Is it possible to define the current Estonian sound art situation? It exists, but it’s hard to find. It seldom appears, and it is occasionally unclear whether there is a dividing line between experimental music and sound art, or whether it is a kind of morph, smoothly blending from one form into another. If I had to define sound art simply and clearly, I would not even mention the morph concept. I would point to Raul Keller and his works. Sound art is what Raul Keller does. This is my definition.
The relations of a sound artist with sound are like the relations of a glass-blower with a liquid glass bubble. The material resists and you have to get through it somehow. You often do not know what the aim of your work is; it is not located on a fingerboard or in tablature lines. A musician mostly has his common work methods and a kind of scale. A sound artist has nothing but a bit of vibrating air. And from that he has to wring out an object that no one has ever seen or heard before. Keller works with precisely such objects.
He draws his ideas meticulously many times so that finally his objects constitute assemblages of the necessary minimal. The form of the object producing vibrations cannot often be separated from the character of the sound, but the object of sound art does not tell you I am a horn, I am blown. Keller once made a whole cluster of torpedoes with hard disc engines in order to get the sound he needed. The torpedoes swam around in water and shouted: “Pharaoh! Pharaoh!”. You never know in which cultural or technical heap of rubbish you will find the thing you need. You are simultaneously a musician and constructor-inventor.
There is also a problem at the other end of the axis: who should research sound art? Let us suppose the person doing this is an art historian/art critic. But what kind of a toolbox must he use to access his object? Art history is dominated by trends dealing with the conceptual, the visual and the social, but the central object of sound art is air vibration and the mechanisms that cause it. This does not fit into any of the mentioned categories (although there are points of contact). Besides, tackling acoustic problems requires a certain knowledge of the physics of sound. And preferably some technical experience with constructions and electronics. Alas, there are no relevant courses in the national curricula. Any art history student is of course welcome to further his knowledge in the field. I am simply pointing out that sound art is one of the many art segments that is left out of the focused framework of the scientific approach.
On the other hand, students of the music academy could tackle sound art well. Their knowledge of acoustics is sufficient for them to think theoretically about the audible part of sound art. Still, sound is not the only material of sound art. The whole art field is involved. And if a sound artist decides to make an empty house his object, it would be quite useful to have read Vitruvius. Keller’s works, too, clearly demonstrate that the basic course of minimalism actually begins in kindergarten.
There are other worries as well. The object of sound art is not taken out of the catalogue box of standard solutions. This is the general problem of technological performative arts and technological theatre: for every exhibition, a new technical solution is invented; it is often the very first model on which testing begins to establish what can be done with it. Art with a technical basis indeed survives based on the concept of constant testing. The possible dysfunctionality of the result is part of the technological arts, and it often becomes the very focus of the work.
Keller, however, is not too attracted to this kind of processuality. Instead, he focuses on minimising the solution. His sound objects are sharpened and cleaned instruments. In addition, sounds have such a physical and direct effect on us that they do not at all depend on theoretical knowledge and preparations, which clash with sound. We do not need to realise where the source of the sound actually is. We need not have any knowledge of acoustics or physics. A crackle behind us produces an immediate reaction. If you react, it has worked. If you don’t, you are eaten or hit over the head with something. This link has been polished by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. This mechanism certainly works. And works long before any understanding based on employing linguistic mechanisms can even begin to emerge. We are always in unavoidable physical contact with sound art, and the character of this contact largely depends on extra-cultural biological mechanisms (although of course there is more). If the sound repels us, it is difficult to argue it into something else. If it pleases us, the association is the same.
Rumour has it that at Raul Keller’s exhibition What You Hear is What You Get (Mostly), one of the girls guarding the hall was traumatised by what she was listening to: for her, the low-frequency noise of Keller’s sound installations was dreadful. It is difficult to argue with this: this field cannot be accessed via argumentation. The sounds of the exhibition had exactly the opposite effect on me: I could have stayed there forever; I couldn’t get enough of it during the time I spent at the exhibition. Due to an inborn preference, I am extremely susceptible to low-frequency vibrations. What I expected of those objects was precisely what they produced. The audible low-frequency sound is physically perceptible beyond the audible. A sound always has an object-body, but how strongly it can be felt physically depends on the technical solutions chosen by the artist.
My initial intention was to analyse the constructions of Keller’s sound aggregates, but this plan was discarded. Construction drawings and engineering-technical methods certainly constitute a fascinating part of sound art. However, the more I reflect on Keller’s exhibition, the more I recall it, the more clearly one dominant factor emerges that suppresses all other aspects: total bass. It blends many different bass layers, many different corporeal bass materialisations.
It is much more difficult to establish the location of the source of a low-frequency sound than the location of the source of a high-frequency sound. At least part of this is directly caused by evolution: listening to medium and high frequencies has been more essential for survival. As our hearing system cannot manage to determine the direction of a low-frequency vibration very well, visitors to Keller’s exhibition feel as if the sound is everywhere. Even when the sources of the sound hiding in the dark occasionally come to light, the sound does not have a clear direction. As it is dark anyway, vision is not useful. You thus find yourself in the pre-conscious world of membranes and vibrations. As if you were in a dream where you are wielding a dagger, trying to cut through a door-sized mass of dense darkness. Or you’re lying inside a dark hot stone and are a dark hot stone yourself. Rational consciousness has no place in such an environment. It is needed elsewhere. Here is an experience of a way of existence which we tend to switch off or over-romanticise. In fact, it is merely a dark intermediate area between two vibration crests. A place where reality happens.
Raul Keller (1973), sound artist, musician and head of the New Media Department at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA) since 2014. Studied art education at Tallinn University, received his MA in interactive multimedia in 2002 at the EAA. Focuses on site- specific sound installations, sound performances, musical improvisations and radiophonic experiments. www.raul.kuuratsanikud.ee/ index.php/en/