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Kevin Concannon

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Cut and Paste: Collage and the Art of Sound

By Kevin Concannon

Though ill-considered as an artistic medium, sound recordings have been produced by visual artists within a variety of contexts since the beginning of the twentieth century and are numerous. Artists and individual works discussed in the following pages have been selected with an ear toward their individual merits, as representative of more general formal and aesthetic currents and for their significance within the broader context of twentieth century art and popular culture.

Taking off from Walter Benjamin's assessment of gramophone records as enabling 'the original to meet the beholder halfway,’ I have traced my way to the contradictory notion of the recording as the 'original,' ill-suited for live 'reproduction,' through the application of an essentially formalist, and ultimately photographic, critical apparatus.

The very idea of an Audio Art implies a genre defined foremost by formalist concerns. The recordings discussed cover a broad spectrum, including poetry, music, text and drama. The foundation upon which my arguments for sound recordings as works of art are based, is the popular understanding of mechanically reproduced media as accurate transcriptions of reality. Both photography and sound recording developed, not within the fine arts community, but rather within popular culture. Their substantial popular histories are inextricably linked to their capacity to 'capture' that specific time and place and to transform it into a piece of documentary evidence, whether it be Matthew Brady's Civil War or RCA’s Caruso concert.

Music, in fact, has been one of the more problematic aspects of this study. For many, the Audio Arts are merely an extension of the musical avant garde and, as euphemisms go, only slightly less derogatory than 'experimental.' Many of the major advances in the Audio Arts have indeed been made by avant-garde composers. John Cage, in many ways, serves as a pivotal figure in this history. Having produced work in several media, he is nonetheless best known as a composer. One of Cage’s best known pieces, consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence (4'33" 1952). Rather than attempt to draw that nebulous line between composers and sound artists, it will suffice to state that superficial distinctions, such as whether or not a particular individual works in a visual medium as well, or whether or not a particular individual has a record on the pop charts, will be kept to a minimum. I have instead tried to focus on the medium of sound recording itself and the seeds of its practice as we know it.

As the primary product of the recording industry, music represents a substantial percentage of audio artworks. Regardless of what one chooses to call it, the influence of the recording medium itself has affected much of the 'music' recorded during our time, by rock musicians as well as 'experimental' or 'serious' composers and artists. When audio recording and playback equipment came into general use, the very nature of being a composer or musician changed drastically. Composer Glenn Gould personifies this shift within the world of classical music, combining many takes of the same piece for the perfect (recorded) performance. Many recording artists are more competent with a recording studio than any traditional musical instrument. This trend has accellerated recently with the mass availability of digital processing and recording equipment. The genre of pop music currently known as urban contemporary vividly demonstrates the shift in general use of the medium from 'accurate transcriiption of reality' to material for plastic manipulation.' Using prerecorded discs of various beats and rhythm phrases, contemporary musicians compose today's hip-hop, scratch and funk. Even within the realm of pop music there exists a demonstrable concern with the intrinsic qualities of the medium. The band Bonzo Goes To Washington achieved a modest commercial success with Five More Minutes, a dance record sculpted around a recording of Ronald Reagan's infamous slip up, 'My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that we have just passed legisilation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.' By processing the tape through a sampler, the President of the United States was transformed into a parody of the popular raving rap star, or vice-versa --Sound by Artists (Art Metropole and Walter Phillips Gallery, 1990) via http://www.localmotives.com/hoved/tema/nr_2/cut.html [2004]

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