January 20, 2013
Musicophobia, or Sound Art and the Demands of Art Theory
By (Yale University)

When Suzan Philipsz won the 2010 Turner Prize, it was the first time in the award’s history that it went to a sound artist. The mere fact of Philipz’s victory often overshadowed critical assessment of Lowlands, her winning piece. It was as if her victory were not simply her own, but a victory for sound art altogether. Britain’s Channel 4 Culture Editor, Matthew Cain, wrote, “The high-profile win for Susan Philipsz might just build this up to the tipping point needed for sound art to really take off.”1 Even those critical of Philipsz’s work, noted the shift of attention from her work to her field. “If we wanted to be slightly facetious,” wrote critic Michael Glover, “we could call it history in the making. Sound artists are on the march! Never before in the 26-year history of the Turner Prize has it been won by an artist who had nothing to show for her £25,000 prize money but sounds fabricated by her own voice.” The title of Glover’s article  acknowledges yet avoids the identification of Philipsz’s victory with a vindication for sound art altogether: “Three cheers for sound artists. But not this one.” To ensure that his critique of Philipsz would not be taken as trampling on the fragile field, Glover nonchalantly wrote, “Sound art is nothing new, of course,” offering a potted history:

Theo van Doesburg was a pioneer. Kurt Schwitters made marvelous sound art in the 1920s and 1930s; his voice sculpts and swoops through the air like a biplane out of control. At one moment it sounds like a bird, and then, moments later, like the rising notes of a revving car. Edith Sitwell was at it too with her fluty voice. As was Allen Ginsberg and Bob Cobbing.2

Whether sound art is an emerging discipline or old hat, there is no doubt that the theory of sound art is currently a cottage industry. You can test the veracity the claim by perusing at the spate of books that have been published on the topic. To get a representative sampling, I recommend a quick glance at the catalog of books on sound published by Continuum. Starting with Christoph Cox and Daniel Warner’s anthology Audio Culture from 2004, there’s been a new book on sound and sound art on Continuum just about every 18 months: Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise: perspectives on sound art in 2006, Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music: a history from 2007, Seth Kim-Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear: towards a non-cochlear sonic art from 2009, and Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence: towards a philosophy of sound art from 2010. (We’re due for a new one any day now.) Add to that list Doug Kahn’s now classic Noise Water Meat, Alan Licht’s Sound Art, Caleb Kelly’s edited volume Sound from the Whitechapel Galley series and you are on your way to a healthy bibliography.

Perhaps this recent work on a theory of sound art may come as a surprise. Haven’t we had an art of sounds for a very long time, and hasn’t it gone by the name of music? Not necessarily, at least, according to two of these texts (Seth Kim Cohen’s In the Blink of an Ear and Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence). Both authors explicitly theorize sound art as a practice that is distinct from music—distinct not by its use of sound, but by the perceptual, conceptual and institutional issues raised by soundworks. Both authors attempt to differentiate sound art from music in quite distinct, and quite incompatible, ways.

I will begin by quickly summarizing the arguments of both texts, with a special focus on the distinction between sound art and music. Next, I will demonstrate that Kim-Cohen’s and Voegelin’s arguments are best understood when situated within current art historical and art-critical narratives. I will argue that music plays the role of a false opponent, that music is occupying a place normally given over to an art-critical opponent. In so far as music—more specifically, certain ways of characterizing the aesthetics of music—functions as a proxy for art historical and art-critical positions, I will argue that both theories are unable to develop appropriate and salient terms for considering the relationship of sound art to music.

I. Kim-Cohen and sonic idealism

In The Blink of an Ear, Kim-Cohen advocates for a “non-cochlear” sound art. The term “non-cochlear” is, of course, a transposition of the Duchampian notion of a “non-retinal” visual art into the auditory domain.3 Kim-Cohen inflects the term in a conceptualist direction. He qualifies “non-cochlear” sound art by invoking Peter Osborne’s description of conceptual art, an artform “based on the act of questioning existing definitions.” Non-cochlear sound art questions the institutions of the artworld, the relations of artist to spectator and the act of art-making itself, emphasizing process over product, the meaning over the physical artifact. It draws attention neither to the materiality nor the perceptual features of some sounding work, but towards everything that has normally been proscribed by undue attention to the sound itself. Kim-Cohen, following Derrida, uses the term parergon to designate the features that typically outside the “work” (the ergon).4

The power of Kim-Cohen’s book relies on the fact that, in addition to offering original readings of specific works of sound art in “non-cochlear” or conceptualist terms, he offers a history of sound art that touches not only the practice of artists like Robert Morris or Bruce Naumann—whose work is primarily visual but also includes a substantial amount of work with sound—but also musicians like Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, Muddy Waters and Bob Dylan. Kim-Cohen argues that, just as one can trace the roots of “non-retinal” art to Duchamp and the readymade, one can find the roots of “non-cochlear” art in Schaeffer, Cage and Waters. (More on that in a moment.)

The Duchampian and Derridean planks of Kim-Cohen’s project dovetail when describing the difference between music and sound art. By the Derridean plank, I mean a commitment to the parergon; by the Duchampian plank, I mean a commitment to Duchamp’s work understood as an alternative form of modernism radically opposed to the formalist commitments of abstract art, say, as Clement Greenberg defined it. Music, writ large, is unsupported by either of these planks.

Music has always functioned according to Greenbergian precepts. As a practice, music is positively obsessed with its media specificity. Only music includes, as a part of its discursive vocabulary, a term for the foreign matter threatening always to infect it: ‘the extramusical.’ (Kim-Cohen, 39)

Perhaps is it beside the point to say that there are probably very few musicologists that would agree with this characterization of music writ large.5 But, if I can put that aside momentarily, I would rather focus on the logic of Kim-Cohen’s argument, in particular, how the categories “music” and “sound art” are defined. So, being generous, let’s grant that Music (writ large) is concerned only with its own “tonally moving forms” (to borrow Hanslick’s handy phrase, one that Kim-Cohen could have used), and that anything that exceeds these forms is considered peripheral to the work itself. It is precisely this excess that becomes central in sound art—or what Kim-Cohen also designates as “expanded sonic practice.” He writes,

An expanded sonic practice would include the spectator, who always carries, as constituent parts of his or her subjectivity, a perspective shaped by social, political, gender, class and racial experience. It would necessarily include consideration of the relationships to and between process and product, the space of production versus the space of reception, the time of making relative to the time of beholding. Then there are history and tradition, the conventions of the site of encounter, the context of performance and audition, the mode of presentation, amplification, recording, reproduction. Nothing is out of bounds. To paraphrase Derrida, there is no extra-music. (107)

Riffing on Derrida’s claim that there is nothing outside the text (or literally “there is no outside-text”), Kim-Cohen argues against the legitimacy of the category of the extra-musical. And it is the nature of an “expanded sonic practice” to expose the illegitimacy of such a position by occupying the forbidden “extra-musical,” by inverting the musical work, by unworking it, by turning the parergon into the ergon. Developing the argument into a definition,

[Sound art] is merely the remainder created by music closing off its borders to the extra-musical, to any instance of parole that could not be comfortably expressed in the langue of the Western notational system. Instances of non-Western music would not be sound art. Although they may employ specific features, such as microtonalities not represented in the western octave [sic], these features can still be understood and, to some extent, represented in a way that is legible to Western musical methods. Sound art is art that posits meaning or value in registers not accounted for by Western musical systems. Unlike sculpture, and to a lesser extent, cinema, music failed to recognize itself in its expanded situation. (107)

The most provocative claim is that “non-Western music” wouldn’t be sound art. For Kim-Cohen, the ontology of sound art is necessarily in opposition to Western Music since it occupies the “extramusical,” the supplement proscribed by Music. Sound art is constructed out of the disjecta membra of Western music. Sound art is Music’s Other.

But not all Western music has failed to acknowledge its expanded situation. In fact, Kim-Cohen’s book opens with three musical instances from the year 1948, which function as significant moments for the birth of an expanded sonic practice from the conditions of music. The three instances are 1) Pierre Schaeffer and the invention of musique concrète, 2) John Cage and his Silent Prayer, a silent piece that predates the more famous 4’33”, and 3) Muddy Waters’ electrified recording of “I Feel Like Going Home.” Kim-Cohen selects these three because “Schaeffer, Cage, and Waters each represent a different alternative to serialism, or, more generally, to the systematization and quantification of the values of music.” (260) Schaeffer constructs a music that sheds the discreetness of the note, by the use of recorded sound; Cage explores forms of compositional non-intentionality and embraces all sounds, even those previously heard as unmusical; Waters creates a music that, by eschewing interest in form, becomes a “kind of cultural flypaper, trapping the concerns of its time and place.” (261)

But Schaeffer and Cage ultimately fail to become non-cochlear; both, after leaving behind the “formal system” (261) of music, close themselves off to the extramusical by committing themselves to “sounds-in-themselves”, by expanding the palette of sounds that music can use, but without expanding the situation of music. For example,

The potentially conceptual inspiration [for 4’33”] turns out to be a materialist, listening activity, still very much about the ear—an engagement with sound-in-itself, and thus subject to the same shortcomings we would ascribe to retinal art…4’33” never strays from the condition of music most admired by the Romantic poets: musical areferentiality. (163)

Sounds-in-themselves are the real enemy in Kim-Cohen’s book. Insofar as Kim-Cohen understands the history of music to be a history of the sound-in-itself, music is cochlear. Insofar as contemporary sound art becomes interested in sound-in-themselves, it too is cochlear. (For instance, this is a charge made against Christina Kubisch and LaMonte Young). Kim-Cohen’s maxim is the following: “As far as the experience of art is concerned, the revelation of phenomena is not enough.” (112) Kim-Cohen is committed to a form of sonic idealism, in the sense that works of sound art are not to be made intelligible on the basis of their perceptual properties; rather, perceptual properties are to be made intelligible on the basis of their conceptual, social, or institutional aspects. Kim-Cohen’s sonic idealism is founded on the tradition of the readymade, because:

The intention of the readymade is embodied in the act of nominating the object as art, not in the object itself. The aesthetic value is derived, not from the visual or material qualities of the nominated object as it relates to the tradition of art objects, but from the artistic act as it relates to the tradition of artistic acts. (113)

Thus, a piece of musique concrète like Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien, which has often been understood as a sonic readymade, passes the test—while Schaeffer’s compositions fail.

[In Presque Rien] sound is not stripped of its meaning, neutralized as sound-in-itself, to be reconstructed as a composition. Instead, its connection to a social reality is left intact. More than that, the social meaning of the sounds play a part in determining their placement and treatment in the composition. To do this, Ferrari music approach his sounds not just as a listener…he must approach sound as a reader. (179)

The figure of reading is central to the defense of non-cochlear sound art. “Reading,” for Kim-Cohen, means playing with codes, negotiating with signs, or operating with relations. Reading is always social, intersubjective, and differential. A “non-cochlear” sound art is an art of (and about) reading sounds.

II. Voegelin and sonic phenomenology

In contrast, Salomé Voegelin’s book, Listening to Noise and Silence, could be characterized as a phenomenological aesthetics of listening. Voegelin describe listening as a perceptual engagement with the world, not an act of deciphering codes. The listener is always in a position of uncertainty, always in the midst of constituting the object heard as well as constituting themselves. Voegelin starts with these ideas on the first page of Chapter 1:

Every sensory interaction relates back to us not the object/phenomenon perceived, but that object/phenomenon filtered, shaped and produced by the sense employed in its perception. At the same time this sense outlines and fills the perceiving body, which in its perception shapes and produces his sensory self. Whereby the senses employed are always already ideologically and aesthetically determined, bringing their own influence to perception, the perceptual object and the subject. It is a matter then of accepting the apriori influence while working towards a listening in spite rather than because of it. The task is to suspend, as much as possible, ideas of genre, category, purpose and art historical context, to achieve a hearing that is the material heard, now, contingently and individually. (3)

A few claims stand out: first, she claims that the object/phenomenon (which is already a problematic conjunction in phenomenological terms) is being “produced” by the sense modality employed. (We might want to call this the “listener as producer” motif.) Second, sensation “fills the perceiving body,” which I take to mean that sensation helps to make the perceiver’s body perspicuous. (More on that later.) Third, it is desirable for a listener to suspend aspects of sounds that concern genre, category, art historical context and purpose. The desideratum is a mode of listening that is utterly present, fixed on the perception of “the material heard” (which is not to be mistaken with materiality wholesale but rather with the materiality of perception). The use of the word “suspend” is no accident on Voegelin’s part; it is meant to invoke (in a loose way) the famous Husserlian epoché.

When I suspend genre, category, history and such, I also suspend vision. Vision overrides hearing, since, according to Voegelin, we are ingrained into “subsum[ing] sound into the visual.” “Vision, by its very nature assumes a distance from the object…Seeing always happens in a meta-position, away from the seen. And this distance enables a detachment and objectivity that presents itself as truth.” (xi-xii) Listening does not possess the objectivity and security of vision. “By contrast, hearing is full of doubt: phenomenological doubt of the listener about the heard and himself hearing it. Hearing does not offer a meta-position; there is no place where I am not simultaneous with the heard. However far the source, the sound sits in my ear. I cannot hear it if I am not immersed in its auditory object, which is not its source but sound as sound itself.” (xii)

(I should note that Voegelin doesn’t actually argue for this essentialist epistemology of seeing and hearing; she simply repeats what has become a historically common trope in the literature on sound, media, and in cultural history of the senses.6 Since it is asserted, to give a fair summary of Voegelin’s text we must take it on faith. Perhaps I can illustrate Voegelin’s claim by an example. Take the sound of an airplane in the sky. Since the sound takes time to travel to us, when we look up it does not appear where we think it might. Perhaps this contradicts Voegelin’s claim that we are always simultaneous with the heard. However, it depends on what “the heard” is. For Voegelin, the heard is simply the sound itself, not the thing to which the sound refers. That is why she differentiates the “source” from the “sound itself.” I am always simultaneous with the sound itself, since I don’t experience the sound itself unless I’m in the act of hearing it. Voegelin’s ontology of sound capitalizes on the observation that sounds can be emitted from objects in ways that their look, or visual attributes, cannot. When I worry about the fact that the plane doesn’t appear in the sky where I hear it to be, Voegelin might think this a case of subsuming sound to the visual.)

The act of suspending genre, category, history and what-have-you, is also an act of suspending vision. Cast in explicitly Husserlian terms, “a sonic epoché…is a stripping away from the sonic anything that ties it to visuality…[The aim is] not to reduce the heard but to get to the wealth of the heard through bracketed listening.” (35) By itself, this claim is not all that interesting. It is basically a profession of faith in a fairly unsophisticated form of sonic phenomenology.7 But Voegelin does something surprising with it. She uses the substantive claims that emerge from the epoché against Music, writ large. Music, for Voegelin, means notated music. Insofar as notated music is visual, or depends on the source of the sound, the performer, or the notated score more than the sounds themselves, music becomes visual.

The impulse to subsume sound into the visual is so ingrained as to blight music criticism and the discourse of sound art, whose focus is invariably on the score or the arrangement, on the orchestra or the performer, the sound source, the installation view or the documentation of the sonic event, in short the visual manifestation rather than the sounds heard. (xi)

And a few pages later, “The text as writing is the musical work, framed by convention; it allows entry to scrutinizing eyes that interpret it, while granting it the space for that interpretation.” (8) Music, with its emphasis on the score and the performer, is a legible medium; it becomes an act of reading and interpreting; it is conceptual, not perceptual; its essence is visual. And, although Voegelin insists that, “the issue here is not a distinction between music and sound art, but how both of them are listened to…,” (8) I am not convinced that that is the case. Here is her strongest case for music as primarily visual—as requiring a different mode of listening than the mode proper to sound art:

When training as a classical musician you are asked to identify minor thirds, perfect fifths, major sevenths and so on: sounds are given names and are organized in relation to each other, and it becomes a matter of recognizing what is being played and attributing the right term to the corresponding tonal relationship. You cannot possibly give the right answer unless you know what you are listening for, and the ‘listening for’ is never the sound but its visual point of reference…From this moment on you are listening to the language of music…Sonic experience, which finds no acknowledgement in such a musical orientation…seizes [sic] to be heard. (52-3)

If music requires a mode of listening that seeks out the known, the foreseen, the already determined, sound art requires a mode of listening that seeks out the unknown, the unforeseen. Listening to sound art entails an ongoing act of knowing, taken as a present participle, as constituting its knowledge as it comes into being.

An aesthetic and philosophy of sound art is based on…a drive to knowing…This knowing is the experience of sound as temporal relationship. This ‘relationship’ is not between things but is the thing, the sound itself. (4-5)

The chain of associations is telling. Sound is based on knowing; knowing is a relationship; the relationship is with the sound itself. The sound itself is the source of intrinsic value—“the wealth,” as she puts it. Although Voegelin never says it directly, I suppose that insofar as one can listen to music in a “suspended” way, listening to it as sound themselves, then music becomes sound art. The difference between these two modes of listening, between music and sound art, is defined in terms of the difference between the visual and the auditory. The auditory is proper to sound art, and sound art’s proper object is the sound itself.

III. Comparisons

At this point, allow me to make a few synoptic comparisons.

First, Kim-Cohen and Voegelin utterly disagree about the value of “sounds-in-themselves.” For Voegelin, sound art requires a mode of listening whose aim is directed to sounds-themselves and not to language, context, history, genre, category and such; for Kim-Cohen, sound art is a practice that inhabits the “extramusical,” that investigates relationships, institutions, context, sociality, and history; it eschews sounds-in-themselves as a rejection the metaphysics of presence.

Second, for Voegelin sound art is fundamentally perceptual; whereas for Kim-Cohen it is conceptual. Where Voegelin uses the phenomenological reduction as a method for focusing attention on the sound itself, Kim-Cohen critiques the phenomenological reduction as “bracketing out all information that might shade our auditory experience with signification, with historical contingency, with social import.” (13) Insofar as both Voegelin and Kim-Cohen understand phenomenology as a perceptual endeavor—a problematic characterization of the phenomenological project from point of view of the history of philosophy—their theories differ about the value of this endeavor. If we take phenomenology to be primarily to be about “the primacy of perception,” then Kim-Cohen’s disapprobation and Voegelin’s approbation both follow.

Third, for Voegelin sound art is an act of listening, which must circumvent our habitual subordination of sound to the visual. Music’s historical investment in visual things like scores and performers prevents genuine listening, transforming it into an act of reading. For Kim-Cohen, sound art is an act of reading, of making legible a set of social, institutional, and historical traces. Sonic materiality or perceptual evidence is never the proper content of sound art. “The revelation of phenomena is not enough.” It is never about the sound of the sign, but only its significance.

These three comparisons are really just ways of naming the difference between Kim-Cohen’s sonic idealism and Voegelin’s sonic phenomenology. In the former, the perceptual properties of works are to be made intelligible on the basis of their conceptual, social or institutional aspects; in the latter, the conceptual, social or institutional aspects of sounds are to be made intelligible on the basis of their perceptual properties.

But there is one more comparison to make—perhaps the most telling. Both theories are Musicophobic. Both Kim-Cohen and Voegelin develop theories of sound art that necessarily require Music (writ large), but only as a negative, as an altogether-Other. Both define their theories as resisting the hegemony of Music and understand sound art as inhabiting an alternative that Music cannot occupy. Despite the other difference, there is a structural agreement between Voegelin and Kim-Cohen. Both require Music as an Other, yet, they utterly disagree about how to characterize Music’s Otherness. For Kim-Cohen, Music is fixated on sounds-in-themselves to secure autonomy and proscribe everything extramusical; for Voegelin, Music is fixated on everything that is not the sound-themselves, that is the score, the performer, genre, category, history, and so forth, and thus staves off the possibility of a more proper, attentive and focused mode of listening.

IV. Sound Art and the Demands of Art Theory

Is this simply a disagreement? We might be inclined to attribute the whole dispute to two very different aesthetic commitments, to two different senses of what is at stake in sound art, and choose the one we prefer. I would resist this inclination, because, I think there is more to the situation than that. There is a disciplinary component—an art historical and artworld or institutional component—that is driving this disagreement and shaping, in particular, their claims about music.

As before, I will start with Kim-Cohen. His account is based, quite explicitly, on the work of Rosalind Krauss. Kim-Cohen’s theory of an “expanded sonic practice” transposes Krauss’ argument from her famous essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” into the register of sound art.8 In that essay (and elsewhere), Krauss argues that the expanded situation of sculpture (meaning minimalist works, earthworks, installations and such) challenges the Modernist account of the artwork—perhaps epitomized in Clement Greenberg’s famous essay, “Modernist Painting.”9

Krauss characterizes the Modernist as committed to the view that the artwork is a natural (non-arbitrary) sign. (Krauss 1990, 195) The Modernist art historian, for example, might tell a story about how Impressionist painting becomes Abstraction by appealing to artists’ deepening investment in the physical interactions of color. According to Krauss, “The result of this was, within the development of modernist painting, the reification of the retinal surface and the conviction that by knowing the laws of its interactive relationships, one then possessed the algorithm of sight. The mapping of the retinal field onto the modernist pictorial plane with the positivist expectation that the laws of the one would legislate and underwrite the laws of the other, is typical of the form in which high modernism established and then fetishized an autonomous realm of the visual.” (186) Krauss, following Duchamp, calls this “retinal painting.” To clarify, take Impressionism. In terms of “retinal painting,” one might argue that the Impressionist painter, by reproducing on the canvas the individual bits of color originally impressed on the retina, would have a non-arbitrary rule for making depictions. The visual system, by offering purely perceptual data, provides a natural, positivistic basis for representation.

But this belief in the artwork as a natural sign comes definitely to an end with the rise of, what Krauss and her co-editors of Art Since 1900 call, “Antimodernism” and Postmodernism. According to Krauss, “to get inside the systems of this work [Antimodern or Postmodern], whether LeWitt’s or Judd’s or Morris’s, is precisely to enter a world without a center, a world of substitutions and transpositions nowhere legitimated by the revelations of a transcendental subject.” (Krauss 1985, 258) Substitutability challenges the security of the natural sign; if one thing is as good as another, if one thing is exchangeable for another, there is no longer a sufficient reason to guarantee the uniqueness of the natural sign or its motivation. The natural sign is unmasked as a brute fact, as arbitrary.

The consequences of “this work” are devastating for the belief in the primacy of medium and material. According to Krauss, “The space of postmodernist practice is no longer organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or, for that matter, the perception of material.” (289) Notice, neither material nor the perception of material (the retinal registration of the subject matter or material) can act as the basis for an expanded practice. And, if the material is no longer operative, on what basis can postmodern practice act? According to Krauss, postmodern practice operates “on a set of cultural terms, for which any medium—photography, books, lines on walls, mirrors, or sculpture itself—might be used.” (288) Each medium is as good as any other—each is substitutable, arbitrary—since what we are now articulating is not essentially material. It is, as Krauss says, a set of cultural terms.

Kim-Cohen transposes Krauss’ argument to the register of sound art, preserving even its phrasing and cadence: “A non-cochlear sonic art present[s] itself in any medium: photography, books, lines on walls, mirrors, sculpture, as well as performance, speech, choreography, social practice, and so on.” (156) Analogous to Krauss’ critique of retinal painting, we get a critique of cochlear sound, i.e., Music, which tries to ground itself materially, and non-arbitrarily, on the sounds themselves. The transposition is as explicit as possible: “It does not seem too much of a stretch to find some common ground between Greenberg and Schaeffer. Just as Greenberg reduced painting to its essential element, jettisoning anything that wasn’t fundamental to its constitution, excising anything that was shared with another mediums [sic], so too did Schaeffer reduce music.” (15) Non-cochlear sound, like non-retinal art, is indifferent to media since it eschews a medium-specific grounding in favor of “a set of cultural terms.” Artworks become tools for investigating the “cultural lifeworld,” (157) an attempt to make the grammar of institutional, social and conventionally codes explicit.10

But there is something missing in Kim-Cohen’s transposition. In particular, he does not remain faithful to the full connotation of the “non-retinal” in Krauss’ usage. Kim-Cohen understands “non-retinal” to be roughly synonymous with “conceptual,” to refer to the institutional, conventional and social parerga proscribed by the (Greenbergian) Modernist work. The one thing non-cochlear sound art is not is perceptual. Yet, when Krauss writes about Duchamp’s non-retinal art, perception is precisely her focus. In her essay, “In the Blink of an Eye,” the term non-retinal is employed to describe how, in Duchamp’s work, the viewer accesses “the sensations of vision that are generated entirely by the body of the viewer.” (Krauss 1990, 187) These sensations are not retinal sensations, if one thinks of the retina as a site of passive registration of light, akin to a tabula rasa, or virgin photographic plate. The bodily sensations Krauss has in mind are those the body itself brings to the act of seeing, or, better yet, those bodily conditions that permit the act of seeing: the curvature of one’s eyeballs, the production of afterimages, and the rhythmic muscular motion of the eyes in binocular vision. These are the physiological conditions of seeing that cannot be accounted for by the notion of the eye as a tabula rasa, or spatial point.

Duchamp’s work, according to Krauss, offers us an “interpretive paradox” because, “in the light of Duchamp’s vehement rejection of the ‘retinal,’ we have nonetheless to acknowledge the presence of physiological optics at work within Duchamp’s thinking and production.” (184) The phrase “physiological optics” is noteworthy because Krauss’ contrasts it with a “geometrical model” of vision, the Classical visual order of single-point perspective with its disembodied, mathematized viewer. (The phrase “physiological optics” is also a bit confusing because Krauss eventually uses the word “optics” as a shorthand for the geometrical model, in contrast to the “physiology of vision” which designates the newly discovered, bodily regime of vision.) For Krauss, the classical geometrical model first comes under attack with the birth of the physiology of vision, exemplified in the experimental work of Goethe, Johannes Müller and Helmholtz. Historically, “Goethe initiates the study of a physiology—and no longer and optics—of vision, a physiology that understands the body of the viewer as the active producer of optical experience.” (190) Or, referring to Müller’s experiments with electricity and sensation, “Color, which can simply be produced by electrical stimulation of the optic nerve, is henceforth severed from a specifically spatial referent.” (190) The Classical order of the natural sign is challenged when the physiology of vision exposes optics as the production of the viewer, not the registration of qualities of exterior bodies. Under this new, physiological regime of vision, “the natural sign’s necessary connection to the visual field can no longer be maintained.” (190) When the artwork can no longer be understood in terms of the natural sign, the consequence is not only that it opens up the possibility of endless substitutions of signification, but that it specifically allows for the viewer to become aware of their own productivity as a viewer.

Krauss interprets Duchamp’s work as staging the battle between geometrical optics and physiological vision. What results is the recognition of the viewer’s own bodily contribution to seeing. To take only one instance from her many readings of Duchamp, “If the mechanism of the Large Glass obeys Duchamp’s dictum of ‘going beyond’ the retina, it does so not to achieve the condition of vision’s transparency to itself—which is suggested by the model of classical perspective when applied to the Glass—but rather, quite obviously…to construct vision itself within the opacity of the organs…” (187) Krauss offers the same reading for artists whose works, influenced by Duchamp, reflect an alternative to Greenbergian modernism. Describing Richard Serra’s Shift, she writes: “The viewer of Serra’s work, unlike the spectator of constructivist sculpture, is never represented (in the sculpture) as stationary. The viewer is always described as in motion even if that motion is only the constant micromuscular adjustments that are the corporealized condition of bifocal vision.” (Krauss 1985, 270) She repeats the point in her reading of Robert Morris and Donald Judd: “In the minimalist work of Donald Judd or Robert Morris…abstract geometries are constantly submitted to the definition of a sited vision.” (267) In other words, don’t confuse all those cubes and regular polyhedrons with geometric optics. By “sited vision,” Krauss means an embodied or physiological vision, one that produces its visual experience.

And here’s the irony. If we accept Krauss’ reading of “non-retinal” art as a defense of artworks where the viewer is not simply the receiver but a producer—as a defense of artworks where the productivity of the viewer is made perspicuous—then, analogously, a “non-cochlear” sound art begins to look much more like a defense of Voegelin’s project than Kim-Cohen’s.

This is because, unlike Kim-Cohen, Voegelin is explicitly interested in moments where, as she puts it, “the listener becomes producer.” (38) In fact, this is entailed by her ontology of sound. Sound, for Voegelin, is always ephemeral, evanescent, and immaterial—or, to use another of Krauss’ favorite terms, formless. “The sonic thing is not perspectival, organized in relation to other things, social functions or ordered in relation to a purpose…neither formed nor deformed, but formless unless it meets the hearing body.” (19) Voegelin’s dematerialized ontology of sound is always paired with the productivity of the listener. Objects must get their objectivity from somewhere; so, as sounds becomes less and less substantial—more and more formless—the productivity of perception becomes more and more constitutive. For example, Voegelin writes, “In the experience of our own generative perception we produce the objectivity from our subjective and particular position of listening.” (14) Or, when listening in the mode proper to sound art, “the phenomenological subject…performs a reduced listening which does not hear a place but produces its own.” (163) The “listener become producer” is Voegelin’s maxim.

Since everything gets reduced down to the productivity of the listener, some pretty monotonous descriptions of soundworks follow. Here is Voegelin on Bernard Parmegiani’s Matières induites: “I sense it as a formless shape that fills me with my form.” (16) “Listening produces the matière induites as a subjective object…” (17) When describing Cathy Lane’s On the Machair, a piece which employs field recordings from the Scottish Outer Hebrides, Voegelin writes, “[the place] that the recordings are from is, in its composition, not a place as a certain geographical location, a dwelling place, but a fictional place produced in my innovative listening.” (21) To be fair, Voegelin registers occasional discomfort with this position, claiming that, “this does not mean that there are no artistic intentions nor that there really is equality between composer and listener, because, of course, there is not.” (21-2) Yet, despite her scruples, the listener always trumps. On the very next page she writes: “On the Machair produces sense as a sonic knowing…I would be very hard pressed to tell you an exact knowledge gained, but I could discuss a sense of knowing about myself in relation to the sonic material and the time and place produced in my listening.” (23)

Although Voegelin’s focus on the listener as producer is congruent with Krauss’ project, it too misses something important. One virtue of Krauss’ account was that the conceptual and perceptual features of artworks were both necessary. This is not to endorse Krauss’ position, but simply to note something about her work that is reflected in neither Kim-Cohen’s nor Voegelin’s theories. The productivity of the visual system could only come into visibility in works that undertook a critique of the conceptual, conventional and ideological features of artworks; the critique of the natural sign is necessary for the disclosure of physiological vision.

When those two features are separated, much weaker aesthetic positions emerge. In Voegelin’s work, the affirmation of the listener as producer unmoors listening from the object heard. Despite her emphasis on the perceptual features of soundworks, the actual perceptible features of soundworks play little role. Her focus is on exploring how those perceptions are my productions. We hear ourselves hearing, and that seems to be enough. Yet, if all we do is hear is ourselves hearing, why does the “formless” stimulus even matter? Why go hear sound art at all if, ultimately, any sound will do?

Voegelin’s position, with its emphasis on the productive role of the beholder, is congruent with other, recent work in new media aesthetics—work not necessarily dedicated to sounds or sound art. Mark Hansen, in New Philosophy for New Media, describes the aesthetics of new media in neo-Bergsonian terms; the beholder’s body operates as a filter, selecting from the barrage of “images” striking the sensorium. Normally, a medium might operate as the ground for an “image,” supplying it with a form. But digital works are different; they are medium-indifferent since the data streams upon which they are built can be rendered as sounds, images, or anything else. For Hansen, data have no privileged medium or form; thus, the onus of the artwork, its formation, is placed onto the beholder. “Correlated with the advent of digitization,” Hansen writes, “the body undergoes a certain empowerment, since it deploys its own constitutive singularity (affection and memory) not to filter a universe of preconstitued images, but actually to enframe something (digital information) that is originally formless.” (Hansen, 10) If you replace “digital information” for “sound,” the congruence with Voegelin is obvious.

Moreover, it is telling. For Hansen, new media makes the beholder’s capacity to enframe formless data perspicuous; thus, new media art is post-medial art. According to Hansen, “For a theory of art in the specifically ‘post-medium’ condition named by the digital, the body itself is invested with the responsibility of preserving within itself the self-differing condition of media.” (32) Voegelin wants to make the same claim about the hearing body: “The sonic thing is…neither formed nor deformed, but formless unless it meets the hearing body.” (Voegelin, 19) The hearing body is responsible for forming the artwork, a task formerly grounded in the medium. But unlike Hansen’s new media aesthetic, Voegelin’s aesthetic of sound art is ultimately contradictory; sound functions as the perfect medium for post-medial aesthetics. The confusion in her position indicates that something has gone awry.

In the case of Kim-Cohen’s “non-cochlear” aesthetics, the perceptual features of some specific sound work do not really matter since the purpose of non-cochlear works is to acknowledge the expanded social, institutional or contextual situation of the work. The problem with this view is that one cannot tell why the specific sounds matter. In what ways do the specific sounds act as a constraint on the relevant social questions?

The strangest part is the false dichotomy between sounds and society. It is as if attention to a sound can only occur when one reduces out its social, semiotic, institutional or historical aspects. It is as if sounds and society were two incompatible aspects of a whole, like the duck and the rabbit in Jastrow’s famous figure. The choice is forced; one can either hear sounds as “sounds-in-themselves” or as part of a social code. But one can never hear in sounds their sociality.11

In the conclusion to In the Blink of an Ear, Kim-Cohen reasserts this forced choice by way of a quotation. Luc Ferrari, speaking of the Darmstadt Summer Courses, laconically laid out the options that composers of the 1950s and 60s faced: “You had to choose between serialism and girls. I chose girls.” (260) Kim-Cohen reads this sentences as symbolic of the two paths available for a sonic art: inward, toward a “conservative retrenchment focused on materials and on concerns considered essential to music” or outward, toward “that which lies beyond the traditional borders of the field,” toward the expanded situation, toward non-cochlear sonic art, toward the social. (261) “Ferrari chose to move outward to girls, from music to the world. In the gallery arts, the movement has been decisively outward, away from the center.” (261)

This is a forced choice; sound art can follow the bad path of Music, or the good path of the gallery arts. (The thumb has been placed on the scale, since Kim-Cohen never offers Music a red-blooded defense.) As I said earlier, few musicologists would agree to the premises. Yet, surprisingly, when addressing the music he really likes—rock and roll—neither does Kim-Cohen.12

In some of the best writing in the book, Kim-Cohen offers an impressive analysis of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” He argues that “Like a Rolling Stone,” exposes “all of Dylan’s songs as products of the chaotic bricolage of signifying grids. It exposes Dylan himself. It exposes the desperation and desires of the culture.” (209) As part of the argument, Kim-Cohen focuses on the sonic details: he describes Dylan’s phrasing on the word “feel,” how it is rhythmically displaced from verse to verse, working against the musical patterns set out by the backing band; he describes the details of instrumental parts and the way they change over time; he describes the disruptive presence of the tambourine, pushed into the foreground of the mix; he describes the messy instrumental accompaniment, and how it registers the uncertainty of the musicians following Dylan; he also describes a subtle tape splice at the beginning of the fourth verse, and muses about how that it can offer evidence for Dylan’s intent: “If what I hear is a tape splice, it would mean that Dylan and [producer Tom] Wilson felt they’d tapped something valuable in the first three verses—something that in spite of its very apparent flaws—or perhaps because of them—was able to communicate the abstract, complex business of the song and the moment.” (202-3) In arguing about the presence of tape splice, Kim-Cohen must appeal to the ear. Such moments can only be heard, not read. Attention to those details requires a cochlea. Moreover, Kim-Cohen attends to those moments in order to plumb their social meaning. His descriptions of Dylan’s music belie his book’s own premises. They demonstrate that we do not have to choose between hearing the sounds or hearing the social.

It only appears otherwise when forced to make a decision between sound and society. That forced choice rests on unsound premises. What Kim-Cohen overlooks is that Music (writ large), even at it most severe claim to autonomy, is always already social. Autonomy is a social fact, despite the composers, sound artists, musicologists or critics who refuse to recognize it. Theodor Adorno made this crystal clear quite a long time ago:  “No music has the slightest esthetic worth if it is not socially true, if only as a negation of untruth; no social content of music is valid without an esthetic objectification.” (Adorno 1976, 197) That dialectical position is severed in Kim-Cohen’s argument. It is traded in for an ideology critique of sounds-in-themselves. But one can hold onto the social character of music, even “autonomous” music, without falling prey to the ideology of sound-in-themselves.13

The way to argue against the ideology of the sound-in-itself isn’t by turning Music (writ large) into a straw man and then doggedly committing oneself to its alleged other, the social. The way to argue against the ideology of sound-in-itself is to demonstrate that sound is always already social—whether notated or improvised, Western or non-Western, Music or Sound Art. Moreover, to say that sounds are social is not to say anything of interest, since that is simply given; everything humans do is part of the “cultural lifeworld.” If one wants to pursue the sociality or culturality in sounds, the point is to specify the relation between forms of sociality and the sounds made.

Adorno provides useful corrective to the Musicophobia of Voegelin and Kim-Cohen. He argues, again and again, for the indissolubility of the sonic and social, the perceptual and the conceptual. One example will have to suffice:

Even Beethoven’s music, bourgeois music at its height, reverberates with the roar and ideal of the heroic years of its class just as dreams in the early-morning hours resound with the noise of its day; and the social content of great music is grasped not by sensual listening but only the conceptually mediated knowledge of its elements and their configuration. (Adorno 2006, 100)

Neither Kim-Cohen nor Voegelin are in a position to articulate the dialectical condition of sound and society. No matter how much you foreground the perceptions and sensation of the listener, no matter how much you foreground the social and conceptual aspects of the situation, you cannot get past the elements and configuration of the work. It is the only thing that the listener’s ear and expanded situation have in common.

What remains is a theoretical question: is sound art is ultimately a branch of music, or a branch of post-medial aesthetics, or new media aesthetics, or relational aesthetics…? It may turn out that sound art is, as Max Neuhaus argued, a cowardly and imprecise category:

It’s as if perfectly capable curators in the visual arts suddenly lose their equilibrium at the mention of the word sound. These same people who would all ridicule a new art form called, say, ‘Steel Art’ which was composed of steel sculpture combined with steel guitar music along with anything else with steel in it, somehow have no trouble at all swallowing ‘Sound Art’. In art, the medium is not often the message. (Neuhaus, in Kelly 2011, 72)

If there is such a thing as sound art, “the message” must be grounded in the sounds. (“The sounds” are not be mistaken with “sounds-in-themselves” or simply “sound.”) A theory of sound art must take account of sound art as an art of sounds, where sounds are heard in all their sociality. A theory of sound art is ultimately justified by its ability to support the description and production of soundworks at the level where individual sounds matter. Perhaps the only way to avoid a theory of sound art that simply reiterates the demands of art theory, or music theory (for that matter), is to require that it meet the only set of demands that matter—those adequate to the unavoidable, unruly, unfashionable thing that we used to call “the work.”


3. I say “Duchampian” since Duchamp does not use the term “non-retinal.” Rather, he says that his art “depended on things other than the retina.” See Cabanne and Duchamp, 39 and passim.
4. In The Truth in Painting, Derrida analyzes the parergon to draw attention to the problem of drawing an absolute boundary between intrinsic and extrinsic features of a work, like that between the image on the canvas and its frame. He argues that the parergon follows the logic of the supplement, that it operates, “without being a part of [the work] yet without being absolutely extrinsic to it.” (Derrida, 55) Never simply outside or inside, the Derridean parergon, gives itself over to stabilize and legitimate the integrity and autonomy of the work; yet, if the work requires such legitimation from “outside,” it cannot be simply autonomous.
5. Instead of appealing to musicological sources, Kim-Cohen relies on the Walter Pater’s formula that all the arts aspire to the condition of music. Pater is cited twice, plus two references to “romanticism” that allude to Pater’s statement.
6. See, for example, McLuhan and Carpenter (1960) or Jonas (1966).
7. Voegelin is alluding to Schaeffer’s acousmatic reduction. See Schaeffer (1966) and, for commentary, Kane (2007).
8. Krauss (1985).
9. Greenberg (1993).
10. In this respect, Kim-Cohen follows in the footsteps of Douglas Kahn (1991). For a salient comparison, see Kahn’s reading of Yoko Ono’s work.
11. To hold to the dichotomy between sounds and society is to concede too much to the theories of Pierre Schaeffer. Why should someone as critical of Schaeffer as Kim-Cohen simply invert the value he places on reduced listening (écouter rédiute)? The Schaefferian position is not overcome by inverting its values; it is overcome by arguing against its premises. For more on Schaeffer, see Kane (2007).
12. To accurately characterize Kim-Cohen’s argument, I should note that he does not consider rock and roll as Music (writ large). Like the sonic arts it seeks the extramusical. “Rock and roll separates itself from the instantiated presumptions of Western music.” (142) “While [Western composed music] goes to great lengths to exclude the extramusical from its field of concern, the [rock and roll] courts it and elevates it to the point of all but excluding the ‘properly musical.’ The repetitious nature of rock and roll means that it ultimately must appeal, not to the ear, but to a broader sense (in both meanings of the word) of experience. Rock and roll is about the confrontation of an audience with a performer. It is understood that both parties may be playing a role, and yet the interaction is nor more and no less ‘real’ than the social interactions of everyday life. Separated from day-to-day existence and shown of the consequence of actions taken there, rock and roll allows a playing out of desires, fears, and provocations.” (144) Yet, Kim-Cohen’s claim that rock and roll does not ultimately appeal to the ear, that it is part of a non-cochlear practice, that it embraces the social and cultural (i.e., the extramusical), is belied the moment he starts describing.
13. Adorno himself had little patience for that ideology: “Music is ideology insofar as it asserts itself as an ontological being-in-itself, beyond society’s tensions.” (Adorno 2006, 100)

Adorno, Theodor W. 1976. Introduction to the sociology of music. New York: Seabury Press.

Adorno, Theodor W. 2006. Philosophy of new music. Minnesota: University of Minnesota press.

Cabanne, Pierre, and Marcel Duchamp. 1971. Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. New York: Viking Press.

Cox, Christoph, and Daniel Warner, ed. 2004. Audio culture: readings in modern music. New York: Continuum.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987. The truth in painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Greenberg, Clement. 1993. The collected essays and criticism, vol. 4, ed. John O’Brian.. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hansen, Mark B. N. 2006. New philosophy for new media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT.

Hegarty, Paul. 2007. Noise/music: a history. New York: Continuum.

Jonas, Hans. 1966. “The Nobility of Sight” in The phenomenon of life: toward a philosophical biology. New York: Harper & Row.

Kahn, Douglas. 1999. Noise, water, meat: a history of sound in the arts. Cambridge, Mass: MIT.

Kane, Brian. 2007. “L’Objet Sonore Maintenant: Pierre Schaeffer, sound objects and the phenomenological reduction”. Organised Sound. 12 (1): 15-24.

Kelly, Caleb. 2011. Sound. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Kim-Cohen-Seth. 2009. In the blink of an ear: toward a non-cochlear sonic art. New York: Continuum.

Krauss, Rosalind E. 1985. The originality of the avant-garde and other modernist myths. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Krauss, Rosalind E. 1990. “In the Blink of An Eye” in David Carroll, ed. The States of ‘theory’: history, art, and critical discourse. New York: Columbia University Press.

LaBelle, Brandon. 2006. Background noise: perspectives on sound art. New York: Continuum.

Licht, Alan. 2007. Sound art: beyond music, between categories. New York, N.Y.: Rizzoli International Publications.

McLuhan, Marshal and Edmund Carpenter. 1960. “Acoustic Space” in Explorations in communication. Boston: Beacon Press.

Schaeffer, Pierre. 1966. Traité des objets musicaux, essai interdisciplines. Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

Voegelin, Salomé. 2010. Listening to noise and silence: towards a philosophy of sound art. New York: Continuum.

About the Author

Brian Kane is Assistant Professor of Music at Yale University. He is the author of Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice (Oxford University Press, 2014).

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