Sound Sculpture as Social Sculpture”

When Harry Partch said that his corporeal music, as opposed to abstract music of Western classical tradition, should engage the listener, he still meant that the listener should sit and listen quietly, even if not as reverently as at a classical concert. John Cage’s quest for the liberation of sound, as Richard Taruskin noted, took away even more agency from the performer and the listener. In the post-1945 Western art music the age-old hierarchy between composers, performers and listeners remained unwavering. But at the same historic time the pioneers of sound sculpture Bernard and François Baschet proclaimed audience participation in music-making a core component of their art. Throughout the years the brothers took this idea further. First, they transformed their sculptures into construction sets for the audience, then took to battle social exclusion with their art, working with underprivileged and disabled teens. This turn can be seen as symbolic, as sound sculpture itself has remained something of a musical outlier, existing on the fringes of music and contemporary art.

The emphasis on the audience’s agency allows to draw an analogy between Baschets’ practice of sound sculpture and Joseph Beuys’s idea of social sculpture, an instrument of artistic liberation. The different subgenres of sound sculpture that developed in recent decades have explored various ways of engaging and empowering the listener as an active participant of the music-making process, therefore removing the elitist barrier of professionalization. This paper discusses the ways in which sound sculpture, as an interactive and participatory art practice, reshapes the power relations, involved in music-making.


Vadim Keylin (b. 1984) is a Russian cultural studies scholar and sound artist. He is currently a PhD student at the Department of Contemporary Western Art of the State Institute for Art Studies, Moscow. In 2011 he won the third prize at the OpenMind media art competition. In 2009–2011 he worked as a freelance music critic for Russian federal daily newspapers News Time and Kommersant, specializing in contemporary classical music. Keylin’s current research is focused on sound sculpture and the physicality of sound. His other research interests include sound culture, contemporary art and music, scientifically informed art and bioanthropological approaches to art and music studies.