Monday, April 20, 2015


Recently I had the intriguing, and in some ways unnerving, experience of giving a half-hour solo improvised performance live to the internet from my living room. It was part of a 24-hour round-the-world online music performance relay event called ToBeContinued...

There were a number of aspects of the performance situation which were unfamiliar, adding up to a strong feeling of being more exposed than usual - out on a limb. That's what I want to write about in this blog.

To begin with, the acoustic picture was a little hard to control. What I mean is that the nature of my set-up made it very difficult for me to get an accurate picture of the balance of sounds I was putting out.

You can listen  to a recording of my performance on SoundCloud.

There were seven channels of audio going into a mixer from three different broad types of sources:
  1. A stereo pair of condenser microphones provided a live stereo acoustic image of sounds I was making in the room using my voice, flute, mandolin, a collection of transistor radios and a few other objects. 
  2.  A third microphone - an old dynamic mic - was mounted right next to me to capture close acoustic sounds without capturing the sound of the room - an 'airless acoustic' - with sounds including bubble wrap and other materials rubbed against the surface of the microphone.
  3. Four other channels of two stereo line inputs were used to play a synthesizer app and a variety of field recording and other studio treatments directly into the mixer. The field recordings brought their own separate layer of indoor and outdoor acoustic contexts to the sound picture.
The instruments/sounds themselves were all a familiar part of the approach I've been developing to improvisation over the past few years. What was different was that I wasn't hearing all these sounds in the room with the audience. Instead, due to the mix of microphone and direct line inputs, I had to have the headphones on in order to hear all the sounds I was making. But there was nothing I could do to prevent the live acoustic sounds in the room from resonating my body at the same time. This made balancing these acoustic sounds against the sounds sent directly from digital devices quite a challenge. This was particularly difficult with the voice and flute as both of these were also resonating directly inside my skull. As a result I found it pretty much impossible to properly judge the level relationships between these two instruments and the field recordings and synth app.

This gave the performance a strangely out-of-control feeling. I responded to my sense of exposure by trying to ride the unpredictability and play with the ragged edges of the sonic (and social?) situation - the improviser's trick of feeding off whatever constraints there are on a performance. Gradual cross-fades and ambiguous overlays of sound sources contrasted with sudden stops and starts, variously aiming to expose or obscure the acoustic layers and sound sources, and foregrounding breath and the mechanics of turning on and off radios, picking up or putting down objects and switching mic channels on and off. At times my voice and flute became jagged foreground interruptions to the subtler sound spaces - the jaggedness made more intense by my inability to accurately judge the relative levels.

Added to the aural instability of the situation was the fact that, although improvising is something I've been doing for as long as I can remember, almost all my solo improvising has been in private, to no one but myself. For me solo improvisation has mainly been a source of private enjoyment and, with a microphone involved, a source of raw material for studio sound pieces and musical scores. In all these cases the sounds I've made are not intended to be heard in their 'raw' form by anyone else but me.

Performing in my living room for an actual though invisible audience was like inviting an unknown number of strangers to spy on me. Or - given the way in which the context of event and observers inevitably change the experience of performing - like turning this personal exploratory/reflective space into a performance venue.

Which brings me to the next unfamiliar thing. Here I was improvising to an unknown number of invisible strangers. I couldn't see who they were and I couldn't see or hear any of their reactions. There was no audience feedback - no 'atmosphere in the room' - just a compressed digital 'chasm'. And of course, the audience also couldn't see me or what I was doing. Except for what might be gleaned from the above photo that I posted online shortly before I started playing.
The sheer undecidability of all this made me feel as though I were in a space without any up or down - no gravity - no sides. No reference points.

But of course there was a context - a kind of frame of reference. There were close to 48 other individuals or ensembles also playing their 30-minute sets one after the other over this one 24-hour period. And what's more, there were specific individuals playing before and after me. This was my context. A kind of distended collaboration - a cultural relay.

As I made my final preparations (following a brief online soundcheck with Antonio Della Marina and the other organisers in Italy), I heard bits of the very full electronic textures Masashi Isai coming from Tokyo. Hearing the driving rhythms of his banks of samples I wondered what listeners would make of the rather exposed and fragmented soundworld of my set.

Whatever my anonymous listeners made of my contribution, after 30 minutes the relay duly moved on, this time to laptop musicians in Capetown. After that came a collaboration between electronic artist Fabian Racca and guitarist Mario Ayala from Argentina, making music that also had its exposed moments. Then it was off to Teheran for the intriguingly named MP|vH+ Computational Sound Art Projects -with sounds of a more abstract nature. And thus we were all mutually exposed to this curious online community of half-solipsistic collaborators - the closest thing to a visible audience.

I wonder how many of us listened to each other and how much? I felt I couldn't really listen properly until my set was done. And the invisible audience - what did they make of this eclectic smorgasboard of contemporary sounds?

I also wonder how Antonio Della Marina and his collaborators stayed awake through the 24 hours (plus prep) of the event, sound-checking every half hour and monitoring the streams, and even finding time to write following our sets to thank us participants for our contribution to this sonic marking of World TB Day.

On reflection, exposure and risk - a quality of ragged edges and uncertainty - is familiar territory and a necessary part of all real-time music-making. Perhaps even one of its chief attractions. For all its 'almost-solipsism', the invisibility of the audience and the strangeness of the acoustic experience, ToBeContinued... was definitely a performance - a play with sounds and circumstances fuelled by the adrenalin of uncertainty and that 30-minute space of potential silence waiting to be filled and shaped. Or left dizzyingly empty.

That empty stretch of time, framed by expectation (an audience, however obscure), is what produces the necessity of performance - a necessity that seems to enable unexpected leaps of creative invention. It's a more pressing necessity, and more reliably productive for me, than the need to write (and to eventually finish and post) a blog article - also presented to an invisible and unknown audience.

But then this invisibility is a familiar attribute of all writing. And recording. Who knows who's out there?

Sunday, November 17, 2013


I find myself seeking beauty at the blurred boundaries where words lose their meanings or gain new ones, where performances may or may not have begun, and where voice, instrument, and the sounds of the environment merge.

I’m inspired by what I think of as ‘soft-edged’ or ‘fuzzy boundary’ artistic experiences. Things like the way that (at least judging by the archival film footage I've seen) a traditional Northern Territory indigenous ceremony can emerge seamlessly out of an apparently informal and diffuse social setting. 

Or the Cagean sense of a musical sound world that is utterly porous in the relationship between willed gestures and incidental sound, something addressed in different ways by the improv language developed by Jim Denley and collaborators in their West Head Project, and by some laptop and lo-fi artists explorating the soundworlds of air-conditioning units and other ambient machine presences. 

Looking back I realise that a couple of key early adult performance experiences were characterised by this sense of gradual transition and uncertain borders. In 1986 I saw the Wooster Group perform L.S.D. (...JUST THE HIGH POINTS...) at the Adelaide Festival, a work that was full of the informality of simultaneous streams of readings, chat, synchronised and diffuse movement and lo-fi audio-visual reproduction. 

And even earlier in 1984 I participated as the otsuzumi drummer in the first Australian production of the classic Noh play Kiyotsune at the Seymour Centre in Sydney. While Noh is on one level full of overt structure and formality, the glacially slow ritual of taking up our positions within the space created an interesting ambiguity about what was and wasn't 'the work'. And the fact that my 'drumming' patterns (at least as I remember them) consisted of about 25% hitting the drum and 75% vocalising also created an odd ambiguity about what was 'the music' and what was a kind oif bi-product or aid to achieving just the right arm gesture in contacting the drumskin. 

Come to think of it, one of my favourite recordings of my 1980s band oNe oVer Zero is one where the sounds of glasses clinking in the pub and voices talking to each other is louder than most of the music we were making.  

I'm not sure where this attitude comes from. Perhaps I have some basic resistance to things being too clearly defined and delimited. Or perhaps I find the separation of parts of life into performance/not performance, music/noise, significant/ordinary etc threatens my sense of coherence and the meaningfulness of existence. 

Food for thought...

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Goodbye Pool

Just a brief note to remember that experiment in online creative communities that was Pool.

It was the existence of Pool, along with the site's limitations as a space for juxtaposing sound, text and image (something I wanted to do but not what the site was designed for) that prompted me to start this blog.

Since then the whole webscape has moved on, perhaps making an all-in-one site such as Pool less relevant. Or perhaps it's just that the speed of change in what is possible and what people want to do with their devices (no longer mainly computers!) has been too swift for an under-resourced project buried inside a large public corporation to keep up with.

There's a  bit of left-over Pool in an archive site, featuring a few special Pool project radio programs including Birdland which includes material from my flute piece Reverse for solo flute.

So long Pool...

Monday, November 22, 2010

what is radiophonic?

I'm going to take a break from my more navel-gazing obsession with reflecting on my own sound/musical work. Instead I want to write down some thoughts on radiophonic art that were first sparked three years ago by hearing six new, short 'radiophonic' works in three distinctly different listening contexts.

The six works were created by six quite different artists and artist collaborations in response to the same commission: to create a 4-minute sound work for radio incorporating one or more of five given samples from Monteverdi's 400-year-old opera l'Orfeo. The task was further fleshed out with the suggestion that the works respond in some way to the history/nature of opera and/or the Orpheus myth: a collection of stories and re-tellings replete with the classic opera themes of love, death and the power of music.

The listening contexts in which I heard the six works were (in this order): 
1. alone on headphones connected to a computer;
2. with others in a sound-proofed studio on a large and excellent studio play-back system;
3. at home off a portable transistor radio in the kitchen during their first broadcast.

The ways in which I experienced these works and their perceived effectiveness in the three different contexts (socially/sonically isolated intimacy; high-end sound projection in a purpose-built work space; in a lo-fi, casual social context) highlighted for me the differences between the 'radiophonic' mode and the other predominant listening modes of 'concert' (public, hi-fi performance-oriented projection) and 'private soundtrack' (the solipsistic listening spaces of the mp3 player and other such personal listening technologies).

So to the works.

Damian Barbeler's Tuning Orfeo was totally absorbing in immersive headphone listening mode, its layering of field recording, samples and indoor performance making an interesting play with contemporary listening contexts. This was still moderately effective in the listening context of a studio, but evaporated completely when heard off the radio in my kitchen where the additional layers of rich acoustic spaces (indoor sounds plus the layers of sound from outside) made the layers within the piece inaudible.

Distorpheus, Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras's attempt to capture 'the power and drama of operatic form' made it's impact fully on the big speakers and classic proscenium listening situation of the studio. This power had less room to breath on headphones, and lost most of its ability to command attention when delivered through my domestic radio speakers at home. Here the big gestures and sonic intensity of the work became thin and uninteresting.

In contrast, while I enjoyed Amanda Stewart's Eurydice's Sigh on headphones, I was mildly disappointed by it in the studio setting. It wasn't until I listened on the radio at home that its intimate address of multi-voiced whispers and utterances revealed its power, reaching straight into the sound-world of the kitchen. Its play between speech and the musical potentials of voice now became a thoroughly arresting and intriguing presence within the acoustic environment of my domestic world, the words heard as if listening to the speaker's thoughts, or to her voice speaking directly to me.

Even more low-key in its initial sleepy, fuzzy impact on headphones was Dave Noyze and Sarah Last's Monteverdudley, a curious investigation of speech synthesis and the soundworld of the regal organ prominent in the Monteverdi opera. The studio listening situation added little to its impact, but like Stewart's work, this piece revealed hidden depths in the radio listening situation, proving strangely compelling as a synthetic, muffled guest insinuating its way into the atmosphere of my kitchen. Again, the spoken utterances became far more compelling in this domestic context.

The remaining two works were much more level in their impact across the three listening situations. On the one hand there was Constantine Koukias' Vox Orpheus - a gently alluring invitation into an exotic realm of ancient Greek language and music. The effect was attractive in a low-key way across all three listening contexts - a kind of dream world of lovely sounds and voices existing in a timeless space somewhere just out of reach.

Arresting in all three contexts was Gail Priest's Coffee this morning which combined the immediate impact of rich repeated chords in a bright, 'pop' music production with the radiophonically effective intimacy of her kitchen-drama monologue which, with its accompanying domestic sounds, appeared like a guest drinking coffee at my table. (You can read more about the ideas behind these works as well as listen to many more works created in response to the Orpheus challenge on the Orpheus Remix Awards website.)

So what is this thing called 'radiophonic'?

Radiophonic listening almost invariably involves the work being projected into an already rich sonic environment as one of many competing sound sources. In this context the work is most likely to achieve some impact by addressing rather than ignoring the primary function of radio listening - as an aural companion making a direct address to listeners within their divergent and uncontrollable listening contexts.

This is a radically different performative context to the  hi-fi or electroacoustic concert presentation of work where the whole listening context is focused proscenium-arch style on the stereo field of the audio's projection. It is also substantially different from the immersive and aurally decontextualised intimacy of headphones.

What radiophonic art's future is in a rapidly changing media context is hard to say. Though as long as there is sound being transmitted into portable devices and heard as part of the fabric of listeners' personal spaces, from kitchens to cars to bedrooms to beaches, then there will be the need to make opportunities for artists to seek new ways of engaging with this context.

What this blog completely ignores is the intriguing histories of divergent sound arts that have fed into the development of radiophonic art. But that is definitely a story for another day, and probably a more qualified teller.

Monday, October 25, 2010

what is a microphone?

What would the results for recording and 'sound art' be if there were as many different kinds of microphones in the world as there are pairs of ears? If, indeed, it was possible to use a pair of ears as microphones, and to feed whatever resonated in those inner cavities and nerves directly through the inputs of a recording device?

The thought was prompted by a friend talking about the experience of hearing the world with inner ears full of fluid - the result of a respiratory virus. Apparently certain frequencies are blocked, making all pianos sound honky-tonk and out of tune, and causing some women's voices to sound high and squeaky/'little-girly'. My voice is apparently unchanged.

Speaking of filtering, I'm loving the effects of my Korg MS20 synth on the vocal signal from my Beyer Dynamic mic. Every time I change the settings it's like I'm working with a new and 'differently-abled' microphone.

I think I'm attracted to sonic experiences of mild disorientation. Such as the slightly hallucinogenic interaction of my treated voice with the 'clean' signal in among the cycas, my chant-like interpretation of Jen Craig's micro-story Perspective.

As in my piece Over the River the audio and text converge on a shared experience of the Shoahaven river  during our Bundanon residency, but unlike the other piece, among the cycas has no field recordings in it. It relies instead on the inflections in my vocal and synthesizer improvisation in the acoustic of the Dorothy Porter Studio at Bundanon. The text captures a shared experience of looking at the river through trees from a rock high above the water. Something about the perspective subtly undermined our sense of which way was up.

My performance of Jen's text at the time was completely in the moment. But reflecting on it now it seems to me that the play with tuning, overtones and shifting pulses aims to suggest a similar disorientation of aural reference points around a very simple, almost montonal chant. Perhaps while you're listening to among the cycas you may feel like you've got fluid in your ears...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

the raw and the cooked

My collaborative residency with writer Jen Craig is coming to an end, and while we've both done lots of work over the past 12 days, there's not much that's ready for anyone else to hear.

Part of my process over the past week has been simply to take Jen's texts and put myself in front of a microphone or two (with one of the mics feeding through an old analog synthesizer) and improvise take after take of interpretations of these texts. As the week has gone on I've found myself homing in on certain texts that seem to gel more with the vocal performances I've come up with. Most of these are still in various stages of editing and elaboration with other recorded material from the residency and elsewhere. But I decided to take a risk tonight and let one fairly raw offering out of the bag. Listen.

The text is one of Jen's briefer micro-stories - a 32-word utterance called Only three removes - that leaves lots of raw edges hanging. Unlike the previous two audio pieces, I've done nothing to directly address the contexts the text refers to (Kafka, holocaust, Prague...). I've just set two quite different 'readings' (vocalisings) of the text side by side. While I wanted to make the text comprehensible, neither of my readings aims to emphasise the narrative or emotive details of the text. Rather, they take a relatively emotionally flat approach, but with lots of grain in both the vocal performances and the interference (noise?) provided by the synth and some abrasive treatment of one of the mics.

My sense is that the resulting musical texture is analogous (homologous in Shepherd and Wicke's sense?) to the unresolved edges - almost the emotional prickles - that I read (feel?) in the text. It's a text which is full of ambivalence and tension. My desire in making the music was to inhabit (and perhaps take pleasure in) that space of masochistic discomfort. The masochism extends to the rough and unresolved edges of the recording and mix itself.

Does the strategy succeed in embodying such an experience? Or does the very 'under-produced' nature of the work get in the way, and stop the listener from really listening? Is it too literally uncomfortable to resonate and be appreciated as a musical experience?

Monday, September 27, 2010

text, sound and sentiment

Over the River, my second 'essay' (attempt) in responding sonically to Jen Craig's Absurd Enticements  blog began with a simple association of time and place.

We stood on the banks of the Shoalhaven River at dusk. I made a recording of the cries of an enraged spur-winged plover, complete with natural echoes from the cliffs opposite. The effect of these sounds as the very last of daylight faded from the sky was haunting indeed and also, like the songs of many of the birds of this location on the Shoalhaven River and in the bush above, intensely musical.

Jen was absorbed with her own responses to the site. She photographed the cliffs and water. Afterwards she wrote a micro-story, Furred Water, focusing on the visual atmospheric resonances of the work of Arthur Boyd in the water, cliffs and bushland he painted so often in the last decades of his life.

Putting text and field recording together was on the face of it a crude juxtaposition of disparate materials which just happen to be derived from the same location. But here the mysteries of place and association kick in.

Jen's text comes to a head around the image of the river's 'silent, maniacal fury'. The performance and juxtaposition of the text with the field recording opens up the possibility that the plover's voice is the articulate embodiment of this fury. The river's inarticulacy further feeds on the technical limits of my recording, the river's 'furred water' seemingly emphasised by the wash of air and intermittent background traffic sounds.

And if anything, the obvious sentiment in the resulting audio piece is heightened by the apparent obliqueness of a text that focuses on water, and a field recording that focuses on birdsong.  

It seems to me that the very uncertainty (open-ness?) of its referential content is key to sound's capacity to embody presence - the simultaneity and fusion of multiple divergent and convergent strands of experience. This capacity is what music is built on.

But enough flights of speculation. In this case, the obviously 'poetic' diction of my reading brings into play sentimental expectations, suggesting some reverential contemplation of the sounds of both the words and the field recording.

How would the sound and text be experienced if the text were simply read silently in the mind of a person while listening to the raw field recording? (Or even the doctored version I've offered up in cobbling together the most usable bits and boosting elements that underpin the delivery of the text.) Would any of the above associations be carried by this juxtaposition without the text itself being embodied and placed in a performative relationship to the river sounds and the plover's cries?

And how would the result change if the placement of the words was altered? Or if their delivery was more prosaic, even conversational?

All of which suggests that working by association rather than analogy or parody risks making texts less open, not more. Or did you hear my piece quite differently?