The plurality of soundThe Sheer Frost Orchestra by Marina Rosenfeld

Reviews 25.05.2023

The Sheer Frost Orchestra, the musical performance created by American artist Marina Rosenfeld in 1993 at the California Institute of the Arts, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. A look back at a work emblematic of sound art in the 1990s, and the contradictory interpretations that the artist's work has given rise to. Do we have to choose between textualism and materialism? Not if there's another way, more faithful to the richness of this performance and the diversity of sound art practices.

One of the features that distinguishes sound art from music is its attention to conditions. Whereas music tends to take them for granted, in other words, to naturalize them - you don't go to an Orchestre de Paris concert to question the social, architectural or historical conditions of the event, you go to hear a symphony, and if possible only that one - sound art would make them sensitive and explicit. From Max Neuhaus to Maryanne Amacher , and fromAlvin Lucier to Christina Kubisch, sound artists have never ceased to put sounds into situations and use them to direct our attention in new ways, or to make heard what was previously considered inaudible.


Adopting such a perspective on the concert of written music - a perspective that might initially be described as critical or genealogical - would entail making us hear, in addition to the sounds the orchestra produces, what the concert does its utmost to erase: the venue (the acoustics of the concert hall, the background noise that only moments of silence reveal, the ritualized behavior of the audience, etc.), the instruments (their materiality and the standards of their manufacture, but also the conventions of interpretation and the insensitive physical effort involved in producing a "beautiful" sound), the orchestra itself (as an entity of its own) and the audience (as an entity of its own).), the instruments (their materiality and the norms of their manufacture, but also the conventions of interpretation and the insensitive physical effort involved in producing a "beautiful" sound), the orchestra itself (as a political, social, economic and gendered body), the tempered and metered order (which, despite its historically situated character, is for us the "natural" grid for perceiving music), etc. Whereas the concert is a machine for directing attention towards the music and the music alone, sound art makes us attentive to that which is immediately neither visible nor audible, the conditions that make and have made such an event exist and endure. In other words, sound art reveals the artificial, socially and historically constructed character of musical naturalness. However, these conditions are not all of the same kind. Some relate to conventions specific to music (equal temperament, orchestral functioning, audience silence, choice of A, etc.), others to the materiality of bodies, instruments and places - in other words, the noises that music elides in the name of the ideality of musical sound. The former are internal to the music, contingent upon its functioning, its text if we understand the word in a sufficiently broad sense. The status of the latter is more ambivalent. We could say that they are what music rejects outside its normative framework, and that, in a sense, it constitutes them as "noises". But we could also say that these "noises" pre-exist it, and that their externalization is the result of a long and costly process of elision. The birth of the concept of the musical work coincides with the standardization of the public concert: the work involved in composing a work that can be listened to for its own sake is matched by the work involved in enabling that work to be heard with as little interference as possible. On the one hand, music would be a text to be deciphered, which is precisely what sound art does by deconstructing its order. On the other, it would be this ideality seeking by every means to conceal its origin in the material sound flow that preceded it, and from which it takes the material it constitutes as a note or "beautiful sound". These two approaches underlie two almost opposite philosophies of sound and sound art: a non-cochlear* or textualist theory, and a materialist theory. I'll come back to these later.

The Sheer Frost Orchestra

Sound art is not the preserve of critics. Since the 1950s, a number of composers have attempted to relax the rules of the orchestral institution, scattering its members spatially, multiplying conductors, forcing it out of philharmonic halls and so on. Some went so far as to found their own orchestras, like Cornelius Cardew in 1969 with the Scratch Orchestra, a self-managed ensemble of improvisers open to all, operating outside the philharmonic circuit. However, even in the latter case, it was less a question of challenging the institution itself than of exploring its limits. Its main function - to make music - remained unchanged.
In 1993, Marina Rosenfeld, then a student at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, created The Sheer Frost Orchestraa performance-work that is still going strong, and whose 30th anniversary she celebrated this year. The protocol has not changed since 1993. The orchestra is made up of seventeen women (or people identifying themselves as women), musicians or not, performers or not. Since the orchestra does not pre-exist the work, it is formed each time by calling on volunteers recruited on site. The performance is preceded by collective rehearsals, during which, accompanied by the artist, they familiarize themselves with the score and the gestures it requires, but above all learn to play together, to form an orchestra. This preliminary moment, by definition peripheral to the work itself, will prove to be the most important part of it. To quote Marina Rosenfeld: " The process is transformed into an attempt to create a social space where improvisation becomes self-aware. " This inversion of the relationship of pre-eminence between rehearsal and concert is reflected in the relationship to the instrument: electric guitars that they don't wear slung over their shoulders, but which lie on the floor in front of them, and which they have to play with a bottle of nail polish. This could be seen as a feminine version of the bottleneck** if it didn't prevent what the bottleneck is designed to liberate: the virtuosity of the performer. A double destitution: physical of the instrument, symbolic of its masculinity.

What Marina Rosenfeld does in The Sheer Frost Orchestra, and what composers who have tested the limits of the orchestral institution have not done, is to place at the center of the work all that is considered external to the musical act: the protocol for selecting performers, rehearsals, the symbolic connotations of objects and postures, etc. The conditions, from peripheral, become central. Conditions go from being peripheral to being central. Her perspective is precisely the one I took as an example at the beginning of this text: by subverting the orchestral concert, she makes us attentive to what remains by definition invisible and inaudible - the genre, the instrument, the manner of playing, the locations, the (accessory) conductor, the absence of hierarchy, etc.
There are two ways of interpreting this work.
1/ By deconstructing the concert form, and musical performance more generally, Marina Rosenfeld shows that this is a historically situated and therefore arbitrary construction, and that other constructions are possible that would defuse power relations and symbolic dominations, that music is a text to be designated as such, a system of signs to be re-signified by working its edges, shifting its frame, deploying the connotations of its objects and overturning the hierarchy implicit in its order.
2/ We could also take The Sheer Frost Orchestra for what it is: a performance which, though singular, was part of a growing body of practices - from noise music to free improvisation - that thwarted the rules of the public concert, altered the relationship to the instrument, moved away from the expected venues and improvised collectively without plan or grid. Since Fred Frith and la japanoise, the guitar placed in front of you, played with the most diverse objects, or around which you multiply the effects pedals to create a feedback device on the verge of saturation, has been a possible, if not common, way of reappropriating the instrument and subverting the way it is played. For Marina Rosenfeld, it's less a question of deconstructing the orchestral institution and musical performance than of enabling women to play together outside the constraints of learning an instrument and the social ritual of the public concert. Playing freely on a guitar stripped of all authority (the score leaves much to improvisation), they make audible the instrument's noisy materiality and rich sound, which decades of playing conventions have gradually erased. What we perceive in this performance, before signs and symbols, is a cloud of constantly evolving sounds, where the individuality of gestures is less important than the overall effect resulting from their coordinated accumulation: something like an orchestra.

Seth Kim-Cohen or textualism

The first interpretation is that proposed by American art historian SethKim-Cohen in In the Blink of an Ear: Towards a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art: Towards a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art. " The Sheer Frost Orchestra, " he writes, "(...) engages in the conceptual effort to push music away from the 'proper' territory of the ear toward the 'improper' non-territory of the frame; the confines of the expanded sonic situation; the peripheral edges of the text, beyond which there is no outside." (1). Seth Kim-Cohen's clearly textualist perspective is that there can be no sound matter outside discourse, the linguistic grid and signifying experience. The "non-cochlear" art of sound, of which The Sheer Frost Orchestra is exemplary, is that art which recognizes the impure, "improper" character of any sound phenomenon, the fact that it is always already signified and signifying, caught in the clutches of language and symbolic connotations. There is no such thing as sound nature, because there is no such thing as sound that is not the expression of a historical sedimentation of meanings. All sound is a palimpsest to be unfolded.
Seth Kim-Cohen tends to see Marina Rosenfeld as a conceptual sound artist, in the tradition of Michael Ascher (whose student she was at CalArts) and Robert Morris. And it has to be said that sound art comes partly from there, from postminimalist sculpture and its conceptual development. But it also comes from elsewhere, from minimalist music, from John Cage 's students at the New York School, from the Fluxus movement, from dissident performers of contemporary written music, etc. - in short, as much from music and sound experimentation as from the visual arts. And if Michael Ascher played an important role in Marina Rosenfeld's training, this was also the case, for example, with the performance works of Christian Marclay and Maryanne Amacher, whose practice cannot be said to be particularly conceptual.

Christoph Cox or materialism

The second interpretation paves the way for a completely different, realist and materialist approach to sound art. One of its main advocates, Christoph Cox, author of Sonic flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics (2018), has written not about The Sheer Frost Orchestra, but about a more recent work by Marina Rosenfeld, Music Standsa sound and visual installation that was exhibited in 2019 at The Artists Institute, New York. Marina Rosenfeld," he writes in the introduction to his text, "creates sound systems. (...) in very instance. Rosenfeld carefully attends to the distribution and directionality of amplified bodies in space, considering the relations of power that these arrangements concretize and contest. Eschewing sound as transmission - the authoritative, unidirectional pronouncement - Rosenfeld explores the disruptive, feminist potential of machinic propagation. She programs unruly flows of sonic material in closed circuits or recursive, feedback-prone systems, interrupting the silence of the white cube with momentary eruptions of noise and vocality." (2). Christoph Cox thinks of sound as an asignificant material flux external to human perceptions and practices, from which artists take forms and materials, which they process, filter, transform, modulate, instrument, compose, etc., which they do not create since this material was there before them and will still be there after them, but to which they add their sounds and noises. This flow is reminiscent of the sonic "phylum" referred to by Deleuze and Guattari in Mille Plateaux, the vital flow of sound that crosses all strata, from environments to territories and from territories to the cosmos, and which the musician captures with his instruments and devices, his scores and machines. Like Deleuze and Guattari, Christoph Cox thinks of it as an immanent, intensive transcendental field of individuation and actualization, where entities and perceptions originate. What sound art does, and what music would not do (or would do less), would be to uncover the ontological conditions of its material: the differential field of forces that conditions its existence. These forces are obviously not specific to the flow of sound; they are at the heart of all reality, since they constitute its irreducible part of reality. The ontological exteriority of this material flow doesn't mean that humans don't take part in it. All the sounds we produce, store and broadcast mesh with this "phylum", transforming it and, increasingly on a massive scale, anthropizing it. By plugging women's bodies into guitars that have become sound matter, Marina Rosenfeld makes manifest the interplay of forces at work in the apparently smooth forms of the concert and the orchestra. In this sense, The Sheer Frost Orchestra would be a "sound system", in other words, a device that both reveals and amplifies the relations of power and authority present within a form or material, and produces "unruly flows" of sound that inaugurate other possible sound worlds.

'Music Stands' at the Artist's Institute, 2019 from Marina Rosenfeld on Vimeo.


These two perspectives, however seemingly antinomic, are not mutually exclusive. What they say about Marina Rosenfeld's work is equally true. The Sheer Frost Orchestra is a metatext, every sign of which must be deciphered, but it is also a machine for producing indecisive sonic matter. If we are to be faithful to the work, we must try to reconcile these two approaches. In other words, sound is not something external to our ways of perceiving and discussing it. The other is that sound is an asignificant material flux, meaning that it exists outside language and human perception. There is one point, however, on which both agree: sound has no essence. On the one hand, it is caught in the stratified reels of the symbolic order, on the other in the acentric overflows of flux-matter. One possible response to this antinomy would be to pluralize the being of sound, to recognize it as having several modes of existence: material (sound is a wave propagating in an elastic medium), eventual (sound is the event that disturbs this medium), perceptual (sound is the auditory sensation of this event), discursive (sound is the set of meanings and representations attached to the word and its concept). Sound is plural. Or rather, it is what links these different modes. Insofar as it is the relationship between an event and an environment, it exists independently of perception and discourse. But it cannot be exclusively event or matter, insofar as its minimal condition of existence presupposes both, disturbance and milieu. Insofar as it is the relationship between a perception and a discourse or representation, it is endowed with meanings, becomes a concept, an image, an object of dispute and controversy. Insofar as it links an event and a non-human perception, it is enriched by a non-symbolic meaning, which may be indexical or iconic (according to the three categories of sign distinguished by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce). Etc.

It seems to me that The Sheer Frost Orchestra works on the plurality of these modes. We hear materials and events, we discern symbols, we link gestures to codes, postures to conventions, we become aware of protocols, we read a program note, we feel empathy for this or that performer, emotion when the orchestra takes shape, we judge, we speak, we applaud, etc. - in short, we relate to the performance in progress in every possible way, because that's how it offers itself, irreducibly plural.

Bastien Gallet

1. In the Blink of an Ear: Towards a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, Continuum, 2009, p. 255.
2. The text is available on Marina Rosenfeld's website:


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