”. Rowe’s dadaist leanings and Mehta’s use of graphic notation (in other contexts than this concert) aside, the evening’s improvisations seemed to me to be all about the expanded sound palette of the experimental music tradition, and rather light on the ideas and conceptual discipline that went so far to distinguish the work of Cage, et al from others who worked with not dissimilar materials. Of course to discuss an experimental music tradition at all is to invoke a seeming oxymoron, which only goes to show how far that kind of practice has come in being institutionalized (despite its ongoing positing of itself in opposition to a dominant “European avant-garde”). My assessment here is of course based on casual observation, and it is possible that Thompson and Keenan’s performance involved more than met the ear, but I have to say it didn’t seem that way to me.
The final concert of the weekend was the acousmatic event, and featured works by the Scottish group invisiblEARts, along with pieces by Harrison and James Wyness. Overall this was a quite strong event, I felt. Particular highlights for me were Pete Stollery’s scènes, rendez-vous, made in response to the film C’etait un Rendez-vous by Claude Lelouch, and Pippa Murphy’s Caspian Retreat, a work I have heard several times but which I have yet to grow tired of. Both these works had beautiful textural elements, which made them stand out, at least for me, from the more “gestural” approaches used in much of the rest of the programme.
Frankly put, the installations were one of the weakest aspects of the weekend. Some of them were arguably not even installations at all (one in particular was pretty clearly a more or less documentary film). I’ll say more about this below, but for the moment would add that there were some positive exceptions, with Thor Magnusson’s SSBD, which involved generative soundscapes derived from field recordings made in Iceland, being particularly notable.
Problems and Conclusions
Overall there was an issue of balance, with the acousmatic side definitely getting the best part of the bargain. If the idea was to have leading exponents in each of the three areas than they couldn’t have done much better than Kubisch and Harrison, both of whom are at the top of their respective fields. Mehta however, while definitely an interesting musician and composer, is hardly a torch-bearer for experimental music (his work seeming to cross the boundaries of experimental music, jazz, Karnatic music and other things quite fluidly), although that is certainly no fault of his own. That the conference organisers didn’t invite a leading figure from the field, who was capable of strongly articulating the state of experimental music today in the same way and with the same authority that the other two keynote speakers were able to do for their areas (Nicolas Collins springs to mind as an obvious choice, or perhaps Rowe might have provided a post-Cardew British perspective) seemed like a real missed opportunity.
The installation side of things got short shrift in a different way. As Kubisch put it, the installations seemed like “poor step-children”, presented as they were in offices and teaching rooms in the Music Department. While this was at least convenient for conference attendees, who had to maneuver through a rather dense schedule of events (note to organisers: the same plan over four days and including scheduled time for wandering and socialising would have been great) the spaces were far from ideal. Given the interesting cultural and architectural history of the city, one wonders why pieces weren’t installed in far more interesting locations, perhaps even inspiring work which engages its site in some way. Given that the Sound Scotland Festival was running for most of the month, such installations could have had a proper run, rather than being hastily installed in an academic building for a weekend.
Even more surprising was the fact that although Kubisch was invited as a keynote speaker, none of her work was presented at the conference. An Aberdeen version of her Electrical Walks would have been an obvious and delightful choice. (One could even imagine the route of such a version crossing the locations of other installations or conference/festival events!) Overall the installations were not of the same quality in my opinion as the works presented in the acousmatic concert, and many of them seemed to have been done by students, rather than artists with the kind of profiles one might have expected given the level of some of the figures in the other areas. This of course might be chalked up to the additional problems of organisation and resources that a more substantial installation component to the event would have required, but I still feel that if one is serious about presenting all three of these areas, than they absolutely need to be on an equal footing, all excuses aside.
To be fair however, this was of course the first time this conference had run, and there were naturally some teething issues. All in all it was an exciting weekend, and I’m sure for many a very productive one. Although I do think the balance wasn’t quite right, that is something that could easily be addressed with enough lead time were the conference to run again. Unfortunately, at least for the moment, I understand that it will probably be a one-off. If that turns out to be true it would be a pity, as the goal of the conference is clearly a worthy one, and the potential outcomes very fruitful. As someone whose work has crossed the boundaries of all three of these areas at one time or another, I have seen all too often how closed communities often lead to closed minds, and this was something I did encounter in my conversations over the weekend. Exposure to each other’s work in a neutral context, however, and even more importantly personal interaction, is often enough to overcome such prejudices, and stimulate new directions in each other’s work, and in that sense I feel that the conference was unquestionably a success.
Conference website http://soundasart.urbannovember.org.
The papers are available on the conference website by following the “Conference schedule” link.
Some of the presentations were filmed and can be viewed online. Follow the “view the conference online at 360TV” link on the conference website or visit the 360TV website archive.