Sound art in Germany A Look at a Young Genre

Although sound art has been established for a number of decades now as a new form of art in the threshold between visual art and music, it plays a rather marginal role in the area of contemporary music and also in traditional exhibitions.

In sound art, the traditional form in which music is conveyed is abandoned in favour of a new sound/space experience. As with a visit to an exhibition, recipients are able to configure the chronological and spatial organisation of the way that they perceive things.

In the area of contemporary music, sound art is understood more as an expansion of the musical space and is in evidence primarily on the fringes of major music festivals. On the contemporary art scene, which is increasingly shaped by the art market and the events culture, it has rarely proved possible so far to adequately present artistic works through the medium of sound. Among other reasons, this is down to their great spatial reference and ephemeral nature. Sound art has so far proven to be more of an ideal medium for charging the atmosphere of places which, thanks to their architecture or because of their historical and social context, already have a certain aura, and for turning them into a special venue for experiencing new things.

From futurism to “sound installation”

The English term “sound installation”, from which the German term “Klanginstallation” is derived, was first used in around 1971 by the prominent US-American artist Max Neuhaus. With his drive-in music from 1967, Neuhaus first pursued his idea of a sound installation for a public space which features complex sound and does not impinge on the passer-by/recipient who hears it.

Max Neuhaus Audio and Video recordings (Source: www.max-neuhaus.info)

What was important with this work – and is important with most works of sound art – was the general principle of preserving the recipient’s proper time. Sound installations and sound sculptures allow visitors to leave and return at any time, a process which is virtually outlawed in the domain of concert music.

There were of course installations involving the use of sound before Max Neuhaus came on the scene: for example Mauricio Kagel’s Música para la torre, which was realised in Buenos Aires in 1953, the spatial-dynamic constructions of Nicolas Schöffer in 1954, the Poème électronique by Edgard Varese for the Philips Pavilion at the World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958, John Cage’s Variation VII at the “9 evenings” in New York in 1966, or Maryanne Amacher’s city links (since 1967), installations in which sounds were transmitted to exhibition sites via radio transmitters.

The roots for the development of this new form of art can be found at the start of the 20th century. If one looks at art history, the first examples of artists and groups that operated between the traditional arts can be found: The futurists, the Dadaistic movement, the Weimar Bauhaus artists, Kurt Schwitters and Marcel Duchamp should all be remembered. After the Second World War, it was then the Fluxus artists and representatives of the Happening and kinetic art who expanded the traditional field of art and also began to work with different noises and sounds. Alongside synaesthetic efforts (for instance with Skrjabin and Schönberg), the world of music also features different ideas and concepts which are diametrically opposed to the traditional notion of what constitutes music: They include Erik Satie’s idea of a “musique d’ameublement”, Luigi Russolo’s raucous Intonarumori and John Cage’s chance operations.

In summary, the historic sources of sound art can be described on the one hand as being the opening up of music to noise and the associated expansion of the material and the incorporation of chance processes and ideas of space into the musical composition, and on the other hand as the integration of sounds and noises – for example into the configuration of kinetic sculptures and installations.

Space, perception and technology

Sound installations do not have a fixed time frame, do not follow any specified dramaturgical dynamics and rarely display any narrative structures. The architectural, social and historic space is the subject of artistic debate. This location-specific quality links sound art to individual spaces which you can enter and leave in an open time frame. This is why it is very difficult to reproduce sound art at different places with the same level of resonance. The venues and standards of traditional art transmission (museums, concert halls and theatres) are generally avoided and locations in the public domain and unusual venues are preferred.

The central focus of sound art is often on specified perceptions, within the framework of which the visitor gets the freedom of action and interpretation to configure their own sensual experience. One essential prerequisite which has enabled the emergence of sound installations and sound sculptures is the development of sound-storage and playback technology in the 20th century. The associated independence of performing musicians and the possibility of constant mechanical repetition by means of auto-reverse technology allowed permanent installation of sounds, noises and music within space for the first time. This means that an ever-recurring feature in the area of sound art is the use of a range of sound technologies (starting with the cassette recorder right through to the MP3 player), but also exploitation of the differences in sound quality between different types of speakers.

However, there is also sound art which manages without any form of sound technology. This relates firstly to purely conceptual works of art which tend to imagine sound and the experience of sound, and secondly to objects or installations whose sound sources are purely natural in nature, such as wind, water or fire. In the latter cases, it is possible to establish a historical reference between sound art and wind harps or flame organs, but also with jukeboxes and music boxes.

Sound artists in Germany

If one looks at the development of sound art in Germany, which was of course influenced by international processes in this field, it becomes apparent that the artists of Fluxus, kinetic art and Dada are around to the present day.

However, the “pioneers” in the area of sound art can mainly be found in the USA. It was there at around the end of the 1960s, start of the 1970s that the options for artistic configuration were explored for the first time with sound material being produced by artists such as Max Neuhaus, Bernhard Leitner, Rolf Julius, Maryanne Amacher and Terry Fox. Originating from the fields of visual art, architecture or music, they began to work with sound in spaces, but they did not explicitly refer to themselves as sound artists.

Christina Kubisch Electrical Walks (Source: www.cabinetmagazine.org)

In Germany, it was roughly ten years later that a first “generation” of artists who now also considered themselves to be “sound artists” became established. This generation included Rolf Julius, Peter Vogel, Christina Kubisch, Robin Minard, Hans Peter Kuhn and Ulrich Eller. At this time, some of them were already teaching audiovisual art or sound art at art colleges.

At the end of the 1980s came a second “generation” including, for example, Erwin Stache, Sam Auinger, Andreas Oldörp and Tilman Küntzel. In 1996, the “Sonambiente – Festival for Listening and Seeing” held in Berlin provided a comprehensive snapshot of national and international sound art and it brought together a large proportion of the established sound artists who were around at the time.

Sam Auinger Farben (sound installation in public space) (Source: www.netzradio.de)
Tilman Küntzel Seismophonie (Installation) (Source: www.tkuentzel.de)

It was at this time that a third “generation” began to form, including artists such as Roswitha von den Driesch & Jens Uwe Dyffort, Matthias Deumlich, Jens Brand, Miki Yui, Jan Peter Sonntag and Stefan Rummel.

Stefan Rummel current work (sound samples: stefanrummel.info/soundfiles/)
Ludger Hennig Eisenfern (Source: hennig.schwingkreise.de)

Some of the younger artists who have since followed are already pupils of the first generation, and they include Rolf Giegold, Denise Ritter, Stefan Roigk and Ludger Hennig. Others come from the broad field of electronic music and digital media art, and they include Thom Kubli and Peter Simon, both graduates of the Cologne College of Media Art.

Boundaries: Sound art – musical art

The term “sound art” is increasingly being used in an inflationary way nowadays. In the area of contemporary music in particular, the misconception that any performance of music not depicted in notes – especially in experimental and electronic music – is sound art often prevails. Coupled with the rapid developments in technology since the end of the 1990s and the possibilities of easier access to digital technology for non-academic circles, there are now an almost endless number of artists who work with digital sounds and images. All of this is classified nowadays as sound art, although the term is used more as a general description indicating that sound material is being manipulated here.

The attitude, which has become fashionable in recent times, of using electronic music to entice a younger clientele to the “holy art temples” has resulted in a situation where installation or sculptural sound art is confused with electro-acoustic loudspeaker environments, that is to say sound art and musical art (music) are equated with one another. This form of music, which should really be termed “audio art” – in contrast to “sound art” – is in the main simply a case of loudspeaker compositions and constellations which are noted primarily for their repeatable setting. The main purpose here is to fill the space with sound and to position loudspeakers in different places in order, for example, to allow spatial listening. This makes the space interchangeable and the sounds lose their reference to the performance space. Installation sound art, by contrast, is volatile and can only be reproduced, if at all, in a varied version adapted to the location.