Liquid Architecture: the Parmegiani experience

Simon Sellars

Ros Bandt, Silo Stories

National sound art festival, Liquid Architecture, has just completed its 4th incarnation at several Melbourne venues. Under the direction of Nat Bates and Bruce Mowson, the event featured 30 Australian and international artists, including French musique concrete/acousmatic pioneer, Bernard Parmegiani and San Francisco noise merchants, Scott Arford and Randy Hy Yau. Parmegiani’s presence was a real coup, bringing into sharp focus the rich heritage of sonic art. But could the festival deliver on its claim that we would “hear the world through a different set of ears”?

Randy Hy Yau

RMIT’s underground car park was the venue for performances from Arford and Yau, with Australian sound artists Phil Samartzis, Laurence English and Mowson. The night began with a set by Machina aux Rock—Philip Brophy on drums and Bates on electronics—a loose, percussive attack reminiscent of Krautrock legends Ash Ra Tempel. Amusingly, a couple began to dance at the back of the car park, only to be stung into submission by the segue into Yau’s solo performance. Yau played the “MegaMouth”, a battery-powered children’s toy “rewired for maximum overdriven output.” In this altered state, the toy became a potent conduit for scorching feedback, transforming simple vibrations and movement into fierce electronic overdrive, a banshee wail that seemed to erupt from Yau himself. His performance was intensely physical as he caressed the MegaMouth against speakers, against his mouth, against the concrete floor. With each twist and turn of the device a different, dissonant timbre emerged, seemingly catching the artist by surprise, jerking his body into spastic contortions; if a man could willingly subject himself to high-powered electrocution, it would look and sound like this. But even so, Yau’s effort was surprisingly musical, with some melodious moments among the throbbing squall.

During all performances, the car park’s sonic signature came into its own as frequencies bounced crazily off the rear walls—punters up the back were turning their heads, as if unseen speakers were propelling startling, unearthly tones in and out of the mix.

Bernard Parmegiani

Parmegiani’s vast, elegant body of work was presented in various forms over the festival weekend. First up was a wide-ranging discussion, including an overview of his acousmatic (“listening without seeing”) theories and his work with Pierre Schaeffer in the 1960s. When asked about his earliest sonic influences, Parmegiani needed clarification: did his interrogator mean after birth, or before, he wondered. Listening to his mother’s body in the womb, he stressed, was his earliest sonic influence.

Of the 3 GRM (Le Groupe de Recherches Musicales) film shorts scored by Parmegiani and presented at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the pick was L’Ecran Transparent (The Transparent Screen), a bizarre 19-minute work from 1973, also directed by Parmegiani. With a set design resembling 70s sci-fi films like THX 1138, it featured an earnest, bearded intellectual dressed in black and offering McLuhanesque theories on the “electronic human, who lives faster because he is forced to see and hear everything at once.” Then, as the film dispensed with the increasingly shell-shocked narrator, it spiraled into an extended synaesthetic exploration, with flaring video effects and heavily warped sound design amplifying the film’s central tenet: “The eye can see what the ear cannot regard. At the point where the senses meet, there is a kind of no-sense.”

On Sunday night, Parmegiani presided over a “Multispeaker Diffusion” presentation at RMIT Storey Hall. Playing his impeccably prerecorded works from CD, Parmegiani flung soundscapes all about the hall, using mixers and a battery of strategically placed speakers. Sounds “ticked” and “scrunched”, some “flipped”, some “scribbled” and some “cracked”; all edged in and out of consciousness. There’s no adequate vocabulary to describe how Parmegiani psychologically sculpts the sonic qualities of everyday objects—never has a rolling ping pong ball sounded so terrifying. The performance capped off a memorable weekend and Parmegiani was deservedly rewarded with a standing ovation.

360º: Women in Sound

A series of installations created by female sound artists, took place at first site and Westspace galleries, curated by Arnya Tehira and Sianna Lee who see gender focus as necessary to highlight the under-representation of women in sound art.

Ros Bandt’s Silo Stories was my pick. Recorded snatches of conversation echoed around and inside windy rural wheat silos. As an “audible mapping of a changing culture”, the work offered an evocative reminder of a diminishing lifestyle; stylishly presented, the installation was accompanied by barrels of overflowing wheat and mysterious photographs of silos adorned the gallery walls.

Another standout was Thembi Soddell’s Intimacy, using surround-sound speakers in a curtained-off space. For the gallery-goer sitting on the low stool within the pitch-dark enclosure, the effect of Soddell’s layered, peak-and-trough waves of sound was absolutely cathartic. Other installations featured minimal visuals and “computer chip” music and there were enigmatic, immersive quadraphonic presentations using found sounds and ritualised street textures.

And so it went that as I emerged from the first site gallery the sounds of the street became enhanced, super-real: creaking doors took on an extra dimension, as did the flushing of a public toilet, the snippets of conversation stolen from passers-by and the groan of a tram as it rounded a corner. All seemed slaves to a system of weird harmony, confirmation of some uncanny, grand design; I wandered the city centre for a good 2 hours, listening to my no-longer familiar world with a “new set of ears”— just as Liquid Architecture promised I would.

Liquid Architecture, directors Nat Bates & Bruce Mowson, Melbourne, July 1-26

RealTime issue #56 Aug-Sept 2003 pg. 46

© Simon Sellars; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2003