Peer-reviewed article

Music, sound art and context in a post-Cagean era

18. Februar 2015


Edition s


Annoncér hos Seismograf


Over the past 70 years, the idea of a stable relationship between the musical work of art and its context has been a key problem. The question of autonomy has always been at the core of the discursive practices of music (Loesch 2004), but since the 1950s, the matter of text versus context has been explicitly debated and negotiated in both art and the theories of art, and the opposing positions are still more radicalized.

On the one hand, we see a cementation of the ideas of autonomy in this period. This can be seen, for instance, in the theoretical positions within high modernism which praise the idea of music as an ‘absolute monade’ (Adorno 1974: 26). It can also be observed in the institutionalization of music analysis as an autonomous category that requires a strict distinction between 'the music itself' and 'external factors' (Bent and Pople, "Analysis") and in the development of different, formalistic analytical approaches such as the 'Schenker analysis', 'set-theory analysis' etc. (Samson 2001).

On the other hand, in the same period we see an overwhelming amount of avant-gardistic experimental music and sound art that constantly challenges the idea of a stable threshold between the artwork and its context. In electroacoustic music and sound art, sonic contexts are collected via field recordings and integrated in the sonic texts, either with a focus of the objet sonore (Schaeffer, 2004) in itself or in an investigation of the sociality of those sounds (Kim-Cohen 2009)1. And, many artworks are disseminated into a situative context as seen in happenings, events and social experiments within sound art (Nyman 1974; Foster 1996).

Since the 1990s, this tension between music and context has resulted in numerous academic considerations regarding the status of the musical work of art (e.g. Goehr 2002; Middleton 2003; Talbot 2010). The rise and institutionalization of popular music studies, sound studies, performance studies etc. have also challenged the idea of autonomy from within the academic disciplines; both the autonomy of the work of art, the autonomy of the field of music and accordingly, the autonomy of musicology as a discipline (Middleton 2003).

If we look at the current field of contemporary music, the relationship between music and context seems to have developed into a fruitful area for creative practices. For instance, in 2013 the theme of the Danish SPOR festival for contemporary music and sound was: “.... the relationship between sound and context – between sound, and those things that surround the sound itself, such as silence” (SPOR webpage: theme_2013). In accordance with this theme, the festival presented a variety of, more or less, open works that involved their immediate contexts in different ways. 

This article asks: What are the consequences of this naturalization of the open work? How can we understand the current situation in relation to the tradition for open artworks, happenings, events etc. in the avant-garde? The article claims, that with SPOR, we see a transition to a post-Cagean aesthetic where the open work is no longer primarily a negation of the conventional work category, but instead a positive horizontal expansion into the social situation. The notion of 'post-Cagean aesthetics' has been introduced prior to this article (Kotz 2001). However, in this article I wish to try and narrow down a more specific definition of what such an aesthetic entails. The following analysis investigates the specific dispositions at SPOR that have lead to this post-Cagean aesthetic, which reformulates the correlation between text and context. In other words: How can a festival for contemporary music and sound art not only reflect, but also actively change the field it represents? Finally, the article attempts to conclude how this post-Cagean aesthetic changes the ontology of music: what is a musical work when it is inseparable from its context? Is there any difference between music and sound art, when music is something that constantly opens up to the world of sounds around music? And if not, how should musicology respond to this development?

I. SPOR festival

SPOR is an annual festival that takes place in May in Aarhus, the second biggest city in Denmark. Aarhus has hosted an annual spring festival for contemporary music since 1978. The NUMUS festival (1978-2002) preceded SPOR and was organized by the Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen. SPOR emerged in 2005, with some of Rasmussen's students as the primary initiators: The Danish composer Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen was the administrator, while the first curator was the Danish composer Niels Rønsholt. The profile of the NUMUS festival was to present music from both internationally renowned composers and younger, local or national not yet established composers. SPOR continued this profile. It presents both the international scene for contemporary music and the cultural growth layer (SPOR webpage: 'ABOUT SPOR'). It has even enhanced contact with the non-established layer by introducing an ‘open call for works’. But despite the affinities to the NUMUS festival, many things changed when SPOR became SPOR. 

In general, there is a significant change in the indefinable parameter one might call the atmosphere: At the NUMUS festival, the audience was a small, secluded segment including musicology students, student composers from the academies, composers and regular concertgoers connected to the local concert hall Musikhuset2. The NUMUS festival took place at Musikhuset and presented a programme with musical works.  The SPOR audience represents a broader segment. There are still a lot of students coming from musicology and the music academy, but there are also students from a wide range of departments such as art history, aesthetics and cultural studies, plus a more diverse group of sound artists. Another significant change is that the festival has moved away from the local concert hall Musikhuset and now takes place in the urban environment of Aarhus. The streets are used for sound walks and performances; alternative urban spaces such as galleries or venues for performance theatre are used for concerts. Finally, SPOR is not just a festival for contemporary music but also a festival for sound art. 

SPOR’s overall aesthetical profile is in line with the avant-gardistic tradition of John Cage. In 2013, the thematic headline was simply 'TACET!' – the Latin word for silence – and with this slogan the curator, Juliana Hodkinson made a subtle reference to Cage's seminal silent piece 4'33'', because 4'33'', in the most well-known score version from 1960 (Edition Peters), is simply notated with 'TACET' as the only instruction. Cage’s idea with 4'33'' was that the silence from the instrumentalist(s) would allow the audience to listen to all the accidental noises and sounds that are present around them (Kostelanez 2003:70). It is the 'art without work' (Duckworth 1999:13) as Cage himself describes it. From this perspective 4'33',' is an investigation of the border between the musical piece and its context, between sound and silence. The reference to 4'33'' was in other words in line with the overall festival theme that year, which was the investigation of the relationship between sound and context.

As the apex of his otherwise diverse oeuvre, 4'33'' encompasses Cage's general ideas on music and art, which he presented vigorously in his many writings, lectures and interviews. Cage celebrates the open, undetermined artwork that orientates itself towards its surroundings. Art that is “an occasion for experience” (Cage 2004:31) rather than an autonomous object. This seems exactly to match the overall aesthetics of SPOR: a Cagean aesthetic that celebrates the open artwork as an occasion for all kinds of experiences.

SPOR presents a wide range of open works: Both performances in the tradition of avant-gardistic happenings and events, sound art installations, sound walks and pieces using conventional musical instrumentation.

As examples of avant-gardistic happenings, one could mention that in 2013, a number of pieces by the Swedish Fluxus artist Sven-Åke Johansson were presented in a concert where Johansson also performed on stage. In 2010, Cage's 4'33' was performed in an unannounced version for accordion, which was however quickly recognized by the audience who afterwards politely nodded to the piece by applauding3. As an example of instrumental music, one could mention the British composer Benedict Mason's Second Music for a European Concert Hall (1993- ), which was performed at the opening concert in 2007, in an old military building in the centre of Aarhus. This composition for symphony orchestra (which is actually a series of works made for different concert halls) presents pre-composed music. However, this piece is still an open work. It explores the specific site of the concert, as the instrumentalists play while walking around the concert hall hereby articulating the specific space. Another example of a piece that explores the specific site of the performance is the Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen's Run-Time-Error (2009), which was performed at SPOR in 2011. However, this piece does not feature traditional instruments. The instructions for this piece are that the performer (who is the composer himself) is to strike objects collected from the specific concert venue, and that he is only allowed to strike each object once. In order to fulfil this requirement, the collected objects are placed in a long row that leads the performer from space to space, down stairs, up stairs, through doors etc. etc. in a route that depends on the specific location. A small video-recorder attached to the performer's clothes documents the percussive performance. At the actual concert, the composer replays the recorded video in two tracks while remixing them with a specially designed joystick that determines both the speed and the direction of the video tracks. This results in an audiovisual, percussive fugue where the same audiovisual material is played and remixed.

Simon Steen-Andersen performs Run-Time-Error at SPOR 2011 (Photo: Anette Vandsø)

As an example of a piece that comes closer to what we normally perceive as sound art, we can mention the Swedish sound artist Åsa Stjerna's installation Subaqua (2011), which presents sounds from a number of streams in Aarhus. This installation was placed in front of the local art museum AROS. The audience had to walk from pipe to pipe in order to experience the sounds. The movement of the audience and the social situation of the act of listening was therefore not the context but a part of the piece, as a comment on the city where it was presented and in that sense the context and the text were woven tightly together.

II. The open artwork and the neo-avant-garde

When I claim that the open artwork is a fruitful and playful investigation of the context, it is an interpretation that differs from the standard descriptions of the potential effects of such open pieces. If we try to subsume the many different theoretical understandings of the avant-garde we will find that there are three typical, but fundamentally different approaches to the open artwork: one claims that its main effect is the negation of the institution of art – as anti-art, another that it is a rejection of art as a metaphysical category or anti-modernism, while the third argues that the open artwork is not mainly a negation, but instead a horizontal expansion into the social situation.  

The open artwork as anti-art
The German avant-garde theorist Peter Bürger (1980) argues that the historical avant-gardes from the beginning of the 20th century (dadaism, surrealism, futurism, constructivism, etc.) no longer attempted to develop the trajected methods for representation. Instead they tried to break away from the institution of art all together via an institutional 'self-critique' directed at the institution of art (Bürger 1980:70-74). Bürger mentions Marcel Duchamp's ready-mades, where pre-fabricated objects are exhibited as art, as an example of such self-critique. When the artist's signature is added to objects that are not made by the artist, the individual production as a category – and thereby also the entire work category – is questioned (Bürger, 1980: 78). 

A similar analysis could be, and indeed has been, made of 4'33'. In 4'33'' the singular sounds are also not individually produced. Instead, the composer's signature is added to a timeframe with random sounds, and the autonomous artwork is replaced by the provocative act itself. 4'33'' has often been described as 'anti-music', which primarily negates the bourgeois institution of art (e.g. Watkins 1995) and as an artwork that questions the privileged position of the artist in an attempt to escape work categories and in stead reunite art and life (e.g. Goehr 2002).

Bürger's analysis has a negative conclusion: the historical avant-gardes do not succeed in their negation of the institution of art. Instead the institution of art includes them and turns them into art. In time, the shock effect is no longer shocking, but instead is turned into yet another artistic effect. In this process, art is denied any real effect on the lived lives of the audience (Bürger 1980:78). 

Cage’s aesthetical project is developed and formulated in and by the larger 'neo-avant-gardistic' movement during the post-war period. In the neo-avant-garde, the ideas and aesthetic strategies from the historical avant-garde were rearticulated and reused (Bürger 1980:80). Cage’s own art is often described as neo-dadaism (e.g. Watson 1995: 564). Cage himself embraced the term 'neo-dada' in an acknowledgement of his heritage from dadaism although he also stressed that there is a difference between historical dadaism and his projects (Cage 2004: xi). 

In Bürger's point of view, the neo-avant-gardes are just an empty repetition of the original avant-gardistic movements as a further cementation of their status as art (Bürger 1980: 80). It is common to evaluate Cage’s aesthetical projects in a similar way and to conclude that his art is a failed attempt to break away from or negate the institution of art. Lydia Goehr (2002) claims, for instance, that with 4'33'' Cage attempted to challenge the authority of the composer but failed: “Cage had obviously not succeeded with 4'33'', and other such 'works', in undermining the force of the work-concept within the musical institution” (Goehr 2002: 264). 

There is one problem with this kind of analysis: By focusing solely on the critique of the institution of art it overlooks the other potential effects of 4'33'' (and other such open artworks). It also overlooks that some of these critical potentials are in fact constituted not in spite of institutional framing, but because of it. 

Theatrical art
A different understanding of the neo-avant-gardistic open pieces is seen in the art historian Michael Fried's (2003) description of anti-modernistic art from 1967. 

According to Fried, all the parts of a modernistic work of art refer to the same unity. It is therefore present at every moment in its totality and appears to the spectator as an entity that is independent of actual time and space. Rather than being placed in the mundane space-time, the backdrop of modernistic art is, according to Fried, the ideal category of Art (Fried 2003). Contrary to this, anti-modernistic artworks insistently point out the social dimension and the mundane time span of their own reception. Fried refers to John Cage, among others, as an example of 'anti-modernistic art'. According to Fried, such artworks do not appear to be a manifestation of 'Art' (With a capital A) or 'Music' as a metaphysical transcendental category. Instead, they come across as mundane things or objects in a situation. They are therefore not primarily a negation of the institution of art, but a negation of art as a transcendental category4. They only explore the theatrical meeting between artwork and recipient and not the ideal category of modern Art (With a capital A). 

This critical interpretation of 4'33'' is also common. For instance, the British philosopher Stephen Davies begins his book on the philosophy of music with the question “John Cage’s 4’33’’ Is It Music?” (Davies, 2003, 11-29). He argues that since 4'33'' does not limit itself from the situation in which it appears, it cannot be music (Davies, 2003, pp. 11-29). Instead of investigating how 4'33'' and other similar artworks change the field of music, Davies simply constructs a category of music that does not include such 'difficult' pieces. As a consequence, such a position cannot grasp the changes in the current field of new music and sound art, because it simply leaves out that which challenges the conventional definitions and categories. 

Inclusion of the situation of the artwork
Fried's understanding of Cage's art is in fact not so far from the ideas we see in Cage's own writings. Here, neo-avantgardistic art is understood as an attempt to include the social situation in which the piece is perceived. This is however, a good thing in Cage's point of view. In 1957, he gave this description of the 'openness' of the contemporary art of his time:

For in this new music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not. Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment. This openness exists in the fields of modern sculpture and architecture. The glass houses of Mies van der Rohe reflect their environment, presenting to the eye images of clouds, trees, or grass, according to the situation. And while looking at the constructions in wire of the sculptor Richard Lippold, it is inevitable that one will see other things, and people too, if they happen to be there at the same time, through the network of wires. (Cage 2004: 7-9).

The 'theatrical' inclusion of the horizontal, social dimension is in Cage's point of view not just a gesture that negates the institution of art, nor a negation of art as an ideal metaphysical category. Instead, it is a gesture that in a generous way opens towards a broader field of sounds and multimodal events. 

Even though the negation is not the primary effect of the open work, according to Cage, the effect is still that this development within the arts undermines the idea of art as a metaphysical category. For instance, Cage directly suggests that we should stop using the word 'music' altogether and instead talk about 'organized sound' (Cage 2004: 3). He also writes:

There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot (Cage 2004: 30)

This statement can be taken literally and read as a statement emphasizing the noisiness of the world. But, it can also be interpreted as a statement saying that the perceptual background of music is not the neutral, empty or silent space of Art (with a capital A), but the noisy, actual social situation – and read as such, the paragraph is a radical break with the metaphysics of the high modernism, which was quite outspoken among Cage's composer colleagues in the 1950s. Such an interpretation is in line with Cage's statement that art is simply an 'occasion for experience' (Cage 2004: 31), which is also a radically different understanding than the idea that music is a metaphysical category.

To sum up, Cage's aesthetic favour an open work-concept: the artwork's ontological basis is the situation and not the pure category of 'Art'. And because the artwork is always situated it is an event or process rather than an autonomous object. 

4'33'' – three potentials
These three understandings of the neo-avant-gardes can be understood as different potentials of the specific artworks. If we look at the reception of 4'33'' it obviously has all three potential effects: it can be – and has been – experienced as institutional critique, it can be anti-modernism that negates the metaphysical category of music, and it can be experienced as sound art that includes the entire situation in which the piece is perceived. How we experience 4'33'' depends on our perspective. One understanding is not more 'correct' than the other and all understandings are seen in the current field of music.

III. The aesthetics of SPOR festival 

At SPOR, the open artwork is the norm and yet this festival does not come across as a provocative negation of the institution of music. Instead it appears as a permanent expansion of the social, horizontal dimension in accordance with Cage's own aesthetics – as it is expressed in his own writings. The overall aesthetical profile of SPOR can therefore be described as a post-Cagean aesthetic in the sense that Cage’s aesthetic is the naturalized, hegemonic background for thinking about, listening to, curating, writing about, doing music and/as sound art. 

In his book Musicking (1998), Christopher Small argues that music is not something 'out there' as a mass of objects. Instead, it is something that we do. We perform, talk about and listen to music and in this performance we constitute what music is. According to Small, it would be more correct not to use the word 'music' but instead talk about 'musicking', in order to stress the performative quality of this category. Small analyses how we 'do' music in the traditional concert setting, but using his line of thought we could ask how SPOR embraces Cage's aesthetics. How is this perspective on music performed or constituted? How does SPOR act as an agent that 'does' music or performs this 'musicking'?

If we are to understand how SPOR establishes its post-Cagean position we have to discuss at least four different aspects: the paratexts created by the festival, the choice of locations, the organizational strategies of the festival and the selection of artworks presented. 

The paratexts
At SPOR festival, there are many framing statements or paratexts (Genette 1997), such as the curatorial statements, programme notes, presentations at the concerts etc.

The webpage serves as a platform for specific information about, for instance, time-schedules for the planned concerts, prices etc., but it also gives the audience a guideline as to how these artworks can be understood or experienced. 

In comparison, one can think of the Fluxus concerts that toured Europe in the 1960s and visited Denmark in 1962. Before or while attending these concerts people were not given any guidelines as to how they could understand the happenings presented. For instance, Fluxus artist Dick Higgins played La Monte Young's Composition nr. 7 for over an hour to an audience who had no idea how long the piece would last or how they were supposed to react (Pedersen 1968). Composition nr. 7 is a minimal composition where a specific interval (a quint) is to be held for a not specified 'long time'. At this specific concert in Nicolaj Church in Copenhagen, it was played on an organ. Later on, Dick Higgins directly stated that he attempted to drive the audience out of the concert hall. The general public was of course shocked, provoked and offended by these happenings (Pedersen 1968).

At SPOR, there are many experimental works of art that are very close in nature to the Fluxus happenings. As already mentioned, in 2013 there was a performance by Sven-Åke Johansson, who was involved in the Fluxus movement. As part of his performance, Johansson cut a cucumber on the sharp side of a cymbal, which was a performative action that could easily be interpreted as absurd 'anti-music'. However, the presentation on the SPOR webpage offered a very different interpretation. 

On the webpage, there was an introduction to Johansson with a small bio that stressed his importance in many different musical environments. The concert was therefore not just a performance of Johansson's music but also an experience of him as an important historical agent or character and a tribute to him and his achievements. The webpage also gave the reader an explanation of Johansson's work: 

By deconstructing the traditional systems in music - in his work, new aspects of the production of sound are presented, often leaving a very sensual and visually narrative impression for the observer. (SPOR; webpage, artists Sven-Åke Johansson, no date)

This description does not stress the anti-art-potential, but instead enhances the sensual and visual dimensions. According to Genette, such a paratext is not a context on the 'outside' of the work. The paratext is rather a threshold […] an ’undefined zone’ between the inside and the outside (Genette 1997:1) because we cannot avoid the paratexts when meeting a text and once read, the paratexts condition our interpretation of the text. According to Genette, paratexts are empirically made up of 'a heterogeneous set of practices' (Genette 1997:2) and at SPOR, the webpage is just one practice, other dominating paratexts are the programme notes and the oral presentations in the welcome speeches, for example. 

Returning to this specific concert, I had read the description in the programme and on the webpage, and I for one did experience the concert as a sensuous display of sounds with visual and narrative impressions. There were also humouristic elements in this concert, where the audience giggled. There were elements of making fun of the conventional roles of the composer, performer and audience, but still the overall gesture was not a negation of the conventional institution of art. 

When comparing SPOR to Fluxus, it is obvious that SPOR does not attempt to be a provocative, anti-music festival. It includes the audience instead of exposing them. 

Choice of venues
The idea that music is an autonomous work of art that can be appreciated, evaluated or understood 'in itself' is not just something that is constituted through our language(s) about music. It is also an ideology that has structured both the ritualistic presentation of music in the concert halls and the architecture of concert halls (Small 1998, Thompson 2004). The rituals of the concert hall dictate a certain type of behaviour from the audience. There is for instance a strict distinction between the way the audience is allowed to act in the foyer and in the concert hall itself. When the music plays the audience focuses on the sounds from the stage while they ignore the sounds around them. 

The acoustic design of the concert halls is also ideological. They are built so that they leave out the noises from the surrounding world and instead emphasize the sounds from the stage over the sounds from the audiences. This gives the impression that the musical work of art we encounter in the concert hall is in a different category than everyday soundings (Thompson 2004). Through the architectural and interior design and the ritualistic behaviour, the ideology of music as an autonomous object is constituted. 

When SPOR began to include the urban space of Aarhus by involving a number of different concert venues, exhibition spaces or urban sceneries, it not only changed location, but also moved away from specific social, acoustic and ideological places that favour the autonomous work-concept. The audiences were no longer placed within the institution of Art Music. Due to this development, the negating aspect of the open works was down-toned: When we are on a sound walk in urban space, ­ no one will think of this as 'anti-music' or a negation, simply because it is not framed as 'Music' (with a capital M). In other words: by moving out of Musikhuset and instead choosing the smaller stage and a place for an experimental dance company, Granhøj as a main venue, SPOR opened the doors to investigations of other kinds of contexts than just the immediate acoustic, ideological and social context of the musical work in the concert hall. 

With the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s statement (1991:59) "that new social relations demand a new space, and vice-versa" one could say that also new relations between listener and artwork demand a new space or the new spaces ‘afford’ (Norman 2013) new relations. In the case of SPOR festival, the change of location made it possible for the open artworks to be something else than (just) a negation.

The way we behave during the act of listening is not just constituted by the concert hall but also the concert setting: the placement of chairs facing a scene for instance. This became obvious at a presentation of the Danish electronic composer and sound artist Ole Jørgensen's loudspeaker installation TON8 (2011). The installation was presented in the concert venue with chairs facing a scene. In order to experience Jørgensen's piece the audience was supposed to walk around the large loudspeakers and experience the differences in sounds depending on the unique listening position, but instead the majority of the audience sat down on the chairs that were facing the stage. By and by, the audience realized the mistake and some went down to listen to the sounds as intended by the composer, while others remained seated5. This situation demonstrates that the institutional framing or contexts that dictate our behaviour and approach to the singular artwork are not dissolved in a festival such as SPOR. However, they are also not invisible as a naturalized way of engaging with art. They are visible, debatable, exchangeable and 'real' – although they are also contingent and discursively constituted. They are conditioning the listening act and are a dimension of the listening act.  

Organizational strategies
Even though it is reasonable to claim that SPOR has an ideological position based on the trajectory from Cage – a post-Cagean position – it is also a heterogeneous festival that gives the impression that the artworks are not selected, evaluated and presented from one coherent ideological or aesthetical position.

First of all, SPOR consists of a variety of very different events: There are concerts, sound installations, sound performances (for instance sound walks) and different combinations of the three. There are also talks, seminars, workshops etc. In 2014, there was a 'hackathon' where people could develop their own 'hacks'. In other words, the audience is involved in very different activities. These activities give an impression that contemporary music and sound art are a proliferating activities that has no specific limits, rather than a homogenous field or system with set borders and distinctions.

Furthermore, SPOR is a curated festival. It is run by two directors, Anna Berit Asp Christensen (b.1971) and Anne Marqvardsen (b.1977). Every year, a new curator, selected by the board on the basis of a curatorial proposal sets out the programme in collaboration with the two directors. Consequently, the programme is specifically conceptualized and presented not as 'THE current scene of contemporary music and sound art' but as the scene perceived from one specific perspective, namely that of the curator. The chosen artworks are presented as part of a curated programme and not as a direct representation of a homogenous art scene. The curators have mostly been younger composers such as Niels Rønsholdt (b. 1978), Juliana Hodkinson (b.1971), Joanne Baillie (b. 1973), Jennifer Walshe (b. 1974) and Lars Petter Hagen (b. 1975) who were all under or close to 40 when they took on the role as curator. The only exception was Bent Sørensen’s participation in 2009, as he is one of the established Danish composers. However, curators have also been other agents in the field of contemporary music and sound art. In 2011, the curators were three institutions from Berlin: Kammerensemble Neue Musik, Singuhr Hörgallery and the concert venue Ausland

Due to this heterogeneous character, the linking of sound art and contemporary music does not appear as a composition between two different elements belonging to distinct institutions, scenes or systems of fields. Instead, the festival appears to be a festival for a heterogeneous or expanded field of sounding arts, where no one tries to define whether a chamber orchestra composition is sound art or music, or a sound walk is music or sound art. 

Choice and presentation of artworks 
The festival is curated in a way that links these different expressions together in a very direct manner. For instance, in 2011 a composed sound walk led the audience to a performance of the British composer Joanne Baillie's Analogue (2011) for amplified string trio and tape. This concert took place inside a completely darkened room with a small hole in it where light from the next room could enter, and therefore it functioned as a large camera obscura. The musicians were placed in the opposite room and as they started playing, their image slowly appeared on the dark wall inside the camera obscura. This example shows us how the festival juxtaposes very different sonic acts. One example is closer to what we normally conceive as sound art, namely the sound walk, while the other is closer to what we call music, since it uses conventional musical instruments and live performance of a material notated in a score (albeit in an unconventional installation). However, the sound walk audiences were blindfolded and thus the aesthetical listening act was enhanced, while Baillie's composition was a very visually and conceptually orientated total installation. A pre-recorded voice discussed the possibilities of taking sonic pictures in the same way that we take a photo while the audience was sitting inside this large camera obscura. Even though it was a performance piece, performed on conventional instruments, the dark room and the slow appearance of an inverted image of the musicians on the rear wall gave it an atmosphere closely resembling some of the American artist Bill Viola's audiovisual installations. 

In effect, Baillie's composed piece of contemporary music resembled an audiovisual installation in its expression, while the sound art walk emphasized the act of listening and potentially allowed the audience to experience the musical qualities of everyday sounds. With the juxtaposition of these two artworks the line between sound art and contemporary music was impossible to draw. 

Instead of juxtaposing fundamentally different sonic expressions, the curators and directors could also have chosen to group the artworks and present all the more conventional pieces of contemporary music on one day and present the typical sound art installations on another day or at another site. But instead, the festival chooses to mix and blend these categories. Consequently, the festival does not create an impression of stable genres and categories, but instead celebrates sonic art as a heterogeneous field. The festival does not create one new style for examining context but presents a very differentiated line up of ways of examining different contexts.  

Although I claimed that institutional critique is down-toned due to the choice of venues, institutional critique is still part of the festival, as some pieces examine and expose their own institutional context. In 2010 for example, the Norwegian composer Trond Reinholdtsen performed his 13 Music Theatre Pieces. In one part of this assembly of works, the composer himself gives an expressive talk using a power point show about the piece he is about to compose. The whole piece evolves around this music that struggles to become music, and focuses in particular on the role of the composer.

In Jeppe Just Christensen's Der Jäger presented in 2011, the composer is also on stage. Christensen plays on a homebuilt percussive rag where metal objects hang from strings while a computer plays music that goes up and down in intonation and tempo. Throughout the piece, the composer struggles to bring the two very different parts of the piece together. As he pulls the strings of the percussive rag it is clear that he cannot control this device, and at one point, some of the metal objects simply fall off the rag. 

In these two compositions, we are not listening to music in its finished form, but to music in its ‘becoming’. In Reinholdtsen's work, the role of the composer as creator invades the piece that never gains a form, but is constantly presented as an idea. Christensen's piece emphasizes and problematizes the act by which the composer appropriates a specific materiality in order to create music. Here, it is as though the material resists such an appropriation. It does not want to or cannot be controlled. Both pieces question the category of individual production and the idea of the musical work of art as an autonomous entity, and in that sense they both present a 'self-critique' (Bürger, 1980) directed at the institution of music, to which they themselves belong.

Other pieces examine quite different contexts in completely different ways. Simon Steen-Andersen's Chambered Music (2007) for chamber orchestra investigates the borders between 'insides' and 'outsides' as spatial, sonic and conceptual phenomenon. The transparency of the composition makes it impossible for the listener to hear the sounds as one self-reliant, autonomous form. Instead the see-through instrumental texture functions as an openness that leads us to experience the immediate social and sonic context around the music. The piece establishes several layers of such surrounding contexts, of 'insides' and 'outsides': A small box is at one point opened and then closed. We will never know what the world sounds like inside this box – it is a secret; a place the audience cannot enter. Outside the box, is the specific scene and audience seats, which is a room shared by both audience and musicians – another 'inside'.  The fragile musical texture does not fill the room with a musical object, but creates an intimate small sphere around the musicians. A trombone player begins to play in the room next to the stage, which indicates that there is an 'outside' to the room of the audience and the musicians. This enhances the feeling of being 'inside' a room, or perhaps even inside 'the black box'. At one point, a bus drives by on the street next to the concert hall, and it could be heard very clearly through the thin windows of the concert venue Granhøj Dans6. With the sound of the bus, a third space was added, namely the outside of the building. The bus sound revealed that the concert hall as a whole is also a box, with an inside, that is sonically very different from the outside. The latter effect was powerful because of the thin windows of the unconventional concert venue. At the local concert hall, Musikhuset, the scene is larger and removed from the audience and one cannot hear the sounds from the outside world. If Steen-Andersen's piece had been played at Musikhuset these delicate differentiated feelings of insides and outsides would not have been present in the same manner. This example demonstrates that when it comes to these open pieces the actual sonic, social and institutional contexts are of importance to the specific potential experiences and meanings of the artwork. 

A third example of how different contexts are explored is the German artist David Helbich's sound walk, Aarhus SoundWalk, 2010. Århus SoundWalk took place in the urban environment of one of the deprived city areas in Aarhus, Gellerup-parken. With very specific instructions, Helbich led the audience on a listening walk that allowed the audience to experience a part of Aarhus that is otherwise often stigmatized as a problematic 'Ghetto' area. Aarhus SoundWalk did not investigate the immediate context of music but instead our actual, social environment. The sounds were not composed, but the act of listening was. The sounds were framed, presented or brought to our attention via the collaborative performance between composer and audience. 

As a final example, I would like to mention Kirsten Reese's installation No Voice Audible but that of the sea on the far Side (2013). Here, we are presented with the voices of fish. This installation was placed inside a cofferdam in Aarhus harbour. The cofferdam is a prototype construction built to reduce the noise level during offshore wind turbine pile-driving. This installation allowed the listener to listen to a non-human context we cannot understand and that we can never enter. The framing paratexts, such as the curatorial notes and title are of key importance to this investigation of a non-human context. The paratexts connected to this piece are very specific as to what it is we are listening to while the sounds themselves are very open. This encounter between a determining title and an open or under-determined sound is a characteristic of Reese's installation, but also to many other sound art pieces that use field recordings (Vandsø 2011).

These very different examples are all examples of sonic art that investigate their context. However, it is impossible to subsume them all under one new genre or style. They are simply 'occasions for listening' (Cage 2004) – they instigate acts of listening. In these acts they investigate their contexts, but they are also conditioned by these contexts: by the institutional, sonic, non-human, para and intertextual contexts.

IV. Conclusions: Epistemology: work-concept and the music/sound art distinction

The post-Cagean era

Even though we can trace an aesthetical position that favours an open work-concept back in time, for instance, back to Cage’s (2004) numerous statements and lectures from the 1950s or perhaps even further back to the Italian Futurist Luigi's manifest Art of Noise from 1913 (Russolo 2005), it is only in more recent years that this position has become a hegemonic, naturalized way of talking about, experiencing or presenting sounding arts and sound art in particular. This can be seen in the many festivals, exhibitions and publications that discuss sound art as an art form in constant dialogue with its context (e.g. LaBelle 2007; Voegelin 2010).  

The art historian Hal Foster claims that it was the neo-avantgardes' rearticulation of the historical avant-gardes that made them what they are today: 

Did Duchamp appear as ‘Duchamp’? Of course not [...] The status of Duchamp as well as Les Demoiselles is a retroactive effect of countless artistic responses and critical readings, and so it goes across the dialogical space-time of avant-garde practice and institutional reception (Foster 1996:8).

The same might be said about John Cage and the neo-avantgardes. His aesthetics were also not fully realized in its own time. It was not until the 1990s, that a general reorientation towards the 'relational' (Borriaud 2002), the 'open work' (Eco 1984), 'performative aesthetic' (Fischer-Lichte 2004) and towards 'sound art' (Motte-Haber 1999; Licht 2007) made it possible for a wider acceptance and understanding of Cage's ideas as something more and other than a counter-position that only served to consolidate the naturalized ideas of what music was.  

Music/sound art in the expanded field
Even though we can see evidence of a post-Cagean position in the field of sonic arts, the Cagean aesthetic are not the naturalized norm in all institutional contexts. Although the more culturally orientated parts of musicology no longer subscribe to a conceptualization of music as an autonomous object (Middleton 2003), a large part of musicology still adheres to a rather strict division between text and context. This applies particularly to the academic sub-discipline that describes and analyses music. In the renowned work of reference New Grove, the British Musicologists Ian Bent and Anthony Pople directly describe analysis as an activity that “takes as its starting-point the music itself, rather than external factors” (Bent and Pople, n.d.), which according to Bent and Pople includes the “interpretation of structures in music, together with their resolution into relatively simpler constituent elements [...]” (Bent and Pople, n.d.).

Such an autonomous work-concept falls short when applied to the contemporary music presented at SPOR festival. In this new post-Cagean era, we require other and more adequate modes of inquiry. Here, the naturalized hegemonic offset cannot be that music is an autonomous structural object. Instead music is process, it is relational. It is not media-specific – dedicated to exploring its own medium of art (for instance "Music"), – but 'post-medial', because it uses any available media (Krauss 1979). In Rosalind Krauss' (1979) analysis of the changing conditions of sculpture, she claims that: “sculpture is no longer the privileged middle term between two things that it isn't. Sculpture is rather only one term on the periphery of a field in which there are other, differently structured possibilities” (Krauss, 1979:38). Based on the analysis of SPOR, music also seems to be part of an expanded sonic field and not the privileged middle term. This is already suggested elsewhere, by for instance Seth Kim-Cohen (2009:155). The recent developments within the field of contemporary music therefore not only require that musicology rethinks its work-concept, but also that it rethinks the nature of its subject area. If we want to understand the conditions of contemporary music, we have to understand contemporary music as something that exists in an expanded sonic field, where there are no clear-cut borders between music and sound art.  

The sonic artwork as an act of listening
Based on the analysis presented above, we can suggest a few conclusions with regards to the ontology and epistemological consequences of a post-Cagean aesthetic.

First of all, the musical work seems to be an occasion for listening or an act in a situation rather than a structural object. However, these acts are not 'pure' listening acts dissociated from the discursive, ideological, social, para and intertextual contexts. Such contexts are not the neutral background for the act of perception, but instead conditioning – and consequently a part of – the unique and singular act of listening. 

A new performative work-concept, and a new approach to analysis should therefore not be focused solely on listening as a pure event or on sound as a non-linguistic, non-discourse medium. On the other hand, the act of perception is still essential and therefore not at all irrelevant to the understanding of these artworks. 

I therefore suggest an approach that is in between the two predominant positions in the current field of sound art studies: The one emphasizes the pure phenomenology of the act of listening (Voegelin 2010) and the non-discursiveness of sound as an artistic medium (LaBelle 2007), where as the other emphasizes the linguistic, symbolic and intertextual dimension of sound art while down-toning the act of perception (Kim-Cohen 2009). According to the material presented in this article, a combination of the two positions seems more adequate, which means that we should understand the act of perception as something that is always already conditioned by the discursive formations. In other words, the singular act of perception is a performance that is performative, following Judith Butler's (1993) distinction between the two concepts.  Performance is, according to Butler, a 'bounded act' while performativity consists of a "reiteration of norms which precede, constrain, and exceed the performer and in that sense cannot be taken as the fabrication of the performer’s 'will' of 'choice'.” (Butler 1993:234). One way to regard the above mentioned artworks and their interrogation of context is that they investigate these conditioning discursive contexts that in one sense reduces them to a reiteration of existing norms. However, at the same time, such artworks also investigate and unfold the singularity and uniqueness of their own becoming or appearing. An investigation of such artworks (as events) should therefore take into account the uniqueness of the aesthetical performative act while keeping in mind that this performativity rests on the reiteration of norms and not on the singularity of the events – which is a paraphrase of Jaques Derrida's (Derrida 1988) critique of J. L. Austin's description of the performative utterance. 

Conclusively, the relations between the sounding material inherent in the artwork are just one set of relations conditioning the act of listening. The act of listening is also conditioned by the social, discursive, material relations etc. it is a part of. 

Secondly, 'music' is not an absolute category out there. Instead, it is something we do (Small 1998). This act is not just carried out by the artwork or the listener, or the interaction between the two, but by a multitude of performative acts. The festival is also an agent that does not only present music, but conditions what music and sound art are. Furthermore, the question of categorization or institutional framing is not rendered obsolete with a festival such as SPOR. Even though there might not be stable borders between music and sound art, the categories are still functioning. They still have an effect, because when we assume that we are listening to music, we act differently than when we think that we are listening to sound art, which for instance was the problem in the exhibition of Ole Jørgensen’s loudspeaker installation. Due to this relational condition, we cannot conclude one new ontology of the work of art, or present the new and adequate definition of 'music' or of 'sound art'. Instead it seems as though there is a multitude of local ontologies in the field. Such conclusions call for what Georgina Born (2010) refers to as a relational musicology that is “alert to the diversities of the musical ontologies of the world” (Ibid: 38).  

  • 1. While Schaeffer’s (2005) idea of an acousmatic music can be said to separate the objet sonore from it’s source and therefore also the sonic text from its context, it also constitutes a new aesthetic sensibility that allows us to listen to the world in new ways. This acousmatic sensibility transcends the singular musical piece and therefore the line between text and context is again challenged.
  • 2. Based on my own experiences as a regular participant at the NUMUS and SPOR festivals since 1995. In the article "Exit Numus" (Information 2007) the audience is described as 'senior citizens'.
  • 3. Based on my own observations.
  • 4. Such an understanding of Cage is also quite common, for instance, see the British philosopher Stephen Davies' (2003).
  • 5. Based on my own experiences.
  • 6. This is based on my experience of the concert in 2011.


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Borriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Relational Aesthetics. Dijon. Les Presses du réel. 
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Davies, Stephen.2003. Themes in the Philosophy of Music, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Duckworth, William (1999). Talking Music, Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers, New York: Da Capo Press
Derrida, Jaques. 1988. Limited Inc, Northwestern, Illinois: University Press.
Eco, Umberto. 1984 [1979]. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 
Fischer-Lichte. 2004. Ästhetik Des Performativen, Frankfurt Am Main: Edition Suhrkam
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Fried, Michael. 2003 [1967] "Art and Objecthood" in eds Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900-2000, pp. 835-846.
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Kotz, Lis. 2001. “Post-Cagean Aesthetics and the ‘Event’ Score,” October No. 95, Spring 2001, pp. 54–89.
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contemporary music and sound art
post-Cagean Aesthetics
SPOR festival
text and context

Review I:
The content of the article on SPOR is as a whole on the one hand extremely interesting, and thus it definitely should be published. The discussion on the changed position and place of “cagean” aesthetics, and the slightly but crucially different perspective this also gives to the materials presented, makes the discussion highly thought-provoking, and is likely to spur continued discussion on the subject.

On the other hand the general structure of the text definitely can and should be improved. It starts and ends in the guise of a sort of promotion text for the festival, while the salient discussions on sound and aesthetics are sequestered in the middle.

The text starts out as being a rather conventional and moderately interesting overview of a number of performances and/or artworks at the SPOR festival in Aarhus since 2005, reiterating selected discussions on cagean aesthetics in a very competent but not very original manner. The text however changes tracks and suddenly becomes full of critical and original thought, finally taking issue with the quite fundamental themes and statements that has much too fleetingly been touched upon in the first half of page 2. The reader who has stayed on this far gets rewarded and possibly provoked and certainly will keep on reading.

The discussion from hereon makes excellent use of both Cage and SPOR as levers to wage a more generally salient and critical discussion on the position of the artwork, on the dimensions of performativity in staging the act of listening, on several earlier discussions on these matters, and on the historical changes in the conditions for different aesthetics positions – and it does so in a manner that at the same time also manages to vitalize the discussion on Cage and to highlight values of various positions taken at SPOR. This is the obvious core of the text; this is what makes the text important reading and it is the major part of the text also in length. Also the internal structure of this part of the text is mainly coherent and clear, and it leads up towards a concluding discussion on p. 16 – although this discussion unfortunately is not really conclusive but mainly presents a reiteration of the statements hinted at already on p. 2.

The highly interesting and well-structured discussion is however not really what the introductory pages (including the short abstract) give the impression of leading up to. I therefore recommend a slight reworking, primarily of the introduction (with a more throughout presentation of the actual aim of the article without giving away conclusions before they have been grounded in the discussion), with a slightly stronger emphasis on presenting the conclusions at the end of the article, and with an abstract that better mirrors the qualities of the text.

The discussion sometimes comes across as a little bit provincial (who is the author e.g. really addressing while claiming that it would be “a misunderstanding to say that SPOR [or NUMUS, for that matter] is the first festival for new music where Cage is taken seriously”?), and sometimes the strict limitations to the traditional “art” world appears a bit strange in an article that among other things obviously sets out to problematizes the concept of art (was there for example no popular music at all present in the social and sonic context of Gellerup?). This might be due to the texts external guise as a promotion text for SPOR.

In short: rework the introduction, straighten out the language a bit, and put more substance to the concluding discussion. The substance of the discussion is more than worth the trouble.


Review II:

This article argues convincingly that the Danish SPOR festival takes up the aesthetic project of John Cage and “naturalizes” the position from which new musical works become an occasions for experience of context. Taking Cages pivotal work 4’33 as a radical moment in the history of music, the article investigates 1) the historical and institutional framing of SPOR 2) a number of sound related works displayed at SPOR and 3) the reception of John Cage’s work within a discourse of the neo-avantgarde. There is an underlying argument that SPOR and other related artistic and curatorial initiatives form a model from which academia and the more general field of contemporary music can learn.


Though it is hard not to agree with the author that SPOR has proved to be an important institution in new music and sound art and that Cage is a defining force within this, I will take the chance here to raise a few points to be discussed in relation with the arguments made. First it seems there is a displacement in the beginning of the text from the theme of SPOR 2013 "the relationship between sound and context” and Cages investigation of ” the border between music and noise, between artwork and its context”. One might ask if investigations of sound/context does not allow for a wider field of investigations than the work-based aesthetic that is found in Cage? Secondly it seems that the second area of focus for the SPOR festival, namely sound art, remains somewhat enigmatic in the text. It would be interesting to see a discussion of how the two different disciplines (mew music and sound art) are kept in dialogue through the display of works and in the organizational and conceptual (paratextual) framework of SPOR. It could be argued that the break with the containers of music (spatial, institutional and conceptual) is already realized within fields like sound art, sound studies and soundscape studies – and that the theme for SPOR 2013 opens up towards that. On the other hand the institutional and conceptual liberation of sound may to some extend have been reterritorialized within the confines of visual art in sound art. Furthermore it could be asked whether the orientation towards a contextual aesthetics in the article – though functional as a critique of high modernism – downplays the potential political implications at play in works mentioned. These questions are not raised to undermine the validity of the arguments made, but only to add further perspectives to the interesting discussion.