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19 January 2014

How I learned to stop worrying and live with Peggy's ghost

Julian Day Image: Julian Day  
© Emily Sandrussi

It's 4am and I can hear the ocean. Actually that's unlikely as I'm several kilometres away near the city. But it's early enough for cold air to carry the sound of waves.

I'm sitting in the Victorian terrace that once belonged to composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks. It's far too big for me, even by Sydney's warped standards; I guiltily use the front room to store paperwork and try to sleep in each bedroom in turn. But the grandeur has given me a boost, the encouragement that being a composer needn't mean share houses or one-room apartments. For at least twelve months.

In her will, Peggy left her house as a composers' retreat. As the 19th beneficiary I'm following in some pretty hefty footsteps. Former tenants warned me of Peggy's ghost. I don't think I've seen or heard it, just the echoes of Lycra-clad joggers, sports cars and well-fed cats. Paddington has changed radically since the ebbing Bohemian wave Peggy first encountered in the 1970s. The sounds of acoustic guitars and honky tonk pianos ceded long ago to the endless drone of renovation. The oboist next door gave up in winter, replaced by a clean-shaven teen who vacuums the cover on one of the two BMWs he never seems to drive.

So it's been a curious space in which to contemplate experimental sound.

Now, as my time in the house winds up, I can finally stop and reflect. This morning I feel calm but the year has been insane. Effectively I've run several concurrent careers, from one hour to the next: a composer, a performer, a sound sculptor, a broadcaster, a writer, or a student. I've not been bored but my arterial pressure has soared.

Being so busy has both fulfilled and obscured the purpose of living with Peggy. Since last January I've written more words and music than I can remember. I've corralled massed performances overseas, played in galleries and clubs, built and installed sound sculptures, filmed community choirs in Western Sydney, read dozens of books on sound, written a thesis, and interviewed the likes of John Adams, Bill Fontana, Daniel Lopatin and Peter Sculthorpe. Yet the number of evenings in which I've stepped onto the wrought iron balcony, looked to the all-seeing eye of Westfield's city tower and reflected on where I'm at as an artist have been few.

I guess this was to be expected. When I think about my career I strap on deliberately scratched goggles. This makes knowing where I've been or where I'm going a complicated proposition. I could keep it simple: write for the orchestra, send out scores, look for film work, start a band. But whilst those things are valid I can't help but ask broader questions. Where will my work be encountered? Who has the right to play it or hear it? Is there a point where it stops being music and instead becomes installation, performance art or, as one of my teachers put it, 'corporeal mime'?

Furthermore, does working at ABC Classic FM - researching new music, interrogating composers and programming their work - count towards being a composer?

In my undergraduate degree we weren't taught to query such matters. Music was music and the cycle of exchange was clear: ingest canon, write score, give to performers, rehearse, attend performance and - with luck - receive applause. Rinse and repeat. Like many composers, however, my ears pick up when the categories become problematic. Are Kusum Normoyle's throat-wrecking micro-performances compositions, performance-based visual art, neither, or both? Are Matthew Shlomowitz's Letter Pieces mime with music or music with mime? Do Greg Schiemer's massed bicycle works belong in the new music canon? Does giving verbal instructions to a set of strangers in a park count as 'writing' a 'score' for 'performers'?

A few years ago, after hosting my radio program for some years, I decided to re-enrol at university. Rather than follow my earlier degree in composition, however, I went to art school. Initially the idea was to emulate innovators like Brian Eno and David Byrne, wear more interesting clothes and, frankly, meet artier girls. But the ideas I gleaned there from scholars and artists such as Caleb Kelly and Joyce Hinterding have significantly broadened my understanding of the field in which I work.

Super Critical Mass opening the new Library of Birmingham in September 2013.

Sound is an all-surrounding phenomenon that infuses everything we do: we walk through it, communicate with it, enjoy it at concerts, ignore it at night. Sound doesn't start and end when we buy a ticket to a string quartet. It fills the environments we inhabit, transmitting through the material substances that we breathe, drink and touch. Sound is far from exclusive to music: in art it inhabits much sculpture, performance art and video; it emanates from television and the internet; it is often inherent in sport. Therefore, as a composer, I feel compelled to respond to the many contexts in which one might encounter sound or, when absent, imagine or remember it.

One manifestation of this expanded idea of sound is a project called An Infinity Room, or AIR. This involves installations and performances in which I collect identical vintage synthesisers (ideally from the 1970s - faux wood grain!), position them in geometric formations and enliven the air with tightly intersecting drones. I trigger the tones by pinning the keys open with long metal rods or shifting heavy bolts in arithmetic sequence. This creates an architecture of densities, at once heavy and weightless. I think of AIR as overlaying temporary yet theoretically infinite 'rooms of sound' within existing rooms. These are frequently within transitional spaces like corridors, doorways and stairwells in which you must encounter the sound but don't have to linger.

As a performance project AIR interprets the idea of 'ensemble' as fluid. At times it's just me playing two mini Yamahas through a stereo PA; at other times, such as at last year's VIVID Festival, I invite groups of volunteers to play by following simple instructions on colour-coded keys. I'm pleased that my performers need little or no musical training yet can create full-bodied listening experiences with just a few minutes' prep. AIR thus continues the long-tone tradition of La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier and Phill Niblock while embracing open-ended social situations.

Working in unconventional spaces with amateurs and cheap consumer devices makes one query the often hidden politics of making and hearing sound. In classical music we're used to the finer things: excellent acoustics, expensive halls, well-funded orchestras and paid-up subscribers. We rarely hear duds: no piano competition hopeful asks to play the cheapest, least-tuned instrument. Our system seems designed for exclusivity: the right people playing the right instruments in the right spaces to the right listeners. Sound might seem ephemeral but it's tangible enough to buy and sell, divide and partition. Even the notionally free radio airwaves - the sonic equivalent, perhaps, of the town square - are subject to commercial and/or ideological hierarchies.

Super Critical Mass at Aurora Festival, Blacktown Arts Centre, in 2013 (Vimeo).

I hate feeling left out. Therefore I want my work to enable others, so that anyone can join me, have a go and be involved. This means using people's innate abilities as the building blocks of my works, seeking spaces that are publicly accessible (or where accessibility is a complicated factor, open to critique) or designing situations and encounters rather than fixed end products.

An alternate framing of these ideas is through my large-scale collaborative project Super Critical Mass. This allows me to work with at times gloriously large instrumental forces whilst enabling mobility, spatiality and open involvement. I work with fellow artists Luke Jaaniste and Janet McKay to bring together temporary communities of performers to undertake simple sonic tasks in nominally public places such as railway sheds, marketplaces, laneways, parks and lakes. There is no conductor, no written score, no music stands; just the space, the sound and the socialities that result.

All our volunteers play the same kind of instrument or make the same kind of sound, be it thirty clarinets, fifty bells or eighty flutes. Once assembled we collaboratively develop a simple set of instructions that reflect our participants' skills, their ways of relating to each other and the characteristics of the space. SCM is proudly entry-level, inviting performers of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels, yet results in highly considered artistic situations. It is thus a critique of the traditional orchestral model, embracing community engagement and porosity through in-situ development, workshops and dialogue.

Since conceiving the project in 2007 we've presented around thirty iterations around the world, in New York, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, The Hague, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with around 400 performers. We've amassed flutes in Sydney's industrial railway workshop CarriageWorks, surrounded New York's Central Park lake with brass players (reviewers from The Wire and the New York Times taking notes in dinghies), replaced pews with voices in Manchester Cathedral and set tubas loose throughout London's Old Spitalfields Markets. Our most recent performance in September opened the incredible new Library of Birmingham with a chorus of 100 brass players drawn from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, local brass bands, rural schools and the public at large.

The components of Super Critical Mass may sound familiar. Many composers have worked with homogeneous masses: Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham have created orchestras of up to 200 electric guitars, Salvatore Sciarrino has incorporated massed winds and countless minimalists employ single-instrument choirs. Similarly, participatory barriers were broken long ago by Cornelius Cardew, Alvin Curran and others. Size and spectacle are nothing new and we'll always be outdone by a 'world's biggest' anything. What differentiates SCM is the way these elements coalesce as a specific model for engagement: always self-similar sounds, always site-specific, always social and always non-hierarchical in nature.

In one sense, both SCM and AIR might seem quite traditional. One curator told us we couldn't possibly be experimental because we used flutes. The point of each project, however, is to push the extent of homogeneity regardless of the sound source. SCM has in fact evolved from using exclusively pitched mobile instruments like flute or saxophones into the notoriously unstable realms of the voice, household objects such as chairs and tables and even the superstructures of buildings. AIR involves keyboards but always 'prepares' them with nuts, bolts or metal rods. As a composer I like to think that any object can be a potential musical instrument to be operated in any way. This is a long and active tradition: for at least a century performers have armed themselves with paper, chopsticks, ping pong balls, bolts, knives, angle-grinders and other increasingly alarming objects. For my part I've asked performers to guzzle soft drink (messy), play guitars with hairclips and plastic spoons (awkward) and undertake long CD player sets using just one finger (digital).

As you can see, my approach to experimentation isn't necessarily confrontational. I don't attack sound in the same way as noted renegades Lucas Abela (endangering his face under amplified glass) or Jon Rose (pushing the violin into paddock, desert or Velodrome). But I still try to keep re-examining our approaches to listening, the places we encounter sound and the ways we relate through our aurality.

* * *

It's now 6am, the first planes chart the sky and Paddington blinks under soft light. I take a final look around Peggy's house and thank her for her bequest: a space to lose oneself in work, agitate a boundary or two and reflect, even for a moment. Here a bag of local groceries might cost a month's salary but hey, composers deserve to live in style for a while. I - reluctantly - hand the house over to its next tenant, fellow sonic questioner Cat Hope, with a fatter portfolio and a stronger sense of purpose.

Further links

Julian Day - AMC profile
Julian Day - homepage (www.julianday.com)
Super Critical Mass (www.supercriticalmass.com)
An Infinity Room (www.aninfinityroom.com)
Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers' House Trust (http://pghcomposershouse.com/)
Australia Council: Peggy Glanville-Hicks Residency (www.australiacouncil.gov.au/grants/2014/peggy-glanville-hicks-residency)

Julian Day is an artist and composer. He also writes about sound and hosts New Music Up Late on ABC Classic FM. Julian recently spent a year in residence at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks House in Sydney.


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