Historical Disengage, or Dissing Cage?
Is calling yourself a sound artist analogous to belittling all of the work that John Cage did to emancipate all sounds and redefine music as “sound heard”?
Like many so-called young composers (ugh, don’t even get me started), I’m not into labeling and pigeonholing, but the fact remains that presenters ask for a bio that succinctly describes what I do as an artist. Given the minimal amount of space generally allotted, it’s hard to get the gist across without streamlining, by which I mean using the pre-existing labels that people already know. The boilerplate text that I usually send off begins with something along the line of: Randy Nordschow is a composer and sound artist, blah, blah, blah…
I haven’t given much thought to this opening line before, but after filming a discussion between FJO and Luke DuBois earlier this week, I’m beginning to have second thoughts. After detailing his own distaste of genre distinctions and classifications, Luke assailed the term sound artist in a convincing fashion. His argument went something like this (and I’m totally paraphrasing, he’s way more articulate than I):
Musicians call themselves sound artists in order to separate their work from the canonical tradition. They want their work to be experienced without the centuries of baggage that music history brings to the table—but there is no need for any of this. To call yourself a sound artist is to belittle all of the work that John Cage did to emancipate all sounds and redefine music as “sound heard.” If you are working in a time-based medium that includes sound—any sounds or noises—you are by definition, a composer.
I never thought of it this way before. Indeed if everything is music, as it has been now for over half a century, why do we need the term sound artist? Especially considering the work that I create, which heavily relies on and quite often references the Western classical tradition. Sure, my work also jibes with visual art tropes, but there’s really no need for the double descriptors of “composer and sound artist.” I want my work to mingle with the tradition, so I think my bio might need a little revision. Hey all you sound artists out there, what do you think? Have we turned our back on Cage in order to better align with a sector of artists that yearn not to burn down the opera houses, but instead, totally ignore them?