My guess is that most people answering this question would remove their headphones and provide the name of the bands currently cued up on their listening device.  But based on some articles I have been reading lately, the question is somewhat deeper than that (more like “what is the sound of one hand clapping” deep).  It points to how we respond to music (and sound in general) and trying to answer it can help us better understand both creative and spiritual practices.

It has been a while since my last post.  It’s not that my left brain hasn’t been coming up with stuff to write (maybe I should call it my “Write Brain”).  Rather it is that my right brain has been “compelling” me to spend time learning how to use the new music production software I purchased several months ago.  I have spend most of my “creative time” playing with this program, happily trying out all kinds of wild stuff, not at all concerned about whether it will ever be heard or liked by others.

Much of what I have come up with in my experimental creations does not neatly fit into most of the categories used to describe music; in fact it is not even clear that it is music.  So, recently the left brain started pestering me to find some sort of label for whatever it is I am doing.  By the way, this questioning seems to be rooted in the basic left brain concerns about whether what I was doing was worthwhile or “good” or whether it would be understandable to others.  Anyway, I started to do some research on the internet and so this, and subsequent blog posts, will be inspired by the reading I have done.  I’ll be quoting and paraphrasing heavily from some of the articles I’ve discovered. And, as always, I will try to point to some links with the practice of Zen, where I can.

An article by Robert Worby titled “An Introduction to Sound Art” suggests that maybe what I have been doing is best categorized as “Sound Art”. (http://www.robertworby.com/writing/an-introduction-to-sound-art)   In reality, it probably doesn’t matter how my work is labeled.  At some point I may post some examples and let you decide what it is, but, for now, let’s look at what Worby has to say about ”sound art”.  I think his ideas are relevant  to those interested in any kind of artistic practice or any kind of spiritual practice where one attempts to be more in touch with the senses.

Worby starts off by examining the nature of sound (it is extremely impermanent as you Zen practioners might suspect) and by differentiating between the process of “hearing” and the process of “listening”.  According to Worby:

Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties. Hearing is a physical process, listening is a psychological act. And when we listen to sound we are beginning the process of generating meaning with it. If we are listening properly our curiosity is aroused and we might begin to ask questions about the sound; not just the usual questions about what produced the sound but questions about what we are hearing: How loud is it? For how long does it continue? Is it pitched? If it is pitched, how high is it? How low is it? How far away is it? Is it moving? In which direction? How fast? Is it changing? How is it changing? What is changing? And, if there is more than one sound, how many sounds are there? How do they relate to one another? How do individual sounds relate to the mass of sound? There are many, many questions of this type we can ask and, if we ask them, they help us to perceive sounds with greater clarity. This aroused perception generates more detail and raises our consciousness. We have more to say about sound and we can comprehend it in greater detail. All of this may, in turn, help us to generate feelings about what we can hear and it may help to generate meaning from what we are able to hear.(Underlines are mine.)

Worby goes on to say:

Listening is an art. It is an art just as composing and performing are arts. Listening involves action, we cannot listen and remain passive. If we are passive and uninvolved then we are only hearing. Listening is creative and it is this auditory creativity that has given rise to what is now called sound art.

Although Worby looks at a variety of historical sources of “sound art”, he pays particular attention to the work of John Cage, who expressly connected his art and his practice of Zen (Search for previous posts on this topic by entering keywords Cage or Duchamp).  In general, I think, Cage’s work, even if he called it “music” rather than “sound art” can be seen as raising the kinds of questions that Worby says in the previous quotation are raised when we really start to listen to sounds.  According to Worby:

 Cage’s most notorious piece is commonly known as ‘4’ 33”’. It is in three movements (a very conventional Western musical structure) and the notation for each movement simply reads ‘Tacet’. This is the musical term meaning ‘Be silent’. Cage is asking the performer to be silent for three consecutive movements. The piece does not instruct the performer to ‘do nothing’ (a common misconception) but it does require the performer to ‘be silent’. During the first performance, in 1952, the pianist, David Tudor, indicated the passage of the three movements by closing the piano lid at the beginning of each movement and opening it at the end. Hopefully he made no sound. But there was plenty to hear. Four minutes thirty three seconds is quite a long time, for an unsuspecting public, to sit and listen. The sound of the audience twitching, coughing and nervously shuffling filled the space and sounds drifted into the auditorium from outside. Cage had outlined a situation in which sound could be heard but he had no control over those sounds. The conventional roles of composer, performer and listener had been completely subverted. It was difficult to say who was the composer or who was the performer or who was the listener. The listeners were making the sounds so, in conventional terms, they were the performers. The performer, David Tudor, was also a listener. The composer had no hand in crafting what was heard, this was done entirely by the listeners, so, in effect, they were the composers. Cage had turned conventional music making inside out.


Composing is one thing, performing is another, listening is yet a third. What can they have to do with one another?”  John Cage


From today’s perspective, the performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″ seems rather contrived and passé, much like Duchamp’s hanging of an urinal at an art show (Search for previous posts on this topic using the keyword “Cage” or “Duchamp”).  Although those attending the first performance of Cage’s piece may have been shocked into pondering questions about the nature of sound and music, most people today would attend because it was the cool thing to do.  However contrived they seem now, both Cage and Duchamp managed to call attention to the importance of the mental attitude of the audience and both had a profound effect on how artists approached their practices since then.  I think that it is no accident that both of these guys were influenced by their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cage with D. T. Suzuki

It’s not clear to me whether Cage actually used the term “sound art” to describe his work but the term has consistently been used that way by others.  So, exactly what is sound art?  

At this point it appears that the term “sound art” refers to a diverse set of practices (ranging from Dada nonsense poetry to recording of natural sounds at various sites) and there is still no clear distinction between “sound art” and “music”. (Below I have links to 3 short videos to provide some examples of  “sound art”.)  The term “experimental music” is often used to characterize musical compositions that veer away from conventional ideas about music, but I would be hard pressed to describe the distinction.  In Worby’s words:

 The multiple threads of sound art practice weave a fabulously rich tapestry. It celebrates the ear in a world that we mostly perceive with our eyes. Language, our tool for thought, is very much orientated towards what we can see. Sound art encourages us to listen, it sharpens the ears and the imagination and so develops what it is to be human.

Cage at the Piano

While any piece of music can have these effects, it seems that “sound artists” see the main goal of their creative endeavor as encouraging real listening.  Whether someone truly “listens” to music or any other sounds depends upon the person’s mental set.  Sound art, as I understand it, is designed to make it induce listening as Worby has defined it.  In future posts I will consider the writings of other authors who have used the terms “deep listening” and “mindful listening” to seemly capture the essence of what Worby is saying.

Since Zen and other spiritual disciplines encourage practioners to be mindfully present and aware and a wide variety of situations, I would suggest that these disciplines share a common goals with much of what might be called sound art (this is most clear in the case of John Cage).  In future post’s I’ll be exploring how music/sound can become a mindfulness practice and looking material suggesting that mindfulness practice can enhance our listening to sounds/music and that listening can increase our mindfulness.

Personally, although I can appreciate the goal of making me more active in the process of listening, I find a lot of sound art and experimental music to be rather irritating; I’m sure I would have been one of the first people out the door at the first performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″.  Doing all of this reading and thinking (thanks left brain!) has led me to wonder whether I can create sounds that are musical and yet can raise listerner’s awareness in the manner that Worby has described.  That is, can sound art be engaging/entertaining and still be consciousness expanding? Maybe it really doesn’t matter as long as I am having fun doing it (thank you right brain!)

 Check out these short videos showing some examples of “sound art”.  Also see my previous post titled “Border Music by Glenn Weyant”





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