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10 July 2008

Sono Perception

CarriageWorks, Sydney // NSW // 20.06.2008

James Hullick Image: James Hullick  

Is the success of a performance best measured by how well it mirrors the intentions of the creators, or must it be ultimately judged against the effect it has upon its audience? How different members of the audience responded to Sono Perception, presented by JOLT and CarriageWorks, may have been influenced by expectations as to what might constitute the workings of, as the subtitle put it, 'A Sonic Art Concert'.

By avoiding the term 'music', organisers had prepared the audience for encountering a broader range of the potentialities of sound, an exploration of sonic possibilities beyond the traditional notions of harmony, progression, melody – music as narrative. Yet, if something is not traditional, it doesn't follow that it is ipso facto daring. And if something is 'sonic art', it doesn't mean there isn't an expectation – fair or otherwise – of at least cursory entertainment. Curator James Hullick was kind enough to open his program notes with his mind's voice definition of 'sonic art' as any practice that features being creative with sound. But is there a point at which a definition can become so broad as to be rendered all but meaningless?

Melting Moments by Bruce Mowson, a work for video and sine tone, was a visually arresting opening. A rectangular and a circular pattern were projected onto a screen, each three colour layers deep and sitting side by side. As the piece unfolded, the colours would imperceptibly slide through the spectrum, shifting via minute gradations the eye could barely trace. The edges of each layer also bled into another, creating a pulsating glow that blurred the boundaries of one colour and one moment with the next.

Similarly, the low, throbbing thrum of the aural element was permitted to slide and transmogrify only by degrees – we were encouraged to be in the moment, sense the moment and be aware of the changes that had taken place, without being entirely cognisant of the exact moments of this change. The sonic palette was deliberately narrow, consisting of humming, throbbing tones, the soundscape perhaps reminiscent of the inner recesses of a nuclear power plant. The frequencies reached points so low it moved from the merely aural into the corporeal, vibrating not only our ear drums but deep within our bodies.

These minimalist slippages are difficult to pinpoint, and one suspects Mowson is hoping for exactly that – that we move with the work and wonder at the moment of the experience, rather than the processing that follows. The ultimate effect of these sonic mirages could be described as a transgressive immersion into a narrative-free zone where the sound itself has been elevated to the forefront of our perception. On the other hand, it could have been seen to have the aural and visual appeal of a television test pattern.

With New Visions of the Electric Eye Tone Tool, electronic experimenters Catherine Schieve and Warren Burt were, quite clearly, having a ball. Their three pieces were each created via differing modes of manipulating a rebuilt Percy Grainger Free Music Machine, operated via light-controlled electronics. Photocells sitting beneath a board were connected to a volt-to-MIDI converter, controlling oscillators and sample players via AudioMulch.

In Hands and Samples, hand movements above the machine triggered samples of vintage electronic music machines. Aurally and physically it seemed at this point closest to the theremin – a haunted house of wandering waves pitching to and fro. Their second piece made use of cardboard strips placed to control the response. More intriguing was the final piece Rock and Light Tracing, in which a graphic score was moved across the machine to create the sound.

With Schieve at one end and Burt at the other, the manipulated score was held above the table, dropped and lifted, pushed and pulled like a rolling sea. The sounds resulting from this three-dimensional scoring produced the kinds of glides Grainger would have hoped for, the changing light levels sliding sine wave frequency and dynamics into one, long continuous thread. Their enthusiasm and performative flourishes were close to the only movement of the night. The trouble was that everyone in the audience probably secretly wanted to have their own turn instead of sitting politely as Schieve and Burt had all the fun.

James Hullick's Songs of the Gotholin took a step into the world of the self-playing instrument. His skeletal machine looked like a giant mechanical spider, Hullick manipulating this 'arachnoid automata' via what appeared to be remote control, the machine bowing its four violins in varying degrees of taut screechiness.

These mechanised violins had been stripped of any trace of romance or delicacy, a scraping, creaking, dehumanised suite of sounds standing in their stead. This was a quartet devoid of harmonic intent, exploring the possibilities of the instrument without the very human desire to please.

Deprived of aural pleasure, it's interesting that we start to seek it elsewhere. As with Schieve and Burt, the urge to interact was quite strong. By attempting to draw us out of the traditional passivity of a concert audience, it seems Hullick may have created a frustrated monster – if we weren't going to be given narrative, aural touchstones to mark our journey, then we wanted to at least help steer. 

Closing the night was the hyper-restrained perpetual moment of James Tenney's Having Never Written a Note for Percussion, a solo work for gong performed by Jeremy Barnett. The piece has been designed to reflect a Zen koan, a meditative questioning of the listener speaking more to our intuitive sense than rational thought. The performer is required to create a single, continuous sound that builds from the most minuscule agitation of the gong into a roaring, rumbling crescendo. Climaxing with bone-rattling volume, the gong does not simply fade but is brought gently back down from this lofty height, caressed back to silence.

Throughout the performance the single, glowing, red ember of the gong emerged from darkened void like a giant, smouldering cigarette. Barnett was hidden behind the gong for the duration of the piece, his erasure unlikely to have been accidental. The shimmering gong and its overtones created a hugely complex microcosm of sound and made this one of the more successful moments of the concert. Yet not all were inclined to agree. 'Crescendo is cheap', came the call from the back of the audience as the final decaying traces of the piece rang out and the room was returned to silence.

This kind of reaction is of course just one example of the psychological responses to the material that was being presented for our aural perception. Music traditionally aims to inform, entertain, educate, scarify, move, unsettle, awaken – there is typically an intention, and the success of the work can in part be judged by how well that intention has been realised. When this is taken away and we are left with sound itself as the focus – not what sound can get across and what it can mean, but simply what it is – then there is a risk that our response will be in turn fairly mute, or, as in this case, quite vocally critical.

Tenney's idea for the percussion piece seemed to serve as a template or guiding principle of sorts for the night – the avoidance of drama through predictability – allowing the audience, in Tenney's words, to 'begin to really listen to the sounds...'

Sono Perception was designed to focus on a stream of sonic arts practice that explores sonic perception as the subject matter of the work rather than some kind of narrative and socio-political comment. Hullick's program notes talk of the sounds produced when nature works with wind chimes as an example of how this can occur, and cites Percy Grainger's interest in creating machines as an example of artists exploring the anomalies of sonic perception as the subject of the artwork itself. I have the feeling that all of these works were impeccably sound on a theoretical, academic basis. But one wonders if something more is needed once the work enters the performance arena – perhaps our expectations of entertainment and edification were too high.

It could come back to the chestnut of a 'concert' performance. The casting aside of narrative reveals inevitable tensions within the time-based concert format. This was a performance with a designated starting time, we were required to take in the sonic artworks in a set order, and the program lasted for a set duration. There seems in this an implied narrative agreement. To encounter these same works in a space such as a gallery would free us up to engage in our own way, at our leisure, in the order of our choosing, which could assist in mitigating against problems of restlessness and distraction.

I'll take heart from Hullick's bio note that feedback – positive or otherwise – is of course subjective, not concrete.

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Benjamin Millar is a Sydney-based journalist, writer and photographer. He works as a journalist and editor for a stable of community newspapers.


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