Looking at Sound, Listening to Sight


Looking at Sound, Listening to Sight

By Rob Marks October 17, 2017

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.

Sound art is not to hearing what visual art is to seeing. When I approach a visual artwork, my history of museum seeing, the sedimented strata of association and assumption, collapses into the feeling of vision as a pure reflex.1 But when I approach a work of sound art—any of the two dozen installations in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Soundtracks exhibition, for example—my far briefer history of museum listening, not yet fixed into a habit like museum seeing, insists on being heard:

April 2013, Berkeley Museum of Art: Manon de Boer, Two Times 4'33" (2008). Two versions of John Cage’s pioneering soundwork 4'33" (1952). #1: Pianist “plays” score empty of notes. #2: Camera scans small audience. The film underscores Cage’s seminal concept: Hidden in what we call “silence” is ambient sound; hidden in ambient sound, what we call either “silence” or “noise,” is “music.” In the film, ambience manifests as wind-, bird-, breath-song. In the gallery, the former open-plan museum building, as soundboard, interweaves voices, echoes, footfalls. Suddenly I capture all the sounds around me.

By setting 4'33" as a recital, and the piano as his visual prop, Cage casts on-listeners as “concert audience,” thereby snaring ears and exiling eyes before the audience realizes that this is no conventional concert. Cage primes the viewer to listen, to hear into the “silence.” It could be said that all works of “sound art,” since the term was coined in the early 1980s,2 restage Cage’s ruse, ears hoodwinking eyes and teaching viewers to listen. But despite the efforts of observers to map sound art’s location along a continuum running from “music” to “art,” the discipline remains displaced, or even, according to the artist Haroon Mirza, “disdained” by the art world.3 Since 2013, a spate of exhibitions have sought to remedy this situation by packaging sound as sculptural presence,which explains SculptureCenter director Mary Ceruti's assertion: “Musicians think about sound more linearly and sound artists think more spatially.”5

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. Clinamen v.3, 2012–ongoing; installation view, SFMOMA. Courtesy of the Artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Video: Saul Rosenfield, 2017.

Even if SFMOMA’s Soundtracks was as silent as Harvard’s sound-baffledanechoic chamber,” which Cage visited in 1951, and where he heard only the “whoosh and whine” of his corporeal systems,6 the exhibition would be compelling. But its works are drenched in their own sounds, and drenched in the ambient sounds of other works nearby. Soundtracks materializes as a master class in listening, deviating from, if not rejecting, the implicit precept that museum art is visual. Lesson #1: It rejects obsolete distinctions between “silence,” “noise,” and “music,” thus embracing the capacity of sound to layer and overlap. Lesson #2: It fosters a patience for sonic duration, and encourages re-hearing—as well as re-seeing. To absorb these lessons, exhibition visitors must prime themselves for listening, recruiting personal histories of hearing, and permitting the sounds of soundworks to, themselves, nurture hearing. Enter the exhibition embracing the conscious choice to cherish sound, even when hearing compromises viewing—and even if this compromise challenges curators Rudolf Frieling and Tanya Zimbardo’s goal to “foreground…approaches to visualizing the relationship between sound and space.”7

Lesson #1: Embracing Sonic Permeability

November 2015, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco: Janet Cardiff, The Forty Part Motet (2001). Forty speakers, arranged in an oval, emit Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century composition Spem in Alium. Each Motet speaker devotes itself to the sound of a single Salisbury Cathedral Choir member, inducing the sensation of being addressed, even caressed, the whole converging only as I step away.

Throughout Soundtracks, sonic overlap demonstrates sonic permeability and distinguishes the relative transparency of auditory events from the general opacity of visual objects. Many of the artworks themselves take advantage of this permeability to layer sound upon sound, much as visual artists layer translucent materials. Dozens of different-sized white porcelain bowls sail across a pond and into gently chiming collisions in Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s Clinamen v.3 (2012–ongoing). Electromagnetic signatures, recorded at various locations, overlap in Cloud, Christina Kubisch’s tangle of red electrical cable. Layer upon layer of the complete works of either Wagner, Cage, or Mozart cram themselves into each of the three orbs of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Sphere Packing (2013 and 2014).

In addition, the curators help to facilitate layering between works; in fact, they encourage works to work on each other, imparting the Cagean gift of chance-mediated sonic interaction. Perhaps no work demonstrates this better than Susan Philipsz’s Night and Fog (Clarinet) (2016). Twelve speakers line a long hallway. Standing by one speaker, and remembering Cardiff’s Motet, I hear nothing. I rush to another speaker to capture an emerging sound, but miss it. Philipsz has distributed, one tone per speaker, the clarinet part from Hanns Eisler’s score for Alain Resnais’s 1956 Nazi concentration camp documentary, Nuit et Brouillard.I sit; finally, I hear. Close and loud, far and faint, single notes and melodic phrases break through the hum of the HVAC system, the chatter and footfalls of visitors, the bustle of the elevator lobby, and, like San Francisco’s foghorns, mark space and time.
Susan Philipsz. Night and Fog (Clarinet), 2016; installation view, SFMOMA. Courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York. Photos: Saul Rosenfield, 2017. Audio recording: Rob Marks.

Just as Night and Fog recruits both clarinet and museum "noise" as sound makers, Cantilena (2017), by the collaboration O Grivo (Nelson Soares and Marcos Moreira), layers the intentional sounds of a collection of Rube Goldberg machines with unintentional ambient sounds. As I hover over one of Cantilena’s science-fair-esque tables, I watch a brass rod grazing a sheet of rusted metal, its tinkle edging toward a scrape. Over my shoulder, I overhear the ping of a brass pipe. Cantilena is an orchestra of reclaimed “noise,” both seen, within the work, and unseen, beyond it. The soundwork’s autonomy is interrupted first by a moan of feedback that infiltrates from another gallery: the microphone in Camille Norment’s Lull (2016), swinging on its cable, arcs over a speaker and rasps, punctuating Lull’s breath-filled lullaby. Then it’s joined by the beat of a ceiling-mounted, upside-down snare drum, Anri Sala’s Moth in B-Flat (2015), which dangles from the ceiling in an adjacent space.9

O Grivo (Nelson Soares and Marcos Moreira). Cantilena, 2017 (detail); kinetic sound installation (wood, bamboo, MDF, copper pipes, brass rods and sheets, steel rods, violin and guitar strings, nylon wires, iron sheets, galvanized steel sheets, brass paper, electrical wires, and electric motors); overall dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artists and Galeria Nara Roesler. Video: Saul Rosenfield, 2017.

Lesson #2: Engaging Duration

September 2014, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston: Ragnar Kjartansson, The Visitors (2012). Nine screens and speakers, each recording a different musician—playing guitar, piano, drums, cello, saxophone, accordion, or a cannon—situated in a different part of a Hudson Valley manor house. Singing—droning, shouting, cracking, stretching beyond capacity—proves voices don’t have to be good to be great, to be affective. Great waves, then tiny whispers, of sound undermine my intention to stay 10 minutes. Exit after sixty-four, feeling loss as much as exhilaration.

To experience sonic layering, the “listener” must prevail over the “viewer,” but there is no doubt that the three-dimensional manifestations of each of these works keep the eye occupied, affirming sound art’s spatiality, and compromising what Ceruti called music’s linearity. Yet sonic linearity is tenacious; one sound insistently follows another. And although visual art is seldom instantaneously comprehensible, sound art can never escape the feeling of time’s passage, the domination of duration.

Kjartansson’s The Visitors, reinstalled in Soundtracks, creates its own temporal reality. Such expansive temporality—call it patience—is within the practice of listening to music, but not necessarily within the practice of experiencing sound art. Fortunately, works like The Visitors, while beseeching patience, also exercise it, fostering a capacity to trust the artwork, to grant it time. The result is that even Norment’s Lull, with its jarring feedback, draws us in, escapes its association as “mistake,” and reveals itself as Cagean percussion.

Camille Norment. Lull, 2016; dynamic sound installation with pendulum microphone; dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Camille Norment Studio. Photo and video: Saul Rosenfield, 2017.

It is also time that reveals the concepts embedded in these works. Lull—which refers to the origins of “lullaby,” from the Hebrew for “Lilith be gone,” a song to protect children—evokes in its feedback the presence of night demons, and in its melody, their retreat.10 Boursier-Mougenot’s Clinamen v.3 invokes the Roman philosopher Lucretius’s theory of the unpredictable swerve of atoms, the clinamen, in the repetition of chance-determined collisions.11 Cage, himself the most conceptual of artists, readily relinquished explication, implying that an artwork discloses itself even if it does not disclose the artist’s conception of it.12 So, if the concepts underlying some works remain elusive without the explanation of their labels, it is time and patience that enables meaning, an aesthetic core, to emerge.

April 2017, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: Marta Ptaszyńska, Voice of the Winds (2016, revised 2017). Dispersed throughout the museum, 100 percussionists manifest a “sonorous musical sculpture.”13 I witness the entire rehearsal. If “rehearsal” is playing until the players get it right, “re-hearing” is listening until the listener gets it right. “Right” being the antonym not of “wrong” but of “unfinished,” the synonym not of “finished” but of “reverberant,” of resonating without the aid of the players.

Ragnar Kjartansson. The Visitors, 2012; installation view, SFMOMA. Jointly owned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York, acquired through the generosity of Mimi Haas and Helen and Charles Schwab. Photo: Saul Rosenfield, 2017.

Every genre has its species of draft, of practice. But the idea of rehearsal is unique to staged durational forms. By nurturing the homophonic similarity between “rehear” and “rehearse,”14 I discover in Soundtracks an invitation to practice listening. Of course, hearing once—Sala’s seven minutes, Philipsz’s forty-seven, Kjartansson’s sixty-four—is already a durational proposition. Re-hearing turns linearity on its head, sounding a call to hear again, but to hear differently. It rebels against museum habits: progress measured from one artwork to the next, seeing tethered to a prescribed order—or hearing bound by an implicit time frame.

The title Soundtracks refers as much to the un-silence of life as it does to the audio of film. The exhibition invites me to broaden my hearing, to listen longer and again, to hear there as well as here. In the museum, the incessant demands of my visual apparatus, so amply rewarded, threaten to drown out sound and distract my attention. Instead, I rest my eyes, and let them be led by my ears.


 Soundtracks is on view at SFMOMA in San Francisco through January 1, 2018.


  1. Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel describes the complexity of vision, particularly in terms of art viewing, and reveals the myths in many of our assumptions about seeing. A string of neurological processes resolves the crude visual data collected by the retina into a clear image, only after combining that data with both personal history and socialized cultural context. Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight (New York: Random House, 2012).
  2. Barbara Pollack, “Now Hear This: Sound Art Has Arrived,” ARTnews, November 14, 2014: http://www.artnews.com/2013/11/14/now-hear-this-sound-art-has-arrived/ (accessed August 25, 2017).
  3. Cited in Ella Delany, “The Power of Sound as an Art Form,” New York Times, October 3, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/04/arts/international/The-Power-of-Sound-as-an-Art-Form.html?mcubz=0 (accessed August 25, 2017). Originally published in print on October 4, 2013 in the International Herald Tribune.
  4. Mirza suggested that “the interest in sound art is more of a fad partly related to the 100th birthday of John Cage last year,” which occurred in 2012. Cited in Delany, “The Power of Sound as an Art Form.”
  5. Cited in Pollack, “Now Hear This: Sound Art Has Arrived.”
  6. Cage discovered in the moment that silence, at least for hearing humans, does not exist. Cited in Joan Retallack, “Introduction: Conversations in Retrospect,” in John Cage and Joan Retallack, MUSICAGE: CAGE MUSES on Words, Art, Music (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), xxxiii.
  7. Rudolf Frieling and Tanya Zimbardo, “Exhibiting Sound,” in Rudolf Frieling and Tanya Zimbardo, eds., Soundtracks (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2017): https://www.sfmoma.org/publication/soundtracks/ (accessed August 25, 2017). Digital catalog published in concert with Soundtracks, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, July 15, 2017, to January 1, 2018. Note that this is SFMOMA’s first digital-only catalog, and proves itself a model for the form.
  8. Tanya Zimbardo’s commentary on Philipsz’s work notes, “The subject matter of Night and Fog resonates with the ongoing presentation in the adjacent galleries, highlighting German art after 1960.” And it is indeed the visitors who walk in and out of these Fisher Collection galleries along the hallway, whose sounds layer in with Philipsz’s foghorn clarinet notes. Tanya Zimbardo, “Susan Philipsz,” in Frieling and Zimbardo, Soundtracks: https://www.sfmoma.org/publication/soundtracks/susan-philipsz/ (accessed September 5, 2017).  
  9. The skin of the drum hides a speaker that produces “a series of syncopated beats,” thereby invisibly animating anchored-in-place drumsticks. Rudolf Frieling, “Anri Sala: Moth in B-Flat, 2015,” in Frieling and Zimbardo, Soundtracks: https://www.sfmoma.org/publication/soundtracks/anri-sala/ (accessed September 5, 2017).  

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