Sound Artists: Straddling the Line Between Music and Noise

As part of a college radio station, people tend to think in terms of music and only music. I find that precious little attention is given to sounds that don’t really align into the music category, mostly because college radio tends to play what people want to hear: popular music. Beyond this microcosm of thinking lies what I believe to be an interesting field: sound artists. Closely associated with artists such as Negativland and Autechre, sound artistry is a field which straddles the line between music and noise. Sound artists have existed ever since the early 1910’s, beginning with Luigi Russolo, and leading on through the Dadaists and Surrealists in the later 1920’s and 30’s. The field gained traction with the advent of current electronic music in the 1980’s and has been a staple of exhibitions and futurist visions ever since.

If you were to ask any cognoscenti who the foremost artist in sound artistry is, a large portion of them would say Ryoji Ikeda. Born in the Gifu Prefecture of Japan and based in Paris, Ryoji Ikeda is an artist who works in microtones: sounds and effects that border on the very edge of human hearing. The very highs and lows of human hearing are often not pleasurable for people to listen to, but once one gets past the initial “my ears hurt” stage, there is a lot of texture and detail to be found in his works. Often exploiting beat patterns and shifting time signatures, his works are intensely interesting to hear, and almost make you wonder if you’re hearing the inside of a machine rather than one man’s conception of it. Tones that aren’t typical for music, (e.g. square waves and sine tones) are scattered throughout his many albums and used to great effect in Matrix, +/- and Dataphonics.

Where he really shines is his audiovisual production. As his name has become more and more well known, museums and public spaces often invite him to perform live accompaniments to his music, set to shifting data/test patterns and computer code interspersed with visual glitches. In my opinion, this is what sets him far apart from not only regular audiovisual artists, but also others working in the same field (Amon Tobin, Negativland, et al.). These soundscapes mesh extremely well with the visuals, evoking imagery of broken and operational hardware along with sounds that play with your head, emotions and expectations. Simply put, I can think of nothing like these shows.

But, don’t just take my word for it. See for yourself. SEAN

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