Sound by Artists

Sound by Artists
Published by Charivari Press/Blackwood Gallery, Toronto
Edited by Dan Lander and Micah Lexier
1990/2013, 370 pages, softcover

Originally printed in 1990 by Art Metropole and Walter Phillips Gallery, Sound by Artists is admittedly dated and seemingly incomplete because it pre-dates significant advances in communication technology, including the Internet and digital sound storage. That said, this facsimile reprint of Sound by Artists remains a relevant and invigorating text that celebrates sound as the cornerstone of our perceptions of time, space and self.

In “Soundings”, Susan Delehanty argues that 20th Century modernists incorporated sound into their practices in an effort to “give form to the spirit of a new era”. The Futurists, for example, were interested in sound as a signifier of technological progress. Luigi Russolo explains in “The Art of Noise” for Futurist Manifesto (1909): “Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born.” Russolo attempted to elevate the status of industrial noise with the Intonarumori, a noise machine that he played in concerts across Europe starting in 1914; and Russolo’s paintings are plainly related to his writing and experiments. Consider Solidity of Fog (1912), a night time scene pulsing with waves of white, electric light that are easily read as sonic frequencies. Indeed, the birth of pure abstraction was born from such modernist meditations on noise and music as human expressions without plastic form. So much so that MoMA’s recent Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925 exhibition began with Wassily Kandinsky’s Impression III (Concert) (1910), a synesthetic painting of a musical performance.

Bill Viola’s essay, “The Sound of One Line Scanning”, questions the modernist narrative upheld by Delehanty by suggesting that sound and art have long been married. Until the modern age, Western art production was largely dedicated to inspiring Christian devotion and stirring spiritual feelings. The first galleries, therefore, were churches and cathedrals, where acoustics and music were designed to “evoke strong associations with both the internal private space of contemplation and the larger realm of the ineffable”. Viola also reminds us that most creation myths begin with sound: In the beginning was the Word. Even the scientific theory of our origin begins with a big bang.

The primacy of sound to our understanding of time’s beginning returns us to Delehanty’s essay because it, in part, explains the modernist’s fascination with sound. The early 20th Century was a time of upheaval and disorder, born from a distrust of preceding values like reason and religion. Artists took it upon themselves to be the inventors of a new reality, the builders of a new world. As Delehanty writes, “The artist, once merely a craftsman, became a creator…sound announced that the human experience, ever changing in time and space – the substance of life itself – had become both the subject and the object of art”.

Like Viola’s essay, which questions our art historical perception of when art and sound first merged, R. Murray Schafer’s “Radical Radio” complicates our understanding of a seemingly modern innovation by suggesting that radio “existed long before it was invented”. He begins, “[radio] existed whenever there were invisible voices: in the wind, in thunder, in the dream”. The redeeming, hopeful and spiritual possibility of radio imagined by Schafer is the anthology’s most urgent message, considering our federal government’s ongoing hostility towards the Canada’s Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the recent, related introduction of four minutes of advertising per hour to CBC Radio 2. Schafer argues that if radio were considered an art form and freed from capitalist cycles, it would “be reunited with the primevally divine, charged with the energy of the sacred and restored to its original radical condition”.

Schafer’s ideas for radio broadcasts are absorbing and stirring. He advocates for phenomenologicalprograms, like Wilderness Radio, an unedited, long-term broadcast of sounds from a remote, uninhabited location. Wilderness Radio never came to be; but Schafer did realize a handful of pioneering programs in partnership with the CBC. Soundscapes of Canada, for example, was a series of ten hour-long broadcasts that aired between October 21 and November 1, 1974. Each episode featured uniquely Canadian sounds, like birds on the summer solstice or the bells in Percé, Québec.

Schafer ends “Radical Radio” by saying, “Place your microphones [in the living universe] and you will catch the voices of the gods”. The cosmic and sacred significance of everyday sounds also informed Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record, which launched into space only three years after Schafer’s Soundscapes of Canada was publicly broadcast. Whether or not the gold-plated copper phonograph record of sounds that describe life on Earth, including laughter, thunder and a kiss, is ever found and played by extraterrestrials, the simple fact of it is as beautiful and as hopeful as Schafer’s conviction that God can be found in the croak of a bullfrog or the wail of a siren.

Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record is also emblematic of the fetishization of the phonograph record, as put forth by Kevin Concannon in “Cut and Paste: Collage and the Art of Sound”. In a subsection titled The Record as a Secular Icon, Concannon writes, “The increasing importance of records within popular culture has undoubtedly contributed to the interest that they have held for modern artists.” The record represents celebrity worship and the cult of popular music, and it is therefore a meaningful medium for artists exploring the awesome and transcendent possibilities of sound. Concannon cites Christian Marclay’s Record Without a Cover (1985), a recording of a performance by the artist that oughtn’t be kept in a protective sleeve. The scratches that result render each series copy unique. More than that, the discs are changed and marked by their experiences, and are subject to the constant threats of abuse and destruction. It’s vinyl writ with life and death.

Rather than reference the altar of music from their art studios, many artists have opted to double as musicians. Concannon observes, “By the mid-1970s, it seemed the art schools were producing more rock artists than painters or sculptors.” The Art of Noise, Cabaret Voltaire and Bauhaus are illustrative examples, as they take “their names, and to varying extents their creative sensibilities, from Russolo’s manifesto, a Dada nightclub, and a German art school respectively”. Many artists, however, work outside of realm of popular music. John Cage, for example, composed 4’33” (1952), four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.

John Cage’s piece, of course, attunes one to the absence of silence. There is always something to hear, even if it’s one’s own breath or thoughts. Death is the only silence we know. Life is sound. This anthology shows how artists ask us to really live by asking us to really listen.


Sound by Artists is available for purchase from the Blackwood Gallery.