Sound bodies

Tony Osborne samples Sydney’s Liquid Architecture 7

Martin Baumgartner

Martin Baumgartner

Martin Baumgartner

The sound art roadshow, Liquid Architecture, now in its 7th year, presents national and international acts but also picks up performers in each of the 5 cities it visits. It’s an ambitious program co-directed by Melbourne founder, Nat Bates, Lawrence English in Brisbane and Sydney team Shannon O’Neil and Ben Byrne. The Sydney section included 4 nights of sound performances, an afternoon performance of audio-visual works, artist talks and workshops.

Locating the Sydney forum discussions in the convivial atmosphere of Performance Space’s courtyard worked very well, the informality perhaps enabling artists to better explain their sonic interests. Surprisingly, I thought, performance presentation and audience relations were a concern of many of those who spoke although a rough consensus emerged that “the performance is about the sound.”

This was true of the festival’s opening set on Wednesday by Sydney vocalist and sound poet Amanda Stewart and Saturday’s finale by French turntable artist ErikM. In both performances there was a profound physical interaction with the sound material that never distracted the listener’s ear. Stewart’s interplay between the recordings of her voice and the live sound produced in situ was a dance between the left and right microphone. She teased out the narrative of the day, stuttering, masticating, spitting words or their sound parts to accompany or lead herself through inscrutable semantics that made perfect sonic sense.

ErikM started by extracting a high-pitched screech from an array of effects but soon employed 2 turntables and quick change vinyl to accompany his dance around the containers of sound laid out before him. I enjoyed the way he bludgeoned silence into the service of the sonic events. Pauses and short rests served constantly to underline the percussive sound choices made from his materials. At times long decay served compositional effect only to be vibrated back into life before falling again toward oblivion. This was a breathtaking run through a layered multiplicity of samples that included violins, vibraphones, voice, vinyl pop and crackle and extracts from beat music. At one stage ErikM attached packaging tape to a turntable cartridge and unreeled it in a criss-cross motion around the space. The sound of tearing was explosive, receding when the distance from the pick-up was too great—a visualised fade-out.

Laptop artist Martin Baumgartner plays the silence too. On Friday night he moved deftly within the pulsing earthquakes and distressed overload of systems which sometimes originated in the microphone he thrust into his mouth. He leapt about and crouched under and around the table of operations, creating visual punctuations that accented what we heard. And we heard a lot: screams, dips and ascensions of voices flying into space. The connection to human vocality was at once obvious yet tenuous. Baumgartner’s frenetic physical engagement with his material mirrored his sound-processing which was intriguing, exhilarating and produced in finely detailed layers.

Baumgartner was loud. And justifiably so. In Saturday’s artist talk Darrin Verhagen (aka EPA) explained his interest in the “dynamic relationship between a sense of chaos and a sense of craft.” For him, “it’s only at high volume that you can get that relationship between chaos and control.” His performance commenced with some conventionally pitched anthems messed up occasionally by an ominous pulsing. What followed were explosive interventions using shifts of rhythm and aural time-space to disrupt the sonic places Verhagen had created, transforming them into episodes of profound density. A logic developed between the background and the foreground, places were introduced and then destroyed or overrun by layer upon layer of chaos. Hearing this musical straw-man collapse as noise overtook melody was very exciting.

Peter Blamey was pretty loud too. He kicked off Friday night’s proceedings with one strum of an electric guitar. From here on it was a manipulation of feedback, but using minor adjustments of the proximity between guitar and amplifier. This piece was richly layered once the ear became attuned—a play of higher frequency harmonics like so many phantoms bedeviling the inescapable and relentless drone of the guitar. Complexity emerged, sounding at times like a distant Jimmy Smith solo being played through the wall of the neighbours’ house or a Mongolian throat singer asserting the right to be heard through the noise. In this work overtones were the point and one well made.

The highlight of the week for me was a duet on Wednesday night. We heard a rhythmic pairing of plastic, tin, iron, wood and bow with bass from Clayton Thomas and the blowing of an uncharacteristically undismantled saxophone from Jim Denley. Denley pushed his lungs and mouth through extremes of endurance to find textures and notes by pressing the bowl of the sax into his leg or tipping back the spittle to create a tapestry of exchange between dancing harmonics and metallic emphysema. Thomas and Denley read the shifting dynamics of their instruments and the duet so well that transitions between one sound space and another were seamless. Their listening was so acute, the interplay so precise that they might have been following notation rather than their finely tuned intuition. The result was a wonderland, an evolving atmosphere that stretched the parameters of acoustic sounds to their limits.

This was a hard act to follow for the Loop Orchestra who were nevertheless a perfect foil for the visceral journey that had preceded them. This 4-man collaboration, begun by Richard Fielding over 20 years ago, uses reel to reel tape recorders and short loops of recordings to construct fields of warm analog sound. The performers looked like a panel of judges presiding over the taped evidence which on this particular night was presented as a series of human coughing sounds. There were occasional moments of humour too as loops and audience-spluttering mingled in this mesmeric blanket of staccato arias.

This night, like the rest of the season, had a satisfying thematic feel with its acoustic/analog permutations. Thursday showcased experiments in song-based hybrids, Friday’s programme worked with a sense of focus on the instruments and Saturday seemed to be about source transformation (Ross Bencina’s mix of natural and electronic sound was particularly satisfying). Difficult listening for some maybe and long nights for the dedicated but Liquid Architecture 7 set up exciting juxtapositions and provoked plenty of interesting debate.

Liquid Architecture 7, National Director Nat Bates, Sydney Directors Shannon O’Neill, Ben Byrne; Performance Space, Sydney, July 5-9, www.liquidarchitecture.org.au

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 53

© Tony Osborne; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006