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New Movements : Smudgy Territory
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Smudgy Territory
Discrete Listening, Democratic Technology, and Dancing To Sound Art
by Lucinda Catchlove

To attempt to define contemporary sound art is to grapple with a slippery beast. Even if one has a finger on its pulse, grasping only one limb of this mutating animal won't wrestle the beast to the ground. Emerging tendencies in sound art include everything from experiments with new surround sound and audio/visual technologies to electronic music compositions that have one foot dancing in the popular culture domain of the nightclub and the other roaming the halls of academia. Just as likely to come packaged for a boite de danse as for the white cube, emerging sound art practices have blasted both boxes wide open. The boundaries are in a continual state of flux(us) as creative practices adapt to, or incite, technological innovations. It's an incredibly interesting and fluid moment in the evolution of sound art and popular culture.

In an attempt to capture the beast for observation and measurement of its salient features at this moment of evolution, I sat down with Patti Schmidt, host and producer of CBC's Brave New Waves [www.bravenewwaves.ca] radio program. Schmidt and I tried to beat the many-armed beast into submission and, to mix metaphors, we danced about its architecture while comparing the tracks we'd spotted on our journeys into sound.

Lucinda Catchlove: Do you define a difference between music and audio art?

Patti Schmidt: There is [one] actually, though I don't think I've explicitly thought about that definition. It's probably a structural issue and an intention issue on the part of the artist. If someone's doing a sound installation piece, it's usually obvious. Like Skoltz_Kolgen's [www.skoltzkolgen.com] material for example [which] I think is more audio art than tracks per se. The more esoteric stuff usually I'll listen to as audio art, if it doesn't have a beat structure or repetitive models that at all adhere to a dance convention. It's smudgy territory.

LC: Often we think of audio art as being super intellectual, but on some levels a lot of it is actually incredibly visceral.

PS: And intuitively put together. I was just thinking about how music concrete and stuff like that has been completely absorbed into the process of making most electronic music, much of which is mainly collage.

Bite by byte, electronic music with its voracious appetite for innovation has cannibalised the critical mass of the historical body of sound art in an act of anthropophagia. We find the left hand of the body electric opening Pierre Henry's [www.pierrehenry.de] creaking door onto a pulsating dancefloor while the right hand grasps at the conventions of consumer culture. This post-modern pillaging of the past (and present sonic booty) by a scurvy crew of sample happy audio pirates raises challenging issues about copyright and what constitutes cultural and private ownership - one of the defining issues of our era. From Akufen's [www.discogs.com/artist/Akufen] dancefloor experiments to Deadbeat's [www.techno.ca/deadbeat] digidub soundscapes, from Venetian Snares' [www.vsnares.com] dastardly pummelling "drill and bass" improv to Skoltz_Kolgen's dainty, meticulous, and glitchy audio/visual concoctions, collage and concrete aesthetics inform the current wave of emerging Canadian sound artists.

While it is self-evident that digital technologies have changed the process and practice of sound art and music production, what is also becoming increasingly apparent is that an erosion of the line between "popular" music and sound art is taking place. Canadian artists are at the centre of this emerging trend. For instance, Plastikman's [www.plastikman.com] cd Closer highlights this high/low (con)fusion as it explores new dimensions of sound and rhythm in a conversation about concepts and aesthetics that assumes prior knowledge of the aesthetic tropes and sonic conventions of the dance floor. Sound art increasingly includes conceptually-based work that bends or breaks the conventions of electronic dance music. Explorations of the intricacies of multidimensional sound design, and the experience this creates, are just as prevalent in the hedonistic domain of dance music as they are in the heady domain of sound art.

LC: I think it comes down to immersive experiences in some ways, creating an experience where you are actually inside the sound. There's this kind of dynamic in sound art where on one hand it's hyper theoretical and intellectual, but at the same time it's hyper visceral.

PS: Plastikman's last record is a combination of sound art and techno. The sonic environment is as composed and articulated as you'd expect an audio-acoustic composer to put together, yet it also functions as something that people will play in techno clubs.

LC: One of the defining things about sound art is that it tries to define a physical space within your body through the listening experience and the way the sound affects your body.

PS: It's psychoacoustics, and environment. Electroacoustic music has been completely absorbed into electronic music construction. Even Akufen's record (My Way, 2003) is totally electroacoustically-derived in tradition, process, and practice. The Egg [www.fusion3.com/authors/egg] record (Don't Postpone Joy, 2003) similarly, and both those guys come from electroacoustic backgrounds. When you listen to that record there's depth of field, and the detail is so carefully placed that it's an interesting example of managing the dancefloor and the really heady kind of... it's almost a new kind of, well I wouldn't call it "psychedelic", but definitely it taps into something similar.

Perhaps what it taps into is the somewhat psychedelic theory of post-humanism and extended consciousness. Individually and collectively we all inhabit increasingly abstract and virtual spaces. We routinely extend our consciousness through virtual realities that we experience when plugged into technologies like the Internet, video games, and - more passively - television. Not to mention the use of pharmaceutical biotechnology to shape our experiences and alter our consciousness, thereby affecting our concepts of nature and reality. All technologies are an extension of our senses that permit us an extended arc of experience while increasingly extruding our consciousness outside of the confines of our physical being. Or, technology brings distant events into our immediate material world for us to experience, as in the case of webcasting and virtual sound art.

LC: Do you think some of the experimentation is just technology driven?

PS: My instinct is to say "definitely". I don't see how it couldn't be. If there were another sense we were able somehow to create for, I'm sure we'd invent something to incorporate that too. People are really very conscious of that too, of the video/audio crossover... sending audio into video software to see what happens, and vice versa.

LC: Some sound artists specifically design to have an incredibly visceral effect. If you look at something like ╔ric Mattson's VoltAA series [of concerts], he sets up a situation where the lights are out, it's totally dark, nobody can leave, it's pure concentration. I respect the intent behind it, because it creates a space to experience the music - it isn't just listening.

PS: And the Ex-Centris program at Mutek [www.mutek.ca] is usually very much like that as well. They make sure it's always on the highest quality sound system they can find because it's so much about the visceral subtleties, the intimacy, and the "macro" of the experience. 5.1 [surround sound technology] is starting to become a lot more used, and it seems like it's a language of listening that people seem more willing to accept in light of electronic music's complete intervention into our regular habits or ideas of what music is.

Multidimensional sound design investigates the architecture and physical dimensions of sound. And sound art concepts increasingly investigate issues of physical location and its relationship with virtual realities, as well as the actual physical experience of sound. Surround sound, site-specific installations, and deep listening sessions all locate the listener within the music or, barring musicality, immerse the listener in sound. Increasingly, sound artists seem to be interested in bringing the organic, concrete sounds of life and the world around us (including the ambient sounds of the technology in our lives) to our attention. Once again we are brought back to electroacoustic and music concrete traditions as they find new expression through artists working with digital technologies. Soundtracks and ambient music have also informed this interest in texture and "real" sounds.

PS: I think we're uncomfortable with pristine sound because there are very few things in life that are that pristine. It's almost like it's a bit stunning sometimes if something's too pointy. [Surface noise] creates depth too. I wonder how it's related to our cultural acceptance, and the understanding of the language of sound, which always has noise in it - whether it's the projector, the film stock, or whatever it is. There's just something about it that creates depth and emotion. I think that's the other thing too, that it stands in for and suggests emotions.

LC: Subtle surface noises and things are organic, it's the suggestions of the hisses and pops from a record. We could classify that as a classic "found sound" idea.

PS: Imperfection.

LC: And nostalgia, because it gives the idea of age or decay.

An interest in incorporating and exploring the rhythms and subtle sounds of life is hardly new in sound art. Nor is the idea of using the inherent noise of the technology to self-reference. Certainly many of the emerging tendencies in sound art can be linked to novel technologies like virtual networks, the increasing exploration of the spatial dimensions of sound through speaker technologies and surround sound, and audio and audiovisual software that allow for real time manipulation and collaboration. However, technology - once the subject of many sound art discourses - is becoming subservient to the artist's intent, a tool to explore cultural discourses that go beyond geeky technofetishism.

The most evident emerging trend is contextual, not technological. Canadian sound artists have benefited from the infrastructure and validation offered by festivals, galleries, and programs like Brave New Waves, which have allowed for a broadening of discourse, a deepening of conceptual concerns, and a maturity of practice. Concurrently, the democratization of means of dissemination has created new audiences for discrete listening. Many sound artists disseminate their work through largely pop culture channels (non-mainstream and narrow though they may be), as well as by performing within the more academic context of new media festivals and sound installations. These two paths raise issues about where contemporary cultural discourse is located - on the high road of academia, the subterranean streets, or the electronic highway? It seems, to this traveller, that the most interesting conversations are taking place in the smudgy territory where these roads intersect and slippery beasts roam.

Lucinda Catchlove has written about visual art and music for 15 years for a variety of publications. She is an active member of C0C0S0L1DC1T1, [www.cocosolidciti.com] an international collective of digital artists, curators, and theorists who specialize in audio/visual, Web, and sound art. She is currently researching and writing a book (to be accompanied by a dvd) on the practice of VJing and contemporary audio/visual art.

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