Substantial Echoes

Jonathan Marshall

In one of the essays from the Liquid Architecture 3 National Sound Art Festival catalogue, Luisa Rausa uses the myth of Echo as a starting point for sonic arts. Echo was banished to a cave to pine for her visually-obsessed lover Narcissus, cursed to return the words of others until she became nothing but an insubstantial echo. Sound has long been associated with such absent-yet-present ghosts, an ideal that reached its height with the extruded tape effects and smudged, crinkly soundscapes of musique concrete.

Although Jeremy Collings and Robin Fox supplemented these venerable tools with contemporary electronic devices, their work strongly evoked this tradition, creating a dense soundscape worthy of Xenakis. Natasha Anderson added inventive, breathy sounds, ranging from incomplete vocalisations, to wind glancing off a flute or gentle recorder notes. These were stripped, banished and contorted by Fox and Collings. The metaphor of Echo or Plato’s cave, of incomplete calls and responses drifting into abstraction, seems apt.

The gritty, spacious soundscapes that are a signature of later, digital processes—what Darrin Verhagen calls “delicate instability”—also featured in the festival. Black Farm for example was a strangely evocative, abstract AV work in which George Stasjic offered garish, cartoon images of the heads of Afro-American vampires and sheep, the camera moving slowly in or out. This was accompanied by Tim Catlin’s open, humming, acoustic world, which, in his words “privileges sonic density, texture and movement.”

The festival overall, however, was notable for its diversity. Bruce Mowson for example has a technologically-dirty-sounding take on minimalism, looping simple, hissy sounds so that his drones become the aural equivalent of op-art. Aural perceptions generate changes in modulation and emphasis where none objectively exist. Mowson’s short festival offering may not have been his best, but it had the elegant simplicity which informs all of his work.

Martin Ng on the other hand produced sharp spikes within an airy, static realm, employing what he described as “the molecular biology of DJing.” Using tiny sonic inversions, he crafted great waves of dense aural assault. Ng performed alongside guitar-pickup manipulator Oren Ambarchi. I confess that Ambarchi’s recent CD left me somewhat nonplussed. Ambarchi characteristically uses extremely quiet sounds and I lack the patience for such excessively hard listening. The live performance began in a similarly desultory fashion, audiences straining to hear anything, but Ambarchi and Ng developed it into the equivalent of an acoustic tenderising-mallet. Ambarchi has a second pick-up on his guitar-neck, and gently tapped it, generating layers of hums. Ng used a similarly cumulative approach. The final crescendo therefore constituted a massive, overdetermined wall of noises. The intensity of this conclusion was compelling—smoke even emanating from Ng’s amplifier!

Several notable AV pieces reworked sonic and visual historic traces. Cassandra Tytler’s My Happiness for example evoked a distressing yet affectionate portrait of Elvis—Elvis young, Elvis fat, Elvis beautiful, Elvis sweaty, as well as his fans—all passing over the viewer’s eye as if through a glass darkly. Light, shade, colour, everything seemed slightly off as Elvis’ voice leaped from one prison of echoing repetition (“Love me/Love me/Love me”) to another. Philip Brophy’s re-scoring of 1980s, easy-listening, rock-videos (Elton John, Billy Joel, Phil Collins) was far less kind to his subjects. Their voices were inverted into screams which Brophy described as possessing “a repulsive yet attractive granularity.” The most revealing aspect of Evaporated Music however was how easily punctured are such fat-cat musos’ conceits. The original film clips which Brophy replayed were crafted to sketch self-important narratives of romance or rebellion. With the voices no longer underscoring this however, these images immediately fragmented—without any further intervention upon Brophy’s part—into a series of meaningless, disconnected shards.

Sonia Leber noted in her paper a similar gap between sounds as historic elements (the recorded voice) and traces (emotion, breath etc) acting primarily through a-linguistic sonic qualities. Her public installations in collaboration with David Chesworth are concerned with gentle interventions in this field. The sounds of dog-owners calling to their pets featured in The Master’s Voice which uses charged or intimate vocalisations to manifest within new social spaces the babble of absent interactions.

Perhaps the most satisfying sonic ghosting of the festival was Hashima. This supremely beautiful study of an abandoned urban settlement on an island reminded me of the haunted visions and sounds of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The camera switched from largely static shots of layered, dirty walls, to the detritus of people whose lives remained present yet inaccessible, while Jennifer Sochackyi provided an equally haunted score. Gentle echoes, shifts in proximity between the always slightly-removed sound of children, the hubbub of incomprehensible conversations—all became Echoes active within the caverns of history.

Liquid Architecture National Sound Art Festival 3, curators Nat Bates, Bruce Mowson & Camilla Hannan, July 2-20, including Liquid Crystal, North Melbourne Town Hall, July 11; Liquid Vision, Treasury Theatre, July 1; Liquid Papers, Treasury Theatre, July 13-14

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 7

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002