Sound art also has come of age academically. Albaitis graduated six years ago from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with what seems to be the first MFA granted in America in the field of sound art. Many more are following. From three students in the program in the first year, the Institute had 17 in the second, and about 50 today.
But neither bureaucrats nor academics are what really matter. What matters, Albaitis says, is that sound art can create emotional experiences that are deeper and more ear-opening than other arts.
"It's this visceral, multi-sensorial expression," she says. "There's something about when you hear something, it evokes memories or emotions that are so much more profound than visual."
Perhaps bureaucrats and academics should be excused for their confusion. Sound art as a field is indeed genre-bending. The term, which came into use in the 1980s, according to writer Alan Licht in his book 'Sound Art,' covers a range of moods and procedures, from the tendentious to the whimsical.
Much of it is funny. A photo in Licht's book shows hippies, their heads half submerged in a swimming pool, listening with New Age intensity to the underwater music of Max Neuhaus. Among Trimpin's work is a sound sculpture that involves Wayne Newton records—some playing backwards.
And the Swiss artist Zimoun, who recently showed his work in San Francisco, combined cardboard boxes, tiny motors, and bits of wire to suggest the scurrying of wild rats. Zimoun also devised a heavily miked performance piece starring worms, which can be seen and heard consuming a decomposing root.
The field of sound art dates back at least to the eve of World War I, when the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo devised 'noise machines' that were somewhere between sculpture and musical instruments, playing together in a 'noise orchestra.'
For better or worse, noise has remained an important feature of much sound art ever since.
Perhaps the leading 'school' of sound artists is the one favored by those who create 'sound sculpture'—physical objects, often of visual beauty but sometimes not, that also make sound.
The mid-1950s was a formative period in sound art, with the Baschet Brothers and Jean Tinguely building sound sculptures in France, and John Cage creating musical performances in America, among many others.
One of the pioneers among sound sculptors is Harry Bertoia, the furniture designer ('the Bertoia chair') and sculptor whose metal 'sonambient' sculptures from the 1960s until his death in 1978 were designed "to involve all of man's senses in aesthetic enjoyment," according to writer June Kompass Nelson.
Several of Bertoia's sound sculptures can be found today in an appropriate setting—at the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Kentuck Knob home in western Pennsylvania. There, Bertoia's work can be seen and heard—inside the home and its garden.
By the late 1960s, sound art made up a significant part of Bertoia's production, his son Val Bertoia says. As Val tells it, his father stumbled onto the possibility of creating sound sculptures by accident, after a rod of beryllium copper he was using for a kinetic sculpture broke apart. "A piece flew through the air and it made a wonderful humming sound," he says.
Soon Bertoia, assisted by the teenage Val, was constructing sculptures using metal rods of various materials, each with its own sounds, produced by the rods vibrating and touching.