Bring Da Noise: A Brief Survey of Sound Art
Unraveling the history of a medium somewhere between music, visual art, and literature
Fluxus: In Fractured Silence
While many books have been written on John Cage’s importance to modern music (electronics, noise, chance), his relationship to performance and sound art is often slighted. Although dozens of Cage pieces can be sited, for our purposes, let’s look at Indeterminacy, a collaboration with David Tudor from 1959. Often called Cage’s most accessible recording, it’s a string of delightfully ordinary stories, each one-minute long. If the story is short, then Cage must slow down his delivery of it; and if it is long, he has to speed-read the piece so that it clocks in at exactly one minute. All the while David Tudor is performing a score derived by chance for electronics. Most of the time, he’s barely present, squeaking away quietly in the background; often he acts as perfect accompaniment, volume-wise; and occasionally he’ll let out a roar, completely obscuring Cage’s reading. The whole composition is precisely scored, dovetailing elements of narrative, music, surprise, and timing to create a perfect work of theater.
Cage’s framing of the mundane would prove to be particularly important to the artists of the 1960s when, taking their cue from Marcel Duchamp, breaking down the boundaries between art and life became of crucial importance. This tendency was most pronounced in the Fluxus artists. Fluxus thrived on a practice that didn’t prioritize one form of art making over another: music, art, literature, dance, performance, film—you name it—all held equal sway. In fact, Dick Higgins, one of Fluxus’s leading figures, came up with a name for it: intermedia, which would mutate to include Happenings a few years later, and ultimately lead to performance art. As a result of this attitude, the Fluxus movement produced an unusually large body of sound works.
The list of Fluxus alumni is staggering. At one time or another, familiar musical figures like Gyorgy Ligeti, Terry Riley, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Henry Flynt, and La Monte Young all passed through the Fluxus ranks. In 1960, La Monte Young wrote a notorious group of pieces that consisted of nothing more than poetic actions to be performed as music. One instructed a performer to bring a bale of hay and a bucket of water onstage for the piano to eat and drink. Another simply requested that butterflies be let loose in a performance area. Similarly, Yoko Ono’s “Voice Piece for Soprano”, (1961) required the performer to scream against the wind, against the wall, and against the sky. There’s a recording of this on Sonic Youth‘s CD Goodbye 20th Century featuring Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s young daughter, Coco, as vocalist. Sure enough, she lets out three piercing hollers. Dick Higgins also got into the act. He did a series of short pieces called “Danger Music” where he would—you guessed it—scream at the top of his lungs.
My favorite Fluxus sound work is of Joseph Beuys singing a new wave song. Backed by a rock band and released as a 7″ single by EMI in Germany, “Sonne statt Reagan,” is a perky bass-driven number offset by Beuys’ gruff and out-of-tune vocals. The title, which translates as “Sun Not Reagan,” plays off of the German word for rain, regen, and was sung by Beuys at No Nukes rallies in the early ’80s.