Analogue 2 Digital: magic mechanics

Joni Taylor

mik la vage

mik la vage

mik la vage

OTIS looks like a piece of glorified junk. Soldered out of salvaged scrap metal, it is an instrument that epitomizes analogue in the raw, demands to be played and necessitates the gesture of performance. Yet as musician mik la vage begins to draw his electric drill towards the iron strings, it is the hidden mechanics that reconstitute the sound we hear, replayed and looped with delays and harmonies created out of sight. This is analogue-metal-machine-noise: stretched, tortured and affected by technology. It was one of the more graphic images of the Analogue 2 Digital (A2D) Electronic Music Conference in Adelaide Fringe 2002.

Machine sounds, whether music, noise or function, have infiltrated the sonic landscape in the way that Front 242 back-ends a Nutrigrain advert, the Rolling Stones have sold out to Microsoft and before you know it Dead or Alive have given a motorcar manufacturer the rights to their one-hit wonder, You spin me right round baby. Too many TV ads can spin anyone’s ideas around, but where the soundtrack to our lives ends up cannot be taken for granted.

A2D explored not so much the where or the why, but how electronic music got to be where it is. Running over 3 days at Adelaide University, it was divided into forums (Talk the Walk), artist presentations, (From Blips to Beeps) and workshops (Digging in the Digital Dirt).

If one were to create the soundtrack to A2D, held at a tumultuous time in Adelaide’s cultural calendar, it must include the shiver of the visiting Queen’s wave, the stomps of Indigenous dance performers on the Adelaide Festival opening night, the whoosh of the stunt trapeze and the beer-swilling rock rumblings of university Orientation week.

The presentation by participating artist Kaffe Matthews emphasised even more these all-encompassing elements of our acoustic space. During her improvised performance, the boisterous O-week enthusiasts could be heard loudly through the cinema walls. Whilst the audience were obviously distracted by this ‘interruption’, Matthews finished by explaining that she hoped her mikes had picked up the sounds and incorporated them. She creates her performances by taking minute recordings of her surroundings, whether they be Danish squats or London art galleries, effecting them live using a laptop and LISA (a program created at Dutch music institution STEIM) and creating lush sonic soundscapes permeated with crackles and techno-esque beats.

Matthews spoke about her journey through music, from her early MIDI violin performances to her collaboration with acoustic pioneer Alan Lamb and her current work. She has been ‘playing’ LISA since 1986, and despite only working with a laptop, has been ‘studying her instrument’ just as one would an acoustic instrument.

A recurring and, for many, redundant topic was: can electronic music be played live and debated in such forums as Attack of the DAT? Kate Crawford put it well when she said electronic music demanded to be appreciated as a new aesthetic. But for most of the already tech-savvy audience, machine-made music is not a lightbulb idea, and certainly not fleshy enough to be debated for an entire session.

A more interesting area of contention is the changing nature of the recording and mastering process in the digital age. Stephen Wittington, Eyespine and Jesse Reynolds discussed this in a Digital Sound Formats forum, pointing out that the process of digital recording has, on the one hand, eliminated the mistakes (or glitches), yet numerous musicians are still hell bent on recreating the hiss of a faulty speaker or the crackle of vinyl. Many fetishists out there are still obsessed with incorporating the ghost in the machine.

Wade Marynowsky gave a refreshing presentation of his audio-visual software created using MAX and NATO. Performing as Spanky, his sounds are accessible and beat-driven, triggering images of post-apocalyptic environmental destruction, colonial bravado and mutated textures. Here we can see the music.

Wax Sound Media and Andrew Kettle joined festival hopper Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, in the Soundscapes discussion about audio installations and sound ‘art.’ I was lucky to catch Scanner’s Stories form the Market Place commissioned for the Adelaide Festival. With performance group Para//elo, Scanner captured the energy and vitality of the Central Market, a wonderful piece of Adelaide’s cultural history.

The forum Collectives with Kate Crawford, The Bird and Kenny Sabir, discussed issues addressing the culture of music. In places such as Sydney, rivalry and politics can lead to the sad demise of many inspirational music initiatives, but the Adelaide participants felt their city was small enough to not necessitate any formalised electronic music collectives. The forum debated the rapid rate at which tools, especially computer-based programs, are created by large companies. Are the people who create these products actually using them? Do composers have time to become proficient on them before the next model is churned out for a quick buck?

Far from breaking any rules, the Electronic Concert Series, held in the stately Elder Hall, showcased the diversity of electronic musical instruments from an almost historical perspective. In a fantastic collaboration, Brisbane’s Topology and Loops combined an orchestral piece with recordings of radio transmissions, tracing the medium backwards from seminal voice recordings of Lindy Chamberlain, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill to Marconi’s 1901 broadcast: contact through the ether.

Another ‘historical’ performance, synapse, dating back to 1976, used a PDP-11 computer ‘interacting’ with a live performer. Composed by MIT founder Barry Vascoe, it was an interesting precursor to his current project audio spotlight which projects sound and image onto the viewer from a narrow spotlight. Other performances included wish, by Stevie Wishart and her hurdygurdy, as well as Tristam Carey, Jon Rose and synergy by Martin Ng and Jim Denley.

It was at the closing night party, 2002AD, at Adelaide’s Minke Bar that the current state of digital music was ultimately celebrated. Held in collaboration with the trickster VJ class, the night showcased over 20 acts including Scanner, The Bird, Ollie Olson, Spanky, Sub Bass Snarl and a host of Adelaide acts such as DJ trIP, froST and Kristan Thomas. During a dance performance a few days later, the speaker exploded three quarters of the way into the piece. To be honest, I didn’t really notice. I just thought that the composer had succeeded in replicating speaker hiss exceptionally well. Long live the new flesh.

Analogue 2 Digital, Electronic Music Conference, Adelaide Fringe, Feb 28-March 2.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 7

© Joni Taylor; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002