Music as a community paradigm for the arts
I have long considered sound and music performance as my preferred medium due to its aesthetic of the moment and, as a result, its particular potential for high intensity. Both the performer and the audience need to be present to create the event, to set it in motion, and to feel its energy, in a way that hopefully precedes or even transcends the need for ›logos‹.
I have always cherished its communal potential as well. Firstly, through the various communities that make up alternative music scenes and, in their best moments, the feeling of solidarity that can emanate from them. This also comes from viewing the members of an audience as a community in itself gathered around the concert event, which they experience as a mass. It is a ritual that stands both inside and outside of everyday life, serving as a cathartic way of processing a whole range of emotions and expressing identities.
All these points reflect different aspects of the very nature of sound as an ephemeral, intangible, and hardly collectible phenomenon, which makes it something of an outsider to the current economy and logistics of contemporary art—despite a growing interest in it.
The case of fixed sound reproduction, enabling greater access and collectability, displaces those characteristics into new territories: geographically, socially, and temporally. Geographical displacement routinely allows for consumption out of context and can also raise issues of ownership, but the temporal transfer also facilitates the continuation of the sonic past into the present—a living entity taking on new meanings for the contemporary ear. This is evident through sampling, for example, or the constitution of sound archives, depending on the context in which they were created. This retrospective evaluation should also extend to the way we understand the discourse on sound in the arts, as it is as much a product of its time as the artwork itself.
Was sound ›invented‹?
Canonical art history mostly credits the Italian Futurists with introducing sound as a concept to the arts at the beginning of the 20th century, with John Cage being another, later milestone in this ›quasi-biological‹ evolution. Current concerns, however, should underscore the importance of situating events and practices in their broader context.
The Futurists were fascinated by the noise of the rapidly developing industrialisation of the time, by the sounds of an all-conquering modernism that didn’t emerge out of nowhere but had largely been propelled by a deeply ingrained legacy of enslavement, colonisation, extraction and other forms of exploitations. Aesthetically, the introduction of noise seemed particularly transgressive of a certain white and bourgeois notion of beauty that had primarily thrived in the context of silent, seated, indoor concerts. But sound characteristics that were deemed ›unwanted noise‹ here were elsewhere an inherent part of the equation. For example, Afrodiasporic music and its innovations have often incorporated elements that would have been considered noise to the European ear—the vibrating sound of the metal strips of certain types of mbira, for example; water drumming; prison inmates using their pickaxes to create work songs; later feedback and other amplification artefacts, and so on. Some of this music was itself considered background noise before eventually reaching the status of ›art‹, thereby gaining institutional approval and market value.
John Cage’s interest in silence is often invoked as another point of reference for current sound practices. Like many other composers of his day, Cage’s approach was deeply influenced by Eastern philosophies, in particular by the teachings of the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai. Sarabhai taught the composer about Indian music and aesthetics in exchange for lessons in Western music. This encounter was pivotal in that it allowed Cage to shift his perspective and grasp new ways of thinking about sound, silence, and personal expression in music. In fact, most of the canonical Western experimental composers of the time sought inspiration in Asia and Africa. From a similar generation, the Egyptian composer Halim el-Dabh stands out in my personal pantheon as someone who had developed an awareness for the challenges and underlying mechanisms of western modernisation. While working with Ethiopian street musicians, he was simultaneously aware of the need to sustainably improve their financial and institutional situation by placing them in university. With an initial background in agricultural engineering and social work in Egypt, Halim el-Dabh’s thinking partly entailed working with the community, involving non-academics and various social classes in the development of musical works.
Constructing a narrative that attributes the invention of sound and noise solely to the Italian Futurists reflects a search for identity that is at best relevant to a certain category of European and European-adjacent audiences and practitioners. It is a search that takes place within a history of ideas that places the European classical music concert tradition at its centre and follows the need to break with this tradition in order to renew its language. It is an environment that takes a marketed idea of ›the new‹ and ›individual genius‹ as its main paradigm.
Stories passed on through oral tradition keep changing form, depending on the listener, the context and the amount of time elapsed.
In 2019, I went on a residency in Indonesia. While there, I had the opportunity to meet Balinese composer Dewa Alit, founder of Gamelan Salukat, an ensemble that explores New Music withing the framework of Balinese gamelan music. Its members play a set of instruments specially designed and tuned by the composer. During our conversation, which touched on the themes of experimentation and tradition, he mentioned to me how he understood environmental sounds to have always been part of the long-duration collaborative practice of gamelan playing, as it always took place outdoors, far from silent and seated concert halls. In fact, the rehearsal space where Gamelan Salukat practices—where we met—is open air. As a result, the sound of crickets can be heard throughout the recording of his piece ›Genetic‹.
Rather than being yet another marker of ›new tendencies in contemporary art‹ based on limited understanding and short-term memory, the current shift of interest towards the sonic can offer the opportunity for a shift in values and perspective. Devoid of clear-cut boundaries, sound is ambiguous, undefined, heterogeneous. As we listen, the distinction between one thing and another ceases to be sharp. This allows for a multiplicity of meanings. Here, too, the stories passed on through oral tradition keep changing form, depending on the listener, the context and the amount of time elapsed.
In contrast to the object-oriented focus on sound itself as an autonomous physical phenomenon, a focus on listening implies agency. It is a shift similar to that between classical and quantum physics, the latter often emphasising an unstable and changing reality depending on the observer as opposed to an objective, fixed reality. This suggests that perception is situated in and comes part and parcel with a political, social and cultural component. In physicist John Wheeler’s concept of a ›participatory universe‹, uncertain cosmic structures, originally formed in all possible configurations until observers of it (e.g., humans) and measuring apparatuses were eventually created. In that sense, observation makes the early universe a reality. In his view, consciousness plays a role in bringing the very universe into existence. If this is true, then the act of collectively listening to the recent or distant past in order to interpret it and uncover its life in the present also plays a crucial role—as an act of creation situated in the future.
So how will those observing and listening to us tomorrow will make sense of it all?