With ears pinned back…

Gail Priest: What is music? Sydney

I used to think sound art was about the sound of sound. After engaging is a crash course of events and recordings, I discovered that, similar to more traditional music, a lexicon of noises generated electrically and digitally, has emerged that one can become accustomed to, begin to absorb as naturally as equal tempered tuning. So experiencing a sample of What is Music? events, I came to the (perhaps belated) revelation that more than just being about sonic textures, sound art is often about discerning the (sometimes apparent lack of) relationship between the modes of production and the sound they make.

Saturday night at The Studio, Sydney Opera House, offered a program jammed with different methodologies of making. Jim Denley opened the evening in acoustic mode, playing a saxophone and contact mike. Circular breathing, he created a gurgling drone textured by mouth clicks, tongue tocks and breathy grunts. At one stage the only sound you hear is the scraping of the mouthpiece over his stubble. The performance appears to be an exploration of air within the curls and corners of the instrument, an internal examination of the instrument itself. Joyce Hinterding, tuned us into the ether with aerials, computer and mixing desk. She created an increasingly dense carpet of drones out of electrical hum, tuning into higher tones and buzzes, tapping into slower, loping waves that chopped up the air around us.

Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras launched into a sonic maelstrom, Fox on computer and Pateras virtuosically pounding a small keyboard and activating changes through a breath activated mouth piece. Then just as suddenly the chaos pared back to a respite of a metronome looped and effected. Pateras then took to the strings of a deconstructed piano with kitchen cutlery, chopping and impaling the notes further manipulated by Fox. Toshimaru Nakumura and Sachiko M created a cool, quiet world of machine made sine waves, electrical pings, and pulses. There was no layering, just pure tones introduced for a few seconds and then removed. Binary, on/off. Phantom tones and warm hum of air conditioning. All moments controlled and measured.

Ottomo Yoshihide dragged us back to gritty earth with an improvisation for guitar and record player. He used the guitar to generate drones, occasionally moving into a rock-god lick of suspended notes, pumping up the overdrive, creating loops that hit the torso and kept cycling long after. (I am told it was an Ornette Coleman standard and must admit to ignorance on this one). Finally he threw a cymbal onto the turntable creating a manic carrillion, your head stuck inside the bell. Some couldn’t handle it, others stayed to the bitter end mesmerised or paralysed by its delicate obnoxiousness.

A regular feature of What is Music? is caleb k’s impermanent.audio—this year at PACT in Erskineville, creating a kind of rock concert feel compared to the intimacy of Hibernian House. Ai Yamamoto (Japan/Aus) on laptop (also running visuals) created a dense yet delicate sonic landscape with cascading streams of sound-notes and noises rippling over each other, constantly descending. Her palette of sounds is exquisitely created, concise, crystalline yet full bodied. She manages to produce under-rumbles with no grit in them. It is a stunningly “pretty” sonic universe. Anthony Guerra (Aus/UK) cycled feedback round the speakers, round your brain, with pops and glitches keeping the space unpredictable. He fused the sound into a massive perverse growl, both beautiful and ugly, which eventually pulled back to where it began. Snawkler started with acoustic samples, fingers on the fretboard of a double bass. Their use of samples is like unfinished thoughts of multi-streams overlapping, clashing, overriding other frequencies, a kind of cutup orchestral chaos out of which sonic thought bubbles arise. Their second piece using gamelan samples is a beautiful exploration of glassy and metallic colours. Günter Müller (Switzerland) and Tetuzi Akiyama (Japan) provided an improvisation, interesting in the uneasy differences of sound production. Müller bowed small gongs and metallic objects and played with the overtones, while Tetuzi Akiyama investigated (again) the sonic qualities of an electric guitar—running a metal ruler over the strings, applying things to the velcro strip attached to the body-nothing more than an exploration of the exploration. SEO performed with a joystick, and created sounds that seemed to have lost their video game. Standing in front of the audience, shoes off ready for action, he toggles the stick with full bodied gestures, manipulating loops of hysterical voices and agitated intonations that accelerate and escalate like a car race. I’d be interested to hear works with other sample palettes. Toshimaru Nakamura, played once again, but solo, in a similar vein to the studio night, with simple tones, emphasising the negative aural space—the trains to Erskineville, the sneezes. At the end of a program of such dense sound moments, his work was like a cleansing of the aural sphere.

In only 8 years Oren Ambachi and Robbie Avenaim's what is music? has become a vital celebration of Australian sonic explorations, exploitations and manipulations. After the hangover, activities will continue in dark corners, warehouse and white gallery cubes around Australia, spurred on by the growing sensation that there really is something significant going on here, beginning to impress itself on the Australian cultural psyche and the international scene. Many sonic loving (are we batlike?) creatures await, ears back, for the next instalment.

what is music?,The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Sat July 21, impermanent.audio, PACT, Tues July 23.

RealTime issue #51 Oct-Nov 2002 pg. web

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

1 October 2002