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27 August 2020

Hearing Australian identity

Sites as acoustic spaces, an audible polyphony

Ros Bandt Image: Ros Bandt  

This article by Dr Ros Bandt is based on a paper delivered at the Nation and Narration Conference at the University of Queensland (June 2001) and has previously been published as part of the web resources associated with the Australian Sound Design Project, the University of Melbourne. It's reproduced here by permission from the author.

Australian identity is a complex interplay of site, language and technology. Sound installations are powerful tools to access the collective consciousness associated with sites, each one an ever-changing audible polyphony. For each site, there are many stories, dissolving around each other, some reflecting, some disappearing, many mutating according to the context, the time of hearing and the manner in which it is told. Sound carries layers of meaning and non-verbal information not possible with text-based accounts. The breath, the timbre, the speed and the intonation of each authentic voice influence the content and meaning of the spoken word. Utterance shapes narration and identity. Different voices, when made audible, side by side, in a slipping mobile confluence, can inform each other in different and changing ways.

Through a discussion of three of my recent sound installations, Voicing the Murray, Speak Before It's too Late, and Stack, issues of archaeology of the land, language and technology become audible, and the collective consciousness can be heard as the stories are told by different voices at the same time. Through listening to the resonance of these polyphonic installations, the fluid and ever-changing course that Australian identity is constantly taking can be more fully heard. They are models for the development of a listening practice, which includes all stories sounding a site, not just those recorded in the written word.

Focusing on auditory phenomena through the processes of listening and hearing requires us to inhabit time, to be in the temporal continuum of place. By participating in the auditory moment, the continuously changing present can be more fully known through experience. The present becomes the past in a moment and activates memory, thereby penetrating many layers of consciousness. What are we hearing, what did we hear? To stop still, to take time to listen, is an uncommon practice in modern civilised white society. Listening requires a sharing of temporal space; it is a communal experience very much defined by the sense of place. Every site is an acoustic space, a place to listen. Acoustic space is where time and space merge as they are articulated by sound.

1. Hearing the land, present and past

The land of the Australian continent is the primary source material for all Australians. It defines the commonality of place and belonging. Jane Belfrage, in her thesis The Great Australian Silence, defines why listening should be the dominant paradigm of knowledge in Australia. 'Listening to the soundscape is particularly important when we consider that the philosophical linguistic traditions of Australia have always been oral and aural. Text is a very recent human technology. The practice of text has only occurred here in Australia for a little over two hundred years, in some places far less than that, and in other places barely at all. It was in the soundscape that Indigenous people's knowledges were published.'1 Jane Belfrage argues for a change in perception to acknowledge the status of the ancient tradition of listening as a practice of knowledge in Australia. She argues that 'the dominant paradigm of knowing is European, visual and scribal, in contrast to the holistic oral/aural tradition practised for so long in Australian soundscapes'.2 She points out that Australia's acoustic space is unlike that of any other land. Its dignity has been maintained by Aboriginal elders through the singing of their land for over 60,000 years. Australia has a history of place as acoustic space, one that can be revered and experienced.

Listening is another way of being, which inscribes and endorses silence. Not to listen in a land, which has been sung for thousands of years by many peoples, is to deny their existence, ever widening the gap of silence and endorsing the colonial imposition of terra nullius. The practice of listening has changed as the culture has changed. European colonisation has expanded to include a diversity of immigrant cultures including Asian and African cultures. Australia's soundscape contains them all, but the foreign customs, beliefs and cultural practices have to be absorbed through listening and understanding. Only then can they be properly shared just in the same way that more time has to be given over to hearing and appreciating the cultural practices and desires of the original Australians.

This is a never-ending process essential to the changing identity of Australia, a massive cultural and social experiment. The constantly changing sound environments in Australia reflect its buoyant cultural diversity.

Australia as place and soundscape

Australia is a vast real-time acoustic map. The Australian soundscape3 is an enormous mass of audible information emitted over 2,967,909 square kilometres of land. The Australian soundscape includes all indoor and outdoor sounds, planned and random, in all parts of the continent. Most Australian sounds are heard in warm temperatures on a flat terrain and are defined by Australia's topographic, climatic and geographic features. Each region is its own acoustic identity. The densely settled coastal areas may have little or nothing to do with the vast interior. A comparison of the hustle and bustle of Circular Quay with the quiet casuarina trees in the remote Lake Mungo will remind us of the danger of generalising about the Australian soundscape or having expectations about what we might hear. Each acoustic space is necessarily discrete and the sounds heard have to be understood in relation to the context of the venue be it indoor or outdoor, public or private.

Despite Australia's comparative isolation, it has an innovative history in telecommunications4 which has always allowed it to participate in global affairs, and this is becoming ever more audible in the soundscape. Sound is the essential conduit in these mediums. The foreign is made local in an instant. With such a multilayered cacophony it is not surprising that noise pollution and acoustic ecology are now becoming important world subjects of debate. Is the audible polyphony becoming so loud that we cannot hear ourselves and are losing touch with our identity?

In 1992, upon winning the Sound Art Australia prize to make a piece entitled Mungo, involving my 107-string Aeolian harp sculpture, I was made to answer this question more personally. It was not just an ABC/WDR joint commission with the Goethe Institute. It was much more. What did the ancient land of Lake Mungo mean to me? What relationship could I possibly have to it, and how could I know more about it? It became apparent I needed help, first the encouraging advice of Jim Bowler, the archaeologist whose seminal work in the area informed my understanding of the geomorphic changes and human habitation history. The current owners, both Indigenous and non-indigenous would have to be asked permission for me to go there, especially if I wanted to record sound. I found Alice Kelly, the Mutti Mutti/Barkindji elder, who offered to accompany me with her daughter Mary. This was a great help to me. I was nervous about installing a large sound sculpture anywhere near a sacred site. I wondered, out on those dunes, how one could be Australian. It seemed so alien. Being fifth-generation Australian was not enough.

Questioning in just what sense I was Australian occupied my thoughts a great deal as we all sat out on the dunes for a week, listening, watching, being and recording what we could in the incredible heat - victims of the wind, of the place. We were listening to the wind singing the land and exchanging our stories, white and black, trying to find some common ground. I experienced a completely different speed and type of communication. The sense of time had expanded. Deadlines, expectations, desires had to be left at home. Waiting and listening would reveal an otherness, emanating from the land itself. Trying to control time and motion, action, product, was not appropriate and belonged to white-fellow capitalist notions of having. My piece would just get made in its own time when the wind was ready.

Hearing the land - Lake Mungo.
An acoustic site: hearing Lake Mungo

The sacred ancient site of Lake Mungo in the dried salt lake bed in the Willandra Lakes system in NSW, is a wonderful place to pose the question How can we begin to listen to the land? An ancient archaeological site, Mungo was also a feasting ground and major trade centre for Indigenous groups. The dreamtime, an ancient sense of time and relationships, the songs and the special places are still there in the eyes of those who know. How to connect with the past of the ancient land is really outside the knowledge and experience of most Australians, but the land's presence is overpowering. It is no surprise that Mungo has become a very special place for immigrant Australians as well as Indigenous.

As a sound artist, listening is my primary focus. Mungo, for me, revealed beautifully subtle sound sources, such as leaves caught in thornbushes, pardelottes feeding their young in stoney holes in the pinnacles, the wind in the casuarinas, the squeak of our feet on the sand. Each morning the wind had cleansed all traces of our activity. With the permission of all owners of the site, and accompanied by the Mutti Mutti/Barkindji elder Alice Kelly and her daughter, we sat under the Aeolian harps I had constructed and listened and recorded sound for a week out on the sands. After a few days, the just intonation of the wind-played harps had massaged us into a different temporal realm; Alice Kelly said the harps were reaching right back into the dreamtime. She told me stories of the constellations and recontacted her old Mutti Mutti tongue for an instant. The sense of the timeless and remote had absorbed everyone. The sounds of the harps were the same sound as the wind in the casuarinas we had listened to on the way up.

Similar sounds can be heard in singing telegraph wires or fencing wire for thousands of kilometres across Australia. The delicate tones of just intonation, as the harmonics come into audibility as they are played by the wind, are present in many natural phenomena. They are the sounds of perfect number ratio divisions of a string, sung by the wind. They sing a natural polyphony as the overtones build up and retreat. The land is always singing.

We brought the sculpture home without leaving a trace of our presence, only the stories we had shared. I felt so honoured to have had this experience.

> Listen to a sound excerpt 'Mungo' - 3 mins

Aeolian harps on the Mungo Lunette

As a sound artist with a brief, I was asked to sonically reveal the nature of this place. I had to mix it in Cologne. The German engineers were alarmed at the length of time I wanted to sustain the sounds and the potential damage of recording sand in the studio. They couldn't imagine anything like it. They had never been to a desert so I showed them the video for 45 minutes of just driving out the road to the site. Flat endlessness. Sandy track. The Australian identity was becoming more acutely obvious to me, once out of the country, through the eyes of others. I held my ground about the time lengths of the mix.

Mungo, like all other sites in Australia is an acoustic site. The land's geography defines the acoustic shell. An ever-changing soundscape emerges from the interplay of the flora, fauna, the weather patterns and the passage of human beings. The land is the container for the sound, its past, its songs, its flora, its fauna, and its original inhabitants. How we relate to the land defines us, and thus our identity. The age-old relationship that Alice had with the land, her childhood stories and her knowledge of significant areas for food gathering and corroboree empowered us both.

2. Hearing voices, the individual, the group

Place, as the specific place where stories are shared, defines a great deal of what is said, be it public or private.

The Individual

For each site there are many stories, dissolving around each other, some reflecting, some disappearing, many mutating according to the context, the time of hearing and the manner in which they are told. Sound carries layers of meaning and non-verbal information not possible with the written word. The breath, the timbre, the speed and the intonation of each authentic voice influence the content and meaning of the spoken word. Each voice has all these qualities, which are further shaped, by the acoustic space of the place of utterance, and the background soundscape, be it outdoor bushland, city streetscape, public meeting room, coffee house, or tropical rainforest. All of these features are embedded in hearing. Together, they are powerful agents of meaning such as unwritten codes of class, pleasure or displeasure, emotional orientation, group alliance, attitude, confidence of a situation.

Sound is a powerful conduit of social, political, historical and cultural information far surpassing the limitations of the written word. If we listen more carefully to each voice, the light and shade of meaning and, thus, identity will be more fully revealed. Sound installation is an appropriate tool for hearing the single voice but is also capable of delivering multiple voices at the same time. Sound installation can hold an ever-changing polyphony of multiple voices, which can also be made to change constantly as a living sonic tapestry of an acoustic space.

The Group

Different voices, when made audible side by side, can inform each other in different and changing ways. The pitch of the voices, for example male/female, old/young, informs the discourse for the listener. Accents convey regionalism and age. The speed, dynamics and timbre of each voice instantly convey mood and attitude. Each voice carries a separate story.

While making sound recordings for my installation Voicing the Murray, a sound installation commissioned to interpret the impact of technology on the Murray river, it was clear that the Indigenous voices were quiet, not wanting to talk about how the Murray is now, compared to how it used to be. Their relationship with white-fellas was painful, complicated and completely bound up with this response to the river. They felt dispossessed of it. Rex's grieving tones when describing his own father dying from poisoned flour is a very different audible experience to the commentary of a paddle-steamer owner confidently promoting his river. With the addition of four more stories, including the field naturalist discovering the last grey-throated mynah, and the new wetlands environmental group reintroducing frogs, the river's ecology comes into focus. The stories and sounds of the grape-growers could be heard against each other, the hand-picking blockie dropping the grapes into buckets against the automated roar of the huge robotic grape-harvesters used by the large wine corporations. Their stories sometimes are heard at the very same moment in a sound installation, a situation rare indeed in real life. Many of these key players who are affecting the essential waterway of Australia's food basin, would never speak to each other. The voices of the Indigenous Yorta Yorta and Barkindji, for example, could be heard over the irrigation controllers and water sellers recorded at the Chaffey site of Psyche Bend. Stories in sound installations can slip and slide against each other due to the systems set up by the designer. Each voice can be given space, unlike the politics of real life.

In this installation, the ecology of what will be conserved and what will be lost was suggested by the use of the urn as a structural speaker port. Six story groups, six speakers, six urns provide a new scenario for deeper listening in a neutral space where the recorded voices of real people can form new relationships in a virtual space.

Endangered sounds and conflicting stories heard simultaneously
Spatial speaker design for installations Voicing the Murray
and Speak Before It's too Late.

A new social consciousness can be revealed outside of the current political debates, one that gives a democratic platform for each voice impacting on the site. Through programming the sound it is possible to ensure that the cycles involving Aboriginal stories, often not heard, and too often silenced, could be played in the space as a solo group, and the aggressive voices could be silenced at this time. In the sound design a certain random element between the six playback channels will work itself out over the long duration of the installation so that the voices will have varying and unpredictable meetings with each other. This is a fluid polyphony capable of reforming the social politic, the various overlays of stories slipping in and out of silence like the river itself. When I first designed this system in 1985 I used sensors on all speakers to allow the public to ignite the stories or silence them if they were already sounding. The arrival of the listener in the gallery context is a new human presence and would affect what was said, as it would in real life. The 8-channel SSIIPP system has allowed me to experiment with these sonic archaeologies to effect another kind of documentation of oral tradition, where authentic voices, not those of the invader, articulate and represent their places. Sound installations present an opportunity to re-hear place and the voices impacting upon it more carefully. They help to uncover lost relationships of the identity and place.

> Listen to a sound excerpt: Voicing the Murray (stereo mix of 6 -hannel sound installation - Mildura Art Gallery, Ros Bandt 1996)


Language is a powerful tool of communication in Australia. The dominance of the English language over Indigenous and imported cultural traditions is a by-product of our colonial past. It is the primary method through which we exchange stories and knowledge and come to understand ourselves and others. In the sound installation Speak before it's too late, I attempted to reveal layers of linguistic change in my own immediate social group and family. I was brought up in a monolingual middle-class family in Geelong in the 1950s. Since 1975 I have lived in Brunswick, observing the changing patterns of migration through various European, Asian and African neighbours. Acquiring some grandchildren, along the way, caused me to stop and pause on the changing nature of identity and the very different sound worlds that have come under the Australian umbrella in a very short space of time. When we share people's stories, understanding grows. It was sad for me, to find out that my son's Polish Jewish grandmother no longer had a single person she could talk to in her very own pre-war Polish. I could see the lights in her eyes as she spoke to me in her native tongue and I could see the middle-class child sitting in her grand apartment in the main street of Warsaw many years ago as though I was meeting her for the first time, a woman I have known intimately for 30 years. Language changes. No more are the Latin masses I first heard with friends in Geelong in the '50s. John Stinson, a former Franciscan friar, recorded the most typical pieces of the mass that still exist in people's memories, though rarely heard since Vatican 2. The sense of historical continuity and our right to our Western heritage is also endangered, especially through the closure of Classics departments, Ancient Greek and Latin being the very roots of our own English language. There are very few people in Australia today who can understand and speak Ancient Greek.

Languages, text endangered as spoken word: Ancient Greek

The use of urns suggests this precarious state. Will the sound be preserved, or are these stories housed in funerary urns, which will no longer be available to future generations? One urn in the installation is silent. It is the silenced urn of those people who have been denied access to their original languages by being stolen, given up, removed from their proper families. Other cultures have willingly given up their original language, freely adopting English as proof of their Australianness and integration, despite their telling accents.

> Listen to a sound excerpt: Speak before it's too late (6-track sound installation exhibited at the Catholic University, Melbourne and at Sonic Residues Electroacoustic festival, the ACCA, Melbourne; Ros Bandt, 2000).

In Speak before it's too late all of these voices come and go in complex relationships, just as they do in real life, shifting against each other, moving on, forming new associations. Language is a barometer of change. We can hear it if we listen carefully. In the sound installation Speak before it's too late, layers of time and place converge, making us re-evaluate our short European history, our immigrant cultures and our long Indigenous past. Sound installations present an opportunity to re-hear place and the voices impacting upon it more carefully.

3. Changing places and technologies

The Built Environment

The speed of changing technologies and the architectures that result from it, frame the soundscape and our sense of place. A new industrial tower, such as the Citylink chimneystack, is an ephemeral acoustic space for a moment in the city of Melbourne. This 55-metre effluent tube extracts the fumes of cars and emits them over the city. The subterranean rooms of roaring extractor fans, which extract the fumes from the tunnel, are silenced with rooms of baffles.

Stack - cover of
Move album
(AMC Shop)

I digitally recorded the tower's construction, over a two-year period, and performed an exploratory sounding in it. Later, in the studios of the ABC, I generated percussion sounds from an off-cut of its red exoskeleton. I recorded some 16 hours of sound in this acoustic space and, with the help of the ABC mobile van, executed an 8-channel digital mix inside it, using all manner of sounding objects, viola da gamba, Indonesian Gender, sticks, flutes, medieval psaltery. It was an ephemeral sounding of a lost acoustic space, an environmental disaster. The political pressure of Kennett's contracts with TOJV (Transfield Obayashi Joint Venture), a half Japanese company quickly dissolved at the end of construction, and the impending capitalist gain from the tolls, developed this site in an aggressive, unsubtle way; a way that is not sustainable.

This is my Paean, a song for a lost city, busy polluting its own nest. Inside such a toxic cylinder, the sky seems unreachable, untouchable and polluted.

> Listen to a sound excerpt: Paean, from Stack (Move Records)

This space has been artificially silenced and locked away from man's reach.

How man relates to place will define his identity. The sounds of these sites give a small indication of the volatile changing relationships man has with it.


Listening and hearing come into being in a given time and place. The time and place of utterance shapes the content, just like the physical features of the land shape the sound. Each site is an acoustic place with its own history, stories and groups of influences. Each story endorses an aspect of it, choosing to articulate some factors over others in a certain style. Other voices tell different stories. Without listening, this non-scribal information is lost. In listening to the audible polyphony, Australia's identity can be heard to be constantly floating and changing. Its many voices and places are like the ripples on the surface of the Murray, drifting, coming together, separating; confluences forming new ripples or dissolving only to surface later upstream. Listening and hearing require time to be spent in order to fully understand the complex sound strands which are weaving together to form this audible polyphony that is Australia's identity. It is being composed in real time. Like sound it is never static, but it requires constant attention to be heard, every moment. Are you listening?

As Lesley Head points out, 'culturally and scientifically, we are part way through a process of profound reorientation in our understanding of the Australian environment and of the human role in its creation; but still there is a persistent reluctance to articulate the discomforts and ambiguities that process brings to the surface'5 .

Through listening to the multiple stories of each site, we can come to hear the conscious and subconscious processes, which are constantly changing the processes of the evolution of Australian identity. Through listening to each other the polyphony of Australia's changing identity becomes audible and as a result more fully understood.


1 Belfrage, Jane (1995) 'Applying Native Title to Australian Music History: Beyond Terra Nullius'. Upublished paper presented at the University of Melbourne Centenary.

2 Belfrage, Jane (1993) The Great Australian Silence: Knowing Colonising and Gendering Acoustic Space, MA thesis, LaTrobe University, p. 6.

3 The Canadian composer R.Murray Schafer first coined the term in his seminal book The Tuning of the World (1974).

4 Stamps since 1838, telegraph since 1854, underwater cable linking Tasmania with Victoria, telephones since 1878, radio broadcasts since 1923 and commercial TV since 1956 ratify this. By 1980 SBS Radio was broadcasting in more than 50 community languages. Teleconferencing and satellite and ISDN links and the Internet have been readily embraced.

5 Head, Lesley. 2000. Second Nature The History and implications of Australia as Aboriginal Landscape, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse New York, p. 6


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