The grey area that we inhabit

Editorial by David Vélez

Recently I have noticed a tendency in acousmatic composers* to move away from the recorders, microphones, computers, samplers and synthesizers in order to explore sculptoric objects and in general explore a less acousmatic and more visual and tangible approach to their work.

Composers working with objects is not a new thing at all…what are musical instruments if not sculptural objects?

But what happens in this regard in a contemporary context?

The whole vinyl / CD / cassette / digital release thing seems to be in a point where it no longer draws the interest it drew before and this is not only an issue related to acousmatic composition. Every decade has presented a drop in music sales since 1993 as noted on this article by Mike Collett-White.

This decrease probably relates to many aspects (digital files players, youtube listening, peer-to-peer file sharing,…) but in regard of this Editorial the most important aspect is the fact that people don’t listen to music in the way they did between the 1960’s and the 1980’s. By listening to music I mean doing it as a single-task activity where you sit down comfortably -preferably on a dark environment- and listen to a full record played on your stereo, just like many of our music lover parents did with Classical music, Jazz and even early Electronic Music.
Acousmatic composition requires certain level of focus and attention that is easier to achieve in the conditions mentioned before.

But why the ‘release’ is addressed today (as noted on articles written on this journal before) as no-longer the main focus of acousmatic composition? Why are composers urging other composers to explore their work beyond a mere CD or digital file?

Somewhere along the road the term ‘sound art’ was coined and this combination of words created a grey area between music and fine arts that today puzzles the notion that many acousmatic composers have of their own practice.

For different reasons -and I am sure I am not the only one- my acousmatic compositional work has lead me to move around in this grey area and its surroundings. From playing in concerts with electroacoustic composers with classical musical training to presenting my work in Fine Arts exhibitions, I feel like I really don’t know where my work and I belong. And somewhere between choice and chance I care about this.

I care because this is what I do and I care because I don’t compose for myself: structurally I am just an end where the listener is the other end and my work is in the middle. There is this idea of an audience / spectator and beyond that there is a notion of society and culture that somehow I can’t ignore.

In regard of the sound art term this is not a simple problem of semantics or terminology. This is a problem of having sound works properly heard.

The creative and crafty action of composing is just the fun and more altruist part of my job, being networking the boring and embarrassing other half. By networking I mean anything from sending demos to using facebook / twitter to promote myself, to strategically being nice with people I don’t necessarily care about.

But what is the purpose of this Editorial? Why I am posting these questions and dilemmas in a public spot?

Because there is a tendency in sound art to asume that the allegory is the perfect figure to ‘mingle’ music and fine arts and this is producing some unfortunate, naive and timid works that sadly give the idea that fine artists are clumsy when dealing with sound and that composers are clumsy when dealing with fine arts.

An essential aspect of allegory is that it should be fully understandable to anybody, this is why it is so common, because it is ‘effective’. But is it really?

The main example of this miss-use of the allegory are most of the sculptures made with actual vinyls, CD’s or tape as raw stock.

‘This is sound art because this is an sculpture made with sound media’.

This is probably what the artists behind such works had in mind when they naively built such objects. For me this is just a lack of understanding of the deep and complex relation between acoustic and tangible and visible things.

And not only that, many sculptures made with vinyls, CD’s or tape force something that should be natural and that is presented in our everyday life when we simultaneously observe and listen. For example they are works like ‘I Wish You Hadn’t Asked’ by James Dive, ‘The Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle Car’ by Jonathan Schipper, ‘Tumble Room’ by Martin Kersel and ‘Bang Bang Room’ by  Paul McCarthy that manage to present an unforced and yet strongly effective combination of sound and tangible situations where the visual and the acoustic are linked in a very natural way.

Composer Michel Chion has been very keen and fortunate on his texts about sound and visual and the relation between them; his book ‘Audiovision’ is a very useful read to anybody exploring outside acousmatic representations presenting ideas and reflections that could lead to a more successful approach to the relation between the aspects that convey in sound art.

But this is not about blaming the artists behind some of the sculptures made with vinyls, CD’s or tape. This is about looking for the right mirrors.

It’s complex to understand grey areas because their essence is the impossibility to be fully understood.

But is this about understanding? I would say this is more about appropriating and inhabiting the unclear, rather than making it clear.

For me to deal with this grey area requires to question the basis of my practice. To explore the moment between the flash of lightning and the thunder.

Requires to break out from the elitism and endogamic social aspect of the acoumsatic compositional line of work where every artist is the oracle of its own practice, and where more or less only acousmatic composers listen to acousmatic compositions.

Requires not to turn my back to my detractors but to listen to them, and more important to learn listening to them.

Requires to explore my experience where the tangible and sonic aspects are not necessarily split ends.

Requires to know that art and music theory just like philosophy are equally useful and nocive.

Requires to take advantage of working where representation is impossible and presentation is the only choice as we are nothing but a finger pointing to something that matters to us.

To deal with this grey area I must speak about what I do without authority but instead full of doubt and uncertainty, which actually is the only way to approach grey areas.

It is not about the answer but about the question.

It is about dealing with what we don’t know rather than dealing with what we know.

It is not about what we can feel, is about what we can anticipate…


[David Vélez -photo by Lina Velandia-]

* by Acousmatic composition I refer to the compositional use of decontextualized sounds unlinked to their origin and causality.

David Velez website

David Vélez

David Vélez (PhD) is a Colombian sonic artist studying the acoustics of food, working in the intersection between sound ethnography and plant bioacoustics. His work oversteps the boundaries of installation art, field recordings, composition, performance and commensality exploring gardens, kitchens and open food markets as exhibition spaces. Vélez is interested in the strategic artistic possibility of sound and its invisible, immersive, unstable and fluctuating material, attrubutes shared with the nourishing transference of energy in food.