The activity of sound: Art and music

The Art of Performance is a monthly column written by Dave Mann, an editor and award-winning arts journalist.

When it comes to pieces of performance or visual art such as dance and theatre, or media such as sculpture, painting or film, music is often seen as an organic complement – a necessary soundtrack or bit of ambience. The trouble with this is that it relegates music to a secondary role, rather than viewing it as a potential, equal-footed collaborator.

Here’s a quote that I love by the composer John Cage: ‘When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking, and talking about [their] feelings and about [their] ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic – the sound of traffic here on Sixth Avenue for instance – I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower, and it gets longer and shorter. It does all those things and I’m completely satisfied with that, I don’t need sound to talk to me.’
     One of the many reasons I love what Cage says here is that it shows how he views music and sound as media that can communicate in various ways, and how they can not only comprise of, but also feed off of things such as emotions or ideas, or even the everyday sonic events like a terse silence or the movements of traffic.
     On a Thursday evening in the Johannesburg CBD, the musician Kyle Shepherd sat down at a piano situated in the middle of the Standard Bank Gallery and played some improvisational work. The sounds he produced – long, lilting notes and short, sharp trills across the keys – were made in response to Igshaan Adams’ recent exhibition When Dust Settles. The exhibition comprised of seemingly endless amounts of vinyl and linoleum flooring – some bits scuffed and worn, others glossy and pristine – as well as a number of sculptural pieces crafted out of washcloths, yarn, and wire.

Kyle Shepherd Igshaan Adams
Kyle Shepherd performs at Igshaan Adams’ When Dust Settles

     Adams explains how the body of work as a whole deals with themes of hybrid identities, religion and sexuality, and that personal inquiry and notions of selfhood are central to the work. Shepherd’s job, then, was to take these complex themes that Adams had teased out through his work, and bring about a new way of understanding them through sound, essentially creating a sonic counterpart to the work. I had seen When Dust Settles when it opened at the 2018 National Arts Festival and, admittedly, it didn’t resonate with me. I had read the artist statement and I understood what Adams said he was grappling with in his work, but something about it wasn’t quite reaching me. I didn’t think much of it. These things happen, after all – not every piece of art you see has to move you, greatly, or even make sense to you. Seeing and hearing Shepherd perform a musical accompaniment to the exhibition, however, seemed to unlock some further understanding of Adams’ work for me.
     I could sense the nostalgia apparent in the works and I could feel the tensions at play: the pushing and pulling, the confusion, the detachment, and even the playfulness that manifested in the exhibition. All of this revealed itself to me through the musical accompaniment of Shepherd which, as a piece of musical performance, was his own immediate interpretation and subsequent communication of Adams’ work. Music, then, was simply another way – and in my case, a more direct way – of understanding pieces of art. On the way home that night, all I could think about was the relationship between art and music, or music and performance, and how a collaboration between the two can allow for other avenues of understanding and engagement.

To read more about Dave Mann’s view on the collaboration between art and music in When Dust Settles by Igshaan Adams, with music by Kyle Shepherd, purchase our October 2018 magazine online for only R18, or continue supporting the arts and culture industry by subscribing to our monthly magazine or e-newsletter.