About 20 years ago I was marvelling at how abstract, almost experimental sound had gone mainstream. While popular music in the ’80s was, for the main, musically facile and orthodox, the explosion of dance music at decade’s end signalled a new, mind-blown aesthetic. The kids were going nuts — aided no doubt by mind altering substances — to abstract, non-tonal noise. Techno and the various dance sub genres sounded not unlike the experimental stuff I had tinkered with at uni before I had to dance with the banality of the 80’s mainstream as a career rock musician.
Around the same time I was handed a CD from ACMA. Formed in 1989 — the same year that the kids all dropped e and went crazy — the Australasian Computer Music Association was mainly academics and enthusiasts of pure new sounds. I was puzzled; why didn’t the boffins get together with the kids? After all they were getting off on the same noises … except dance music had a beat.
Cut to the present and ACMA is still going. I recently attended a number of sessions at their annual conference at Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. There were academic papers and a disruptive keynote speech from DJ Spooky aka That Subliminal Kid aka Paul D. Miller (pictured above). It was a great move getting this guy along to shake things up. He politely pointed out that the aesthetic around ACMA eschewed the ‘beat’. Nothing much has changed it seems. Electro acoustic music (EAM), as it is now known, has not gone ‘club.’ Meanwhile techno became somewhat dull and predictable long ago.
There were two presentations called 60×60; 60 works by 60 artists with a new piece every minute. Perfect. You’ll never get bored. It had no people performing. Instead we listened to recorded sound performances. While I was alarmed by the conformity of the conference attendees – - mainly middle aged, white guys like me with a smattering of serious young insects — both the 60x60s presented a diversity of styles, gender, ethnicity and sounds.
EAM provides sound experiences that challenge how we make music and how we understand, shape and interpret what we hear. Usually one simply ‘enjoys’ a song or a symphony. 60 x 60 found me compelled to ‘make meaning.’ Did the content of a piece have any relationship to its title? Did ‘Isopathologus IX’ have a name for any reason beyond the fact it needed a name? Sometimes there was no meaning; just a bunch of sounds. Sometimes the meaning was buried deep in some compositional algorithm not immediately apparent. Although we listened in the dark I imagined there was a bit of knowing chin-stroking going on amongst the hard-core aficionados:
“Ha ha, did you enjoy that filter sweep Andre?”
“‘My word, Karl. Wouldn’t you like to see the maths behind that compositional matrix!”
So what did I hear? The sounds ranged from recognisable instruments, through manipulated real-world sounds to the totally abstract. There were moments of humour and, despite the avant-vibe, the occasional whiff of the New Age (New Age now being Old Hat). Although the composers were supposedly heading for their own personal outer or inner space(s) many pieces exhibited similar aesthetic tropes.
Location recording was a strong theme. There was lots of water … running water … and birds … many screeching birds. Along with the birds and water there were processed and manipulated snippets of conversation, the kitchen, the garden, getting dressed, crowds, the wind in the trees; all processed, transformed and manipulated. The worst of these were just bad recordings — whether they were manipulated or not they sounded harsh and didn’t exploit the fidelity that I would expect from composers with discerning ears.
The best location-based pieces were both abstract and connected to the world in a way that made us look at reality in a new way. In Winton Shire Channel 1 Graeme Leak took council radio calls and surrounded them with abstract sound. The result connoted the banality and vulnerability of organised human endeavour in the face of the overwhelming strangeness of the universe; think fire crews on Black Saturday. Roger Alsop, in Blur 2, processed location recordings of crowds and turned them into filtered, disassociated textures; exactly the feeling of being overwhelmed or alienated by large public gatherings.
Another recurring trope was the piano, either rendering complicated contemporary pieces or being electronically mangled and morphed. It seems we can’t get away from this reliable old instrument. There were other recognisable instruments too: drums, guitars and instruments from non-Western cultural and ethnic traditions. George Papanicolaou’s Easter Intersection was a hybrid of recognisable, orchestral sounds and abstraction; it referenced Western tonality, noise, Greek culture and Hollywood romanticism and drama. I felt like I was in the hands of a pro.
The use of real instruments in an experimental sound context gives the listener a recognisable reference point. Ollie Olsen (post-punk sound and noise pioneer) once played me an abstract sound piece; a commission for an Earthcore festival in the ’90s. It was to be played at 3.00am in a forest to pilled-up party kids. Amidst a sonic maelstrom recognisable tribal tom toms appeared.
“Why the normal drums Ollie?”
“Handles. Gotta give the kids something to hold on to so they don’t freak out.”
60 x 60 also had abstract pieces with no ‘handles’. Swathes and shards of filtered noise and sinusoidal tones swished and cascaded around the virtual space amongst the speakers. This is possibly the most difficult work to ‘understand’ but also the work that can offer the most surprises. Artists like Robin Fox are experts in this realm. Combustion was a ‘one minute study on the sound of heat’ that expertly exploited the full spectral and spacial range … um, that means sounds going from low to high and from left to right .(A lot of pieces failed this basic ‘listening experience’ prerequisite, I might add). Ross Healy’s Cray60 blended ultra-low drones and trickling, fast, ‘close’ noises with great fidelity and immersive stereo imaging.
Pieces like these explore the texture and tactility of sound. They don’t sound ‘like’ anything; they just are. They make a direct connection to the sense-centre of our brain. We don’t make meaning. Instead we experience these sounds as immediate, pre-semantic phenomena. Maybe this is what a baby experiences before they can interpret reality.
DJ Spooky rattled the ACMA mainframe. He suggested the way forward might be the collage approach of hip hop culture. All the world is data to be mined, mashed-up and re-configured, ideally with a political purpose. He pointed out that you will never win an argument against a climate change denier. But you can use images of Antarctica, data on temperature changes, the fractal composition of ice crystals and combine them in a piece of art that re-locates the debate in a new imaginative space. And if it’s got a groove then it might also be accessible to a wider audience; experimentalism with brain and heart — the organ that pumps with a beat.