The world recomposed

Jonathan Marshall profiles WA sound artist Rob Muir

transMUTE

transMUTE

transMUTE

Rob Muir and I are standing on his front porch before what looks like a gigantic, buffed metal loud-hailer, over one metre tall. He can’t remember what this soon to be installed giant is officially titled, so we nickname it “the proboscis” (we later establish that it will be called transMUTE when it’s set up at the new East Victoria Park Station, due to open 2008). There is a strange gurgling echoing through its depths, then Rob claps sharply in front of it and it goes silent… “Reset”, Muir explains. I lean forward and scratch on the point of its central protrusion, tap around the amplifying cone and speak harshly to it. My voice comes back to me as high speed bird twitters and chipmunk talk and the same sequence is repeated in big, slow, bassy waves, rumbling within the profundity of the cone and its associated sub-woofer.

transMUTE is the latest in a line of collaborations authored by Muir—here with sculptor Stuart Green and programmer Dave Primmer. The list of Muir’s associates is impressive. He’s worked several times with ruined piano maestro Ross Bolleter. His recent pieces with Cat Hope under the moniker of Metaphonica have extended the aesthetic possibilities of the mobile phone while in 1989 he produced with Rainer Linz one of the many radiophonic programs he has put together over the years for organisations such as WA University’s 6UVS-FM (now RTR-FM). Muir has also collaborated with various performance artists, as in his 1993 piece with Mike Nanning at PICA, Wigwam For a Goose’s Bridle, in which various electrical devices were ‘played’ using a dimmable lighting board, much as one would play an electronic piano—only here engine whirls, clicks and flashes of lamplight made up the ‘notes.’ In 2003, Muir also contributed a selection of audio grabs as inspiration and accompaniment for the improvised performance, Rest In Silence, by performer Tony Osborne at the Blue Room Theatre.

With output ranging from theatre scores to rock band recordings, and the early years of Evos New Music (now Tura Music Events), Muir’s work is difficult to categorise. Musician Cat Hope initially introduced Muir to me as a “sound archivist”, and this seems a fair characterisation. While he no longer works with the extremely detailed tape cut-ups for which he was renowned in the 1980s, he retains a passion for unearthing lost or hidden sound universes. Like Bolleter’s work with aged, neglected instruments—which Muir composed into an evocative, melancholy sound world on their CD, The Night Moves on Little Feet (1999)—he still seeks the neglected, the old and the marginal from which he crafts recordings that are at once novel and yet rich with the sonic and emotional patina of time and space. For example in New Teeth for the Mrs (2003), a piece composed for Club Zho, Muir provided melodramatic musical accompaniments such as one might have heard on daytime TV to an edited audio letter originally recorded in a 1960s home and which Rob had found on an old reel-to-reel tape player. Suffusing this odd and sadly ironic little study is the sense of the absence and presence of the aged couple who are documented on the recording, and their unfulfilled longing for immediate communication with their physically distant children for whom they are composing the tape. One catches glimpses of the family, of intense feuds never fully resolved, but whose details remain opaque, lost in the mists of time and in the airwaves—much as the couple who made the recording have themselves now disappeared from this mortal, aural coil.

Rob Muir’s sourcing of the sonic marginalia of contemporary life is not however purely historicist. His project is also social and spatial. In 2001, for example, he entered the at times alarming world of kids who passed through the suburban Community Centre of East Victoria Park. This included not only children enjoying nearby sports equipment, but also street kids, youth gangs and other groups. The artist collaborated with this community to collect recordings for use in an installation entitled Giving the Kids a Voice. The final work featured a selection of randomised compositions played through a set of headphones located near the community centre. The result is a truly amazing selection of highly processed, distorted and seriously thumping bass beats, hip-hop rhymes, youthful play and sometimes disturbing conversations (in which one unidentified young woman notes that she, her mother, her sister and her best friend are all currently pregnant—but that in 2 days she would not be pregnant anymore). Muir’s moulding of gleeful beat-boxing, masculine posing, and discussions of the aesthetics and dangers of tagging and graffiti creates a hard sound realm of ridicule, threat, urbanism and angry, pleasurable vigour. While Muir concedes that it was not easy to get the kids to talk to him, various strategies—such as placing the earphones onto his subjects’ heads so that they could hear his distortion tricks and other effects to render them anonymous or amusing—enabled him to overcome their resistance.

Muir cites as a particular highlight of recent years his 2002 collaboration with Alex Hayes, Project 44, temporarily installed at Mount Magnet, WA. The piece featured 20 44-gallon drums fitted with speakers that resonated with a range of field recordings and sound art referring to the containers’ histories (industrial noises, oily, glutinous exclamations, gentler watery plashing and so on). Though sonically and musically complex, Muir was particularly satisfied with an incidental phenomenon whereby the vibrations within the drums meant that any dust, sand or dew lying on the lids created intricate, often apparently gravity-defying patterns changing as the compositions played. Many audience members camping at the site brought their children over to observe this entrancing, early morning dance of moisture and grit.

It is a strangely visual anecdote coming from Muir who otherwise insists that sound artists should prioritise the sonic over the visual. But it is indicative of this artist’s embracing, holistic approach. Whether working with other artists or with audiences, Rob Muir remains committed to producing multi-disciplinary work that is rich with the emotional, spatial and sonic fullness of a parallel world, complete with its own memories, patterns and terrestrial tremors.

transMUTE, sound/concept: Rob Muir, sculpture Stuart Green, programming Dave Primmer; main platform, East Victoria Park Station, from 2008

RealTime issue #74 Aug-Sept 2006 pg. 52

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

1 August 2006