Sound Arts Now
Uniform Books, Devon, England, 2021
240 pp. Trade, £14.00
ISBN: 978 1 910010 26 6.
Sound Arts Now is the third edited volume by Cathy Lane and Angus Carlyle, co-founders of Creative Research in Sound Arts Practice (CRiSAP), a research center of University of the Arts London. The book extends Lane and Carlyle's two previous collections, On Listening (Uniformbooks, 2013), a collection of essays about ways in which listening is used in disciplines including anthropology, community activism, bioacoustics, conflict mediation, religious studies, ethnomusicology, and field recording and In the Field (Uniform Books, 2013) a collection of interviews with contemporary sound artists who use field recordings in their work.
Sound Arts Now derives much of its impetus from In the Field and uses the format of extended interviews with individuals working with sound to situate sound arts as a complexity of practices across wider horizons in terms of both practices and practitioners. Twenty interviews with artists and curators, as well as the often unheard voice of the maker, each at early points in their lives and careers, each with wide-ranging geographical locations and experiences, offer new perspectives from which to consider contemporary sound arts, both in terms of theory and practice. Notable in these perspectives is the conscious shift away from the white, male, global north orientation that has dominated sound arts' disciplinary emergence and establishment.
Lane and Caryle conduct their interviews both face-to-face and virtually. Transcripts from these interviews seem only lightly edited. As result, the interviews read as conversations with sound artists comfortable with their multi-layered and multi-disciplinary creative practices utilizing sound. They speak about pasts and futures, theirs and their practices, welcoming change and challenges as part of their creative processes and outcomes.
For example, in the collection's first interview, AM Kanngieser, who identifies as a sonic ethnographer, notes exclusionary aspects of sound arts derived from the kinds of devices and technical apparatuses used historically noting that "gear can be very expensive, travel is expensive, who is able to make a career as a sound artist is radicalized and economic" (29). And there is the audience, a large portion of which is white, middle class, and educated. How much do they want to be radicalized. "What happens when something is too hard to hear or too uncomfortable to hear or calls your own responsibility and accountability into question? . . . [H]ow can sonic arts enfold social, political and economic contexts and be mobilized in those directions and still be experimental and playful and open?" (34).
Gender bias is also a factor according to Maria Chavez. "Technically, women that look like me are not supposed to have this kind of knowledge about conceptual sound art, let alone have access to the equipment for it" (160).
Connecting to the idea of recording and/or listening gear, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay remembers receiving a cassette tape player as the transition point between being a consumer and being a creator of sounds. "The cassette player changed my life because then I could record. I had been a consumer of sounds [classical music], but I understood that there was a process of mediation whenever you recorded a sound. As soon as you detach the sound object and listen to it in another place, there is a reconfiguration of its objecthood. . . . Texture, mediation and the change of the texture through mediation and spatiality: those two ideas are still the basis of my sound practice" (37).
What opportunities does this present? Lawrence Abu Hamdan suggests dissolving boundaries. "Sound doesn't teach you about sound itself, sound should teach you about other things; it's not about sound itself, for me, it's about sonic imagination" (140). Hamden continues, "[people forget] that ways of thinking in response to music, acoustics and sound are really at the heart of the conceptual practices that the majority of artists now adopt. Listening and sound were ways of conceiving the world in Fluxus and [John] Cage and in others that lead to logics to which we are much more accustomed today" (140).
What does this mean for sound artists? Jennifer Walshe, a sound-performance artist responds, "you're always on your toes, you're always learning new skills, but in the long run I enjoy it; even though, within the music world, there is the idea that you should not work way beyond . . . historically-established bounds" (111). "There's something about sound's ability to disrupt legibility that has me really excited," says Evan Ifekoya, who works with installations, prints, and radio art. "How to talk about what once happened in a moment in historical time without just reproducing it? How do I make it something that can reverberate outwards and have some kind of impact in the present?" (77).
Sound might also impact a space or place and thus afford interesting opportunities for the sound artist. Caroline Devine notes, "I was interested in working with sound in different spaces—that might be radio space, architectural or physical space. I liked the idea of altering space through sound, even [with a] band. . . . I developed a multichannel practice, which combined with this alteration of space" (50). For sound artist Mark Peter Wright, sound "is a kind of material political agent connected to power and to issues of causality, and I work with this context always in mind. What intrigues me is that sound doesn't necessarily give up these things in definite knowing ways, it acts as an interface" (163). Listening then, as a way of experiencing sound art, becomes a process "where patterns of meaning are made as a necessary process of interpretation . . . from following flows of information, perspectives and senses that are not always easy to apprehend" (163).
Other sound artists position sound as a way of connecting with the world around them. And there is no more personal sound than one's voice. Hanna Tuulikki's practice engages with the audible aspects of animality through vocal performances where she utilizes her voice as an instrument. She says, "the voice might constitute a meeting point between self and the world. [For example,] how could my creating connect to the sound of the sea?" (83).
Lina Labelyte began performing as a violinist but switched to group singing. "I like harmonies and I like togetherness. I like it when a collective of people are in tune, it's not just tuning with each other in the sense of sound, but I believe that if people are in tune in general, then the magical resonance happens. The harmonies are very subtle, the voices are different, and the performers come from very different singing backgrounds, so it's a big challenge to combine them all" (145). Voice is important for Evan Ifekoya as well. "My voice is my primary material. It's the voice through which I'm able to express and communicate. The voice is the root of my power in a way" (77).
At the end of the twenty interviews in this collection, in an afterword, Lane and Carlyle ask themselves what they have learned. While careful not to claim Sound Arts Now as a definitive survey, they do feel their collaboration broadens and destabilizes previous conceptions of sound art(s). This assessment is fair enough and true. As result, Sound Arts Now offers new and different and interesting and exciting pathways, frames of reference, conceptual frameworks, and modes of thinking that we might now apply to sound arts both in terms of theories and practices and what contributes to, or hinders, artistic and career development. Lane and Carlyle conclude, "On the basis of conversations in this book, it is very hard to say what sound art is not. . . . I think we can say that it's constantly shape-shifting. There's this big emphasis on listening, an increasing breakdown of disciplinary borders, and work that might not be sound-led but not necessarily sound-realized, and in general it has a tendency to be politically engaged" (234).
In short, Sound Arts Now is broad and deep and rich, affording multiple and layered approaches and applications. Sound Arts Now provides an interesting introduction and guide.