Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art
Unraveling the history of a medium somewhere between music, visual art, and literature
Sound and The Literary Connection
Before moving onto the fast-paced developments following World War II, let’s quickly throw avant-garde literature into the story. Figures like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein would become crucial to sound artists and composers from the 1960s onward, manifesting their linguistic play in figures like Bruce Nauman and Laurie Anderson.
Sub Rosa Records recently released the entire recorded works of James Joyce (reading his own text). The CD amounts to two short cuts: one scratchy section of Ulysses and the famous “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter from Finnegans Wake. The Wake is as much of a multimedia work as you could create without ever leaving the page. While listening to James Joyce read it, you realize that it’s a sound poem as well as a work of sound art. When he made the recording, shortly before his death, he was almost blind and had to read the chapter from massive cards which were held up before him, making his reading of the work an early act of performance art in and of itself.
Gertrude Stein’s readings of her circuitous work can be seen as precursors to minimalism and structuralism in the latter half of the 20th century; it’s no stretch to extend her repetitious experiments to the use of tape loops and samples later on. Stein sculpts with language. In her rendition of her poem, “If I Told Him, a Completed Portrait of Picasso,” recorded in 1934-35, there’s a gradual accumulation of language, bit by bit, in order to form a scaffolding of her subject. Mirroring Picasso‘s cubistic painting process, a definition is formed obliquely, more by suggestion than by description. And, in fact, although Picasso not too often thought of as a writer, a collection of his poetry appears on UbuWeb, which clearly links him to literary figures like Gerturde Stein. The circular quality of his writing places him as a precursor of minimalism, tape loops, and sampling as well.
Although a lot of literary work was done that had sound-based elements (Ezra Pound‘s reading of “Usura” from The Cantos, Ogden Nash‘s quippy poetry set to hammy orchestrations, and the howls and groans of the Beat generation), let’s fast forward to the early 1970s, when literature directly ran into dialogue with sound. Richard Kostelanetz fashioned a rag-tag group of composers, poets, and visual artists into a movement that he called “text-sound.” The idea was that in order to really “get” the poem, you had to hear it, although it simultaneously existed on the page. Primary practitioners of sound-text works included the legendary radio-personality Charles Amirkhanian and the Canadian-based group The Four Horsemen, featuring the talents of Steve McCaffery, bp Nichol, Raphael Barreto-Rivera, Paul Dutton, all of whom went on to illustrative careers both on and off the page.