The Past isn’t what it used to be

Tendencies in Sound Art and Klangkunst – or what ever we should call it today

Ed McKeon

I am standing in a room different from the one you are in now. I am watching someone recording their speaking voice from a written script onto a reel-to-reel tape recorder. I am listening to them playing this recording back into the room and recording this sound with another similar recorder. I am following the performer as they repeat this process with the new recording so that the voiced text begins to meld into a sounding impression of the room’s resonant frequencies articulated by the original speech act.

I am unintentionally contributing to this process as the sounds of observers chatting and shuffling deliberately creeps into the mix. I am aware that this is therefore not quite the same as Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room (1969), a celebrated piece of sonic art that first used exactly this process. I am also conscious that it is not not Lucier’s piece, despite the credited artist’s inaccurate claim that “his piece was never performed in public”. I am somewhat perplexed, then, that this both is and is not I am sitting in a room, credited here as Room Tone by Lucy Raven.

I am recalling an experience from the group exhibition 12 Rooms (Museum Folkwang, Essen) in August 2012. And I am writing in the present tense (for now) to reflect both the emphasis of the curators (Klaus Biesenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist) on the ephemerality of the show’s sculptural live art – as “a direct, immediate experience for the beholder” – and on this gallery art turn to performance at just the moment in which historical time appears suspended, uncertain of the past and doubtful for the future.

The issue here is not whether I am sitting in a room belongs in a gallery, concert space, or other context but about the continuing possibility of narrating its belonging within their related and separate art categories. When accounts of music as art and of the ‘post-conceptual’ gallery arts as art are based on different histories and theoretical models – such that the latter is now often regarded as constitutive of art as such and the former has largely decomposed – what are the implications of pieces like Room Tone?


The End of (Musical) History?

The telling and retelling of the story of ‘Western’ music has, in a sense, lost its forward temporal projection and become spatialised.[1] This becomes apparent if we consider Lucier’s piece retrospectively. When it appeared in 1969, it was – just about – possible to place it within a ‘history of music’. It would be foolhardy to attempt such a narrative today. Where would the boundaries be drawn? The singular has become plural: not history but histories, without privileging a central account; not music, but musics (and sounds, and noises). Lucier’s own highly-readable book Music 109 (2012), for example, doesn’t so much attempt to tell a history of experimental music as to give an insider’s account of different composers’ practices. The past isn’t what it used to be.

One reason for this shift is that the understanding of what music is, in the sense that it has essential qualities that distinguish it from what it isn’t, has collapsed. Music 109 is testament to that process. New categories emerged from the late 1970s, such as sound art, Klangkunst, and performance art, each accruing a history of its own emergence and development, including retrospective claims to incorporate I am sitting in a room. These categories have in turn themselves become more unstable and porous, not only overlapping but also losing what purportedly essential characteristics they once maintained. In the process, the asymmetrical yet related tasks of writing their histories and of projecting them forward in time – at least as an avant garde – has become perilous. Historical originality has been disintegrating into what is merely chronologically new.

If “history, in particular modernist history, is often conceived … on the model of the individual subject, indeed as a subject”, as the art theorist Hal Foster argued in The Return of the Real (1996), his account of the gallery arts, it is now time to acknowledge that auditory practices no longer constitute a coherent subject (or object). Neither music nor sound, neither noise nor listening provide a self-sufficient, adequate, or privileged position from which a history of auditory arts can be narrated. Music has lost its ‘I am’ sitting in a concert hall or otherwise. Indeed, attempts from the 1990s to theorise newly-minted categories of Klangkunst and sound art can be understood as strategies to re-bind – tore-subjectivise – a field becoming oceanic and boundaryless, dissolving into resonance.[2] They emerged as responses to an identity crisis catalysed by a loss of essence. “Anything goes”, as Cage put it as early as 1954, heralding the end of musical difference (and discriminating prestige) as art. Dan Lander, co-editor of one of the first anthologies registering this turn (Sound by Artists, 1990), expressed the problem succinctly:

“If a critical theory of sound (noise) is to develop, the urge to ‘elevate all sound to the state of music,’ will have to be suppressed.

The word ‘critical’ should be appreciated here in its full significance. Deriving from the Greek krinein – to judge, distinguish, separate – it marked a rejection of ‘music’ in favour of a new discursive construct, a new identity, and a novel historical narrative. This led to the peculiar paradox in which practices that contributed to music’s erosion – like Lucier’s – were rebranded and incorporated retrospectively into a story of (gallery) art. Given a new name and passport, works such as I am sitting in a room have been granted rights of residence – if not always full citizenship – within biennials and galleries alongside other post-medium and post-conceptual practices. It is significant, for example, that two of the landmark exhibitions of what became sound art, Sonc Boom (Hayward Gallery, London) and Volume: Bed of Sound (MoMA PS1, New York) – both in 2000 – were organised by experimental musicians, David Toop and Elliott Sharp respectively. In his history of the field (2007: 12), Alan Licht thus wryly observed “a tendency to apply the term ‘sound art’ to any experimental music of the second half of the twentieth century”.

The parallel German discourse of Klangkunst pursued a similar approach but with a significant difference. Rather than placing auditory practices within historical and theoretical accounts of the visual arts after their break with the mediums of painting and sculpture, as have proponents of sound art, Klangkunst was introduced as a transformative extension of music. Its name change signalled a shift from music’s auditory privilege – especially from its essential identity with musical tone, as the now archaic term Tonkunst indicated – to practices equally concerned with vision, and a consequent emphasis on articulating space as much if not more than articulating time.[3]

My aim is not to adjudicate between these competing concepts but to emphasise their similarities, and so to consider their implications now. Klangkunst and sound art are ostensibly the same term in German and English respectively, and the artists their discourses address – and their historicising mode of self-construction – overlap considerably. This dual identity – triple, with post-experimental music – gives these practices a ‘multiple personality disorder’. Identities fragment. Histories proliferate. This disturbs the identity of ‘host’ narratives into which these works are inserted, notably that of the gallery arts, which consequently face the same threat of dissolution experienced in music. For example, situating auditory and performance practices exclusively within a framework of critical ‘visuality’ has become untenable, a situation effectively acknowledged with See This Sound (Lentos Museum, Linz, 2009) and A House Full of Music (Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt and the Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik, 2012).

As this – and Room Tone – indicates, the capacity to secure a (singular) history of art as a subject has eroded. In this process, artistic practices become increasingly unregulated, beyond the law. This offers opportunities for those most heavily policed, excluded, or marginalised, one reason why experimental sound work has been a rich terrain for women, BIPOC, trans, and neurodiverse artists, even if processes of canonisation continue unchanged with their inclusion. The critical lexicon has also shifted and fragmented. The term ‘composer’ is often disavowed as being too ‘musical’, yet the adoption of ‘sound artist’ remains ambivalent. A host of purportedly neutral terms, without history and avoiding commitment to any single narrative, have followed, such as ‘music (or ‘sound’) maker’, ‘builder’, or ‘creator’. Inclusivity is laudable but also speaks to the loss of distinctions.

It needs to be emphasised that this dissolution of boundaries does not necessarily imply a radical equalisation or relativism. The proliferation of identities, like the 5,986 genres currently recognised on Spotify, does not settle the issue.[4] It is not each to her own. To cite Cage again: “Anything goes. However, not everything is attempted.” And again, “Everything is permitted if zero [the absence of essence, of subject identity] is taken as the basis. That’s the part that isn’t often understood.”


Regaining Time

I’ve written elsewhere about the implications of this in what I termed “curatorial composing” (Heiner Goebbels and Curatorial Composing after Cage, reviewed in Positionen #134) but want to reflect here on three further recent indicative curatorial developments. After all, if anything is now possible, how do programmers select what they present without simply expressing personal – and so arbitrary – preference or taste? If (music) history has indeed become ‘spatialised’ into a continuous present – or presentism, as François Hartog (2022) has argued[5] – what gives urgency or necessity to any particular auditory artistic practice at this moment?

First, just as galleries and biennials increasingly feature experimental music and sound – notably, for example, the Listening Space that featured in documenta14 (2017) – so music festivals now commonly present work that does not privilege sound or listening. Raven’s Room Tone featured within the Ruhrtriennale. The Amsterdam-based biennial Sonic Acts opened its 2022 edition with an exhibition of almost exclusively non-auditory works. Jack Sheen, co-director of London Contemporary Music Festival (LCMF), described their strategy: “It’s a festival of time-based art with contemporary music at its heart. Our presentations of contemporary dance, performance, video, and other arts are not sideshows to the music. Our job is to present the most interesting new work, what’s coming next, and to place them alongside each other. Someone might come for a Tino Sehgal installation but then come away inspired by a Lachenmann violin solo. We love that.”

Put differently, surveys presenting the latest work within an historical trajectory have declined in festival programming, often replaced by an emphasis on topicality, buzz, contemporary theme, or concept from current theory. For example, LCMF 2022 was subtitled The Big Sad, drawing on Alex Mazey’s Sad Boy Aesthetics (2021).

A second approach dispenses with staging an explicit relation to some idea of contemporaneity and focuses rather on the unique encounter afforded by each event. Temporal experience becomes a function of the assemblage of artists’ work, performers, space, context, and especially of the audiences gathered in public. Peter Meanwell, artistic director of Borealis, a festival for experimental music in Bergen, Norway describes this dynamic: “It’s more a case of balancing priorities – of local, national and international artists, different artistic disciplines, the needs of partners, diversity principles – with finance and the availability of other spaces. Production starts with the question of what the artist and the work need whilst recognising that my role is to think about audiences. I’m a fan of agonistic spaces, after Chantal Mouffe, spaces with a plurality of interests. It’s a question of shaping the encounter and of caring for the audience’s agency in it.”

This method places considerable emphasis on building a culture of trust and openness that invites experiences that are sui generis, inherently risky and without guarantee in any singular tradition or convention.

Third, there has been a notable turn towards installations and durational works that are expressive of a feeling for time that lacks historical definition. For just as the subject positions of music, sound art, Klangkunst, and even – I would argue – of art as an autonomous domain have blurred and dissolved, problematising their historiographies in the process, so other subject perspectives from which ‘history’ has previously be endetermined have also found their essential identities lacking. The terror felt by many at being exposed to this has prompted many reactions, of course, notably the nationalisms of Brexit, “Make America Great Again”, Russian pan-Slavism (and Ukrainian extreme nationalism), and transphobia. ‘New Age’ philosophies – and music – can be seen as another response, embracing ‘fluidity’ of identity but re-binding this as a ‘global unity’ or universal condition.[6] It is not just that history is contested, or that the right to dictate history is claimed by the ‘victors’ of power struggles, but that the revanchist passion for history is a reaction to the potential absence of the kind of meaning that historical identity grants to temporal experience (this is perhaps Hartog’s key lesson for the present moment). Chronology without history is felt as unbearable.

As Room Tone implies, this past that is no longer surpassed is also no longer what it was. It is itself a repetition, or rather a simulacrum, a copy of an original that does not, in essence, exist. It occupies a present without a history, a continuous present or Long Now, to invoke Maerzmusik’s 30-hour performance programme – a marathon matched in length by Terre Thaemlitz’s Soulnessless (2018). Indeed, durational projects of all varieties have become increasingly widespread, from Darmstadt’s Hot and Cool Space (2014) clocking in at a mere 18 hours to the relatively fleeting 12 hours of Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss (2012), a variation on Satie’s Vexations – multiple repetitions of a musical fragment over a long duration, first publicly presented by Cage in 1963 – applied to Mozart’s closing aria from The Marriage of Figaro, commissioned by Performa (New York), the “biennial of visual artists’ performance”. The 2012 AV Festival (North-East England) took the theme As Slow As Possible – featuring video, performance, installation and radical sound events – inspired by Cage’s organ work of the same name. A performance of Organ2/ASLSP in Halberstadt, Germany, begun in 2001 is scheduled for completion in 2640 (the next note change is due on 5 February 2024; the last note change was reviewed in Positionen #131), perhaps setting a precedent for the continuation of La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, which has been running since 1969. The contemporaneous emergence of free jazz and free improvisation, as well as practices based on the notion of ‘soundscape’ (notably from R Murray Schafer), likewise imply an altered relation to musical time with an emphasis on the continuing present. Outlasting them all, perhaps, Jem Finer’s sound installation Longplayer began its permutational course on New Year’s Eve 1999 in Greenwich, London, and is due to last – without repetition – for 1000 years.


Being in Time

Alongside durational projects, this shift of attention towards a continuous and unresolving present can also be felt in the plethora of installation-based, listening, environmental and ambient work now presented both across and beyond the new music and visual arts scenes. The Listening Academy’s most recent L:sten:ing Biennial (London, 2022) is perhaps indicative, bringing together practitioners, scholars and researchers “from across the arts, humanities and society”. And like many initiatives engaging this moment without seeking a restitution of the old order or envisioning a renewal of its essence, the Biennial avoids re-centring a white, heterosexual, European male perspective by emphasising instead “attunement across human and more-than-human worlds, co-learning, and decolonial, eco-feminist initiatives”.

This contemporary concern with duration, finally, is not only expressive of our present (or ‘presentist’) moment but can also be approached productively through three attributes. First, time is not simply spatialised, made static, but becomes a point of attention. Unrepeatable and spanning a longer period than listeners can absorb, the ‘whole’ is not present to experience; there is no equivalent of a synoptic perspective granted a detached eye. Rather, these occasions become immersive, dwelling on the detail, as it were, of time’s passing. Second, this affects the nature of what it means to be a listener – and a subject. And an historical subject. Perhaps the most profound musical elaboration of these dynamics of attention is Pauline Oliveros’s practice of Deep Listening, which is both a lifelong discipline –without beginning or end, continuing in dreaming sleep – and a musicalisation of consciousness.[7] In her own words (from the Sonic Meditations, reissued in 2023),

“with continuous work … heightened states of awareness or expanded consciousness, changes in physiology and psychology from known and unknown tensions to relaxations [are possible] which gradually become permanent. These changes may represent a tuning of mind and body… Music is a welcome by-product of this activity.”

Third, it is worth remembering that Oliveros developed her Sonic Meditations with students and friends who were horrified by the Vietnam War and shaken by the fatal self-immolation protest of George Winne Jr on their campus at the University of California, San Diego in May 1970. What became Deep Listening was a practice dedicated to healing that offered ways of experiencing traumatic times without injury. The more widespread turn to durational events in recent years can be appreciated from this position as a concern for dwelling within an historical age that for many has become precarious and inhospitable.

Research has shown how the pandemic was experienced by many as a ‘suspended time’ – or ‘time out of time’ – that felt disorienting, an uncanny time that could not be represented or narrated.[8] Time appeared to pass extremely slowly but in retrospect felt ‘short or compressed’, as if it had happened quickly or not at all, or to someone else. For some, the future felt restricted to a process of constant daily repetition without temporal landmarks or events to shape experience. In this context, musical time – especially in its long durational forms – has perhaps offered audiences temporal experiences that can be inhabited, shared, co-created, and felt as humanising.

A challenge for artists and curatorial producers now, then, is not to reconstitute histories of art or to insist on some essential quality, such as musical tone or simply ‘sound’, but to create experiences that enable public encounters in time that do not repeat but transform the feeling for historical temporality in the present.

The article was translated into German by Michael Steffens and published in Positionen #135 (May 2023).

[1]                   It is no accident that this has coincided with the recognition that ‘Western’ music and history were also racialised constructs – see Philip Ewell’s On Music Theory (2023).

[2]               Cage described musical possibilities in a 1980 interview as “a situation that could be likened to a delta or field or ocean”, anticipating David Toop’s metaphorical Ocean of Sound (1995).

[3]                   Andreas Engström and Åsa Stjerna, “Sound Art or Klangkunst? A Reading of the German and English literature on sound art”, Organised Sound 14/1 (2009), 11-18.

[4]                   See

[5]                    François Hartog, 2022, Chronos: The West Confronts Time, transl. S.R. Gilbert, New York: Columbia University Press.

[6]                   Andrea Moore, “Art-Religion for a Global New Age”, Twentieth Century Music 16/3 (2019), 374-393.

[7]                   See my article for APRIA:

[8]                   Velasco, Perroy, Gurchani, et al, “Lost in pandemic time: a phenomenological analysis of temporal disorientation during the Covid-19 crisis”, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences (2022).

Ed McKeon
Ed McKeon is a curatorial producer, researcher and writer engaging with music that is no longer ‘just music’. As Co-Founder / Director of Third Ear Music he works with artists at the unregulated and unnameable zones of practice. He writes on musicality and the curatorial.