Sound Art may yet to be co-opted into the mainstream, though the loose store it sets down for itself legitimises it in a way the current wave of ‘Noise’ acts, weaned on Metal and Hardcore, give a wide berth to. As a practitioner himself, both with bands such as Love Child and Run On, as well as more explicitly cross-artform projects such as Text Of Light, founded with Lee Renaldo of Sonic Youth, Alan Licht is perfectly placed to observe how ‘avant-garde art is now commercially viable’. Anyone who stumbled through the theme-parking of the avant-garde in the British Library’s apparently un-ironically titled Breaking The Rules exhibition of 2007, will already be wise to such contrary neutering of still apparently radical forces.
Divided into three longish chapters, Licht’s book first attempts to fix the unfixable and say what Sound Art is before looking at environmental backdrops both urban and rural then setting out a thumbnail historical context. As selective as some of this is, in such an ever-morphing world it’s as good a starting point as any.
It’s interesting, though, that something exploring sound relies so heavily on its visual presentation. As appealingly lavish as its multitude of full page photographs of the form’s key figures and events remain, such coffee-table stylings contradict Licht’s earlier statement that ‘sound art belongs in an exhibition situation rather than a performance situation’. This doesn’t so much diss as barely acknowledge Live Art’s breaking out of the figurative frame via early manifestations of art-cabaret and other happenings before subsequently being reformalised as experimental (or not) theatre.
While in this way Licht’s book itself becomes a necessary part of documentation by capturing and displaying a crucial moment either in pictures or on CD, there are other, similarly bald, head-scratching anomalies which make you wonder where he’s coming from. When he says that ‘no-one listens to the radio in the dark,’ he’s missing out several generations of ‘under-the-covers’ John Peel acolytes who first discovered the weird stuff only after lights out. Later, Licht’s suggestion that ‘no-one is comfortable with silence any more than they’re comfortable with darkness’ becomers even odder when John Cage inevitably comes calling.
Once Licht moves beyond such attempts at definition, however, he’s on far more solid ground in what is essentially a Sound Art primer. Some of the book’s profoundest insights are to be found in the artists’ biographies appendix, which are largely prefixed by quotes by the artists themselves. American percussionist and composer Max Neuhaus sums things up when he says that ‘People think seeing is everything. They say ‘seeing is believing,’ but in fact the eye and ear are in constant dialogue…sound is the other half of life.’
Neil Cooper is a writer