Looping forward: the analogue/digital dialogue

Gail Priest

Danielle Micich in Lindsay Vickery's your sky is filled with billboards of the sky

Danielle Micich in Lindsay Vickery’s your sky is filled with billboards of the sky

One of the ways technology works in Western culture is to call attention to itself when new, for at that moment it has no social life. After a period of use most technological artefacts are normalised into everyday life and are no longer seen as technological at all.
Timothy D Dale, Strange Sounds, Music, Technology & Culture, Routledge, 2001

Technology is so interconnected with the production of sound and music it seems as necessary and unconscious as breath. From the earliest instrument-making through to digital recording, a feedback loop involving technological advancement and the pursuit of new sounds has been in constant play. Is the development of technology an artist-driven exploration or does the technology drive us to explore? Has the glut of new digital tools created a sonic lexicon of sameness? Have we missed something along the way? This survey looks at a collection of artists, by no means comprehensive, working with sound in various manifestations, and their relationship to technologies, both new and old.



In Sound Sculpture (Fine Arts Publishing, 2001, see RT49, p33), Ros Bandt gathers a selection of Australian artists working at the intersection of sound, sculpture and space. Much of the work in sound sculpture does not simply utilise emerging technologies, but is often at the forefront of developing them. Bandt herself developed the SSIIPP (Sound Sculpture Interactive Installation Performance Playback) system in the 80s which allows for 8 track playback triggered by movement sensors and used in Australia and internationally. One of Nigel Helyer’s latest works has seen him in residence at Lake Technology and then UNSW developing the Sonic Landscapes Virtual Audio Reality system—an immersive 3D sound environment using GPS (Global Positioning Satellite system) to create a sonic realm that responds to the positioning of the body within a specific landscape (RT50 p26). Investigating the sonority of electrical energy, Joyce Hinterding has developed the electrostatic sound system which, in combination with her magnificent aerials, can tap into atmospheric emissions and then be sonically manipulated and shaped. There is also the relational sonic/spatial investigations of Michael Graeve. Most recently he curated the Gating exhibition, involving visual and audio explorations of the “gating” technique. Artists like Rodney Berry, Iain Mott, David Haines, Ross Harley, John Drummond, Stelarc and others have also been involved in explorations of sound/object/space and in the adaptation of technology for aesthetic ends.

Lawrence English is a Brisbane-based artist working with sound in many forms. In his recent installation, Poles, at Brisbane Powerhouse during the REV festival, he used what he calls “virtual signification.” He describes the process as “taking virtual elements that represent an environment or area, such as photos, web documents, text and using…those segments of data, converting them via various sound applications …processing them further to create interesting textures and scapes or rhythms of some form…”

These manipulations are then reintroduced to the natural environment. “In some ways, it completes the loop between the digital and the organic, the virtual and the real.” He says that the need to stay portable has made him pare back his equipment and push the boundaries of the technology (laptop and software) to squeeze as much out of it as he can. He believes that one of the key challenges facing sound artists and musicians is “using the technology and driving it, not the reverse. It’s almost too easy to sit down with a few VST plug-ins and a sound editor and create something abstract and electronic sounding…I really feel it’s up to the user to inject some personality and character into the technology.”

Camilla Hannan works primarily in the area of installation and surround sound composition. She was one of the co-producers (along with Nat Bates and Bruce Mowson) of Liquid Architecture 3 in Melbourne this year (see RT50) which incorporated various modes of sound art—installations, a surround sound concert, live electronic music events, audio visual screenings and presentations with an emphasis on the investigation of ideas. Hannan states that “for many people concepts and ideas can be a lot more difficult to express than technical formulas. As a result, many sound practitioners hide behind technology in explaining their work. We wanted to encourage artists to look beyond the technical interface.” Her interests lie in “ideas of space both conceptually and compositionally” and her installation works use both ‘authentic’ sonic spatialisation (environmental recording using DAT and binaural microphones) and processed spatial structures, the finished product often ending up on DVD format. She sees collaboration and a sense of community, as can be found in the ((tRansMIT)) sound collective, as vital to the development of her work.

Phillip Samartzis is a sound artist, lecturer at RMIT and, recently, curator of Variable Resistance—10 hours of sound from Australia, an exhibition of Australian sound art at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He sees the spatialisation of sound made possible by 5.1 DVD surround sound as a real development and challenge to sound art today. Artists have been working with customised versions of surround sound for the last 20 years, but the increasing availability of 5.1 technology has “allowed sound artists to stop just thinking in stereo and think more about how they can choreograph space with sound. It’s such an under explored area…considering that we’ve been listening to stereo for 40 or 50 years. What does it mean, those couple of speakers at the rear and that speaker at the front? We’re all discovering new ways of exploring, remixing balancing sonic gestures in space.”

Samartzis sees the greatest challenge to sound art is to make these explorations accessible to a wider audience. For him these adventures in surround sound are “one way of extending the cinematic experience by removing the image but still having that immersive, tactile…sonic experience.” In his own work he tends to invest time and money in the “transducer that’s at the coalface of the sonic phenomena”—the microphone—making environmental recordings that, through simple editing techniques and surround sound technology, can create “sophisticated renderings of environments and real spaces” and “hyperreal experiences.”

Julian Knowles, sound artist and lecturer in electronic music at University of Western Sydney sees that the recent affordability of 5.1 surround sound technology for both production and distribution provides the opportunity for artists who have already been working in surround sound to finally distribute their work for domestic listening. An international DVD release through Extreme Records of his spatial sound explorations is in the pipeline.



Andrée Greenwell is a composer who explores the area of music/sound and video/film. With her 1997 work The Medusa Head she worked with animator Paul Butler to make a richly textured episodic aria for video. Writing the score specifically for the video production, she was interested in fighting the “exploitative way” in which music is used in traditional screen narrative. Her desire is “to use music, and/or sound design to drive narrative. Or to have a very strong narrative input.” Recently she adapted her hour-long live performance Laquiem (libretto by Kathleen Mary Fallon) to a 6 minute film. With sound design by Scott Horscroft and mixed for Dolby stereo by Julian Knowles, this work achieves a stunning fusion of vision, music and sound design including an exquisite underwater sequence.

Greenwell says that she writes music in a “timbral way” leaving space for other elements and subverting the hierarchies so that “the music is working very much as sound design—the sound design and the music are equal.” Her approach to technology is matter of fact. “In a certain kind of territory it’s inevitable that there will be certain amounts of technology. I think you can hardly avoid it…I start with a concept and then figure out the best way to realise it.” Her next work takes her back to performance with a semi-documentary music theatre work, Dreaming Transportation, which will involve projections.

WA artist Lindsay Vickery has also been investigating the fusions and interactions of sound, video and body. He has been exploring the Yamaha Miburi Midi jumpsuit and its interplay with STEIM’s Image/ine software. The suit consists of flex sensors on the limbs, pressure sensor shoe inserts and handgrips. Vickery’s system has several triggering configurations, but basically uses Max/MSP (a software system for the patching together of other software components) to trigger sounds. The Image/ine software manipulates video footage in realtime, incorporating both prerecorded data and live feeds. In your sky is filled with billboards of the sky, developed for the REV festival, a dancer could manipulate both audio and video elements. Vickery has also used his system in skadada’s dance work Scan (2002) with images supplied by Tissue Culture and Art (Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and Guy Ben-Ary), audio samples by John Patterson with the choreography of John Burtt and Katie Lavers.

The integration of video and sound in realtime is also the preoccupation of Tesseract Research Laboratories, producers of Video Combustion, a large scale collaboration between VJs, sound artists and performers to create an immersive, improvisational multimedia environment. (RT50). Tesseract refer to the feedback loop of technology and artistic exploration: “We are investigating our areas of interest [live group performance and video jamming] whilst developing and exploring the technology to do so, which actually further develops our knowledge of the artistic preoccupations.” They have developed a network of hardware including “obsolete broadcast video matrix switchers and modified video mixers” and software which includes “group communication tools for developers and performers, and routing tools for live distribution of video and audio.”

The development of of the Max/MSP environment which Knowles describes as “a programming environment which allows the user to build instruments for processing audio, video and MIDI signals” along with other software such as nato 0.55+ and Jitter has allowed “image processing [to] be intimately connected to the audio processing by data flows from one to the other.” This can be seen in the work of Wade Marynowsky aka Spanky and also lalila.net who explored the live video/sound/performance matrix in Cycling Hildegarde as part of their residency at Performance Space in August this year. Knowles also sees the use of gaming tools—“using environments designed for games authoring and hacking them to make real time instruments”—as another avenue for development.

In the area of sound design in performance, one of the most innovative artists is Garry Bradbury. His sound scores for works such as Nikki Heywood’s Burn Sonata and Inland Sea seem to exist in their own space and yet also intersect, drive and support the performance. Most recently his massive and monstrous sound design for Benjamin Winspear’s Macbeth (Sydney Theatre Company) was for me the core of the work.

Bradbury says, “Though I have a love/hate relationship happening with my PC (or rather a kind of nauseating co-dependence), I find myself increasingly drawn to older technologies (I always have), player piano (new work in progress), turntables (ongoing Sanity Clause project with Ian Andrews), percussion (I feel like hitting something), and voice (I’m singing again after 15 years, as well as doing lots of text cut up).” Bradbury uses styles and technologies developed for live ‘pure’ audio to create interactive or relational sound scores for performance. Other sound artists working with performance are Liberty Kerr and Barbara Clare (magnusmusic), Darrin Verhagen and Boo Chapple. Tasmania-based sound designer Chapple, who is presently working on is theatre ltd’s White Trash Medium Rare, says of the feedback loop between technology and artistic concept: “New technologies in sound allow an exploration of sonic elements that do not exist outside of these technologies, thus, determining the world within which concepts, ideas and preoccupations can develop.”


Sounds and…well, sound

Mitchell Whitelaw calls it “inframedia audio”, a new zone in media space where sound is a “media artefact.” It is the manipulation of emissions of electronic signals—sometimes digital in origin but not always—actively avoiding “content” and leaning towards processes and improvisation. (Whitelaw, “Inframedia Audio”, ArtLink Vo1 21#3, 2001). In Sydney this kind of thinking is exemplified by impermanent.audio. Caleb K, producer of impermament. audio’s monthly evening of experimental audio moments defines it by what it’s not: “not beats…not background music…not dance music…it’s not multimedia…not narrative. It’s not very often loud.” The performance of this form creates “a sound object rather than a physical object—but the sound is physical itself—so we’ve still got a physicality going on, but instead of 100% relying on our eyes we let our ears to do it.”

Many artists are using computer-based digital technologies, like d.Haines, Vicki Browne, and Ai Yamamoto, but many others are resisting the upgrade trajectory or they’re rediscovering older technologies. Jasmine Guffond, half of Minit with Torben Tilly, has been led into sound art by her desire to explore “less conventional or traditional musical forms, structures, sounds and instrumentation. Our music-making process has involved a very limited range of technologies over the last 5 years which has allowed us to focus on certain ideas and musical forms without getting too distracted by new technology for technology’s sake.” Using a sampler, mixing desk and FX pedals, Minit create beautiful undulating soundscapes that incrementally shift through textures and spatial orientations. At the extreme end of the scale is Peter Blamey who requires only a mixing desk which he patches so it generates the sound he then sculpts. Philip Samartzis suggests that artists are rediscovering and reconfiguring these technologies “because of a different perceptual process, a different way of listening” that has developed from our new media immersions.

This trend is also apparent at Small Black Box, a monthly sound event that takes place at Metro Arts in Brisbane. Greg Jenkins, sound artist in endophonic and one of the organisers of the event (along with Andrew Kettle and Scott Sinclair) says: “There’s a sort of hand-tooled aesthetic behind SBB, a lot of it’s down and dirty.” But there is also a mix between the use of older and cutting edge technology. On the same evening in June they had Liv Bennett who used 1/4 inch tape machines playing loops of varying lengths, some reaching into the audience, and then Adam Donovan who used hi-quality audio output devices and the German made visual tracking software eyecon to control the audio. Jenkins says of his own methodology “I deliberately limit what I use…because I simply don’t have enough time to learn everything that is out there and learn it to such an extent that I can be usefully creative with it.” Jenkins sees that, between Small Black Box and Lawrence English’s regular sound event fabrique at the Brisbane Powerhouse, the sound scene is thriving in Brisbane.


Sending sounds

Primarily, this survey has been about the influence of new media technology on the production of sound and music. Delivery and distribution have also been incredibly influenced by new media developments. MP3 technologies and streaming have revolutionised the global distribution of audio art and created communities across virtual borders. www.laudible.net and radioqualia have made Australian sound art available to a global community. South Australian artist eyespine has a complete net-based approach ranging from methods of delivery, streaming MP3s and access to hardcopy ordering, to the creation of a Shockwave-based interactive online mixing system (and he is one of many taking this approach). And of course traditional radio, such as ABC’s The Listening Room cannot be ignored as an important supporter, commissioner and disseminator of new media-based audio arts, supporting the likes of Colin Black, Sophea Lerner and Robert Iolini.

When I commenced the research for this article, I unwittingly set up a determinism/voluntarism polarity which, as with most dichotomies, has proven itself too inflexible to be of value. The reality is that people will continue to hunt for their sonic substances in the areas that are available to them, some old, some new. Perhaps it is best to approach new media with Heidegger’s view of technology—“not as a tool or machine, but rather a process, a dynamic of ‘revealing’.” The older media supply the foundations for the new and the new creates perceptual shifts and ways of reconfiguring the old. And the loop goes on…

Gail Priest is a sound designer for performance. In 2001/2 she was artist in residence at ABC Radio Performance & Features creating Music Theatre for Radio.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. 19

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

1 October 2002