Vol. 29 Issue 1 Reviews
Helga de la Motte-Haber, editor: Klangkunst: Tönende Objekte und klingende Räume

Hardcover, Handbuch der Musik im 20. Jahrhundert 12, 1999, ISBN 3-89007-432-4, 352 pages, illustrated, index of terms, index of persons, bibliography, € 98; Laaber-Verlag GmbH, Regensburger Str. 19,
93164 Laaber, Germany; telephone (+49) 9498-2307; fax (+49) 9498-2543; electronic mail info@laaber-verlag.de; Web www.laaber-verlag.de/.

Reviewed by M. J. Grant
Berlin, Germany

Book CoverResounding objects, resounding spaces: the subtitle of this book could just as well describe a symphony concert in one of the world's great venues, or the endeavors of a lone busker in a metro station. Without resounding objects and places to resound them in we would not have music. But rarely do the objects and the rooms have such a central, indeed defining, role as in what in Germany is called “Klangkunst,” or “sound art,” one of the most distinctive forms of artistic activity to emerge in the 20th century.

The subtitle has another function: this is the second book bearing the title Klangkunst to be overseen by Helga de la Motte-Haber, but whereas the first was a sumptuously illustrated catalog for the Sonambiente Festival held in Berlin in 1996, consisting for the most part of biographies of artists/composers, this later text attempts to provide a comprehensive and systematic guide to the history, technology, and aesthetics of this art form. While the previous volume presented no less than 19 short texts (quite apart from the biographies), the present book has contributions from only five different authors, but its aim is in every way more ambitious, to lay the groundwork for the theoretical discussion and understanding of sound art.

This brings me to the problem of terminology and categorization; I cannot go any further without at least mentioning what has fast become a major pain in the art of composing this review. I started with references to musical forms, then talked of artistic forms, got in a real muddle over what to call the practitioners, and yet there can be no disguising that Klangkunst seems to have more connections to music than to other arts. After all, this volume comes in a series dedicated to 20th-century music. Certainly, we are dealing here with a phenomenon which is in many senses intermedial and interdisciplinary, and the historical backgrounds sketched in many of the chapters in this book show how sound art derived equally from developments in sculpture and installation art as well as from electroacoustic music in particular.

In her opening discussion, Ms. de la Motte-Haber traces the influences of abstract art and of early experimental music and the Fluxus movement which they helped spawn. Her definition of Klangkunst—“Klangkunst is intended to be seen and heard” (p. 13)—echoes through the book as a whole. She picks out the crossing of boundaries and the central role of the observer as two of its central characteristics, and it says much for the quality of the writing in this publication that a discussion of these almost ubiquitous features of modern aesthetic theory can be made to feel compelling once more. While many an author might be content to side-step any attempt at re-categorization (on the belief that such would run contrary to the aesthetic in question), this book's strength lies precisely in covering the basics and in attempting to define theoretical criteria for approaching the subject systematically. The result is as useful to advanced scholars as it is to students new to the field.

What, then, is sound art? It is not merely a hybrid of music and the plastic arts; its form (generally non-developmental, and intermedial), its debt to and application of technology (mechanical, analog, and digital), its specific communicative structures (very often interactive), its locations (in public spaces, for example), and its effects (which can be surmised in part from the many excellent photographs in the book) mark it off as perhaps one of the few genuinely new artistic constellations to have emerged in a century which prided itself on newness. These features are reiterated and explored throughout the volume.

Although certain aspects of Sabine Sanio's aesthetic positioning of Klangkunst in the second chapter circle familiar ground—probably unavoidable when the starting point is a comparison to the work concept—her discussion of the “situation” itself as the focal point of many manifestations of sound art is valuable, all the more so since she uses it to reinforce the importance of technical developments in the development of the form. This would seem paradoxical if we were to subscribe to the belief, common enough in media theory and in discussions of electroacoustic music, that technology necessarily suppresses or corrupts the live, real-time situation, closing off a certain reality rather than revealing it. But, as Ms. de la Motte-Haber suggests in the previous chapter, contemporary art of all descriptions is in no small part about generating “conditions of perception” (“Wahrnehmungsbedingungen”). And, as Ms. Sanio reiterates, the precise conditions created in sound art are largely dependent on the development of electroacoustic music, not only in terms of technology but also because of the questions of the nature and role of performance and of the status of the musical object to which electroacoustic music gave rise.

Not all Klangkunst shows equal debt to this heritage. A whole chapter is devoted to sound sculpture. According to its author, Frank Gertich, the concentration on the object rather than the surrounding space differentiates sound sculpture most clearly from sound installations, though there are many examples that straddle the two. Another major difference is that the latter is much more likely to incorporate electroacoustic technology than the former. His prehistory of sound sculpture makes it clear that sound sculpture's origins were more mechanical in origin. His examples include Structure Sonore Baschet, who started off as creators of outlandish musical instruments but soon noticed and exploited the enormous curiosity of the public into the exact workings of the instruments, and the celebration of mechanical noise in the kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely. The term “sound sculpture” is generally applied to sculptures which sound rather than sculptures of sound, though Mr. Gertich points out that artists such as Bill Fontana and Michael Brewster have explored the latter, the visual impact of such works often being less important than the aural. His discussion makes it clear that it is not only music which has its boundaries and functionalities called into question: another major difference between sound installations and sound sculptures is the mobility of the latter, but this mobility itself contradicts the traditional function and characteristic of sculpture, often designed to function monumentally. He also points out that many artists do not like the categorization “sound art,” but adds that its increasing use in the recent past and the institutionalization which accompanies this have not been purely negative: for example, it has improved the flow of money into this area. Nevertheless, there are still no categories by which such work can be described and evaluated. Mr. Gertich suggests the following points of concentration: systematic description of the methods of sound production, and the ensuing results; an analysis of the relationship between auditive and visual components; a discussion of the reception situation. He goes on to make a range of further suggestions as to what to look for in each instance, and what to call whatever is found.

Such concrete suggestions on how to proceed in dealing critically with sound art are among the strong points of this book. The different approaches to technology in the field of sound installation, for example, are presented in concise form by Martin Supper in the third chapter of the book. He gathers the myriad of possible forms into only three general categories: closed systems, all aspects of which are defined in advance; open systems, in which the sounds created are dependent on an external signal—from the surrounding environment, for example—which is transformed within the system but which cannot be predicted in advance; and closed systems which are triggered by “interference” from outside, for example by the interaction of members of the public. These latter two categories indicate yet again the distinguishing features of much sound art: it is not enough to say that sound installations integrate or thematicize space. They are not to be confused with spatial composition à la Xenakis and others, because the type of space they inhabit, both physical and conceptual, is quite particular.

The two final chapters deal with issues relating to what we might call the socio-aesthetic aspects of sound art. According to Golo Föllmer, author of the fifth chapter, public space, and particularly urban space, is the starting point for the concept of sound installation, with consequences for its form. He cites Max Neuhaus’ belief that, in order to allow the observers to participate on their own terms with the installation, it is necessary to reject the fixed temporal form of most music and focus instead on a spatially-oriented, directionless form instead. The background to the acoustic formation of space (covering everything from Muzak to ambient music to industrial design) is followed by an exploration of the ways in which sound art has contributed to the creation of social spaces in non-artistic environments.

This shifting of the focus from the creator to the receiving public, reflected throughout this book in its reiteration of the centrality of interaction, is further explored in the final chapter, also written by Ms. de la Motte Haber. She suggests that it is necessary to expand the concepts of “site-specific” or “situational” art to include all those in which the receiver plays a defining role. This shifts the onus quite dramatically, and it is not entirely clear what is to be understood under the term “non-site;” perhaps the frame of reference would become too large to be of much use. But it would certainly be a new frame, which in itself could help us to continue pursuing this debate with the refreshing rigor of the authors of this stimulating and informative book.