Built on Sound

© 1992 by Peter Gena.

In Western society the distinction between the sound of noise on the one hand, and what constitutes the sound of music on the other, has dissipated only recently. Cross-culturally such distinctions of an acoustic nature were not commonly made. Instruments were built out of ordinary materials; music originated from everyday sounds. Sonic entities with or without definite pitch belonged to an environment that was integrated into various world musics. In some traditions, noise produced as a by-product of a particular action could be construed as music only when placed in the context of a performance. Further still, even musical sound in the West was simply the end result of an intrinsic formal structure. Despite the outright fusion of sound to music, i.e. that it is the preeminent constituent of the artform, it was not until the 1950s that sonic material was indeed considered to be an indispensable structural component of a composition.

Historically pitch, harmony and, to some extent, rhythm were the crucial organizing factors in a work. Tonality (key center) was the unifying and germinal force of all musical material. Sound was merely the medium through which the music passed. Large scale compositions generally were written at a keyboard — the “orchestration” was worked out later. The idea content of any musical work was transferable (often transcribed by the composer his/herself) to instruments other than those originally chosen. The art of transcription was a common procedure employed before the age of electrical reproduction, as a piece could be disseminated more widely through a variety of arrangements. With the advent of the radio and phonograph, the need for the use of transcriptions to increase circulation gradually lessened.

The widespread use of melodic repetition in romantic music showed a new sensibility towards nuance in sound as varied instrumentation, specific articulations, and timbral effects were typically indicated with each recurrence. Similarly, because of the dissolution of tonality at the turn of the century, other musical parameters were sought to unify compositional structure and composers began to employ sound for sound’s sake. Nonetheless, experiments early in this century adhered primarily to some essential form outside the realm of acoustics. Many composers and sonic artists now search for unusual sounds through the use of new and exotic instruments, often building their own. Advancements in the technological sciences facilitated the study of psycho-acoustics which in turn sparked an interest in basing work on the primal or physical elements of sound, such as tone color, wave forms, resonance, phasing, room acoustics, feedback, etc. with an eye (and ear) towards manipulating the viewer/listener’s perception, and often encouraging interaction. Hence, electro-acoustic music, as well as modern sound installations and site-specific sonic artworks were born.

Built on Sound is an exhibit in the tradition of this new sonic art — sound-based compositions, installations, musical instruments, and sound-producing media — by students and alumni of the SAIC. The underlying thrust of these works emanates from the raw material and physical characteristics of sound rather than out of customary musical constructs.

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