Monday, July 28, 2008

My Debut Article, "Getting Aural".

This year has been a year of debuts for me: my first solo show, my first travel grant, and now my first published article. You can read it at or you can read it below.

Getting Aural - Liquid Architecture, Sydney

submitted by Tony Curran last modified 2008-07-27 20:47

At Liquid Architecture, a national touring sound-art festival, laptop musicians, experimental instruments, inventors and vocalists shared the stage with sound installations, people trying to flog homemade sound equipment and the odd heckler. It’s chaotic, confusing and occasionally overwhelming, writes Tony Curran.

“So what exactly is Sound Art?” bright eyed Angus from Canberra asked me on our way to Liquid Architecture – the national touring Sound Festival which was held at the Factory theatre on 11th and 12th of July. Sound Art is the term used to describe music which engages the audience on an aural level other than musical entertainment........ or so I thought. I wasn’t exactly sure which is why I wanted to check the whole thing out. At least for this weekend, sound art was personified by the likes of toy.bizarre, Robert Normandeau, Lawrence English, Nat, Jacques Soddell , Kusum Normoyle, Andrew Pekler, Marcus Schmickler and Metalog.

If you expect dancing at a sound festival, you'd have trouble finding the beat. The recital inspired layout ushered the audience toward a classical approach to experiencing the performance. The best way to imagine this would be to think of a solo violinist at the opera house, take away the violin, replace it with a laptop and surround sound speaker set up. This is what I call contemporary music because it isn't pop music. It's fresh and located in the digital music realm.

What separates sound art from the familiar music of popular and underground culture is its separation from conventional rhythms and melodies. Here, electronics carry the timbre where as with most music, the timbre comes from carefully designed instruments or emulators of carefully designed instruments. At Liquid Architecture however, orchestras and bands give way to one man bands who produce the music on laptops. The language changes and notes give way to frequencies.

Performers Nick Wishari and Hirofumi Uchino as well as Metalog were welcome exceptions to the one man laptop phenomenon. Showing us that sound doesn't have to come from an elusive software interface, but can be used from found objects like toys and home modified instruments. This mixed up the performances a bit and it felt like there was hope for audience interaction. Nick and Hirofumi use conventional instruments such as guitar in addition to a myriad of toys through a bunch of effects to create glitchy scratchy sounds which form low tempo rhythms. The chaos of distortion and the unpredictable nature of their sonic structure gave their work the energy of a car crash aftermath.

A nice contrast to the chaotic linear assemblage of toy music was the gentle arrangement of a DIY sound art orchestra. Metalog are a six piece band with home made, invented and modified instruments. Their music progresses like free form jazz. They communicate with eye contact, their vocalist uses a kind of soft pentacostalist scat, and their set evolves from solo improvs which every member has a play. Jim from Metalog refers to their approach as a “corporeal interface”.

While they are aware of the electronic component of their art, their bodies produce sounds, gestures and their instruments create a raw acoustic character that is central – spacially and ideologically - to their work. Although they are fans themselves of one man computer music acts who get some epic sounds their corporeal approach to sound art is their response to the “same-ish ecomical approach to the sound art performance” – integrating new technologies with the body to push further.

Metalog's work was gentler than most of the acts at Liquid Architecture so it was surprising when they became the sole target of a heckler. “This supposed to be some kind of music??" was the first of several loud interjections, the aggression of the male heckler not unlike sports coaches who hurl abuse and instructions from the sideline. The audience stirred. “You better hurry up and figure out what kind of music you got 'cos I'm getting pretty bored.” Ending most spectacularly with, “do you have a SINGLE PIECE OF FUCKING MUSIC? YOU GOOSE!”.

Whatever, it's sound art, which means it was probably all part of the show, right?

The band's response a few days later was enlightening. “Brad [the heckler] is actually a really nice guy, it's just when he gets a few drinks in him,” explained Jim – the band's nucleus. He said he was initially pissed off but soon became thankful. “We really felt a change in the audience after that, they began to listen more. Besides I thought his voice sounded good. It worked well with the acoustics of the room, and afterwards the room made sense.”

From this attitude it is clear that sound art has a distinct ethic to it. It’s all about exploring the acoustic space, building a relationship between frequencies, contrast, building dynamics and tensions. It took me a lot of hating before I got to the loving. I kept comparing the sound's to movie soundtracks. Kasum was a horror movie, Heil Spirit's was an arthouse movie. I realised I was a hater of sound art because it just seemed to be doing what cinema does and as soon as I realised that I fell in love with it because sound art came before Hollywood. Hollywood took sound art and made it accessible within a certain visual context and only within that context. From the silent films, to the talkies, to the sensational blockbuster movies the development of cinematic virtuoso can be largely awarded to the caliber of the sound artists employed to create the desired acoustic environment. Here we get the sound for it's own sake.

While this kind of music festival may require some serious patience, there was definitely something there for everyone: an opportunity to explore our sense of hearing beyond whatever indie-rock/pop techno/hiphop four-four melodic tune is on our ipods that follows the same structures, roots and genres as all the other tracks on our itunes. Some talent to look out for is Melissa Hunt, Lawrence English, Metalog, Heil Spirits, Nat Bates, Kasum and Jaques Biddel. All have new and interesting interpretations on sound, the sense we use but don't really think about.

Image courtesy of Cedric Peyronnet/toy.bizarre

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