Friday, February 22, 2008

Sound.Music.Design Symposium

A belated start to a busy new year... if you're still out there, thanks for hanging around. Last weekend I was in muggy, grimy Sydney for a symposium at UTS. Music.Sound.Design was a sort of transdisciplinary talkfest, loosely organised around the planning of a new sound/music/whatever degree. There were film sound guys, music educators, interaction designers, sonifiers, theorists, experimental musicians; and while the question of what a modern, interdisciplinary sound degree looks like remained elusive, some good stuff came out along the way.

My picks from the symposium included Darrin Verhagen's presentation on audiovisual relations, in particular how the power of the synchretic weld can link incongruous materials together, fooling our cognitive "zombie agents" into thinking that normal causality is operating, when in fact we're being carefully manipulated. Also on the AV line, artist and theorist Ian Andrews gave a detailed historical overview of the whole visual music / fused audiovisual tradition, emphasising structuralist or materialist film and the trajectory from the Russian avant garde, seeking to prepare our senses for the new post-Revolutionary world, to the Modernist trope of "mediumicity". In discussion Andrews shared an interesting point about his own AV practice and how it relates to this tradition; he disavowed anything like "expression" in his work; instead he described it as the exploration of a concrete and constrained field of possibilities. So the stripped-down "mediumicity" of this practice is not reductive or reflexive so much as generative - the medium proliferates, rather than being reduced to some essence.

On another topic altogether, Julian Knowles gave a passionate keynote on the state of tertiary music education in Australia; timely especially from where I'm sitting, as the Canberra School of Music faces up to possible extinction. He was preaching to the choir here, with the crowd well stacked with experimental musos, laptoppers and the like; so his quotes from local "heritage arts" crackpots got the laughter they deserved. But Knowles also deftly showed how every single assumption made in the classical conservatorium approach - such as valuing interpretation over creation, and demanding a specific technical skillset rather than adaptability and innovation - is contradicted in the living culture of contemporary music practice. You could design a pretty interesting curriculum, he suggested, by simply inverting all those assumptions.

It was great to see Tom Ellard - now vehemently ex-Severed Heads, but a hero of my youth nonetheless. He too was seeking to get a grip on a contemporary music industry in flux, wondering whether participatory virtual environments could be a new form of "album"; and thinking, like Kandinsky, about music as a model for all kinds of art practice and education. As Ellard demonstrated, VJ tools make visual composition and semiotics literally playable - more on his site. The thirty seconds of live AV scratch video that illustrated this point had me grinning all day.

I also made it to the final performance night of this event, which featured Robin Fox, Peter Blamey, Darrin Verhagen and Yasunao Tone, all playing a lovely eight-channel surround rig. The whole night was impressive, but special mention goes to my friend Peter Blamey's set. (Image above is by mr.snow, from back in 2002). Blamey plays a sort of "no input" mixer rig - an old Tascam four track with its ins and outs all tangled up. In this set he barely touched the mixer; he didn't need to, this network was delicately poised, putting out shuddering, accelerating ramps of static, ephemeral stereo crackles, and these superb, delicate chirps from somewhere in the feedback. But unlike other feedback-driven audio I've heard, there was a total absence of drone; Blamey's mixer is wracked with spasms, waves piling up, overloading then quickly dispersed. Never exactly repeating, but completely, organically self-consistent; like Ian Andrews' work, no sense of "expression", but for me that only heightens the poetry. More on/from Blamey here and here.