Ecology and Phonography in the Expanded Field

Walter De Maria as Recording Artist
Charles Eppley
Issue 3
February 2015

Walter De Maria, a pioneer in conceptual and environmental art, sought a high level of privacy during his life. He rarely granted interviews or made public appearances, earning a reputation as reclusive, almost hermetic. Because of this hermeticism, his death in 2013 took many by surprise. As many vocally mourned the death of a great artist in print and on social media, others heard the death knells of conceptualism as a whole in his passing. Indeed, in a rather grim coincidence, De Maria’s death echoed that of another early conceptualist: art critic and dealer Seth Siegelaub (1941-2013), who died just a month earlier. The loss of De Maria and Siegelaub offered a pointed moment of reflection on the legacy of conceptual art, igniting conversations surrounding their respective legacies, as well as the parameters by which we define this widely summoned but rarely defined aesthetic.

In the case of De Maria, a seminal figure in the history of environmental art, an unassuming pair of recordings from the 1960s signals the role of sound in his early practice. The recordings, Cricket Music (1963) and Ocean Music (1968), were made during an important period in De Maria’s artistic career: a shift from sculpture to environment, and from white cube to earth. By recognizing the role that sound played in this transition, we begin to reclaim an overlooked (and under-heard) history of sound in conceptual art, one that analyzes the relationship of sound to site, and the sonic paradigm of site-specific installation.

What follows is a series of thoughts, reflections, and ruminations on the theme of sound and site.

Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room (1977) is an icon of conceptual art: an empty apartment, filled with soil up to two feet in depth, nestled in the midst of lower Manhattan in the SoHo neighborhood (once decried for its abandoned warehouses and decrepit lofts, but now known for its abundance of pricy condos, luxury cafes and high-fashion boutiques). The Earth Room is an early example of conceptual art, a movement of the late 1960s and 1970s that deemphasized the subjective and stylistic concerns of modern art by producing artworks that investigated abstract structures, systems, and processes. (In 1963, the musician and activist Henry Flynt published a prescient article, “Concept Art,” which remains an excellent primer on the subject.)

De Maria’s Earth Room is maintained by the Dia Art Foundation—which originally commissioned the work, and also maintains permanent installations by early conceptualists Max Neuhaus and Dan Flavin. The work is described in incredibly logistical and sterile terms:

An interior earth sculpture.
250 cubic yards of earth (197 cubic meters)
3,600 square feet of floor space (335 square meters)
22 inch depth of material (56 centimeters)
Total weight of sculpture: 280,000 lbs. (127,300 kilos)

This no-frills description clearly illustrates the conceptualist bent of the work, at once embracing the discrete, at times painfully banal, parameters of viewership and exhibition, while simultaneously providing a proverbial shopping list of materials (including weights) used in its production. Earth Room is bluntly descriptive: its composition, if there is one, is as much deduced by an inventory of materials as their formation. The ideas circumscribing the organization of the materials are just as important as their physical properties.

In more conversational terms, the space is, effectively, a luxury-sized loft apartment filled with dirt. But to call the apartment ‘luxurious’ is also problematic. This is in part because of the cheapness of the materials used, which, like the bricks of Carl Andre or the plywood panels of Robert Morris, would otherwise have little monetary value beyond the institutions of the art-world. But that is precisely the point: Earth Room cannot be bought, sold, or transported as easily as, say, a painting or sculpture. In turn, the installation sidesteps the role of the gallery, in part because of its ‘de-materialized’ structure, but also by rendering its exhibition space thoroughly unusable. (Visitors are not allowed to physically enter the space, which is cordoned off by a plexiglass panel.)

In addition to its early place in the lineage of conceptual art—the first Earth Room was created in Munich in 1968—Earth Room also symbolizes the rise of environmental art (sometimes called ‘land art’ or ‘earth art’) more generally. Indeed, in its description, the installation is first characterized as an “interior earth sculpture,” and then supplemented by a list of materials. Earth Room thus symbolized a paradigm shift in postwar art, where aesthetics were projected into the conceptual ether while remaining firmly grounded in the land, retreating from the white cube to the earth.

However, during a recent visit, I was reminded of another context that is generally missed in scholarship on the history of conceptualism, and especially environmental art: the rise of site-specific installation often coincided with – and in some cases were directly informed by – experiments in sound.

While looking over the Earth Room in the spring of 2013—recently moistened and freshly raked, meaning that it was particularly fragrant during my visit—I was reminded of an easily forgettable anecdote. Similar to many of his contemporaries in the 1960s Downtown scene (including Flynt, Neuhaus, and Tony Conrad), De Maria was infatuated with avant-garde music. De Maria was not only a musician himself, but he was also actively investigating sound as an artistic material, beyond music, through a nascent interest in audiotape and field recording. However, Earth Room is disruptively quiet: only the occasional, barely audible street noises are heard, and then only muffled through closed and dusty windows. Where is the sound?

De Maria spoke freely about his background in music. In a 1972 interview with the Archives of American Art, the artist openly discussed his aspirations as a jazz musician, a drummer, as well as growing up in a musical household. In this conversation, he asserts the importance of music in his development as an artist:

[My interest in art] started really with the music, taking piano lessons at an early age and then later dropping that and studying drums, percussion, playing in the school orchestras and then playing in the school dance bands, getting into popular music and then even at age sixteen joining the Musicians Union. So I had the notion of what it was to be a professional musician…

I can’t really emphasize the role of music enough, because to be going around and be carrying your drumsticks and you’ve got a set of drums in your car and you go to meet other musicians; you have jam sessions; you have the idea of what it is to be the creative artist. You have to create your own style, you have to have your own.

Nonetheless, after 1968, when he apparently quit performing or recording music, there is virtually no trace of this background in his artistic output. It would seem that he traded in his drumsticks for a hammer and welding torch, as he began making sculptures out of wood, metal, and other industrial materials (before eventually moving toward the land itself). The account of De Maria’s musicianship is but a footnote to many today, and, generally speaking, the only people to know him as a sound artist are record collectors. However, his approach to music, and more broadly, sound, is integral to his artistic development—and remained present, even without audible components.

De Maria moved to New York in 1960 by way of the San Francisco Bay Area—where he first came into contact with avant-garde musicians, including La Monte Young and Terry Riley—and ultimately got involved with local music groups. By this time, he had long settled on becoming a visual artist, and even finished a degree in painting at Berkeley before crossing the country. Although De Maria admitted that Young’s decision to move Eastward had influenced his own, he in fact came to New York to be a visual artist, now focusing on abstract, minimal sculpture instead of painting. However, the musical impulse persisted, and it took nearly a decade before he actually put down the drumsticks.

Throughout the 1960s, De Maria remained good friends with Young, who was then experimenting with drone music and psychoacoustics (as well as non-western musical techniques and philosophies), contrasting the refined electronic music that Young learned under Karlheinz Stockhausen. In similarity, De Maria was making “very small boxes, very clean, quiet, static, non-relational sculptures,” rejecting the expressionist milieu in which he was trained. The two often discussed their work together and found much common ground, especially their mutual rejection of expressionism:

Through [Richard Maxfield] I learned about [musique concrete] and at that point I totally rejected what I was later to call the neurotic school of electronic composition, where the tones would jump around and would be very erratic, and I came to really prefer a much… more static side of music. La Monte and I would talk hours and hours and hours about this… I would not seek out all these expressionist painters, these expressionist sculptors, all of these men in their fifties and sixties [making cubist, surrealist configurations], just as La Monte probably knew he wouldn’t make musique concrete. We started with a very conceptual idea of very limited means, very static, very quiet works…

Just as Young refuted the academically oriented electronic music that he studied under Stockhausen, De Maria was equally uninterested in “erratic” methods of composition, in both music and sculpture, instead reducing his works to simple, impersonal abstractions.

Indeed, other artists working in territory similar to this, such as Robert Morris, were also affected by new music, not to mention the consistent overlap that occurred under the catchall rubric of “minimalism.” Naturally, the first course of action usually taken by historians in assessing this context is to cite John Cage, whose presence loomed heavily over avant-garde New York throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Art historian Liz Kotz has used the phrase “post-Cagean aesthetics” to refer to this period, which witnessed a widespread dispersion of Cage’s ideas and techniques throughout postwar art. However, some authors[1] have argued that the Cage’s legacy may need to be revisited, re-analyzed, and reinterpreted, in order to dampen the embers of the Cagean mythos.

Cage’s ideas were influential, and undoubtedly provided many postwar artists and musicians—as well as filmmakers, dancers, and performers in general—the vocabulary to question, or dismantle, their respective mediums, disciplines, and institutions. However, it is also important to acknowledge the contributions of other figures to this process, even some artists who were initially influenced by Cage. While many conceptual artists, including Young and De Maria, were at first emphatic supporters of Cage, some eventually questioned the ideas surrounding the post-Cagean aesthetic.

For example, De Maria’s sculpture, Portrait of John Cage (1961), consisted of a series of wooden vertical slates arranged into a square formation, covered at both the top and bottom with a thin slab. The work was ostensibly dedicated to the composer. On the one hand, the sculpture paid homage to Cage by revealing a linguistic pun, one that was used to deduce its underlying compositional form: the name, Cage, and the object, cage, are read differently, but sound identical when spoken. As such, the sculpture can be interpreted as playful, Dada-esque representation of the composer’s surname, literalized, and fits easily into the Fluxus-oriented wake of the post-Cagean era. On the other hand, the sculpture also served as a damning criticism of the composer’s influence, or power, over a generation of younger artists who were metaphorically ‘caged’ into his aesthetic regime. De Maria made this point clear in his remembrance of Cage at this time:

Cage was interested in all of the freer forms of modern music. So, being around music and around tape recorders and everything, I was sympathetic to him… Later when I was to start reflecting the ideas of chance, I became less and less interested in Cage and less and less interested in his music. I never did like his music actually… when I made my statue of John Cage, I think it was partly a recognition of the fact that Cage may have been caging a lot of people.

When Henry Flynt and Cornelius Cardew later posed similar critiques of Stockhausen—firstly, at a 1964 protest of a performance of Originale (1961) in New York, and secondly, the publication of Cardew’s infamous Stockhausen Serves Imperialism (1974)—they might have looked to De Maria for a subtle critique of John Cage (which was deployed several years earlier, and with much less fanfare). The similarities are not only limited to questions of power, or imperialism, at an abstract level, but also personally: as Flynt developed his “avant-garde hillbilly music,” which questioned the elitism of contemporary avant-garde composition, De Maria banged his drums around New York: first for the pre-Velvet Underground rock band The Primitives, a pop-oriented group more or less antithetical to Cagean thought, and later with Flynt’s own band, the Insurrections, whose overtly political lyrics and erratic, mountain-music psychedelia severed any lingering affinities with Cage.

By this point, the world of Cage had little to do with De Maria’s own musical practice, and much less his concurrent experiments in audiotape and field recording, carried out between 1964 and 1968. Before his transition into large-scale environmental sculpture, De Maria was exploring two wildly different realms of sonic exploration: rock and roll and field recording.

The two practices—one energetic and bombastic, one motionless and contemplative—eventually merged. And, of all places, this happened in his loft/studio: a space used for making “static” and “quiet” sculptures, then ultimately filled with noise.

New York Earth Room was installed in 1977, nearly a decade later, but the origin of the work actually dates to 1968 with a near-identical installation in Munich. This timeline positions the Earth Room installation, or at least the inception of its conceptual structure, within a period when De Maria was still working with, and thinking about, sound. From this, we can surmise that De Maria was in some capacity thinking about aurality: the acts of both making and listening to sound. The fact that he was also questioning the influence of Cage, and his life as a musician more generally, is an underlying force that appears to have informed his transition away from wood and metal sculpture toward earth-oriented environments.

As mentioned, De Maria’s musical output is best known today through his brief role as the drummer for The Primitives (and more recently The Insurrections). However, two recordings of experimental music, Cricket Music (1964) and Ocean Music (1968), are much better indications of his engagement with sound. Performing as a solo percussionist with electronics—a rarity in 1966 (with the exception of Max Neuhaus)—these early recordings offer an especially unique view into De Maria’s understanding of sound and site, and thus his ultimate engagement with site-specific installation. In fact, Cricket Music and Ocean Music were largely forgotten until they were both reprinted in the late 2000s, packaged together as a CDR under the title Drums and Nature. Each recording is slightly over twenty minutes in length, and both recordings feature substantial sections of solo percussion, which De Maria actually had little experience with outside of earlier jazz gigs. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, his drumming was more often than not rhythmic backdrop for guitar-based music, consisting of repetitive, almost meditative, progressive drum patterns, a style that carried over into the loft recordings.

These recordings pair simple drumming patterns with overlaid field recordings, played into the studio from audiotape. As the titles suggest, each piece is thematic: one uses the sounds of crickets, and the other those of ocean waves. The juxtaposition is surprising—not only because of the untraditional technique, but because the result is actually quite pleasant, functioning somewhere between avant-garde music and conceptual art.

Cricket Music was originally recorded in 1964, overlapping with De Maria’s nighttime rock and roll career, and as such can be thought of as an exercise in rhythmic repetition. On its surface, Cricket Music operates somewhere between the incessant drones of La Monte Young and the minimal compositions of Steve Reich, only changing slightly over its twenty-four minute length. There is no real sense of composition—only what one might call a percussive presence; slight variations on a theme, or some sort of avant-garde vamping. Cricket Music begins with an extended drumroll, calling attention to the feat of holding a solid, unwavering roll for nearly two minutes. There are a few seconds of silence upon its completion, but the drumming quickly restarts in a steady and cool jazz-infused polymetric pattern (4/4—6/8), lasting over ten minutes without interruption. The technical skills of De Maria are immediately obvious, despite moments that sound like a percussion student learning a new pattern. Nonetheless, the proficiency never seems overwrought, allowing the recording to reveal sides of De Maria’s drumming that were probably overshadowed in a group: on the one hand, a general dexterity and clarity in sustaining multiple rhythms, but also an ability to carefully alter the timbre of drums and cymbals while remaining clearly pinned to a groove. There is a sense of modesty in this piece, resulting in a powerful yet unassuming performance, and an easily digestible listening experience—despite the (intentional) lack of momentum or progression. In proper minimalist fashion, it is via repetition that we see difference in sameness, something that De Maria not only understood, but also exploited here to remarkable ends. (This is especially evidenced by the presence of subtle, shifting overtones, caused by the compulsive beating of drums and cymbals, floating above his rhythm.)

It is slightly before the 12:00″ mark that one begins to hear the faint sounds of chirping crickets. The previously made recording of crickets was played back, at first quietly, but slowly amplified, against his trance-like drumming. The noises of insects truly assert themselves around the 18:00″ mark, a moment that pits nature against man, but also exaggerates the underlying rhythms (some slow and deep; others fast and high-pitched).

Eventually, the insects take over entirely while De Maria slowly restrains himself. He cuts the kick drum, dampens the toms, and focuses entirely on light, jazzy tings of an open and then closed high-hat. After 24 minutes, the piece draws to an end and slowly fades away. Chirping is the last sound heard.

Ocean Music (1968) functions as a reversal of Cricket Music ’s compositional structure. In contrast to woodland chatter creeping into the recording mix, the piece begins with the slow swelling of ocean waves, which continue uninterrupted for nearly eleven minutes. At this point, De Maria’s drumming comes into play, but it is slightly more arrhythmic than before, even a little erratic. Instead of the cool and steady “shuffling” (to quote David Grubbs) for which De Maria was then known, the recording pairs undulating waves with punk-prescient drum-fills, grounded in an unwavering wash of cymbal noise. If Cricket Music represented the assertion of nature over the artistic domain, then Ocean Music illustrated the opposite: the encroachment of art into nature, an aesthetic paradigm that De Maria, among others, explored throughout the 1970s (often under the rubric of earthworks and land art).

In many ways, De Maria’s approach to the drums can be thought of in terms of the body, which was often an important paradigm for postwar performance artists (such as Carolee Schneemann, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci) and experimental musicians (such as Young, Charlotte Moorman, and Maryanne Amacher). Although we cannot see De Maria’s body, his physical presence is perceptible through a curious impression, invoked through sound alone. He does not vocalize or make an utterance (as drummers often do) at any point. As a result, our comprehension of his presence is understood by the sounds of the drums alone. Accordingly, Cricket Music and Ocean Music function much like the Earth Room —and like his underground monument Vertical Earth Kilometer (1977), a colossal metal pole buried deep into the earth—because presence is paradoxically understood through absence.

Although in many ways Cricket Music and Ocean Music bear some resemblance to drone music, a form of extended, meditative composition to which Young was increasingly dedicated, similarities quickly run their course. On a similar note, the rock and roll influences also seem to have dried up, making Cricket Music and Ocean Music exceptionally strange, even chimeric, residuals of De Maria’s long-held musical aspirations.

In his own words, De Maria claimed:

I can’t remember if it was ’65 or ’66, but I joined the Velvet Underground rock group and I met John Cale, Lou Reed… this is very early, if you realize that the Beatles only came on the scene in ’64, to be with a really all electrified guitar rock and roll band… [Velvet Underground] were the first band to have any drug lyrics and the first band to have heavy electronic feedback in it. I could have stayed with that band… [But] I came to this almost third conflict. The first may have been between jazz and painting. [And in the early Sixties] I was trying to play music with La Monte; I wasn’t with La Monte’s band at that time and La Monte was in between… He went through a period of Coltrane eastern music and electronic music and it was sort of mixed. It lasted about a year and then I didn’t want to sort out those influences so I rejected playing with La Monte.

He also discussed the logistical problems of being a drummer, and the effect that playing rock and roll, and music in general, had on his decision to only pursue sculpture:

It was very tiring to bring all the drums around, you know, and then after playing all night, you couldn’t do anything during the day and this was a period of months. I thought, are you going to play or are you going to do the sculpture? You know, are you going to be an artist or a musician?

For better or worse—we can only speculate on what sort of musician he might have become—De Maria chose sculpture. As De Maria found increasing success as an artist in the late 1960s, he had to choose between long-held musical passions and artistic innovation:

[A conflict] was really going on because I was playing with this good band… and here was a real choice… I knew that we [The Velvet Underground] were really good and they went on to make this great album. But then I said… Do I really just keep playing these rhythms, is that going to be enough? That was really a painful decision. I said, no, put it down. I’m not going to buy another set of drums; I’m not going to haul these drums to another place and I just can’t keep playing these songs. I can’t do it… I made one tape in ’64 of drums and crickets [and then I made] one last piece in 1968 with the ocean and drums. I made two drum compositions [and] basically stopped in ’68.

Ocean Music bluntly marked the end of De Maria’s musical expression. Indeed, De Maria ostensibly ceased all musical activity after this year, never directly working with sound again. Instead, he focused on conceptual art and environmental sculpture, as evidenced by Munich Earth Room and the Earth Art exhibition. However, it seems that De Maria’s experiences with sound—the act of listening to nature, and sculpting its sound through the use of audiotape—influenced this new practice, if not directly serving as its impetus. Buried underneath De Maria’s earth art practice is a sonic depth.â– 

About the Author

Charles Eppley is an art historian and sound enthusiast living in Brooklyn, NY. His research focuses on the history of sound in modern and contemporary art, and he currently teaches at Pratt Institute and Stony Brook University. His writings on sound have appeared in Rhizome and Hyperallergic.

http://www.charleseppley.com | @eppleyca


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    Dworkin, Craig. No Medium. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2013.
    Dyson, Frances. “The Ear that Would Hear Sounds in Themselves: John Cage 1935-1965,” in Kahn, Douglas, and Gregory Whitehead, eds., Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde. Cambridge: The MIT Press: 1994.
    Grubbs, David. Records Ruin the Landscape. Durham: Duke University Press: 2014.
    Kahn, Douglas. Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2001.
    Lewis, George. “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 1996): 91-122.
    Piekut, Ben. “Chance and Certainty: John Cage’s Politics of Nature,” Cultural Critique, Vol. 84 (Spring 2013): 134-163.
    Ibid., “Sound’s Modest Witness: Notes on Cage and Modernism,” Contemporary Music Review, Vol. 31, No. 1 (February 2012): 3-18.
    Robinson, Julia, ed., John Cage. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.
    Ibid., “John Cage and Investiture: Unmanning the System,” in The Anarchy of Silence: John Cage and Experimental Art. Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani Barcelona, 2009.
    Yasunao, Tone and Miki Kaneda, “The “John Cage Shock” Is a Fiction! Interview with Tone Yasunao,” Post: Notes on Modern & Contemporary Art Around the Globe (March 8, 2013): http://post.at.moma.org/content_items/178-the-john-cage-shock-is-a-fiction-interview-with-tone-yasunao-1