Sound art can involve sculptures that produce sounds, or sculptural objects that are more like musical instruments—even if they are made of such things as glass tubes with music generated by gas-powered flames (Trimpin's fire organ). Many artists produce both.
San Francisco artist and furniture-maker Oliver DiCicco, builder of such lovely instruments as the 'crystal harp,' the 'oove,' and the 'trylon,' has performed on them along with friends as part of a group called Mobius Operandi. DiCicco was influenced by Harry Partch, the outsider American composer and inventor who began building his own orchestra in the 1930s.
"The hard part," DiCicco says, "is figuring out what the music is going to be. No one has any background playing these instruments."
DiCicco also designs kinetic sound sculptures, including an immense spider web spun of musical wire ('Web Sight') and 'Sirens,' a set of rockers that evoke the ribs of a ship and skeleton of a whale while producing the sounds of the sea.
"A lot of what I do is experimenting with physical phenomenon that I find interesting, and I turn them into pieces that make sounds," he says.
Although much sound art also qualifies as music, much does not.
Tamara Albaitis suggests that sound art is about something other than music. "Sound art focuses on sound for sound's own sake," she says.
John Cage, best known for using chance as a compositional tool, is a sound artist more than a composer, Albaitis says.
One of his best-known pieces, from 1940, is 'Living Room Music,' performed on objects that could be found in a typical living room. His most infamous is '4'33' from 1952, scored for any number of instruments, all of which remain silent. Cage's idea, Joseph Byrd wrote, was: "Music is all around us if we only had ears."
Albaitis, an accordionist and former violinist, can often be seen going about the world with microphone in hand. She records almost all the sounds used in her pieces, from train whistles to a guy tapping his feet on a Los Angeles street.
"I enjoy recording everything," she says, "things that are recognized and familiar to people, like the heartbeat, or bells, or rain. I don't like to distort sounds. I like keeping them recognizable."
One piece, 'Zenith,' encouraged viewers to lie beneath an array of speakers while listening to her lover's sleeping breath.
At San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts, Albaitis showed a large (3.5 feet in diameter) speaker ball made of speakers and speaker wire covered in dirt emanating the human heartbeat. The heartbeat was brought down to the same hertz rate as the Schumann Frequencies, which is the electromagnetic resonance of the earth. Scientists, says Albaitis, have discovered that the Schumann Frequencies at 7.86 Hertz are at the exact frequency of the oldest part of our brain: the Hippocampus region. Our bodies resonate directly with the earth.
"The sculpture came out of the sound, the heartbeat, the womb—how life starts with dirt and ends with dirt," she says.