Sound art was invented in Canada.
According to Alan Licht in Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories, the term was “coined by Canadian composer/audio artist Dan Lander in the mid-1980s.”(1) That is of course, a distinct claim from the apocryphal absurdity of my opening provocation. After all, naming does not necessarily coincide with the incipience of the activity being named. While the historical accuracy of Licht’s assertion is questionable, it functions as a useful point of departure for it echoes R. Murray Shafer’s statement that “radio existed long before it was invented.”(2) In other words, slippage and fluidity are not only recurring characteristics of physical sound, but the related nomenclature operates with similar schizo-ontological and anachronistic confusion. Jonathan Sterne’s notion of a field of study which “reflexively mind[s] sound” is productive here for it emphasizes intersections without eschewing a critical stance, especially towards trite theoretical presuppositions based on the differences between the physiological functioning of hearing versus those of vision.(3) Categorical delineations tend to ignore nuanced definitions, but artists tend to be unperturbed by blurs. Correspondingly, Canadasonic embraces a pan-sonic approach, one which acknowledges and attempts to encompass, in the brief space allotted, the various streams of art forms and practices which incorporate and foreground sound, whether these call themselves sound art or not. Emblematically, Michael Snow speculated he could dub himself a “time-light-sound poet” in 1968.(4) In other words, for the purposes of this text, the inclusion of media and visual arts, musique actuelle, electroacoustics, acoustic ecology, communications, expanded cinema, sound studies, sound poetry, radio art and performance art is not only strategic but also reflective of the intermeshing of a plethora of artistic and research practices. In short, sound art in the expanded field. All that being said, Lander’s editorial work on Sound by Artists in 1990, and Radio Rethink in 1994 did serve as considerable coalescing and catalyzing forces in the early stages of what has become, now twenty-five years later, a multilayered and multivalent scene.(5)
1. Alan Licht, Sound Art: Beyond Music, Between Categories. New York: Rizzoli, 2007, 11. Rahma Khazam’s “A Brief History of Sound Art” (Volume, No. 1, 2010, 6-9) also points to a mid-1980s Lander moment of origin. In Douglas Kahn’s “Sound Art, Art, Music” (from 2005 but recently reprinted in Tacet, No. 3, 2014, 328-347), he traces his own disinclination with the term “sound art” in connection with his friendship to Dan Lander in the period leading up to his 2001 book Noise, Water, Meat.
2. R. Murray Shafer, “Radical Radio,” Ear Magazine, Feb/March 1987, 18.
3. Jonathan Sterne, “Sonic Imaginations” in The Sound Studies Reader, ed. Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012, 9-10. One could posit that I am replicating one of the entries in what Sterne calls the audiovisual litany (9) here by suggesting a correlation between the physical characteristics of sound and a descriptive theory. That is partly true, though I have avoided (and have no interest) in making that linkage in relation to a stereotypical critique of visuality.
4. Michael Snow, The Collected Writings of Michael Snow. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1994, 43.
5. Sound by Artists, eds. Dan Lander and Micah Lexier, Toronto and Banff: Art Metropole and Walter Phillips Gallery, 1990. Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Transmission, eds. Dan Lander and Daina Augaitis, Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery, 1994. A few years later, Aural Cultures (Ed. Jim Drobnick, Toronto and Banff: YYZ Books and Walter Phillips Gallery Editions, 2004) and the bilingual S:ON: Sound in Contemporary Canadian Art/Le son dans l’art contemporain canadien (Ed. Nicole Gingras, Montréal: Éditions Artexte, 2003) solidified the scholarship. These publications (plus the long-running magazine Musicworks) reflect a predilection not only for historicization but also for theorization of the art form—a persisting parallel current. They also denote the willingness of publishers to examine the field in a focused manner, in contradistinction to any of the major Canadian museums, thus far.