29 August 2008
Awash with Sound - Liquid Architecture 9
© Louise M Cooper
Melissa Lesnie turns sound-art groupie, embarking on a sonic pilgrimage to Melbourne to compare the city’s Liquid Architecture events with Sydney’s. In addition to Sydney and Melbourne, Liquid Architecture 9 (4-26 July) had events in Brisbane, Bendigo, Castlemaine, Cairns and Perth.
Metalog’s eclectic line-up of experimental improvisers had just begun to eke out their sparse soundscape when a member of the audience added his own indignant voice to the mix. A jeering Gary Bradbury (of faded Severed Heads fame) made it clear that he was impatient for something to 'happen', in the musically climactic sense. When nothing did, he let loose a tirade of obnoxious remarks before finally announcing, 'Right, I’m off then'. The performers maintained both ambience and dignity throughout.
Luckily for Metalog, in the grand tradition of succès de scandale, public denouncement spelled triumph. Shortly after its Sydney Liquid Architecture appearance, the group’s next gig was advertised with a quote from that same disgruntled heckler. His verdict – 'you don’t have a musical bone in your body' – seems as valuable to Metalog as a rave review. Recasting such strong-minded criticism as a badge of honour speaks volumes about the raison d’être of a festival like Liquid Architecture, and illuminates Australian attitudes to sonic exploration.
Founded by students almost a decade ago, and attracting a dedicated fan base, the annual event in praise of new sounds has never served as an insular gathering for self-congratulatory electroacoustic colleagues. Rather, it aims to engage a broad public, re-examine the tenuous boundaries separating music, sonic art and sound installation, and perhaps dismantle them altogether. And with the Australasian Computer Music Association’s conference in town during the Sydney festivities, the city was truly awash with sound.
One of the strengths of Liquid Architecture 9, compared to previous years, was the breadth of sound installation coverage, spread across and interacting with a variety of dynamic spaces. Sydney’s Factory Theatre devoted a warmly intimate room to all manner of sound sculpture and sensory encounters, from synaesthetic visuals to model bridges (doubling as functional instruments) to somewhat old-school discman listening stations.
Although I tend to sit on the sidelines of the ongoing cultural rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne, the latter must be acknowledged for the creativity with which its festival curators explored unusual installation venues. Phillip Samartzis’s Immersion series at the Melbourne Planetarium made for a focused, surround-sound listening environment, absorbed by audience lying down with a blanket of stars and comets unfolding overhead. Of the sounds accompanying this unique constellation, Melbourne-based Cornel Wilczek’s Silver Red (available as a CD on ROOM40) was captivating for its subtly insinuating, percussive textures (played by Laurence Pike).
A second site-specific event, Displacement, was held to striking effect at Old Melbourne Gaol. Here, sound and multimedia artists responded to the dark, claustrophobic rooms they were each assigned. Jared Davis must have been the envy of his colleagues when he drew the padded cell out of the hat; the resulting work, based on the mind-addling white noise of multiple televisions, channels an unsettling Cronenbergian resonance. Its title, To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before, derives from graffiti etched into the walls, a powerful union of art object and exhibition setting. Given such innovative use of the space, it’s a shame that the crowd, crammed into confined quarters, was so rambunctious that the atmosphere and historical presence of the gaol was stifled, along with many of the artists’ works designed for close listening. In contrast to this sense of walls closing in, an open-air excursion on the final day of the Melbourne tour provided an opportunity to appreciate the acoustic ecology and sonic construction of the city’s everyday sounds.
In Sydney as well as Melbourne, Liquid Architecture integrated sound installation pieces with audio-visual performance and other live events. At the Melbourne Town Hall, audiences could partake in the intense sonic focus of a laptop set, before ambling upstairs, crawling into illuminated cardboard igloos and playing with the looped records housed within (Michael Prior and Lachlan Conn’s Chronox). The handling of tactile musical artefacts, not often a component of pure laptop performance, was a key feature of acts at each festival. Nick Wishart of Toy Death (Sydney) caressed a mannequin torso onstage to trigger and shape sounds, simultaneously effecting colour changes on the internally lit human form. Far from just a gimmick, this interactive prop enriched Wishart’s signature collection of kids’ musical trinkets. Metalog’s instrumentarium, too, is a curious one, featuring Natasha Anderson’s unwieldy bass recorder (hooked up to Max/MSP software), a prepared vibraphone and modified brass.
Melbourne’s Hi God People was the festival’s most animated group; its abstract (and absurd) performance art, an irreverent take on Cagean philosophy and a Matthew Barney aesthetic, made for a refreshing change after a string of sonically engrossing but visually static laptop shows. Not a laptop in sight – but plenty of ancient instruments, togas, tepees and loincloths. Its elaborate pseudo-cultural rituals, a colourful hybrid of Zen and tribal influences, stood in stark relief alongside the perceived 'serious' ritual of much computer music.
But that is not to suggest that Liquid Architecture was not host to a wealth of engrossing performances focusing purely on sound. Brisbane LA curator Lawrence English drew audiences into slow-building sonic structures created with digital tools, while international acts demonstrated the stylistic depth of the electronic music field. Berlin’s Andrew Pekler mixed samples live using a combination of laptop-based and analogue equipment controlled with astounding – almost balletic – virtuosity. As a singer, I most enjoyed works in which the artists engaged with and manipulated their own voices. Kusum Normoyle’s Sydney performance looped and fragmented real-time experimental vocal techniques to create darkly intense textures recalling the work of Norwegian sound artist Maja Ratkje. Revered Canadian electroacoustic composer Robert Normandeau opened with a manic, John Zorn-like beat before drifting into a more ambient realm, playing works for which the Melbourne venue’s 8-channel sound system was assembled. Touchingly, he gestured to his laptop at the set’s conclusion, directing applause to his indispensible performing partner.
Throughout the festival, I tended to observe the audience’s physical reactions to each performance. Lawrence English’s nebulous, evolving gestures elicited a bout of head-banging from one listener, who leapt up and bobbed exuberantly to an imperceptible beat. During the growling, visceral 4/4 introduction to Robert Normandeau’s set, however, most were seated stock-still in their chairs, listening intently when it could easily have lent itself to a darker corner of the European club scene. No, electronic music isn’t undergoing an identity crisis; it’s simply that the diversity of styles and aesthetic stances showcased in Australia yields a diverse and all-encompassing audience experience. As the name Liquid Architecture suggests, these sounds are mercurial and fluid within their intricate structures.
© Australian Music Centre (2008) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Metalog’s predictable line-up of whorey old chestnuts had just begun to preciously vomit out their vacuous "soundscape" (if you can call it that) when an esteemed member of the audience added his own indignant voice to the mix. A jeering Garry Bradbury (super genius) made it clear that he was impatient for something, anything, remotely engaging or stimulating to happen. When nothing did, he let loose a tirade of obnoxious remarks before finally announcing, 'Right, I’m off then'. The performers maintained smug Cagian indifference throughout, oblivious to the fact that they were taking unwarrented liberties with our time.
Luckily for Metalog, in the grand tradition of /succès de scandale/, public denouncement spelled triumph. Shortly after its Sydney Liquid Architecture appearance, the group’s next gig was advertised with a quote from that same disgruntled heckler. His verdict – 'you don’t have a musical bone in your body' – seems as valuable to Metalog as a rave review. Recasting such strong-minded criticism as a badge of honour speaks volumes about the /raison d’être/ of a festival like Liquid Architecture, and illuminates a healthy audience skepticism to so called sonic exploration.
(thought I'd tidy it up for you in the interest of historical clarity)
say something interesting
Gary's words need some comment.
I won't talk about myself, but the other band members of Metalog reputations are undenaible.
Robbie Avenaim, Natasha Anderson and Amanda Stewart have created music of great strength and clarity. All three of them are musicians of talent and integrity. They have devoted themselves to their art for some decades. Dale Gorfinkel and Ben Byrne are much younger and don't have a body of work behind them, but I would argue that their contribution to the Sydney and Melbourne scenes the last few years has been fantastic.
Gary could judge that what we were trying to do was not working, (although he didn't give us much time before launching into his 'voice over'), and some sort of discussion about why he thinks it didn't work might be interesting.
But just abusing people -may be entertaining, but it's not in the end very interesting.