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27 August 2012

Extending the recent past: Sonorities of Site (Aphids)

<em>Sonorities of Site</em> - design detail Image: Sonorities of Site - design detail  

Aphids' recent publication Sonorities of Site documents and chronicles the organisation's site-specific works from 1998 to 2010 in words, images, sketches, handwritten notes and score samples. Boni Cairncross has dived deep into this fascinating book, and interviewed its editor Cynthia Troup about the background for the project as well as Aphids' contribution to cross-artform practice over the years.

Sonorities of Site - cover

Vivid matte red. It is a deceptively simple cover for Aphids' recent publication Sonorities of Site: Aphids, Architecture & New Music 1998-2010. This publication maps out specific new music projects produced by Aphids between 1998-2010. The projects discussed in depth, namely, Ricefields (1998); Maps part 1 Melbourne (2000) and Maps part 2 Copenhagen (2002); Schallmachine 06 (2006); Scale (2004), and the song cycle Thousands of Bundled Straw (2005, 2009), provide an avid insight into the ethos that continues to underpin Aphids' activities.

As an independent, artist-led organisation, Aphids has been committed to cross-artform collaboration since its beginnings in Melbourne in 1994. Sonorities of Site brings to life a diverse but select range of past projects, while also leaving the door open for readers to discover new insights and to develop their own connections. Contributions from architect Anna Tweeddale, composer Juliana Hodkinson, singer Deborah Kayser, percussionist Matthias Schack-Arnott, artist Rosemary Joy, composer David Young and art historian Bronwyn Stocks are aided by a myriad visual materials gathered from the Aphids' archives.

I had the pleasure of discussing Sonorities of Site with editor Cynthia Troup who brought the book to fruition through collaboration with the contributors, and, from the outset, with designers Paul Ducco and Jacob Thompson. We talked about Aphids and the publication, about the process of developing Sonorities of Site, and where the featured projects fit in to the contexts of new music in Australia, and Australian creative practice more widely.

Mapping the past: creating platforms for a new era

How did the idea for Sonorities of Site emerge, and how did the publication team select the projects that were included? Cynthia Troup explained to me that the publication was part of creating a seamless transition from the era of Aphids' founding under artistic director and composer David Young to a new period, and new directions, under current artistic director Willoh S. Weiland. The specific projects addressed in the publication have been formative for Aphids' current practice. In Troup's words, Sonorities of Site was conceptualised as a way to 'honour the past while creating space for the future' by investing time in 'thoughtfully archiving the recent past'.

While Aphids is renowned for producing an array of interdisciplinary projects, including theatre, exhibitions, mini-festivals and community events, a key decision was made early on to focus this volume on the new music projects developed during the company's early years. In many ways this is a reflection of Aphids' identity as forged over the period 1994-2010 under the direction of composer David Young, now artistic director of Chamber Made Opera. It was also a pragmatic decision. With a wealth of material concerning nearly two decades of producing cross-artform projects, one could imagine that finding a starting point within the archival material would have been difficult.

But Sonorities of Site is not just about documenting Aphids' recent past. It is also about sharing that past with the public and successive generations of creative practitioners. According to Troup, there were a number of motivating questions for formulating the publication: 'How can we share the delight that we continue to find when we explore this archive? How can we celebrate that? How can we publicise what appears - at least now, with hindsight - to be a consistent and discrete body of work?'

Narratives of new music projects

Given that Sonorities of Site addresses experimental new music projects, it is curious to find them presented in such a traditional format: a book. The publication doesn't include a CD insert, and so far there is not a corresponding digital archive available.

Sonorities of Site - example of page layout

'The dimensions, format and feel of the book were designed to evoke those of an A5 sketchbook, presaging the contents' focus on creative processes. Also, we wanted to honour the hand-made approach that gave Aphids its overarching aesthetic in the very beginning', Troup explained, referring to Aphids' first five years or so, when invitations, posters and publicity material where made by hand, and sometimes even distributed by hand. Moreover, the unique score materials generated for projects such as Ricefields, Maps, and Schallmachine 06 were also handmade, as were scenographic and sculptural elements of the site-specific installations that some projects involved.

'There are fascinating narratives associated with making these works, and a book is still a most appropriate place for narrative', Troup said.

The first section of Sonorities of Site, titled 'I: Surveying Practices' consists of an introductory essay by Troup, and a critical essay by Anna Tweeddale especially commissioned for the volume. The chapters in the second section, titled 'II: Projects, Processes', contain first-hand narratives detailing the experiences of individual artists involved in particular projects. Among these are Matthias Schack-Arnott's reflections on being part of the audience for Maps Part 1 Melbourne (2000) as an 11-year-old. Now a percussionist specialising in contemporary and new music performance, Shack-Arnott's career was profoundly influenced by this event. Also in the same chapter, artist Rosemary Joy describes her role in the residency project Scale (2004), her continued connection with Aphids, and the development of her unique sculptural instruments. Each contributor sheds light on a different new music project, but also on different aspects of collaboration.

The traditional book format presents an array of archival material, in the form of handwritten notes; sketches; images and reflections, in a manner and style that allows the reader to make sense of Sonorities of Site in a way that is personally and poetically resonant. The focus on narrative allows each contributor to take the reader's hand and guide them 'through the changing dynamics of Aphids' creative processes', as Troup put it. According to her, the absence of a CD insert may also be an advantage: 'The human memory is the only place in which the live performance will continue to live, and to constantly transform itself into on-going relevance for the human being.'

Fuel for new ideas

It is not just the textual narratives that guide the reader's imaginative recreation of these projects. Personal accounts and reflections are overlayed, placed between and alongside an abundance of visual material sourced from the archives, as well as score snippets from the projects. The visual imagery and text work together. The attention to detail in the design and layout draws the reader in, absorbs them in the book. The imagery is not simply documents from the live performances but the visuals are drawn from all stages of the creative process, allowing the reader intimate access to the collaborative systems that produced such works. This access to a range of stages of the Aphids projects sets out potential for the ignition of new ideas.

Troup explained that this publication was never simply about documenting significant past projects and providing the reader with enough material to say, 'I wish I had seen and heard that'. Rather, Sonorities of Site was intended as an extension of the projects - a way of encouraging readers to consider different ways of engaging with music when not in a concert hall. Bronwyn Stocks' afterword was commissioned once the book's contents had been finalised so as to include the entirely fresh response of a reader who was encountering its evocations for the first time.

So Sonorities of Site, as its own entity, is part of that extending cycle of cross-artform collaboration. Not only can the note-taking systems, graphs, and textual content prompt new considerations, but the publication also contains a select bibliography (pages 110-113) compiled by Troup as a starting point for readers to continue the journey. This bibliography also offers a snapshot of a shift in Australian art practice circa 1994-2010. Aphids' commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration since the mid-1990s once represented a new way of working.

'The idea of "cross-artform" isn't that special anymore. These days, if a new work doesn't cross some kind of disciplinary boundary there's a chance it might not be considered to qualify as "contemporary"', Troup pointed out.

In the mid-1990s this was not the case - as a recent art school graduate, where an interdisciplinary approach to artmaking has been my main experience of cultural production, a part of my own fascination with Sonorities of Site was the insights it provides about those years.

Project in focus: Ricefields

Ricefields is just one of the five new music projects explored at length in Sonorities of Site (for more information about the project, see also the Aphids website). Originally performed at La Mama in Melbourne in 1998, Ricefields was toured to a variety of settings in Australia, France and Japan. Initially a collaboration between composer David Young and artists Sarah Pirrie and Rosemary Joy, the project gathered together a range of artists and performers from diverse backgrounds, including soprano Deborah Kayser, sound designer Michael Hewes and lighting designer Lisa Trewin.

Ricefields was devised from the 'use and re-use of architectural fragments' and the construction of a sculptural music score to be interpreted by the performers. It generated a situation that was open and new, with chance an element incorporated into the performance. This openness was evident to the audience as well. Composer Juliana Hodkinson outlines her initial experience of Aphids as an audience member of Ricefields, and compares this with her experiences as an artist involved in the later project Maps.

Ricefields was a project for which Aphids received funding from the then newly formed New Media Arts Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. This board was established to support innovative, experimental works that did not fall within an easily defined or traditional artform. While Ricefields was billed as 'an installation/performance' it is clear that defining the project in terms of an artform was difficult. On page 21 in her introduction to Sonorities of Site, Troup quotes David Young summarising the conceptual investigations that informed Ricefields: 'the challenge of new notations; the tension between audience and performer; and of course the genre of what we're doing-is this theatre? A concert? A gallery opening? Something else?'

This same questioning could also be applied to the other projects discussed in Sonorities of Site. While the projects are referred to as 'new music projects', and it is clear that music in each case forms the conceptual grounding, these works are not easily categorised. Instead of defining such interdisciplinary works through artforms, it is more useful to examine the underlying concepts, the strategies employed in the creation of the projects.

Locating conceptual intersections

Anna Tweeddale's fold-out diagram on page 39 of Sonorities of Site, titled 'Aphids: A Selective Archaeology of Practice 1994-2010', makes stunning use of these artistic strategies for defining the projects. Tweeddale's essay takes the themes of 'territories of intensity', 'reinterpreting site', 'graphic/sculptural music scores', and 'instrument building' to observe continuities in Aphids' practice. Her diagram then uses these terms to graphically locate the projects in a selective architectural timeline. Tweeddale's timeline also suggests the flow-on effect of ideas that generated new projects. It is evident through reading Sonorities of Site that the individual projects did not exist in their own 'exclusive' space, separate from others. Rather, one can see that, as acknowledged by David Young (p. 102), 'an idea here or a conversation there later became another performance, an installation, a song, or a publication'. The fluidity between projects and artforms is extended through the publication as each of the contributors brings a different focus to frame the new music projects.

Sonorities of Site is not just a publication that documents a section of Australian cultural practice. It is not simply a reference for those 'who were there' and want to remember, or those who where not and wish to discover. Sonorities of Site also honours the strength of cross-artform collaboration from the recent past as a way of prompting future explorations and experimentations. As Troup stated, Sonorities of Site proposes to 'show what has lasted in terms of the creative energy behind [the projects], the originality of methodology. We put the book out there to say "there's a life force in these different works, but the life force is also much greater than any single project"' We, the readers, are invited to extend the life forces of these projects.

Troup, Cynthia (ed.) 2012, Sonorities of Site: Aphids, Architecture & New Music 1998-2010, Aphids, St Kilda, Australia. Designed by Paul Ducco and Jacob Thompson.

AMC resources

Sonorities of Site - book details (AMC Online)
David Young - AMC profile

Further links

Sonorities of Site (Aphids website)
Ricefields project (Aphids website, accessed 4/8/2012, http://aphids.net/archive/Ricefields

Boni Cairncross is a Sydney-based emerging artist and writer. Working across performance, sound and installation, her practice is an ongoing inquiry into the relationship between the ‘live’ and the ‘recorded’.


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