A common thread in the contributions to this issue of eContact! is an exploration of materials, methods and manners that challenge, from a conceptual angle, traditional notions of creation, presentation and representation in sound-based artistic practices. This is done through a re-examination of the paradigms of electroacoustic, sound art and digital music practices but also by exploiting novel and innovative sources, be they audible, inaudible or even unhearable, as artistic material.
The conceptual basis or underpinnings of the works or practices presented in the contributions to this issue is brought to the fore and in some instances can overtake the importance of the object to the creation, presentation and discourse of the work, and even to the existence of the work. In an ongoing series of sculptures, Ted Apel examines the role of and indeed repositions one of the quintessential tools in the digital music arsenal. Although his “Incidental Speakers” produce no sound themselves, they “nevertheless engage with [the central tenets of] our sonic culture and electroacoustic practices.” These “loudspeaker” works challenge traditional notions of sound production and sound representation at the same time they explore alternative forms of presentation and expand the boundaries of sonic art beyond a sounding existence.
Despite the shift in focus from the material to the abstract, from the object to the idea, even where aspects of the work or of the performance are absent, or perhaps unheard, it can still be possible for the individual to have a meaningful æsthetic experience of a work. Alberto Bernal’s discussion of works by such artists as Chopin, Jessie Marino and Peter Ablinger “should lead us to suspect that… there is something beyond the merely material contributing, in a very conspicuous manner,” to our æsthetic experience, notably in our capacity to acknowledge and indeed perceive “The Sounding Beauty of Ideas.” Indeed, “our perception can be altered from listening to the mere material to listening to the context,” even of something that “remains only as a memory.” The tendency to “dematerialize” within one’s artistic practice is, of course, apparent in the visual arts as early as the 1960s. This shift in the approach to and identity of the artwork is exemplified by Harald Schellinx, one half of the Dutch duo the ookoi, in his suggestion that the duo wishes “to not be the ookoi, but rather an idea of ookoi”.
However, it should be clarified that the simple verbalization of an idea does not in and of itself constitute an æsthetic experience for the authors here. The listener or spectator in such contexts must take on an active role in order for the idea to be actuated or for the work to be experienced, let alone completed. As Schellinx shows, in “Towards an Unhearable Music: Conceptualism in the ookoi’s art,” this can lead to a deconstructed or fragmentary performance venue or interface, as with the Future Popp tracks by the ookoi, which were accessible only by visiting individual European sites where only a selection of the collection of tracks could be heard using a bespoke app. The spectator is thus elevated or becomes, in essence, the performer.
The continued proletarianization of artistic spheres, in the sense of emerging practices that are anti-elitist and that reject closed or inaccessible structures, can be used to let the material “speak” in unforeseen ways, but can also help in further dismantling these long-decaying hierarchies and in dissolving the boundaries between the traditionally segregated roles of creator, performer and listener. The dissolution of “the distinction between the amateur and the artist” functions as an implicit critique of the somewhat calcified division of labour built into the foundational protocols of even much of today’s artistic practices. In an extensive “Philosophical analysis of Dick Raaymakers’ ‘Intona: Dodici manieri di far tacere un microfono’,” Raphaël Belfiore proposes that to be truly free of the constraints of our artistic tools one must discover them, dissect them (literally, in some cases) and dismantle or otherwise destroy them. He sets out to “determine and define the criteria required to assess and evaluate” such a work as Intona, in which “twelve ways to silence a microphone” are experimented. Raaymakers’ onstage laboratory-performance is exploited as a creative space for the reflection on existing practices as well as the development of new practices distinct from and intimately critical of mainstream practices:
Playing against the apparatuses is then not only a political gesture but also a way to show (and not only verbalize) their mediality, thus revealing their illusory nature.
Other kinds of dematerialization are encountered in system-oriented creative practices that function in relational rather than segregational manners, in stark contrast to a more traditional object-oriented approach characterizing a vast majority of sound-based digital artistic practices. In “Systèmes, écologie, son : Une cartographie conceptuelle,” Estelle Schorpp proposes that the “idea of sonic ecosystems as a conceptual, technical and æsthetic strategy” impacts the nature of not only the resulting work but also the perception that individual audience members have to it, not to mention their relationship to it. When the artistic objective is the creation of responsive ecosystems rather than fixed and tamper-proof works, “the attention is no longer placed on the qualities of the individual components but rather on the organization of the whole and on the dynamic processes of interaction between the constituent parts.”
As with systems-oriented practices, in many projects exploring sonification as an artistic means, far greater importance is placed on the “how” and “why” of the process than on the “what”. Indeed, the communicative nature of sonification techniques and processes is highlighted by “the transformation of a phenomenon that is invisible to our senses [data] into one that is perceptible by the ear (acoustic signal)”. As Simon Coovi-Sirois, Guillaume Boutard and Nicolas Bernier explore “La réutilisation de données dans les pratiques artistiques de sonification,” they also discuss collaborative relationships between artists and scientists that have resulted in the creation of artistic experiences that make scientific research accessible to the public. This, along with the subsequent sharing of data gathered by the scientists and used by the artists in these creative projects reflects an inherent ecological and community-oriented concern.
We are also pleased to be able to unveil the extremely rare writings of Click Nilson, a Swedish avant-garde composer who is as elusive as he is reclusive. This collection of spartan texts, gathered under the title “Con-ceptual” and long-rumoured to not even exist, pushes the idea of conceptual works to “the very limits of compositional space” and engages with the entire gamut of conceptual approaches to sound-based artistic practices. These determinedly conceptual works are presented with a preface by Nuna Moosey.
James O’Callaghan’s interview with Canadian composer and sound artist Gordon Monahan delves into the conceptual composition methods employed by Monahan, specifically focusing on his use of rather unconventional performance techniques and settings for the piano. In “Music from Nowhere,” they discuss how challenging the performative aspects of electronic and instrumental music has led the composer to make a “radical departure” from traditional practices. Although his experiments with minimalism and conceptualism have occasioned works with a superficial reduction of means — a single note on a piano played repeatedly, speakers swung overhead by performers, metal farm implements resonified — they have not only reimagined but in fact wildly expanded the boundaries of sonic and musical expression.
The diverse contributions in eContact! 21.2 showcase the wonderfully rich range of conceptual approaches encountered in sound-based artistic practices today. The works and practices they present are informed and formed not by sound objects or musical gestures as sonic or musical materials, but rather by the dismantling of hierarchies, the redefining of roles and the exploration of systems as conceptual frameworks. What remains as a constant in this eclectic collection is the dematerialization of the sounding object. Or, as Estelle Schorpp evidences: “Sound is no longer an object; it is a manifestation of temporal and spatial interrelations.”
12 July 2023