Sonic Residues: an education in sound

Jim Barbour

The opportunity to be immersed in an aural environment created with the care and attention to detail that all art deserves is rare. Curator Garth Paine gave us such an opportunity at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art late last year with the second in the Sonic Residues series. The event involved concert performances and installation works by more than 60 composers and sound artists from across the globe. As Paine indicated in the program notes: “Electro-acoustic music is a viscous, fluid and engaging media; a form that promotes sound as an exhibitable object, as well as a totally immersive environment.”

Occupying almost all the available spaces at ACCA, including the rear garden, sound installations drew listeners into multi-dimensional aural worlds. Single point sound sources hung on walls; multiple point sources relocated sound from distant places, creating soundfields to be explored; interactive technology encouraged listeners to become participants, to contribute to or dynamically modify the soundfield; and confronting visual images of the human sound production mechanism provided stark contrast between the physical and the emotional constructions of the voice. These installations allowed listeners to contemplate sound at their own pace, to focus on the macro and the micro within each work and, with the aid of the program notes, to consider both the composer/artist’s intention and its realisation. It is precisely this unhurried consideration that is essential to enter the world of sonic art, since it is perhaps the least understood and least appreciated branch of composition, far behind film sound and virtually all forms of music for most listeners.

Indeed, it is the lack of understanding of sonic art that Sonic Residues sought to address. Paine presented a range of works by established, internationally recognised composers as well as emerging artists, all eager to present their work to new audiences and to hear them performed in a large space using state of the art audio technology. It was the performances that most captured my aural imagination. Seven evening concerts, each of approximately 90 minutes, were held in the large gallery space at ACCA. Such a space is inherently limited acoustically. Paine and assistant curator Ian Stevenson attempted to improve the acoustics with curtains and cushions and achieved a fair degree of success. But the heart of the concerts was the high fidelity, 8 loudspeaker, surround sound system supplied by key sponsor System Sound and arranged evenly around the listeners. Using a professional mixing console, it was possible to send any sound source to any or all of the 8 speakers, providing a unique opportunity for total 3-dimensional immersion in the soundfield. Thus the audience could experience the concert works in a tightly controlled environment approaching the quality of professional audio recording studios.

While many of the performed works were realised as stereo recordings, during their reproduction they were diffused by concertmaster Ian Stevenson throughout the acoustic space. Stevenson applied his knowledge and sensitivity for the works and the technology to pan the 2 channels of sound around the 8 speakers, perceptually creating discrete sources as part of an enveloping soundfield. The sense of motion of sounds around the space was at times breathtaking, adding a new dimension to the works. There were also several works created using discrete 8 channel recorders, which were reproduced from that format. Here, the true point source possibilities of the 8 speakers were explored, with the accuracy of spatial location and the depth of the aural envelopment as testimony to the quality of the composition and the fidelity of the reproducing technology.

Two forums completed the program, with the first an enlightening overview of the theoretical, technical and creative aspects of aural spatialisation by Ian Stevenson. Coming as it did in the middle of the concert series where Stevenson applied his considerable skills to diffuse the performed works, this proved an appropriate forum to consider and debate this aspect of performance realisation. The artistic diffusion of a stereo work into a multi-speaker environment is a little like having a colour wheel illuminating a Brett Whiteley. Every now and then we get true stereo as originally intended, while the rest of the time we hear sound sources all around. The results may be artistically skilful, interesting, even exciting, but are they a true representation of the composer/artist’s intentions?

The second forum brought together composers, artists and academics in a moderated debate concerning the current state of sonic art practice, listener perceptions and academic review. From the distinguished panel, including Philip Brophy, Ros Bandt and Jeff Pressing, emerged a sad reflection on the position of sound research and education. Within music schools nationwide, the first academic position lost is usually electro-acoustic music, and music is often the first department lost from a humanities faculty. Film sound is a small part of cinema studies, radio only a minor component of cultural studies and within multimedia and online technologies, audio often receives only cursory consideration. And where are acoustic principles in architecture and interior design? Consequently, there is little education available about sound and its artistic possibilities, which leads directly to a significant under-representation in galleries and in small attendances at events like Sonic Residues. It is ironic and, in light of the previous observations, disappointing that the concerts in this series that had the greatest number of listeners were those with visual elements, either as instrumental performers or video artists. For an aural person like me, these visual performances were often the least interesting, particularly the tired, cliché ridden video art pieces.

Overall, Sonic Residues presented electro-acoustic music and sound art in a manner that best represented the quality and diversity of works by national and international composer/artists. Garth Paine has used his extensive resources to bring together both established and emerging talent and added to it his own considerable ability as a composer and artist. The opportunity to experience sound art with high fidelity in a largely sympathetic acoustic space, to experience spatial location and aural envelopment with accuracy and depth and to be immersed in a soundfield that excites the aural imagination is a rare and enriching experience. Combined with exciting developments in the surround sound technology of DVD home theatre systems using DTS and Dolby Digital encoding, there is the emerging potential to deliver true spatial location and aural envelopment as part of these explorations in acoustic space. With support from funding bodies, this series may tour regional areas, attempting to fill the void of sound art in galleries, with the hope that in time, more people will experience these soundfields rather than simply read about them.

Sonic Residues: Electro-acoustic music and sound art. Installations, performances & talks curated by Garth Paine, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne, November 18-December 3

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 34

© Jim Barbour; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001