Music in the white cube: music exhibited as sound art

Nuno Fonseca

IFILNOVA/CESEM / FCSH – NOVA University, Portugal


When hearing the words “sound art”, those less acquainted with recent trends in the art world or even with the jargon of contemporary art will immediately think of music. Music is traditionally the art of sounds, the same way painting is the art of colors (on a surface) or sculpture is the art of materials and volumes. Of course, anyone slightly familiar with the evolution of modern art knows that this simplistic view doesn’t apply anymore to the extent that a manifold of synesthetic correspondences and experimental crossovers have put disciplinary boundaries into question, at least since the early twentieth-century avant-gardes (Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc). Not only have sounds been used as a medium in the visual arts, but contemporary visual artists have also somewhat co-opted sounds in what has been called “sound art” as opposed to music. Even though the term is rather vague and contentious – hardly adopted by the artists themselves –, curators, art critics and gallery owners have often clung to it as a way to promote artists and practices where sound is used as a medium or a semantic reference. In fact, efforts have sometimes been made to detach “sound art” from music. Music being the art of tones, melodic, harmonic and rhythmic structures (tonal organization) and “sound art” the art of unpitched sounds or sounds-in-themselves. Notwithstanding, some contemporary artists (with arguably some well-known forerunners, like Duchamp [Musical Sculpture], Yves Klein [Monotone Symphony], La Monte Young [Theater of Eternal Music’s Dream House] or Nam June Paik [TV Cello]) have recently brought music – in the traditional sense of organized sound – to the art gallery and to the museum. Not merely with the purpose of using the art venue as a different scenario or the art patrons as a different audience for the typical execution of a composition, but instead using music as another time-based medium – the same way as artists resort to film, dance or performance nowadays – or a cultural reference to express their creative ideas. The focus would therefore no longer be in the execution of purely musical ideas but in plastically or conceptually exploring music as a medium, an environment or a cultural (social and political) phenomenon.

After a brief discussion of some historical encounters between music and visual art (from Satie’s “musique d’ameublement” to Reich’s Pendulum Music), I will address the conceptual challenges of talking about “music as (sound) art”, distinguishing between (different notions of) music, non-musical sound art, music about or inspired by art, art music, music in the context of multimedia art and art about music – distinctions that will inevitably disclose grey areas where notions become too entangled –, whilst dismissing some situations where music is performed in art venues but is not considered (sound) art, such as music played for the inauguration or on the occasion of art exhibitions or music used in museums as mood music. While addressing these fine distinctions, I will mention some examples from contemporary artists (Sala, Marclay, Benjamin Meyers and Graham) that will be helpful in shedding light on the specific use of music as an artistic medium and cultural reference.

Keywords: Music, Sound Art, Art Venues


Nuno Fonseca (b. 1974) is currently an integrated researcher at the Ifilnova and an associate researcher at CESEM. He investigates various topics of Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art, focusing particularly on sonic experience both in the context of contemporary music and sound art and everyday urban experience. At FCSH-UNL, he has taught in the course of Communication Sciences, in the Masters in Aesthetics, and several short courses on the Philosophy of Sound Art and Music (2015-2018) Graduated in Law (1998) and in Philosophy (2004) from the University of Coimbra, he completed his PhD in Philosophy (Epistemology and Theory of Knowledge) at FCSH-UNL in 2012, working on issues of representation and perception. Since the 90’s, he has been dealing with sound and sound experience, namely, through the conception and direction of radio shows at Rádio Universidade de Coimbra and, more recently, Antena 2, but also being involved in sound design for theatre and performance shows.