A New Prize in Sound Art“I feel that the genre of sound art itself might be limiting sound art’s potential,” says artist Ted Apel. “Many sound art shows have the theme of ‘Sound Art.’ Imagine a show of visual art with the theme of ‘Visual Art.’ This would be a laughable idea, but it is something we can’t seem to escape with sound art.”
Apel, who is Lecturer in Electronic Music / Sonic Arts at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington, was the 2013 winner of the first annual FETA Prize in Sound Art.
Two years ago in Copenhagen Spencer Topel, Juraj Kojs, and Paula Matthusen hatched the idea for a new prize in sound art. “We sat together and discussed the direction of FETA (Foundation for Emerging Technologies and Arts), and how we could have the biggest impact on American experimental music,” Topel told me via email, “and we devised this prize; mainly out of the desire to see an increase in sound art opportunities and awards in the Americas. In a sense, I feel we’ve accomplished this during the first year of the prize.”
For a first-year award, FETA attracted its share of attention; there were 80 submissions from 5 countries in the Americas. Through a two-stage blindfold evaluation process, the judges Ed Osborn, Michael J. Schumacher and Miya Masaoka selected a small pool of finalists. Honorable master judge Alvin Lucier selected the winning work Call and Resonance by Ted Apel. (You can read more about the piece in my below interview with Ted.)
Sound Art Today
2013 brought renewed attention to the field of sound art. Janet Cardiff’s sound masterpiece The Forty Part Motet (which I reviewed here) was the first piece of contemporary art at the Met’s Cloisters’ museum. And MoMA’s show, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, also opened in August of 2013.The most memorable line from the show’s catalog: “How we listen determines what we hear.”
Billed as “MoMA’s first major exhibition of sound art,” certain works in Soundings stood out—Before Me by Richard Garet, Susan Philipsz’ Study for Strings, Hong-Kai Wang’s Music While We Work, Jana Winderen’s Ultrafield, Jacob Kirkegaard’s AION, and Carsten Nicolai’s Wellenwanne Lfo, but the show failed to leave a lasting impression as a whole (unlike the John Cage exhibit in a nearby gallery). As Apel and I discuss in our interview below, creating quiet spaces to enjoy such works is a challenge in a noisy museum like MoMA.
This was the second time I experienced Stephen Vitiello’s compelling sound installation A Bell for Every Minute, which I first saw on The High Line in 2010. Situated in MoMA’s sculpture garden, visitors could hear the ring of a different New York bell every minute. Fifty-nine of these bells play, one every minute, including the New York Stock Exchange bell, the United Nations Peace Bell, bike bells, bells on cats’ collars, and alarm bells. At the top of the hour they chime together. This work expresses New York City (through fifty-nine of its disparate parts) into a single moment of intensity.
The Origins of Sound ArtThe field of sound art can be traced back to artist and experimental composer John Cage. “Cage’s was a very pure approach to sound,” Walker Art Center chief curator Darsie Alexander recently told ArtNEWS. “It didn’t have to refer to anything, it didn’t have to tell a story, it didn’t have to reach a crescendo—sound was its own medium.”
I like to think of sound art fairly broadly as a work of art in which sound is foregrounded,” says Christoph Cox, professor of philosophy at Hampshire College and coauthor of Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Admitting that “sonic experiments” have been present in modern-art history going back to the Futurists and Dadaists, he traces sound art back to Cage’s compositions of the 1950s, especially to one work titled 4’33″, in which a piano player walks onstage and sits silently for four minutes and 33 seconds, while the audience is left to listen to the sounds in the concert hall, including nervous coughs and restless movements. According to Cox, Cage’s ideas about randomness, duration, and process had an impact on artists and movements ranging from Robert Rauschenberg to the Fluxus group to Max Neuhaus, who has been called the grandfather of sound art. Neuhaus is best known for his work Times Square, where passersby unexpectedly encounter rich harmonic sounds at the north end of the triangular pedestrian island on Broadway between 45th and 46th Streets in Manhattan…
“Sound art emerged as the rivalrous sibling to Conceptual art,” says Cox, pointing out the continuity between works like Neuhaus’s and those of other artists, who create with steam, light, and even text, in an effort to “dematerialize the art object,” in a phrase coined by art critic Lucy Lippard. “Sound artists responded in a different way,” Cox says—”they thought the work of art could be about something you can’t touch, you can’t grasp, but is nonetheless powerfully physical.”
“When sound artists think about and work with sound, they are using it in a way that is similar to how a sculptor uses materials,” says Mary Ceruti, director and chief curator of the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens….She says, the term “sound art” can be traced back to a 1983 exhibition, “Sound/Art,” organized by William Hellerman at the SculptureCenter. “We can’t find a reference to the term, before then”—it was often referred to as “experimental music” at that time, Ceruti points out.
The Art of the SonicI don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that sound takes a back seat to the visual,” explains Apel. “The idea assumes a type of parity between the senses. For much of our perception, the sonic and visual are part of one physical event, what Michel Chion calls ‘causal listening.’ And for many types of art the sonic is the focus, music, poetry, etc.”
Apel elaborates on his ideas about “sound art,” discusses the medium’s challenges, and talks about how to approach sound-based works like his in our interview below.
Artists interested in applying for the $1000 prize this year have until April 10th to submit their applications. (More information is available here.)
An Interview with Artist Ted Apel
Michelle Aldredge: Can you talk more about your FETA-winning piece “Call and Resonance”? What are the source sounds emanating from the circuits in each tube (or do you prefer to keep that a mystery)?
Ted Apel: The piece is set up to surprise me. It’s a bit under my control because of the parameters I have set up, but It’s a bit out of my control also. Call and Resonance consists of five large test tubes that each have handmade circuits which are simply recording a bit of sound and repeating that sound for a bit and then playing it back into the space. Each tube resonates the sounds and those sounds are recorded by the other circuits. Each circuit has a different recording length, they are not synchronized, which results in sound patterns that are constantly evolving.
Children quickly realize the piece can be influenced by interacting at certain times. The tubes are very resonant so any external input is gently incorporated into the soundscape. The piece operates on rechargeable batteries that are recharged each day. When the piece starts to run down it starts to glitch as it runs out of power and the effect is quite nice.
Whenever I show a sound work for an extended period, I like to talk to the people who have had to spend lots of time with the piece, in many cases more than I have. I learned long ago that a pre-recorded sound will quickly tire a museum guard or gallery worker. This piece never has the same sounds repeated and it’s gratifying to me that it can be installed for extended periods without too much listener fatigue.
This piece comes out of a trajectory of pieces of mine that attempt to remove the mystery of electronically generated sounds. In fact, most of my work involves mediating the abstract nature of electronic sound.
In this work, the emphasis is on the visibility of the circuits as opposed to a computer hidden away. This is a deliberate attempt at signaling my willingness to be transparent in the generative process. This idea is particularly important to me because the primary content of the piece is for the listener to be informed by their knowledge of the generative process, when they hear the work.
Michelle: We are such a visual culture, that sound too often takes a back seat…
Ted: I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that sound takes a back seat to the visual. The idea assumes a type of parity between the senses. For much of our perception, the sonic and visual are part of one physical event, what Michel Chion calls “causal listening”. And for many types of art the sonic is the focus, music, poetry, etc.
I think that sound and vision can be approached as one precept, and that is the way I approach most of my works. The cinema has given us a good laboratory to think about this relationship because it allows the visual and auditory to be manipulated separately. What Michel Chion has pointed about about the relationship of sound to image in cinema can be extended to other sound art domains. He claims that much of sound in the cinema gives “added value” to the visual.
This concept at first glance would appear to support your idea that sound is taking a back seat to the visual, but only if you approach the two domains as separate competitors for our attention. As aspects of one perception, both the visual and auditory are adding value to our perception. And if I can go out on a limb here a little, perhaps this could be leading to a definition of sound art. Perhaps music could be defined as the aural art form in which a perceptual split has been made between the visual and the aural, and sound art is the aural art form in which this split has not happened.
Michelle: Who is your ideal listener/viewer?
Ted: Its funny that phrase “listener viewer” because the language is supporting that same division I was just talking about. If we could say something like “perceiver” that distance between the senses might not be highlighted. In any case, I find that children are not afraid to interact with my work which really helps people understand the processes at play in the work. Perhaps the ideal perceiver is an adult accompanied by a child.
Michelle: How should a museum visitor approach a piece of sound art like “Call and Resonance”?
Ted: Perhaps this relates to the question of misinterpretation. Is it okay to misinterpret one of my works? I don’t have strong feelings about that, but I can tell you a little story. A sound installation of mine was being shown in a gallery along with a series of watercolor paintings of whales by another artist. A visitor asked me if the sounds of my installation were whale sounds. Well, that was a radical misunderstanding of the gallery situation and I, at first, bristled at the misreading. Only later did I realize that this was an important lesson about how our brains put together sounds and images.
It’s of course nice when somebody understands what you’re doing, but it’s also nice when they really don’t and they still enjoy it. In fact, when I think about my most recent experiences with electronic art, it’s the pieces I don’t understand that give me the most joy. I recently saw a performance by Yuta Uozumi with four musical robots. His performance was clearly driven by a set of rules, both electronic and human, that guided the performance, but they were completely opaque to me. I think understanding that the rules were there was enough.
Michelle: The genre of sound art seems to have a foot in both the art world and the world of music and composition. But while musicians view sounds in a more linear way, sound artists view them more spatially. I recently saw the sound art show at MoMA, and it was sometimes challenging to truly immerse myself in a particular piece because of the noise of the museum and because of other pieces in the galleries. And sadly, Stephen Vitiello’s A Bell for Every Minute was drowned out by a DJ in the MoMA sculpture garden. What are the challenges you face as a sound artist when attempting to bring your work to a larger audience? Do you think sound art is still attempting to find wider acceptance in the art world?
Ted: So you’ve pinpointed one difficulty. It’s sometimes difficult for sound works to share a gallery space in that sound bleeds from one space to another. This can sometimes be wonderful and often times not. You might be surprised at how often a curator will program a number of sound works without regard to this issue. Another related issue for the display of sound is the listening fatigue placed upon gallerists and museum guards. We have all had the experience of listening to a repeating linear soundtrack in a gallery. I have found that generative processes that create sounds that never repeat have a real practical purpose in gallery spaces.
Besides these practical concerns, I feel that the genre of sound art itself might be limiting sound art’s potential. Many sound art shows have the theme of “Sound Art.” Imagine a show of visual art with the theme of “Visual Art.” This would be a laughable idea, but it is something we can’t seem to escape with sound art.
Many shows of sound art rely on the supposed novelty of sound in a visual art context as the sole thematic idea of the show. I think one way out of this is to treat sound as part of our larger perceptual system and not as an essential indivisible phenomenon. Which gets back to your experience of difficulty achieving immersion in an individual sonic work when other sounds are competing for your attention. Perhaps sonic immersion is a valued characteristic of musical listening because of music’s focus on the sonic experience and less important when experiencing sound art. My newest work engages with different ways of listening, but doesn’t make any sound itself. It shouldn’t get in the way sonically of anybody else’s work that does make sound!
I had a wonderful conversation with artist Bruce Odland about sound and noise. Bruce’s aim is to foster a “hearing perspective” through his sound projects. “We won’t understand ourselves as culture until we also understand the sounds we make,” Bruce told me. “Noise is the sound of all of the power that we’re using at this moment,” he said. Our surroundings are “resonating with the sound of the waste-stream of our economy and we have to walk through it and wade through it, and it affects what we can think that day, it affects our potential connection to the ecology, to the environment, to ourselves as people walking about with connections to other things on the planet.” As a sound artist, I’d love your own thoughts on this idea.
I was recently introduced (by Dugal McKinnon) to the work of Sally Ann McIntyre, who creates ecologically based sound works. Among other things, she makes audio recordings of images of extinct birds. The silence of these recordings is very different from Cagian silence in that we are not truly concerned with the sonic characteristics of the silence. I really appreciate this conceptual approach to a field that is dominated by a discourse of assumed ecological content to any soundscape recording. For me, she is pointing at other ways of engaging ecological themes with sound.
I visit Bruce Odland‘s piece at the MASS MoCA whenever I am there. It’s interesting to connect sound to the idea of a “waste-stream” of our economy. I like to collect new and different ideas of ways of listening, and that is exactly what that is, a new listening mode to interpret sounds from the world. I believe that highlighting these listening modes is one of the primary jobs of a sound artist.
To Apply for the FETA Prize in Sound Art
The FETA Prize in Sound Art aims to promote a broad range of contemporary American sound and installation arts. Artists working within the sonic arts such as sound installation, sound sculpture, sound poetry, soundscape, robotics, net art and similar may submit one work each for consideration. The prize is open to any individual of any age who is a permanent resident or citizen of any North, Central and South American country. All submissions must be anonymous. The prize will include $1,000 USD and a feature in the online art magazine Gwarlingo. Artists interested in applying for the $1000 prize this year have until April 10th to submit their applications. More information is available at the FETA Foundation website.
About Ted Apel
Ted Apel is a sound artist whose sculptures and installations focus on the audio transducing element as the source of visual and sonic material. He has exhibited his work at sound art festivals and exhibits including the SoundCulture festival in San Francisco; the Ussachevsky Festival in Claremont, California; the Audio Art Festival in Krakow, Poland; the Sound Symposium in St. John’s Newfoundland; the O.K. Center for Contemporary Art in Linz, Austria, and the Academy of Arts, Berlin.
He was twice a prizewinner at the Bourges International Electroacoustic Music Competition for his sound installations; his sound installation received an honorary mention at the Prix Ars Electronica 2001; and won the grand prize in the 2004 Idaho Triennial.
Ted Apel received his M.A. in electroacoustic music at Dartmouth College studying with Jon Appleton, Larry Polansky, Kathryn Alexander, and Christian Wolff. He received his Ph.D. in computer music at the University of California, San Diego studying with Miller Puckette, Shlomo Dubnov, Haim Steinbach, Charles Curtis, and F. Richard Moore.
Apel created sounds and music for toys, video games, and multimedia projects and programmed audio for video games in the San Francisco Bay area from 1993-1995. He is a Lecturer in Electronic Music / Sonic Arts at the New Zealand School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington.
For more information about Ted Apel and his work, please visit his website.
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