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16 May 2013

Loading the Silence - the genesis of a book project

Linda Kouvaras Image: Linda Kouvaras  

Linda Kouvaras's book Loading the Silence ‒ Australian Sound Art in the Post-digital Age is among the new releases of the UK-based publisher Ashgate. In this article, Kouvaras retraces her steps and finds the beginnings of her work in a series of sound art events she experienced while a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne.

Thinking about Loading the Silence started around 1991 when I first 'discovered' the phenomenon of sound art. This was during the course of a Hugh Williamson Senior Research Fellowship through the University of Melbourne's Australia Centre, that I was awarded after my Master's Degree in piano at the University's then-School of Music. During my Master's, I'd read a lot of material on postmodernism and had become very excited by this touted 'new' direction in the course of history and of current creativity, particularly as it applied to Barry Conyngham's Southern Cross: Double Concerto, the topic of my thesis. At the Australia Centre, I started researching Australian art music composition more broadly ‒ who was 'out there', what were they composing, why, how and what did it all mean.

_Book cover of Kouvaras's Loading the Silence

But it was when I chanced upon the entity that is Warren Burt, composer, sound artist, polemicist, educator, author and incredibly generous guy, that my project was really galvanised. I think I was in shock after my first interview with Warren, where he regaled me with whirlwind force with an aesthetic I'd not encountered close-up previously ‒ namely, hard-core experimentalism. Of course I was familiar with Cage's work and legacy (the 'silence' in the title of the book refers to his 4'33"; 'loading' it refers to postmodernism's take on experimentalism, subsequent to that defining, emptying-out moment), and I was aware of a 'noise' aesthetic that had developed over the course of the 20th century. But it was one thing to bone up on art/music movements and be able to spin out an essay for an undergrad BMus course, specialising in classical piano, and quite another to be catapulted into the audience at a series of 'concerts' at Melbourne's Linden Art Gallery in St Kilda, curated and organised by Warren, and populated by a small but steadfast group of people to which he referred as his (but not in any 'ownership' kind of way) 'tribe'. At these concerts, I was confronted by such challenges to my classical sensibilities as a 'piece of music' that comprised an electronic pen being made to slowly traverse an electronic whiteboard, with the sounds emanating from it being just like chalk down a blackboard ‒ only amplified and distorted. I had the feeling of being 'trapped' in that room, as a walk-out would have been far too visible. I also heard Andrée Greenwell's utterly captivating talk about her newly commissioned chamber opera, Sweet Death, to be staged at the 1991 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, which incorporated not only ideas about exploring the female voice and technology but also women's body image ‒ feminism in an opera!? Off-site was a 1991 MIFA Fringe 'performance' at a vacant lot at the back of the VCA where Rainer Linz's artwork presented bulldozers doing a choreographed 'ballet', dancing around each other and lifting big loads of muddy earth. I witnessed Carolyn Connors's Greetings at the Melbourne New Music Festival (1992) where she performed an extended-technique vocal work on a Hallmark greetings card that left me enthralled, thrilled, excited and ecstatic.

Subsequently, I have become more and more aware of this area of composition as constituting the most burgeoning 'genre' (if one can term it thus) in current music creating ‒ not only internationally but also in Australia. Ros Bandt's Australian Sound Design Project website is the tip of an iceberg detailing Australian sound artists and their works. The 'tribe' that Warren Burt described to me 23 years ago, with its predilection for experimentalism, has proliferated into a very largely populated mass of designers in sound, noise, music, sculptures and combinations thereof ‒ although all have a distinctive approach. Now, performances are not only held as one-off events in art galleries or community centres, but have whole, dedicated conferences and festivals, some once-only, some recurring; some works are purpose-written for the internet, for CD, for outdoors, for/in the Outback, or are radiophonic works.

Experimentalist music has developed in myriad ways since Cage's 'silent' piece and further still since the advent of the digital age. Australia is a leader in the field ‒ and has been since Percy Grainger's late 19th to early 20th-century radical idea[l]s of 'free music' ‒ under the post-1970s godparentship of Warren Burt and Ros Bandt, both of whom I owe a tremendous amount in the writing of my book. And I am happy to say that I'm no longer in trepidation talking to Warren (although he hasn't lost any of his philosophico-creative spark and sizzle!). Over the years, his generosity has never abated and he has sent me bites of articles, works and reflections that have continued to help shape my take on contemporary music-making. I'm also very grateful to all the other composers who granted me interviews and access to their work.

The Australia Council Discovery Project Grant that I was awarded in 2005-08 gave me the time and space to come to grips with my topic. Not only did this genre as a whole strike me in its proliferation and ever-constant renewal but its correlations with modernism, postmodernism and post-postmodernism are so acute that I see it as the exemplar for consideration of these 'conditions'. In Loading the Silence, I trace a broad, weave-y line from modernism, postmodernism through to what I call the 'altermodern' (or post-postmodernism) as they manifest in these creations of sonic exploration. And what excites me is the statements these sound creations make about our world ‒ through sound's materiality, through sounds found in the world, through sounds we make in the world, through how we hear those sounds and what we say in our deployment of them. My only rue is all the works I did not have the word count to include. Stay tuned for Silence Re-Loaded…?

Further links

Linda Kouvaras ‒ AMC profile
Loading the Silence ‒ Australian Sound Art in the Post-digital Age (AMC Online)
Loading the Silence ‒ Australian Sound Art in the Post-digital Age (Ashgate - publisher's website)


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