Vol. 25 Issue 3 Reviews
Sonic Residues 02
Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, Australia, 17 November-2 December 2000

Reviewed by Ian Stevenson
Sydney, Australia

Sonic Residues 02, curated by Garth Paine, was a two week celebration of electroacoustic music and sound art held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne. ACCA is one of Australia's premiere venues for the presentation of contemporary art. During these two weeks, in addition to being the exhibition space for a changing program of sound art installations, ACCA was transformed into a venue for the concert presentation of a wide range of electroacoustic, electronic, and acousmatic music. Two forums were also conducted during the festival. The first was a presentation concerning various issues surrounding spatialization. The second took the form of a panel discussion centered around issues arising from the perceived tensions and shared influences of popularly-based sound and music performance art practice on the one hand, and more academically-based creative fields in sonic art on the other.

Following an international call for both installation pieces and concert works in the electroacoustic genre, Mr. Paine put together a festival program of exceptional variety and quality. The call for works set the tone in that it made no clear differentiation between creative activity in the forms of installation art or musical composition. The original call introduced the two principal categories of "Evolutionary Pieces" and "Works of Finite Duration" that would reflect the four following themes: “works generated from text or voice-based material; works that use found sounds, molded to create new sonic worlds that extend our notions of acoustic reality; works that use exclusively electronically generated sounds; and interactive works that allow the audience to physically engage with the work through movement and behavior, to create and/or experience the multi-faceted sound world of the work itself.” This created the framework for the ensuing two-week festival. I assisted Mr. Paine in preparing the concert program, and specifying and operating the multi-channel diffusion system used for the concerts.

ACCA is housed in the historic former home of the Colonial Lieutenant-Governor–La Trobe, within Melbourne’s Domain Gardens. The festival opened with seven sound-art installations distributed throughout the gallery’s four rooms, the entry foyer, and the garden at the rear of the gallery. These installations were open to the public during gallery hours throughout the first week of the festival. A second set of installations were presented during the second week. The range of installation works reflected the broad and inclusive nature of the festival programming.

During the first week, the sound installations included a piece by Melbourne-based experimental musician and sound designer, Nat Bates, entitled Sonorhythmosis. This piece occupied the entry foyer of the gallery and took the form of an arcade video game complete with joystick and buttons within an authentic game console. The work is thoroughly interactive, inviting the participant to play with the abstract graphical objects via the user interface. Through a process of clicking and dragging, the user is able to modify and navigate through a symbolic landscape comprising a number of colored circles. The game provides visual and audible feedback describing the path or trajectory through a continuously variable mix of the pulsing or looping sounds associated with each object, the level of each sound being proportional to the user’s proximity to its associated object on the screen. By modifying the positions of each of these “sonic objects,” the user can adapt the sonic density of the symbolic landscape to suit their preference. Despite the limited range of physical control and the unrelenting looping sounds of the installation when at rest, the work provided considerable amusement and fascination for visitors unprepared for the re-purposing of an arcade game within a gallery context.

Gallery 1 at the rear of the building housed an installation work by myself entitled Soniferous Objects. This installation comprises five objects presented on plinths. The objects include an electromechanical adding machine, an old Bakelite radio, a suitcase, a metal cooking pot, and a small wooden file drawer. Each object produces a gentle sound track through hidden transducers within the objects. Some of the sounds are heard at a level not significantly higher than the ambient level of the gallery, creating a sense of ambiguity regarding the source of the sounds. Hopefully, viewers found links between the visual and sonic elements within the installation to trigger their imagination and encourage them to question certain aspects of their spatial awareness they may have previously taken for granted.

Sharing the space of Gallery 1 was a work by Melbourne new media artist, Chris Henschke, entitled Corroded Grooves. This interactive installation was composed of a computer interface, a number of turntables (remember those?), an audio mixer, and a number of objects to play on the turntables. These objects included an old and damaged 78 record, an equally decayed cymbal, various discs of paper and other items. The computer monitor displayed a beautifully designed, archaic looking circuit arrangement which could be modified to play and mix different audio loops. These loops could be mixed with the sounds produced by the various physical objects played on the turntables. Not having any experience as a DJ myself, I can only imagine this installation as being similar to the image in the mind of a DJ when waking in a cold sweat from the terror of a nightmare. Mr. Henschke further expanded on the frightening possibilities of this work during a improvised performance, the climax coming when, throwing caution to the wind, a turntable was set alight and the audience was treated to the unique sound of burning vinyl at 33-and-1/3 RPMs.

Gallery 2 housed a video projector and a Tannoy 5.1 surround-sound, home cinema speaker system. During the first week of the festival, a video work by Sydney composer and performer Donna Hewitt, entitled Peep Show, was shown. This piece engaged with the “gaze” directed to the female performer. The work comprises startling endoscopic images of the vocal tract with synchronized audible vocalizations, and processed audio material from interviews with various female performers. The work deals with subject positions and relationships of power within the culture of popular music performance. The images and text alluded to the seen/unseen, real/imagined, felt/unfelt aspects of the audience/performer experience within this context. The transformations within these bipolar axes are mirrored by the transformations of sound and image within the work.

Gallery 3 contained a delicate and detailed installation by well-known Australian artist and composer, Ros Bandt. Speak before it’s too late deals with the historical sociolinguistic aspects of Australian indigenous, colonial, and immigrant culture. The work is presented as six large amphorae-like ceramic jars fitted with loudspeakers within a room strewn with red-gum eucalyptus leaves. The leaves evoke the ancient Australian landscape while the amphorae provide the image of ancient cultures, transportation, trade, and the resultant dissemination and dilution of culture. The layout of these elements enables the listener to move around within this spatially complex, multi-channel soundfield. The sound material itself comprises natural atmospheres of ocean, bush-land, and other environments providing context for the voices in various languages both ancient and modern. These shifting monologues narrate the experiences of possession and dispossession of land and language of the various speakers. Languages represented include English, Polish, ancient Greek and Latin, and the indigenous Yorta Yorta and Barkindji languages. The work creates a subtly-crafted spatial composition which rewards the extended attention of the listener. Intrinsic sonic and visual properties and extrinsic cultural and political relationships are seamlessly integrated within this engaging piece.

The hallway area known as Gallery 4 housed North American artist Peter Chamberlain’s whimsical work, San Rin Sha. These sculptural assemblages, composed of found objects combined in a seemingly aleatoric fashion, are unified by their overall form and the integral inclusion of the mechanisms from valve metronomes. Their rich visual appeal is supported by the gentle tick-tock of the wooden resonator/transducers within each piece. After close inspection it was revealed that each piece included a wooden skateboard on which was mounted, variously, a ceramic armadillo, a white china laughing Buddha, and a fencing mask. These items are integrated with the components of the metronomes. Reminiscent of Picasso’s sculptural assemblages, these delightful objects added the sonic signals marking the passage of time, in time signatures and tempos continuously variable through the adjustment of the integrated control knobs.

The glorious late-spring weather in Melbourne was best appreciated while perambulating through the delightful rose garden adjoining the gallery. This garden was the site for an intriguing multi-channel environmental installation by American composer Ken Steen. (h)Earscaping was presented on eight loudspeakers hidden within the shrubbery forming the boundary of the garden. The listener’s attention was held and diverted by the intrusion into the natural soundscape of the sometimes organic, sometimes synthetic sonic elements of the piece. This work stimulated continual confusion of the perception of the audible scene. Due to the wide spatial field of the speaker system and the imposition of the natural garden acoustics on the electroacoustic material, the composition often falls seamlessly into the composite soundscape—“Was that the barking of a frog in the undergrowth? Are those sounds insects?” I wondered if the vocal profusion of bird-life in the garden was the usual state of affairs or whether they had come to investigate and converse with Mr. Steen’s music. The continually evolving material gave great exercise to the ears and thoroughly enhanced the aesthetic appreciation of the lovely garden environment.

The opening of the festival coincided with the first of seven concerts presented in Gallery 1. The festival program comprised over sixty works in various genres from all over the world. In order to facilitate the presentation of such a wide range of electroacoustic work we adopted a uniform reproduction system for each concert. In this respect we were lucky to have the support of System Sound, one of Australia’s most highly respected sound contractors and design firms. System Sound furnished an eight-channel Tannoy loudspeaker system with associated control, replay, and mixing equipment. A significant aspect of their generous support was the sponsorship of a number of composers in developing multi-channel diffusions of their pieces using the Richmond Sound Design AudioBox and Third Monk’s ABControl software.

Concert 1 included a number of the highlights from the whole concert series. It opened with a virtuosic performance by Brigid Burke of her Laughing Blossoms for tape, live electronics, and bass clarinet. The program also included Trevor Wishart’s arresting sonic artwork, Two Women, Elsa Justel’s Au Loin…Bleu, Warren Burt’s Five Tango Permutations, employing the aleatoric manipulation of text and vocalizations, John Young’s Sju, another piece dealing with language and vocal expression, G4 by Paul Doornbusch, Pete Stollery’s Altered Images, and Natasha Barrett’s Viva La Selva. This final piece is a distillation of a longer work comprising recordings made in the forests of Costa Rica, a beautifully-crafted work affording a fascinating musical experience.

The second concert once again included a variety of pieces. Previously mentioned was Mr. Henschke’s improvised performance on his Corroded Grooves turntable and computer installation. Other works included Paul Rudy’s now popular piece for tape and cactus (performed by myself), Degrees of Separation “Grandchild of Tree”, and a delightful acousmatic work by Hideko Kawamoto entitled Night Ascends from the Ear like a Butterfly.

On the Wednesday of the first week I presented a discussion on various aspects of music diffusion. This included a rather crazy conceptual history of the cultural influences brought to bear on Western spatial perception. I attempted to integrate this with a review of some of the theoretical aspects of electroacoustic reproduction systems and finally demonstrate the systems we were using for concert presentation, including the benefits of computer-controlled diffusion as implemented on the Richmond Sound Design AudioBox.

Concert 3 gave the audience the opportunity to hear the fruits of a multi-channel diffusion developed on the AudioBox. This was Australian composer Paul Doornbusch’s piece, Continuity One. This is a work in the true computer music tradition dealing with processes of enthalpy and entropy, continuity and disturbance. The automated diffusion achieved dynamic spatial effects that could never have been achieved through manual performance.

The final concert of the first week included Benjamin Thigpen’s step, under. This piece was performed in the composer’s original 8-channel diffusion from multi-track tape.

During the second week of the festival a number of new installation works were presented. The foyer area became the site for UK artist Robert Rowlands’ computer-based audiovisual work, Moments and Movements. Gallery 1 housed 2000 Bars by Melbourne composer John Arthur Grant. This work invited the audience to play along with the pre-recorded material on an electronic keyboard or a bamboo percussion instrument. In Gallery 2 a compilation of video/sound works was presented. These works included concept comp.tot 4 by Renate Oblak and Michael Pinter, Residue by Dennis H. Miller, and Kim Cascone’s Residualism.

One of the festival’s primary objectives is to help support, stimulate, and maintain the sense of community amongst practitioners and enthusiasts of sonic art. Inclusive programming is one way of bringing together the diverse and sometimes alienated strands of this community. Another approach to this process, demonstrated by the Sonic Residues festival, is to confront the perceived divisions within the community head on. To this end, Mr. Paine chaired a panel discussion addressing the issues surrounding tensions between those engaged in academic or institutionalized practice and those working in the popular domain of sonic art or electronic music. Included on the panel were Ros Bandt, Philip Brophy, Jeff Pressing, David Hurst, Paul Doornbusch, and Nat Bates. Each of these individuals brought their own perspective to bear on the debate. Mr. Hurst discussed the marginalized nature of academic activity in Australia’s impoverished political climate. Ms. Bandt and Mr. Doornbush both defended rigorous aesthetic standards in sonic arts practice while Mr. Brophy attempted to convince the audience that a postmodern view must be open to novelty and not be deceived by illusory divisions within a continuum of cultural flux. Mr. Pressing presented a discussion of the sociopolitical relevance of anarchic and experimental practice. Unfortunately, the debate never became heated and while a representative range of positions were presented and common ground identified it is hard to say whether any changes in attitude resulted from the process. The forum did, however, provide an opportunity for both audience and panel members from diverse backgrounds to meet and exchange points of view.

The festival continued with three more concerts. These included many fine works for tape not previously heard in Australia. Of particular note were the works spatialized by the composers on the AudioBox. These included acca_bunker.mod by Délire, and Ms. Bandt’s Serendipity. Mr. Paine performed a live diffusion of his fascinating new work, Incarnate—lose for dreams. Also of interest were the following: live performances by Ms. Bandt, involving Grainger air whistle, viola da gamba, medieval psaltery, and tape with live diffusion; the mesmeric work, Regenerative/Generative, for multiple computers, video, and violin by Andrew Garton, Ollie Olsen, John Powers, and Justina Curtis; and a rhythmic improvisation by Mr. Bates entitled ALCHEMY.

The festival achieved an enthusiastic audience attendance of over 1,700 people during the two weeks and provided a much-needed platform for the presentation of a diverse range of sonic arts. This diversity, and the elimination of rigid barriers between art gallery installation and concert hall performance has helped to redefine what sonic art is and can be within the Australian context. The festival has left behind a resonating residue in the minds of all who attended, and we all look forward to Sonic Residues 03 with great anticipation.