Can education make a sound artist?

Gail Priest

Interest in things sonic has dramatically increased across the arts. While there has always been a certain level of activity, often sporadic, the last few years have seen a development of what could be described as scenes, particularly in the electro-improvisational area, growing out of regular events and gatherings. In Melbourne there is Liquid Architecture, an annual festival of sound-related arts and Anthony Pateras’ Articulating Space along with a range of gallery and installation-based activities encouraged by the likes of WestSpace. Brisbane has Lawrence English’s Fabrique and Small Black Box set up by Andrew Kettle, Scott Sinclair and Greg Jenkins. In Sydney there’s the what is music festival (including a Melbourne component) created by Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim, and caleb~k’s impermanent.audio. These have recently been joined by 2 monthly Sydney events, Shannon O’Neill’s Disorientation and Jules Ambrosine and Aaron Hull’s 1/4 inch.

So where is all this sound coming from? And are universities and institutions playing a role by responding to the current cultural trend? During the recent tour of Liquid Architecture to the Queensland Biennial Festival of Music, I caught up with English and Mowson, and later in Sydney spoke with caleb~k about the kind of education that makes a sound artist.

But is it music?

The debate in music circles on the status of sound art as distinct from music grinds on with borders blurring and lines and, occasionally, swords crossing. However while the gatekeepers dismiss whole avenues of audio art as bad music, or refuse to acknowledge the form at all, the opportunity exists to define this beast as a different species, related yet feeding on different aesthetic grounds. While a large proportion of artists within the sound area, may well be musicians they are not primarily trained as such. Mowson says of the artists in Liquid Architecture, “we just don’t seem to get people from that [traditional music training] background simply because they just don’t seem savvy enough about the culture. That kind of repertoire-based learning doesn’t seem to serve them in the context of reflecting on contemporary issues.” English concurs, “most of the music courses are geared towards people being competent players not necessarily conceptual thinkers, or exploring their craft in less conventional manners…”

caleb~k believes that certain leading music institutions still have difficulties aligning with and incorporating movements like Fluxus and artists such as Alvin Lucier into their theoretical training, so there’s very little to encourage sound art practice as a viable form. For English, it depends very much on the people teaching at the institution—“not necessarily the universities themselves saying hang on a minute let’s turn out sound artists, but more a group of staff members interested in that area, and recognising that there is a potential within students to be interested and it generally snowballs from there.”

Aesthetics and/or technique

When asked about what he looks for when curating his program caleb~k says “self awareness is quite important…people who do the most interesting things have an overall concept of their project or approach…[and] focus and direction both in terms of total output and in terms of a piece.” Mowson says “the people who are coming to us and contributing really good material may have gone to university or not, but they’ve got a professional outlook—good material and high standards seem to go with having a strong critical faculty, reflecting an engagement with what’s going on.”

So is this something that universities and training institutions are providing? caleb~k believes that it can be encouraged and developed, but it takes more than a year or even 3 “…which is why schools have honours years. By 4th year students start to do their own work as opposed to development.” Mowson believes that a strong focus of tertiary education “is to widen people’s knowledge base. Most people have an area of music that they’re passionately into…but what’s interesting is when people fill that out [and] develop a broad frame of reference. Then they’re not constantly coming up with stuff someone’s already done better—not that they should necessarily change but rather learn from this.”

Many of the artists working in the area presently have no formal training in music or sound. However, caleb~k suggests that “in an art school or university there’s a conversation…you have more reason to develop because you’ve got people to talk to, technicians and peers.” Mowson concurs that one of the really important things that comes from study is finding a peer group and people with whom you continue to work and develop.

So where does technical training fit in? It appears to be taken as a matter of course. I suggested that perhaps universities offer facilities that young artists may not otherwise have access to, but all 3 are sceptical, suggesting that as technology becomes cheaper, more accessible and more ‘intuitive’, this is less of a lure. However Mowson believes that good recording facilities and audio visual synched editing is still a drawcard. caleb~k thinks that “obviously it’s going to be much quicker to create work at a school…you’re going to find better ways of doing things…but more important is learning aesthetics, history, conceptual approaches and critical engagement.”

The attractions of education

There are now schools addressing sound (RMIT, UWS, CoFA, QUT) either through specific media-based courses in universities and elsewhere, strands within art schools or more expansive programs within some music departments. There are more and more practising artists and curators working in these courses (all 3 interviewees have lectured in universities), strengthening the connection between development and practice. Can we expect a plethora of young sound artists? caleb~k believes that it’s a bit too early to tell, as most of these courses are still in their first few years and hitting their stride, though he is seeing some increase in the number of artists in 3rd and honours years producing interesting work. There are also artists who have been practising for a while and choosing to go back to study now that there is more of a conducive environment. As English describes it, “they’re returning to get a better understanding of how different artforms work, how to amplify their ideas.” But all 3 agree that in the end, the quality and success of the sound artist comes down to conceptual rigour and, as Mowson concludes, “that seems to come from individuals. Courses may be able to facilitate that but not create it.”

Gail Priest is a Sydney based sound artist and is co-director of Electrofringe 03.

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 45

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2003