From SOUNDINGS, Neuberger Museum, SUNY Purchase, 1981
by Suzanne Delehanty
At the beginning of this century, sounds began to reverberate through the once silent and timeless world of the plastic arts. It was as if musical instruments, hushed for centuries behind the window of Renaissance art, suddenly stirred and resounded. How could it be otherwise? The melodies of Edison’s phonograph, the roar of the automobile, the wireless wonder of Marconi, the smashing of the atom, and Einstein’s theory of relativity had ushered in a new age. Artists, always the first to perceive the essential changes in the world around us, set out to give form to the spirit of the new era. For some, the utopian possibilities of technology and the machine became a primary source of inspiration. For others, imbued with the idealism of the nineteenth-century Romantics and Symbolists, the dream of an integration of all the arts offered refuge and salvation from the looming edifice of science and technology. This dream emerged from its slumber beneath the rational materialism of the last century to shatter the Renaissance concept of art as a silent and timeless mirror of nature and to release an art that is an equivalent of reality, a separate realm.
Sound, gathered from the space around us by our skin and bones, as well by as by our ears, is inextricably bound to both our perception and experience. Human thought is manifested in word and speech, while emotions such as joy and sadness are expressed in song and lament. The sound of sea, wind, and rain never cease to renew our awe of nature. Ambient sound, or the sound that surrounds us, gives us a sense of our proper bodily location in space. Noise, random, or unwanted sound often alerts us to impending events and to danger or else merely jangles our nerves. By contrast, sound ordered by the human mind-and exceptionally by chance-is music, a celebrated human accomplishment. The absence Of Sound is silence, the unknown; inaudible voices have always been metaphors for the visions of mystics and for revelations about an invisible world beyond our ken.