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25 September 2008

David Worrall: Any artist not emerging is dead

David Worrall's sound sculpture <em>The Twins</em> Image: David Worrall's sound sculpture The Twins  
© Dean Golja

This interview with David Worrall forms part of the third issue of the resonate journal. Every few months, guest editors collaborate with the Australian Music Centre to produce a journal exploring a particular theme of currency in Australian new music. To have unrestricted access to the journal, as well as some other in-depth articles published on resonate, you need to be a member of the Australian Music Centre. Find out more about the benefits of becoming a member.

David Worrall describes his musical education as 'mainstream'. His career has been anything but. He became interested in computer and electronic music, sound sculptures, and spatiality in music. As a music undergraduate at the University of Sydney, however, he found his studies in mathematics and philosophy far more useful than those in 'musical Australiana'. He finished the undergraduate composition studies in Adelaide with Richard Meale and electronic music with Tristram Cary, and ended up in academe himself, designing and teaching the first undergraduate course in computer music in Australia. He became director of the Electronic Music Studios at the Canberra School of Music, and established the Australian Centre for the Arts and Technology (ACAT) at the ANU in 1989. He also became known for his electrospatial work in geodesic domes.

Today, David Worrall is living in Canberra and working on two research projects. One of these has to do with data sonification, the other with developing an Australian-dialect voice synthesiser (ADVOIS).

Synthesising voice 'I'm interested in expanding where music can go, and what it can be.'and the cognitive space between music and speech have been a long-term interest of Worrall's. Among his key works in this area is the sound sculpture The Twins, from the late 1990s. The visual side of the sculpture consists of two human-sized plastic dolls seated at a table, playing a game of scrabble. The audio element consists of the twins' synthesised speech – unintelligible on one hand and oddly familiar on the other. Despite the fact that, in The Twins, Worrall had to use an American voice synthesiser, the vowel-talk of the two dummies has a distinctly Australian sound and intonation.

The most important aspect of a work such as The Twins is not what is visible but what happens between listeners and inside the their heads – and this is where Worrall's personal interests lie:

'The audience interaction is the most interesting aspect; the visuals are not my principal concern. For me, the idea of installation is to change the focus – to get out of the concert hall. I'm interested in expanding where music can go, and what it can be. When a doorbell rings, it is not music, but put its sound in a musical context and it becomes music. Music is about attention, it's about how attentive we are.'

Worrall's other area of interest and research is data sonification – using sound to represent structure in data. But why would one want to create the sound equivalent of stock market data?

'Because I'm interested in exploring the world around me in sound more than I'm interested in overtly expressing some supposed emotional state. It's trying to appreciate the structure of the world rather than the Sturm und Drang of the mind. Imposing my own personal whims and fancies on listeners is not that interesting.'

But surely many other composers have interest in exploring the world around them and not just their own emotional states?

'Well, it's a question of degree – some music is more emotionally imposing, more romantic, more human, and some music has a more distilled quality. It's about creating a space where the creative listener can enter. Think of Wagner – he takes you over; you have no choice. Maurice Ravel doesn’t do it, nor does Colin Nancarrow, Marcel Duchamp, Fred Williams, Robert Bresson, to mention just a few. This is not a vague thing; it is intentional and there are technical means to achieve it, such as the way harmony functions and time is structured, etc. It’s not about denying the emotions, quite the opposite. Anyway, today, more people worship the invisible hand of the markets than frolic-in-fields-pastorale, so it seems more natural and important to sound-paint the markets than fantasise a joy-ride in some horse-drawn carriage.'

Concert hall, the traditional venue for orchestral expressions of emotional states, does not hold much interest for Worrall.

'To me, the concert hall has become tired; 'The ritual of the concert hall, it's a total package; on a sociological level it's just an outdated model of sound.' I find it hard to listen in a concert hall any more. You know it so well, the music, it's lost its freshness – you know the tradition, the literature, the whole scenario and set-up. The ritual of the concert hall, it's a total package; on a sociological level it's just an outdated model of sound. The solo concerto is also a tired model for saying new things – I'd rather listen to birds.'

Worrall's exploration of spatiality in music has been influenced by Iannis Xenakis, whom he got to know personally and with whom he was first in correspondence as a young student. He also spent time working in Europe and the USA. The European sensibility of the arts is, in his opinion, lacking in Australia.

'The attitude is different here; there is no sense of what the importance of the new art is for the development of the whole community. It's the struggle of the cultural desert. Can you imagine that the French government's gift to Australia for the bicentenary was to send Olivier Messiaen here!'

When it comes to musical institutions today, Worrall says, there is no real attempt for renewal:

'There is money spent on standard repertoire, but putting a couple of new operas on is very difficult. And “cultural” festivals are useful to contemporary artists only in as much as they encourage fringes, which is where the new art tends to happen. The budgets for both categories should be developed, acquired, and then reverse-allocated.'

David Worrall is no longer teaching actively, except for the occasional private student, and 'How can institutions manage their own natural tendencies to support the establishment and not impede new work?'is pessimistic about the educational institutions' ability to do much for new music:

'The key challenge is how institutions can manage their own natural tendencies to support the establishment and not impede new work. Tertiary music institutions in Australia have an appalling record in this field. They are still controlled by retrospective types with a stranglehold on the dollars, and thus contemporary sound art work is marginalised in favour of the training of performers increasingly more out of touch with the contemporary world. Instead, they continue, ad nauseam, to serve up the old favourites. Presenting it as art is a disservice to the community, and such activities should be supported through some historical museum trust, not arts funding.'

The genre dilemma is not something that Worrall finds interesting, and he also objects to the increasingly common category of 'emerging artists'.

'I don't understand creative work from a genre or category perspective. One needs to consider these only when looking for funding because funding agencies think they're doing something important by promoting genres and categories. Such funneling activities are unhelpful, to put it politely. They are not needed by artists and should just be taken out of the way. Ditto for age-defined categorisation. In my opinion, any artist who is not still “emerging” in some form or another, is dead.'

Anni Heino is a Finnish-born journalist and musicologist, and the acting editor of resonate magazine.


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