27 August 2020
Ros Bandt: Sound-Sculptor/ Poet-Protector/ Crusader of the Land1
Linda Kouvaras's article was written to mark the announcement, in August 2020, of Ros Bandt's Art Music Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music. The honour will be formally presented to Bandt in a virtual Awards ceremony on 8 September. Read also Ros Bandt's own article with further insights and some sound samples from the major installations mentioned in this article. See Ros Bandt's website with more information about her current and earlier work.
The following is a brief romp through the sound art works, over the last 40 years, of Ros Bandt, High Priest/Godparent/Early Innovator of Australian Sound Art2 - a journey spanning the dawning of late-1970s postmodern experimentalism into the post-millennium. Bandt's work takes us from a place of attending to listening to what spaces tell us; how they are charged through their audible tracts.
One of Australia's earliest sound installations was Ros Bandt's 1977 Surfaces and Cavities at Melbourne's experimentalist-arts laboratory/anti-concert hall, the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (CHCMC). The work was a labyrinth of some 39 various materials and surfaces, to which it was possible to 'listen' by hitting a suspended coat hanger against them and holding the attached strings against one's ears: 'the old toy telephone approach'. 3 Much of the 'performance/participation' instructions were in impassioned capital letters, a vivid example of the urgency - the almost evangelical fervour - felt by early Australian sound art creators that everyone should be enlivened, and enlightened, by their sound explorations. Auditors-viewers were invited to work their way through the 'Listening Pathway', to strike surfaces with the coat hanger, focusing the listening (through the coat hanger) to the 'MAGIC' of each sound's start, middle and cessation.4 Participants were then told to attend to the sounds of their own bodies, 'unique', 'resonating chamber[s] for listening', and notice how their bodies 'relate to the different surfaces, textures, densities'.5 This stood as a metaphor for human beings' adaptability, with Bandt urging people to learn how to use every environment in a personally meaningful way. Make your own piece. Find your own pathway. Choose. Discriminate. Utilise time, opportunity, space, people and make a positive contribution for yourself and for society. YOUR BODY AND YOUR IRRATIONAL SUBJECTIVITY NEED NOT BE A PRISON.6
This exhortation to transcend individual subjectivity reflects the [John] Cagean aim of letting sound be (after one has created it with an unusual source in the context of music making - namely, a coat hanger) - while offset by the equally strong directive to 'choose, discriminate', with the (generalised) aim of the improvement of society and self. And from this launching point, the evolution of this artist's work can be divined.
Since the early Clifton Hill Community Music Centre days, Ros Bandt's art-making philosophy develops to a point where, some twenty years beyond the above quote, her urgings towards critical listening arrive at this declaration:
Sound is invisible, ephemeral, site specific and time specific. It is life's voice. It is ever-changing. Sound exists in acoustic space. Sounds mark out moments of time and can become complicated signs for living things. As the digital world replaces the mechanical world, another interface like the industrial revolution is occurring. Communication systems bring new introduced sounds into the environment while other familiar sounds are being subverted, such as horse hooves and ticking clocks. The natural world has become the dumping ground for man's experiments.7
A most exciting characteristic of post(post)modern art since the 1990s is its ability to embody - often literally - the subject matter with which it engages, to engage directly with specific sites or landscapes and political issues. Bandt has observed that sounds can travel over vast expanses before impacting on one another or even arriving at the listener.8 The significance of this means that the work literally transcends the reach of the composer, has a life of its own outside the composer's control: a metaphor for the reception of art as a whole, and a new way of negotiating the relationships between creator, work and audience.9
Post-CHCMC days, Ros Bandt's creative focus begins to draw attention to ancient notions of music's 'healing' attributes, taken well beyond the interior spaces of concert halls or disused community centres and into the other environments. Certain of her post-1990s works impart a postmodern sense of loss and protest.10 They draw attention to sounds that are 'endangered' or no longer heard. Her art is now infused with specificity. Bandt's Voicing the Murray (1996) is 'an acoustic ecology'; it is also 'a fluid multi-channel sound installation and a radio work'.11 For Bandt, the significance of this region, 'a manmade oasis', is that it is a 'unique and critical habitat for the whole of Australia'.12 She also draws attention to its 'by-products of [humanity]'s overuse of the environment, erosion, salination, and cultural dislocation for indigenous peoples'.13 She emphasises, under the heading 'Defining the Brief: Acoustic Ecology', that as a sound artist her intention was to grant the Murray River a 'voice', one consequential to all those which have sounded on its banks and surfaces.14
Voicing the Murray consists of six large amphora-like ceramic jars fitted with loudspeakers, within a room strewn with red-gum eucalyptus leaves. The leaves bring about associations with the ancient Australian landscape, the amphorae providing the image of ancient cultures, transportation, trade, and the consequent dissemination and dilution of culture. Bandt structures the layout of the work's components in such a way as to facilitate the listener to move around the spatially complex multi-channel soundfield. It is made up of ocean, bushland and other natural environments, providing a context for voice recordings of ancient and modern languages and the indigenous Yorta Yorta and Barkindji languages. Fragmented vocal monologues tell of their speakers' experiences of possession and dispossession of land and language.
Bandt was concerned that her work bore witness to the 'stories from the local people; grape harvesters, irrigators, the lock keepers, the dam owners, the flora and fauna experts, and most importantly the original owners, the Aboriginal people who are in danger of losing their own languages at the present time'.15 To this end, she undertook several field trips to Mildura to conduct interviews and record the sounds of her subjects, frequently camping out. During her excursions, and while looking into the impact of technology in the area, she became aware of the endangered nature of sounds, preserved sounds, lost sounds and new introduced sound.16 Reflecting a postcolonialist consciousness in seeking the consent of experts in the fields of endangered species - the grey-throated miner bird, for example, and the frogs' habitat in the mating season - she notes, 'One must respect the sounds as belonging to a place and realise that the microphone can be an agent of imperialism. Permission should always be granted before proceeding'.17
The list of sound sources and voices collected by Bandt are:
'Sounds of the Murray region': 1. 'Dawn chorus under River red gums'. Cockatoos, pelican, fish in the water, parrots, magpies, yellow miners. Lake Hattah National Park. 2. 'Picking the grapes'. Sounds of picking and laying out grapes on drying racks at vineyard locations. A mixture of text and environmental sounds were used. 3. 'Paddlesteamer'. 'Melbourne' and diesel 'Rothbury'. 4. 'Endangered birds'. Black eared miner and red throated whistler. 5. 'Frogs'. Buronga wetlands near the bridge. 6. 'Pumps'. Psyche bend and the Chaffey steam pumps were recorded as well as a modern pumping station which provided modern and historical examples of water controlling devices. Ray Byrnes, First Mildura Irrigation Trust provided commentary. 7. 'Barkindji language'. Text spoken by Rex Smith, Junette Mitchell, Kevin King. 8. 'Yorta Yorta stories'. Told by Betty Clements and Fred Atkinson. 9. 'Lock 11/Weir'. Permission from Jeff Galasso.18
A photograph from the installation shows Bandt with the large ceramic urns.19 They form a set of six concentric circles, which mimic preserving jars for the sounds. Inside these 'jars' some sounds could be conserved; others could escape into the atmosphere, shooting straight upwards from ear height in rounded columns of sound; still others could disappear completely or be cremated in the ash under the urns. Listener perception is determined by proximity to each pot, the stories forming solos, duets, concertos accordingly. Bandt carefully creates a hierarchy in the narratives, with the natural sounds of the area (including birds and water), the Aboriginal stories and Barkindji words relating to the Murray accorded prime importance by placing their outputs in central locations and confining them to a separate loop, the non-Indigenous tales sharing the remaining four tracks with less movement. This design element was a cultural metaphor for Bandt. She notes that 'Aboriginal people have lived much more harmoniously in the natural environment and are the original owners and proper keepers of it'.20
Bandt contrives the work to be ever-shifting in its component elements of sound, lighting and sculpture, just like the river. 'People can access where and when they like, like surfing the net. It's impossible to predict or recreate the pathways. The voices together make a virtual community which is derived from the real. We can only perceive a tiny piece of the whole at any one time'.21 Yet Bandt's overriding redressing of what she perceives as the imbalance of human beings' impact upon such delicate ecosystems is found in her giving the Murray a 'voice', comprising all the elements that abrade its topography,22 and each voice is 'given space, unlike the politics of real life'.23
An environmentally sensitive, interactive, temporary outdoor installation, Ros Bandt's Lake Mungo (1992) offers what she describes as an 'aural journey into the psyche at one of Australia's most significant world heritage areas'.24 It, too, has a strong political subtext. Lake Mungo is a dried up lakebed, one of the 17 lakes within the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area located in Mungo National Park, 987 km west of Sydney. As an important archaeological site it covered 135 square kilometres and was about 10 metres deep. It existed from 25,000-45,000 years ago; the lakes in this area have been dried up for approximately 14,000 years.25 The site of the oldest examples of human remains found in the antipodes, the spirit of this place challenged Bandt to come to terms with its enormity of its history. She notes the way the land tells its own narrative through the 20,000-year-old fossil fish underfoot and the clearly visible pre-Ice Age formations and other geomorphic changes.
High on the dunes that surround the dried-out lake-bed Bandt erects her Aeolian harp, constructed with Steve Naylor, its harmonic strains wafting continuously over and into the landscape, intermingling with 'the stories and dreams at the Aborigines who carefully tended the site until they were rudely removed by white men 200 years ago'.26 The harps and their sounds seemed, for Bandt, a conduit back into this primaeval landscape, where the ancient 'voice' of the harps conjoins with those of the wind and the Aboriginal elder Alice Kelly of the local Mutti Mutti tribe as she related to Bandt the history of her people. For Bandt, the harps 'screamed' and 'howled' the anguish and misery experienced by the Mutti Mutti people over the last 200 years.27
The Aeolian harp also outlines a present-day geography as its sounds give punctuation to the delicate botanical forms that arise from their earthbeds, punctuate the skyline and so offer 'audible spatial reference points, by which one might orientate oneself in this overpowering setting'.28 Bandt's sentiments have some resonance with Peter Hamel's 1970s findings regarding the Aeolian harp and the way it imparts what could well be experienced as a spiritual dimension,29 a sense that is supported by further evocative sounds interspersed throughout the work: a didjeridu, rustling leaves, and shells and footsteps.
Ros Bandt's installation Speak Before It's Too Late (2000) returns to the use of six urns, first encountered in her Voicing the Murray (1996) (above). Speak Before It's Too Late deals with the historical sociolinguistic aspects of Australian colonial and immigrant culture. The work is a personal one for the composer, drawing on her own family and social background, where various aspects of linguistic changes have occurred over her lifetime since the 1950s. Her youth was spent in a monolingual middle-class family in the regional Victorian town of Geelong, contrasting with her inner urban experience since the mid-1970s where, having moved to Brunswick, she finds her neighbours are mainly migrants, of European, Asian and African descent. It dawned on Bandt with great sadness that her son's Polish-Jewish paternal grandmother could no longer converse with anyone in Melbourne in her pre-War Polish, and when she spoke this language of her youth to Bandt, the composer 'could see the lights in her eyes', and Bandt was also shown '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'.30
Bandt came to realise the importance of language - which is described as 'a barometer of change'31 - for identity, for the mutual sharing and understanding of others' tales, and how Australia's cultural makeup has changed so radically. She also notes that the passage of time has impacted on her own memories of many aspects of language - for example, since Vatican 2, the Latin Masses she first heard as a child with friends in Geelong are gone, and she laments the threat to her own sense of historical continuity and right to Western heritage especially through the closure of Classics departments, as Ancient Greek and Latin form the very basis of the English language. There are notably few people in Australia today who can understand and speak Ancient Greek.32
The urns reflect this fragility. They beg the question, for Bandt, of whether these sounds will be preserved, or if instead they will be shut away in funerary urns, no longer accessible to future generations. To underline this, one of the urns in the installation is silent, representing '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'.33
In their layered construction, where the temporal and the spatial come together, the voices ebb and flow from our sphere of aural perception, much as in lived experience, rubbing up against each other, dissipating, creating re-formed associations, prompting us to contemplate Australia's relatively brief European history, its immigrant cultures and its 60,000-year-old-plus Indigenous past. Bandt compels us to attend to language and the way it signals cultural shifts. Here, particularised in a small pocket of inner urban Melbourne life, her fluid playback multichannel sound installation enabled the voices to be heard as they sounded in relation to each other, the six playback channels producing an inbuilt randomness throughout the lengthy duration of the installation. The backdrop of soft, church organ music that conjures the Latin Mass not only evokes a sense of the archaic, of nostalgia, but also acts as a sotto voce admonishing commentary on the surrounding sounds, while inscribing the author's past onto the work. The postcolonial attitude evident here politicises a dispossessed Indigenous culture.
Bandt as Sound Art Ecologist
An increasing specificity regarding ecological issues informs many sound art works that are performed in, constructed in, and/or 'collaborate' with, the outdoors. Experimentalism's dialectical relationship between creator, performer and listener becomes, then, even more crucial in sound art, also often extending to the work itself - particularly so when the 'work' is centred in a specific landscape. From the urban to the rural and the Outback, the outside world is a loaded space, and sound artists such as Ros Bandt embrace the implications of the world around them, showing us how we are embroiled within our environs.
R. Murray Schafer adjures us to 'let nature sing for itself'.34 But this idyll of nature is, in so many instances, compromised by human agency in the form of environmental degradation. Such sound artists as Ros Bandt, however, are 'giving voice' to nature. Drawing attention to environmental sounds through their 'capture' in sound in site-specific locales, the works by Ros Bandt remind us of nature as an endangered phenomenon, emphasising its fragility. They achieve this while mounting the sounds on the strong armature of the respective installations as a whole, with the infrastructure of the technology and recording simultaneously creating discursive 'dialogues' and sonically enshrining the local, subtle, unnoticed and ultimately threatened sounds of their environments.
Activist installations and site-specific works seem to take an inspirational and motivating energy from the ancient traditions of spiritual meditation that are centred in the focused use of sounds to develop mindfulness and present-ness - in the moment. Further, as David Dunn states, 'The sounds of living things are not just a resource for manipulation; they are evidence of mind in nature and are patterns of communication with which we share a common bond and meaning'.35 A sense of a spiritual dimension also, for many, arises in those works which use systems such as the Aeolian harps that accord with actual 'musical' properties shared by all music instruments - namely, a fundamental and upper partials. That these systems are 'already there', out in the world, initially unintended for musical contexts, adds not only the post-experimental aspect but also a geographico-spiritual element, as it is as though the composers are 'tapping into' something also fundamental, if unquantifiable and fugitive in a day-to-day sense for Westerners. That this something has also been embraced and reified by so many ancient cultures, globally, adds to the sense of the spiritual. This sensibility is taken beyond the purely contemplative. It extends outwards to make direct commentary on the world. As Dunn also declares, 'In this time of ecological crisis, we need to embrace every tool we have to remind us of the sacred'.36 Bandt enacts a double-move of loss and recuperation: her works present dereliction and destruction - imminent if not already reached in many instances - yet, through the creator's efforts of educating the public as well as providing artistic nourishment, a certain restitution occurs.
Bandt - along with sound artists generally - is always concerned with the exploration of sound. And while a great number of score-based composers write music responding to the political realm, the difference with sound art composers is that the work and/or performance is site-specific: in other words, the very stuff of the musical work, or its source, comes from the actual place to which the work wants to draw attention; or it is a multidiscipline work that uses an integral visual component that pertains to the place.
Ros Bandt's works are inextricably bound up with the environs where they are staged. This work coalesces with its surrounds, be they solid objects (such as those of the built environment), or socio-cultural practices (including the politicised spaces that exist within and - perhaps even more importantly, in between - current events), or the natural environment. Her art is then able to reflect critically on its own conventions and on the materials it comprises, shedding light on the way we use (and abuse) the natural and built world and on how we preserve our art making (in museums, recordings, and in our writings about it). Bandt's site-specific sound sculptures charge the 'silence' of the land and their locale. They enact a sonic metaphor of 'water-memory' by imposing their sounds upon - or amplifying the 'natural' sounds of - their locales. In a sense, these works are potentially without end: reflecting always upon their environments, they are simultaneously produced from them. From the CHCMC days onwards, the sound art works of Ros Bandt underline the fact of the world's contingent, ever-in-flux nature, and its innate creativity.
11 Ibid. The work was commissioned for Confluences, the Mildura Arts Festival, and was produced in collaboration with artists John Wolsely and Sieglind Karl and curated by artist Tom Henty. Also see Ros Bandt, Hearing Australian Identity: Sites as Acoustic Spaces, an Audible Polyphony, Australian Sound Design Project (2001), at http://www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au/site/NationPaper/NationPaper.htm, accessed 12 March 2005. [Note that this article can now be found at https://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/article/hearing-australian-identity.]
24 Ros Bandt, Lake Mungo (2002), Australian Sound Design Project, at http://www.sounddesign.unimelb.edu.au/web/biogs/P000354b.htm, accessed 15 October 2008. Bandt's webpage has a link to an mp3 soundbite of the installation, and Mungo appears on the CD Sonic Archaeologies, MD3145.
25 Found at the site have been the remains of many extinct animals such as Tasmanian tigers, giant kangaroos, hairy-nosed wombats, and an animal called the zygomaturus. Aboriginal occupation in the area has been carbon-dated at about 40,000 years. Aborigines gathered mussels, emu eggs, cod and perch from the lake and hunted wallabies and kangaroos. The area has an abundance of human fossils and artefacts, uncovered then recovered again because of the winds and the blowing sand. The Aborigines were among the first people to grind flour from wild grass seeds, and their flake tools and sandstone grinders have been discovered. These sandstone grinders are reported to have come from at least 100 km away, suggesting seasonal migration. See Lake Mungo, at http://www.cap.nsw.edu.au/bb_site_intro/specialplaces/special_places_st3/LakeMungo/lake_mungo.htm, accessed 8 August 2009.
26 Bandt, Lake Mungo. Bandt's webpage has a link to an mp3 soundbite of the installation, and Mungo appears on the CD Sonic Archaeologies, MD3145.
35 David Dunn, 'Nature, Sound Art, and the Sacred', The Book of Music and Nature: An Anthology of Sounds, Words, Thoughts (Music/Culture), eds David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2001), p. 98.
Ros Bandt - AMC profile
Ros Bandt - homepage (https://www.rosbandt.com/)
© Australian Music Centre (2020) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
Subjects discussed by this article:
Melbourne-based composer, musicologist, and pianist Linda Kouvaras (PhD) is Associate Professor at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne.
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