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11 October 2007

Sounds Unusual – Is Unusual

Sounds Unusual Festival; Anthony Magen, J9 Stanton & Andrew Nichols Image: Sounds Unusual Festival; Anthony Magen, J9 Stanton & Andrew Nichols  
© Tanja Kimme & Katie Hepworth

I was lucky enough to attend and perform at the opening event for the Sounds Unusual Festival in Alice Springs recently and was blown away by the location and the community of dedicated humans who worked together to create an extraordinary evening of sound, light and fire. Curated by Robert Curgenven, the festival spans three weeks and takes place in and around Alice Springs and Darwin. Unfortunately, I was unable to stay on to attend Anthony Magen’s sound walks and workshops by Sumugan Sivanesan, Curgenven and Emma Stocker among other concert events.

The mystery began with the flight. Looking over the desert, I was struck by how little I had experienced of Australia’s vast interior and, also, by how – as a virtual troglodyte city dweller – the overused trope of the Australian outback landscape as a defining feature of the Australian psycho-geographic map had little, if any, significance for me. I felt mildly annoyed about this cultural misrepresentation, which had already lead to endless conversations world-wide explaining the absence of kangaroos in my backyard and the fact that I don’t engage regularly in crocodile wrestling or come face to face with deadly reptiles at every turn. My self-indulgent annoyance dissipated however into a mist of incredulity, as we made our way from the airport to the brutally dry creek bed which was to morph over the next eight excruciatingly hot hours into the venue for the performance. Literally 15 minutes from Alice Springs, stepping onto the site was like walking from stage left into a postcard replete with cracked earth, impossibly stoic trees and endless scrub in all directions.

As though we were facing an initiation of some kind, the three visiting artists, Anthony Magen, Sumugan Sivanesan and I were left at the site while the others went back to town to collect the generator, PA system and a few extra hands. We scuttled like ‘roaches into the only available shade and started placing bets on our chances of survival. Ironically, the only fluid we had at hand was a bottle of Korean rice wine, so we passed a pleasant hour and a half before the panic set in. Were they coming back? Was this an elaborate rouse? Thankfully, we were simply adjusting to the rubbery nature of time in the Territory (something which, even over two days, became seductive), and, sure enough, the team returned with a van load of gear and other supplies.

We proceeded to set up with all the vigour of a band of three-toed sloths and became acutely aware quite quickly that things take a little longer here due to the threat of heat exhaustion and dehydration. Being a delicate flower, I managed to avoid the digging of the fire pit (that’s right…the fire pit!), which spread across the front of the performance area between the stage and the audience. Although there for warmth (the nights are freezing at this time of year), the fire was also doubling as a smoke machine for my impending laser performance!

The gig was billed to start at 8pm and, at around that time, I must admit to feeling dubious about the prospect of anyone being able to find the place, and that was assuming that there was an audience for experimental sound in Alice Springs to begin with! Once again my pessimism was crushed by the punctual arrival of over 100 punters keen to sit beneath the stars and experience whatever it was that was about to befall them.

The first act saw the bizarre trio of Anthony Magen (from Melbourne: microphones, wooden chair, saw), J9 Stanton (from the NT: singing saw) and Andrew Nichols (from NT: violin/electronics). The trio began with sympathetic textures that drew the audience into the strangeness of listening to amplified music in the creek bed setting. J9’s saw playing was accomplished and diverse, blending beautifully with Magen’s sizzling electronic tones. Magen then proceeded to steal the show with grainy sounds generated by manipulating microphones in the sand of the creek bed and taking his own saw to a wooden chair covered in contact mic’s. The rasping results took the trio into noisier territory and culminated with Magen’s ceremonious burning of the chair segments in the fire pit.

Following the trio, festival curator Robert Curgenven teamed up with Sumugan Sivanesan from Sydney for a powerful duo that attempted to find the resonant frequency of the space (an impossible task in such a vast, uncontained area, but one that yielded interesting results nonetheless). Curgenven manipulated field recordings to great effect while Sivanesan used his guitar as a resonating body in conjunction with an amplifier to generate warm feedback and textured noise. The duo took time to build their sound into a wall of shifting sonorous matter. I don’t think they found the resonant frequency of the continent, but they certainly filled an unfillable space and evoked a sense of vastness in their broad spectrum approach to sound combination.

Finally, it was time to test the ultimate in analog smoke machines. The fire pit was stoked, and the two smaller fires at the rear (which, by now, were being tended by dutiful punters) were also given a lift. The results were quite extraordinary. Laser images were caught on the first ‘smoke wall’, textures were filled out in the centre with a fine haze, and then the image was caught again at the rear. Beyond that, the lights flickered on the trees as far as the eye could see down the creek bed. The effect was holographic, and, despite the irony of superimposing a laser onto one of the oldest landscapes on earth, deeply satisfying to perform.

Overall the evening was a great success. An appreciative and attentive audience was treated to a rare and fascinating combination of performances in an unforgettable environment. I would like to extend thanks to Robert Curgenven for organising the event and the ‘Desert Doof’ crew, particularly Rodney Angelo, for setting up an extraordinary sound system under difficult conditions. I really hope that this festival continues to grow and becomes a regular feature on the Australian arts calendar.

Further Links

Sounds Unusual Festival (www.soundsunusual.com)

Robin Fox is a Melbourne-based audio-visual artist working with the connection between sound and light at the level of electrical signal. He performs regularly across Australia, Europe and Asia with recent appearances at Musique Action (France), Sounds Unusual (Alice Springs) and October Contemporary Festival (Hong Kong).


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gig was great

I was there at the back last year Robin, your set was fantastic. I hope you visit many more uncharted riverbeds in the outback in the future - it was really suited to the setting.



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