Soundings: A Contemporary Score,” at the Museum of Modern Art, dares to be unlikeable. That’s not the least of what I like about the show. The experiments in audio-visual experience gathered together for this small survey of what’s known as sound art are by turns nerdy and prickly, techy and quirky. Much of the work has a fresh-faced avant-garde swagger. There’s an invigorating note of technological obsession about a lot of the material on display. Of course, such obsessions can by their very nature be off-putting. I imagine a number of the artists showcased here could bore me to death with elaborate explanations of the noises they’re producing and the way they’ve chosen to present them. I would rate at least one of the works on display, by Haroon Mirza, stupefyingly offensive. And the truth is that most of this material isn’t my cup of tea. But if part of the point of a great museum is to push us to try another brew, then “Soundings” deserves to be saluted for taking the Museum of Modern Art out of its comfort zone—and for taking us out there along with it.
Is sound art anything more than music by a different name? Or noise masquerading as art? I don’t think we should be embarrassed to ask the questions. Sound art, by its very nature, is a paradoxical art of distillations, purifications, crosspollinations, mix-ups, and genre-smashings. The work positively begs us to ask the questions. The history of sound art is generally traced back to the Dadaists, who liked to present audiences with sounds that were quite consciously not ordered in the way music was meant to be. But the whole question of which art does what thing—Do we see sounds? Do we hear colors?—has been a fascination at least since the nineteenth-century Symbolists embraced synesthesia. It was Balanchine who exhorted viewers: “See the music, hear the dance.” You could argue that all this goes back to the ancients, and arguments about the relative powers of painting and poetry. Certainly since the late nineteenth century, the arts have simultaneously pushed in opposing directions—toward the Wagnerian total art work on the one hand and toward Clement Greenberg’s purification of each medium to its essence on the other—and the sound artist has played with both directions and sometimes played with them simultaneously. One of the more striking works in “Soundings,” Carsten Nicolai’s wellenwanne Ifo, features patterns produced in a water tank by low-frequency sound waves. We’re being invited to see sounds that we cannot hear. The work has such a high-tech, lab-friendly look, that the whole question of where sound art might end and art art might begin seems to fade into the larger question of where art ends and science begins.
One of the toughest and most impressive inventions in “Soundings” comes right at the beginning, Tristan Perich’s installation of tiny speakers arranged in a grid on the wall as you enter the show. Microtonal Wall is an adventure in the relationship between the individual and the group, the one and the many, with each teensy speaker emitting a different microtonal frequency. Put your ear close to one of the speakers and you can begin to distinguish a singular sonority. Move away, and singularity melts into dizzying cacophony, the combination of all those individual sounds. The effort to make distinctions is made immediate, palpable, excitingly physical, and the delight of those distinctions lingers in the imagination.
Something much closer to musical experience in the traditional sense is offered by Susan Philipsz’s Study for Strings. Philipsz has mounted eight smallish speakers on one wall of a darkened room, where visitors are invited to listen to a stripped-down version, performed by a cellist and a violist, of a composition created by Czech composer Pavel Haas while interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where the piece received one performance. Haas, along with many of the musicians, was soon after murdered by the Nazis. Philipsz’s spare invention—with the original orchestra reduced to two players and ample pauses and silences—avoids the polemical insistence that turns so many works dealing with the Holocaust into embarrassing kitsch. The emotional discretion of Study for Strings is something impressive.
“Soundings”—which was organized by Barbara London, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art—draws no conclusions. The show doesn’t claim to do more than it does. The slim catalogue, under a hundred pages and easy to hold in your hands, sketches the history of sound art in a way that invites interested museumgoers to pursue leads on their own. I do not think the Museum of Modern Art ought to have allowed Haroon Mirza to frame Mondrian’s 1937 Composition in Yellow, Blue, and White, I, a masterwork from the permanent collection, with LED lights that change from blue to green and back again. Why allow a goofus to play with a king? But aside from that rather astonishing curatorial misstep, I would rate the exhibition a welcome experiment. Marco Fusinato’s Mass Black Implosion, consisting of five drawings done on reproductions of a Iannis Xenakis score, was one of a number of works that reminded me of the spirited exhibition featuring Xenakis’s scores, held at the DrawingCenter in 2010. The visual beauty of many musical scores has from time to time pushed people to wonder at where visual expression ends and aural expression begins. Those who know much more about sound art than I do will surely have their quibbles with the selections at the Museum of Modern Art. But whatever anybody wants to say against “Soundings,” it’s good to see a contemporary art exhibition on West 53rd Street that isn’t about giving the MoMA seal of approval to the latest global art star. “Soundings”—which is about keeping the museumgoing public in the loop—is basically sound.
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.