Writer-in-residence with Liquid Architecture Festival of Sound Arts (www.liquidarchitecture.org.au) in 2004 and 2005, attending the Melbourne and Brisbane legs of both years.


Review of Liquid Architecture 6, 1-23 July 2005
Published at www.artfairsinternational.com in 2005 (now no longer available at this site)
Revised 2009

Now in its sixth year, Liquid Architecture showcases the experimental edges of contemporary sound-making wherever it can be found, through concert series, dance events, installations, screenings, artist talks and forums, and compact disc releases. The festival is one important part of a very vibrant landscape of contemporary sound, and as festival director Nat Bates has said, "artists aren’t making work to exist for the festival – the festival exists because so many artists are making such great work."

What makes Liquid Architecture stand out from other festivals in Australia that feature contemporary sound is its scope. Not content to privilege one style or form of sound-making above another, festival director Nat Bates deliberately sets out to bring a whole range of 'scenes' together, artists and audiences alike. The festival features contemporary currents and cross-currents in electronica, noise, free jazz, new classical, techno, dance and punk, at times intersecting with film and visual arts. This makes for a curatorial task with a high degree of difficulty - the danger is to spread too thin, to attempt too much, to mystify rather than (a)muse audiences - but it is a task that Nat Bates and his guest programmers largely accomplish.

A case in point is the dance party held at the 'Public Office' bar in Melbourne on the second night of the festival, programmed by presenter and promoter of the Australian dance scene Alan Bamford. The all-night event began with hard-core noise acts like Lucas Abela's sonic glass smashing routine and ended up with main stream dance DJ-ing from Ben Hederson and Damian Laird. Like any good DJ knows, its all about the flow of energy across the night and Bamford was successful here as each act in the line-up progressively headed towards standard dance aesthetics, without patronizing either the experimental or main stream members of the shoulder-to-shoulder audience.

After beginning as a one-off project by students from the Media Arts course at RMIT University in Melbourne in 2000, Liquid Architecture soon grew to an annual affair that has increased in number of artists, venues and cities each year. This festival is still largely operated out of RMIT, through the arts office of the student union (Bates working closely with festival producer Sue Jones), but Bates links up with local presenters and promoters which ensures the diversity of the programming and the ability to keep in touch with underground experimentation. This year the festival traveled along the east coast of Australia, covering Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns, which is roughly the distance from London to Istanbul, and featured over 100 artists.

The festival has always had the ethos of highlighting the best of local work by younger artists (in their 20s and 30s) in context with special guests from overseas and selected 'elders' of the Australian scene.

This year the festival featured more international guests than in previous years. Thomas Brinkmann and TBA (Natalie Beridze) from the German hard-core dance culture; DJ Olive from New York, who gave us 'ill-bient music'; Jean Luc Guionnet and Eric La Casa from France; the three-piece 16mm film 'band' Wet Gate from San Francisco; and highly acclaimed jazz drum and junk noise percussionistWill Guthrie, an ex-pat Australian now based in Paris.

Amongst the internationals, highlights included: TBA (Natalie Berdze)'s set at the dance party was a quirky and thunderous mix of new classical piano and industrial beats that sounded rather fresh to my ears in its ambivalence to both genre-mashing and dance aesthetics;Thomas Brinkmann's 'click set' at the Melbourne dance party was too short but his longer Brisbane set was an amazing minimalist glitchy techo set centred around deliberately-scratched rhythmic vinyl groves; DJ Olive's set in Melbourne was a beautiful sinuous weaving together of cut-up turntable samples - performing in socks that help him glide across the stage, his virtuosic turntable technique is a sight to behold; Jean-Luc Guionnet and Eric La Casa's surround-sound work 'Back Slap', based on field recordings of a hockey game, was a sublime example of how the art of field recordings can go beyond generic stick-a-mic-here-and-press-record.

This year's elder-states-people of Australian sound where Alan Lamb, a sound artist who worked with field recordings of long-wires whose work is enjoying a recent rediscovery, and Essendon Airport, the cult minimalist instrumental band of the 1970s-80s that have recently come back together to launch a series of re-releases of their recordings.

Alan Lamb's multi-channel work based on the recordings of long-wire (think outback telegraph poles and communications towers) was another magical field-recording work, a 30-min set that became a thunderous wall of noise. Other local highlights included works that explored new forms of audio-visual interface and feedback: Robin Fox's work for noise feeding directly into an oscilloscope, Botborg(Scott Sinclair and Jo Musgrove) who produce an organic double-feedback loop when sound is feed into a video mixer as video, and the video projection is feed into a laptop as sound, resulting in a chaotic matrix of sight and sound, and Dale Nason and Kim Bounds who likewise feed sound into video channels as part of their audio-visual act.

Another highlight of the festival was the subscriber-only CD that was specially produced for the major UK-based magazine The Wire. The CD contained work from artists associated with the festival since its inception, and it is significant that it is the first time that The Wire has featured an Australian sound arts organization in this way, recognition that Liquid Architecture is well on the way to becoming a major contemporary sound festival in the international circuit.


Uploaded to the festival blog site, 
on the eve of the Liquid Architecture festival of sound arts, July 2005

Last thursday on p 8 of mXNews (the free inner-city daily newspaper in Melbourne) there appeared this picture and caption:

Babies are lulled to sleep wearing headphones piping out the classical masterpieces of Mozart and Vivaldi in a maternity ward in a private hospital in Kosice, eastern Slovakia... The musical therapy is to help the newborns adapt better to life outside the womb.

While it stands to reason that we should play sounds to babies -- the womb after all is a VERY noisy place (I refer you here to festival director Nat Bates' award-wininng article "Sonic Womb" from 2003) -- what makes Mozart and his type the preferred sonic choice? Why not play Hendrix, or Kylie, or noise, or free jazz, or field recordings, or hard-core techno, or office sounds or The Wiggles or other baby sounds or whatever?... 

There is a bet, a faith even, that Mozart is 'good for you'. But on what basis do we reach such a conclusion? In other words, what are the grounds for deciding which sounds to play to our babies, and indeed to ourselves?

This is not just an academic speculation. I have a baby girl, almost five months old now, and I am forced to make that choice of sonic environment everyday. (Even the choice not to play recorded sounds is a choice to let the ambient surburban sounds and the chatter of her parents become her soundscape.)

And this is also the choice that sound artists must make. What sounds do I listen to, do I work with, do I present? What makes the particular sounds we live with rise to the top of the heap of the abundant choices that are available to anyone with an internet connection, radio, shopping mall, and network of listening friends.

This conundrum was at the core of the first discussion I had with festival director Nat Bates when I arrived last week in Melbourne. And out of this I developed a schema that tries to address the varied approaches to sonic decision-making that sound artists, and indeed all of us, are making today.

Because it used to be much simpler -- though not necessarily better or worse... 

Prior to the twentieth-century, music was pretty-much orientated towards a pitch-time grid associated with the development of tonal music. We had melody, harmony, accompaniment, rhythm. It was highly predictive. Instruments were designed to follow at well-tempered scale. Rhythms followed simple meters within regular bar lines. Performers moved, and sounds mapped in a one-to-one fashion from these movements (hit a string, hear a note). 

But now we are in a period after the breakdown of tonality - of an expansion into non-pitched sounds (via percussion and noise), into non-metered time (via the drone and hyper-poly-rythms), into extra-musical activities and non-staged performance (via music theatre, film and intermedia), into the juxtaposition of multiple styles (via the sampler). So if the tonal grid that held it all together has broken, what exactly holds a sonic work together today? In the age of 'anything goes', what structures our listening?

In the age of 'all-sounds', there are nevertheless filters that structure our sonic choices. In fact, there are various 'gravitational pulls' that orientate the sonic choices people make today. These are :-

    1. A pull towards instruments/machines (the 'idiosyncratic' choice)
    2. A pull toward styles (the 'idiomatic' choice)
    3. A pull toward affectations (the 'idiotic' choice)
    4. A pull toward strategies (the 'ideological' choice)

    5. A pull toward personal intuitions (the 'i' choice)

Actually, any sonic choice inevitably involves machines, styles, affectations, strategies and intuition. It is a question, therefore, of which of these things is which has the strongest gravity.

I will briefly outline what I mean by each of these types of pulls below. And then, throughout the course of the festival, I want to test this schema against the various gigs and installations that are part of Liquid Architecture.

I call the pull towards an instrument an idiosyncratic choice, since it is the idiosyncracies of an piece of technology that focuses the sonic practice, whether it be a piano or software tool or voice or network of guitar pedal. The classic example of this sort of artist is the person committed to an instrument, even if what they do on that instrument is highly varied. "I am a pianist." "I am a guitarist." "I am a singer."

I call the pull towards styles the idiomatic choice, since it is the idiom that focuses the sonic practice. So the commitment is to a style, such as free jazz, or techno, or Indian raga. Think of a pop band that may use any instrument or sample of any instrument. For them them the instruments are the means, what is the end of the stylistic idiom. "We are a jazz band." "I do dark noise."

I call the pull toward affectation the idiotic choice, since this is a pull to non-rational emotional meaning. The focus here is to enter into a particular emotive state, regardless of what style or instruments are used. The intentions of film scoring is a classic example here. "I make relaxation music." "I want to make people feel soulful."

I call the pull toward strategies the ideological choice, since being concerned with how we make things, the mechanisms through which we decide things, is to engage in the ideological foundations of a practice. Conceptual Art in the 1960s is the classic strategy art, so to Chance Music. "I play reversed wave files." "I am an improvisor."

I call the pulls towards personal intuitions the 'I' choice because this the focus of the self. What sounds should I work and play with? Just follow your intuition. Do whatever. Follow your nose, or ears. But the 'I' is fictional. There is no way of 'just being me', since the 'me' is really a coordination of the limits of style, affectation, technologies, strategies. "I don't think about what I do." "I just go with the flow."

As a case -in-point, I was discussing with Nat Bates that his collaborative act Machina Aux Rock have two gravitational pulls, towards instruments, and towards style, in his case the pull towards letting the instruments (drums, feedback system via mixer) be explored for what is possible on the instruments regardless of feeling or style, and then the pull towards wanting his music to be an extension, or commentary, or critique of Rock Music. Some days he is tugged towards the idiosyncratic, other times towards the idiomatic.

Being pulled in different directions provides a tension or creative space in which to play. My guess is that for each sound artist, there is a different particular set of pulls, and it would be interesting to identify these. Anything does go, but my proposal is that it only really goes between these four pulls of instrument, style, affect and strategy (and the fifth pseudo-pull of the intuition).

Maybe my schema will prove to be inadequate or inaccurate. We'll see...


Review of Liquid Achitecture 5, Festival of sound Arts held in July 2004
Published at www.artshub.com.au in mid 2005 (no longer available at this site)

With Liquid Architecture (LA6) almost upon us, I’m going to relive moments from last year’s festival, in short, a ‘solid’ experience with ‘liquid’ effects…

My perspective is 'from the inside' -- I was involved in a gig with COMPOST; I penned a catalogue essay and artist interviews; and I was part of the audience for all the gigs and installations in both Melbourne and Brisbane.)

Expansion and Exhaustion...

Listening to such high quality and diverse contemporary music-making squashed into a fortnight was really exhausting. Around three to four acts per night. This festival is into expansive programming, ranging from experimental hip hop to electronica to new classical to free jazz to industrial noise to invented instruments and ambient installation - and sometimes this might happen all in one night. Physically exhausting because of the late nights, coffees, beers and long chats after the gigs, and mentally exhausting because of the intense listening that most acts sucked out of me, whether I planned for it or not.

This might seem like it was a little excessive. Well it was. But in a really rewarding way. A bit like taking a good long jog - by the end you might have a pain in your side, but the endorphins kick in and there is this good feeling deep inside. This is the after-effect I experienced after the festival. Like many artists and sports people describe after an intense period of being 'in the flow', the world seemed clearer, more alive, more distinct than before. This is a subtle thing that is difficult to describe fully. It was like feeling full (if listening is like eating) or fertilized (if listening is like being a plant). or simply feeling content and more connected (if listening is like being in love). More on the ball (if listening is like playing soccer)

Connection and Contrast...

Feeling connected in a big country like Australia is vital for artists and culture workers. Often the life of a sound artist is solitary, in my case using audio programs on my PC, or surfing the net for samples, or working in the lounge with pencil and score. Attending LA5 helped me feel connected to a wide cross-section of sound practitioners that goes way beyond separate musical scenes and the online eLists and eCommunities that I am a part of.

Seeing and being part of the intense feeling and passion that other practitioners displayed in performance and in person was a kick of enthusiasm: Anthony Pateras head-banging his piano, German Michael Vorfeld convulsing over his percussion set up, and Frenchman Pierre Bastien lovingly tinker with his mechanical music-toys.

Being exposed to such a wide range of sonic approaches also confirmed the direction I should take in my current practice. I saw what was being done well, and what gaps there were in this breadth of contemporary practice that were still waiting to be explored. In particular, the approach to chunks of time and silence that I was toying with at the time appeared became a clear pathway for me.

Shadows and memories...

The shadow of the 1960s, the experimentalism and activity of the minimalists and conceptualists in New York, lingered over the solo violin performance of Tony Conrad, who in the 1960s pioneered drone music with La Monte Young. Until Conrad's visit, this milestone in music history was just words in books for me, the occasional score and poor recordings (La Monte Young has tied up most of the access to original tapes). Then Conrad turns up, pulls a flimsy curtain across the stage, back lights himself with a fog light, turns on a fan, and plays drone violin with his shadow, five times his size, looming, hovering in the ambience. Spooky and kooky. In a way, it was a let down, didn't sound as good I imagined on paper. But this helped me hop out of the Oedipal shadows of the past and realise that, contrary to the conservative musical commentators of today, it hasn't all been done before.

Nighty-nights and Nightmares...

And then the finale in Melbourne... at the planetarium in Spotswood. A trip out from the usual inner-city venues. Six artists each playing ambient works whilst a packed house laid back in seats, watching the projected night sky on the dome ceiling. I fell asleep on and off throughout the two hours. But certainly not through Darren Verhagen's set. 'Dark noise' is what it's sometimes called. This was the first time I was terrified by sounds. So loud without distorting, which is a very highly skilled feat of audio mastering. Gut wrenching. And I was terrified that the noise would stop. Would the planetarium staff turn down or turn off the sound (which has happened at other noise gigs I have been to)? But they were loving it. And were adding their knowledge of the planetarium sound system into the mix. Which speaks volumes (literally) for the type of partnerships that the festival has set about developing, cross-industry, cross-city, cross-cultural.

And one year on...

An exhausting but inspiring experience. And it's all on again in the next few weeks. This time spreading its wings to five centres on the east coast - Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns. Around one hundred artists performing and installing. Must get some sleep in preparation...


Catalogue Essay (published in the festival DVD booklet)
Liquid Architecture 5, July 2004

Liquid Architecture, as an annual festival of sound arts, suggests a panoramic exposé of how people live and breathe sound today – how people make it, experienced it and think about in 2004.

Ways to live with sound. The cliché of pluralism is true: there are many ways nowadays. At Liquid Architecture you get concerts, installations, recordings, texts, talks. You get people working with traditional music instruments, everyday ‘found’ objects, electronic devices, software, acoustic and architectural spaces, the body, pre-composed, improvised et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Liquid Architecture has invited three international acts to complement the Australian artists featured at the festival, each working in a different way with sound today – violinist, film maker and minimalist Tony Conrad from the United States, mechanical instrument-maker and improviser Pierre Bastien from France, and improvising duo Reinhold Friedl and Michael Vorfeld from Germany.

Right now, we’re going to take a fast ride in a time machine back to a pivotal moment in each artist’s trajectory in getting to Liquid Architecture 5, Australia 2004...

Nothing beats something – the expanded note

The year is now 1964. New York. T minus 40 years and counting...

Tony Conrad is living inside the sound of a highly tuned drone, along with John Cale, La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela in the Dream Syndicate (aka the Theatre of Eternal Music). Conrad on violin, Cale on viola, Zazeela and Young on vocals – the tuning is rock hard and the timbres are tight.

Conrad is playing double stops on his violin (two notes at once). We may think we know what that might sound like, but there is this inner world to harmonic intervals that Conrad is hearing. His left ear, so close to the violin strings, hears what’s called a ‘difference tone’ – a very deep note that’s sliding around below the subtle shifts in tuning of the drone notes. He also hears subtle rhythmic beats that are the product of this tuning. And by reducing the musical material to almost nothing, these internal harmonic-rhythmic beats become a magnified something upon which to pin a highly focused listening. Here, in the genesis of Western minimalism, nothing beats something.

Conrad gets that special something playing his double stops. Muso Phill Niblock is currently getting it driving up the Carolinas:

‘I am riding a two stroke Yamaha motorcycle up a long mountain slope in the Carolinas, stuck behind a diesel engine truck. Both of our throttles are very open, overcoming the force of gravity. The revolutions of our respective engines are coming to a nearly harmonic coincidence, but not quite. The strong physical presence of the beats resulting from the two engines running at slightly different frequencies is putting me in such a trance... @#$*! I nearly rode off the side of the mountain.’
www.fallt.com/array/reviews/touchfood.html (adapted to present tense)

Anyway, as you hear, nothingness is not really nothing at all, just a different kind of something, or more to the point: a way of shifting attention to a different kind of something. It’s still 1964 and Susan Sontag’s essay ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ is to appear in five years time, while John Cage’s silent piece ‘4’33” ’ is more than a decade old. Old hat. Cage and Sontag show us that silence is simply a relative term that might mean: when ‘x’ is silent, you will start to notice ‘y’. Stop melodic movement, and you hear a different sort of rhythm – the beats of harmony. Stop any form of musical movement, and you hear your own psycho-acoustic perception twist something static into fluid shifts of timbre and texture. Stop playing music, and you notice the ambient detritus all around you. Stop any external sound whatsoever, and you hear your own blood stream, heart and nervous system.

Minimalism, in its first reductive moments, is a type of silence that has blew the world away. Whichever way you like it, there’s a whole lot of sonic information on the other side of the reductive landscape that pulls apart and rearranges the classical ‘note’ into the contemporary ‘tone’.

Something beats nothing – the expanded moment

It’s still 1964, and La Monte Young may not give any indication yet, but he’ll create a major saga around the recordings and documentation of the Dream Syndicate. He’ll decide not to release them to the public, nor even to other members of the group, claiming sole authorship of what is essentially a group effort.

Conrad, however, is all for dispersing documentation, as it expands the moment of performance, becoming a historical archive for future generations. In particular, the relatively cheap audio and visual recording devices now hitting the shops in the mid-1960s is making sure history is no longer the sole domain of the rich and powerful. Whether cultural theorist Walter Benjamin likes it or not, in 1964 we are smack-bang in the middle of the age of mechanical reproduction, and at the beginning of the age of digital reproduction (the optical playback and recording technique required for compact discs are about to be developed in 1965 in Washington by James T Russell).

In 2004, Conrad is going to state:

‘The 1960s were the first years in which it became possible for experimental artists on very small budgets to document their work at all accurately – with video and audio recorders, in particular. It is tempting to look back wistfully at these records and see them as offering a window onto a lost, romantic “reality.” However, I prefer instead to see this “window” as a suggestion that cultural invention today is not unique; that marginal cultural production has probably been an unrecorded presence over a vast scope of time and space – while only that cultural production which has been linked to systems of power has been recorded, sustained, and mythologised... If past cultural initiatives can stand in as models for what alternative cultural formations are (or might be) possible, then the record of the 1960s (and other times) may prove in fact to be very useful.’

The more the merrier – the expanded performer

The year is now 1974. Paris. T minus thirty years and counting...

Pierre Bastien is tinkering away at the latest in his collection of mechanical performers. For at least a year now he’s been brooding over what will become a hoard of musical automatons, collectively called the “Mecanium”. These performers are made from Meccano parts (the metal toy-building set), motors from old turntables, gears and pulleys, utilised to hit, bow, pluck and bang on acoustic instruments from around the world – like the European violin, the Moroccan rebab and the Yugoslavian mandolin. In several decades’ time, he’ll add everyday objects like scissors, ashtrays and paper to this arsenal.

Bastien is expanding his performing self, like a one-man band, with machines; in sound arts the human performer is not the only active agent triggering and sounding mute passive instruments, although there has always been an undercurrent of this in some form or another. Think of cook-coo clocks, musical jewellery boxes, and the pianola. And think of all the sounds we like to listen to that aren’t the trace of direct human activity – rain on tin roofs, wind through trees, the purring of our pet cat.

A big change took place with the advent of reproductive technologies of recorded audio, such as the phonograph from the 1870s and then the turntable and tape player. Here the ‘player’ is no longer a human but a machine. In this sense, the ‘player’ is also the ‘instrument’. But don’t bemoan the loss of the ‘human’ element in this musical mix – there’s a whole range of musicalities involved in the very human acts of building sonic machines, selecting sonic source materials and knowing when to press ‘play’.

The more the merrier – the expanded infrastructure

Bastien is making a community, of sorts – of machines. But on a cultural level, another community is slowly forming. Thirty years on in 2004, Bastien will recollect:

‘Was it the same in Australia? I remember that in France we had only one museum of modern art until the end of the ’70s, and it was the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (and in Antibes the Musée Picasso, but this one was very specialised). There was also only one contemporary music festival, one jazz festival, and so on. Later on, the situation changed quite rapidly: nowadays many cities are organising festivals, every region has a contemporary art centre and some have several. The possibilities of playing some new music and showing some recent works have been multiplied by one hundred. In my opinion, this is the biggest difference [between nowadays and the 1970s], which of course has influenced our practice for the better...’

Lifting the lid – the expanded instrument

The year is now 1984. Berlin. T Minus twenty years and counting...

Reinhold Friedl is inside his grand piano. He’s been at it a year now, after many earlier experiments deconstructing the instrument at his parent’s house. Most of us have seen and even touched the surface of a piano in the flesh, with its shiny ebony, ivory and wooden surfaces. But the piano, like most instruments and music machines, has a private life, an inner sanctum. Lift the rid (no, get rid of the lid!) and the internal machinations are there for all to see. But more importantly for Friedl, this inner world is the site for sonic play and pleasure. In 2004 he’s going to state:

‘I have always been confronted with the quite mystical idea that a piano has “to sing” – to get long tones out of it, and to leave the well-tempered tuning. I discovered how to play interferences, microtonal sounds, etc, so the piano becomes a real orchestral instrument.’

The humble piano transforms into the expanded piano to become: outside, inside, keys, strings, frame, felt, pedals, levers, nuts and bolts. The instrument was never designed to make such sounds, but in the design of the instrument to play chromatic, equally-tempered pitches with a quick-release action and soft to loud dynamics, all the nuts and bolts embody sonic potential in themselves.

Although its 1984, the instrument as a site for living with sound has been expanding for quite some time now, for at least the last century. In modernist compositions, there are ‘extended techniques’ (non-orthodox ways of playing an instrument) and ‘prepared instruments’ (additions or modifications to an instrument). Extended instrumental techniques also comes out of free jazz and experimental improvisation – where the performer explores the full range of sonic possibilities inherent in the mechanical structure of the instrument, rather than being limited to the narrower range of sounds prescribed by a musical style. Feedback squeals and experimental usage of guitar pedals in rock and post-rock settings are other examples.

Percussion has been another big player in expanding the technical and timbral range of instruments. Musicians unleashing the percussive urge (gotta bang/hit/scrape/tap something!) have understood that any instrument could be requisitioned as a percussion instrument. The Futurists in the 1920s, Cage in the 1930s, experimental amateur crash-bands in the 1960s (and soon Pringle-popping troupe Stomp in the 1990s) take on the kitchen sink aesthetic. This is where Michael Vorfeld will pitch in, complementing Reinhold’s pianistic excursions with trips around a range of percussion or pseudo-percussion instruments.

So one of the major tendencies of sound arts is the aesthetic of the expanded instrument or tool: approaching an instrument/software program/thing as an object of sonic potential while dismissing or transcending the sounds and processes it was originally designed for. Lifting the lid or taking it apart need not be literal (though it often is) – it’s an attitude.

Sound Arts – the expanded field

The year is now 2004. Melbourne and Brisbane. We have lift off...

Notes are now tones; performers are builders; instruments have their lids ripped off; players are instruments, machines, humans. Within the liquid rhizome-like architecture of contemporary sound practices, there are many ways and places to live with sound.


Published on the Liquid Architecture 5 website, archived here.

Tony Conrad is considered one of the first "minimal" composer/performers, associated in his early period with La Monte Young, John Cale, Henry Flynt and legendary New York underground filmmaker, Jack Smith. Conrad is also acknowleged as a pioneer of structuralist filmmaking (his 1960s film The Flicker is one of the key early works of the "structural" film movement), and in recent years he has presented and performed at festivals and events worldwide.

Conrad has worked in music composition, video, film, and performance and has taught video production and analysis in the Department of Media Study of the State University of New York at Buffalo since 1976. During the last ten years, Conrad has focused on music and performing recent works in new music venues, museums and clubs in the US and internationally. He has composed more than a dozen works, primarily for solo amplified violin with amplified strings, using special tunings and scales. 

Luke Jaaniste speaks with Tony Conrad about then and now.

What are the main similarities between sound arts and music in the 1960s and the 1970s and today? What are the main differences?

There is a big difference between nostalgia, on the one hand, and finding uses for the past, on the other hand. Because the 1960s were the first years in which it became possible for experimental artists on very small budgets to document their work at all accurately – with video and audio recorders, in particular – it is tempting to look back wistfully at these records and see them as offering a window onto a lost, romantic "reality." However, I prefer instead to see this "window" as a suggestion that cultural invention today is not unique; that marginal cultural production has probably been an unrecorded presence over a vast scope of time and space, while only that cultural production which has been linked to systems of power has been recorded, sustained, and mythologised.

It is significant today that quasi-urban "communities" of marginal arts and music can spring up in the global context of the internet, multiplying the ways opposition to hegemonic cultural systems can be configured. And if past cultural initiatives can stand in as models of remote and inviolable practices, as models for what alternative cultural formations are (or might be) possible, then the record of the 1960s (and other times) may prove in fact to be very useful.

What do you think are the most interesting directions in sound arts today, and why?

Sound arts is a vast landscape. Looking out there, you can see hordes of hustlers pushing their Sisyphian balls of "rock" up the money hill. And at the same time, you can still find other people trucking along the old pothole-filled highway of academic serialism and bleep-blop music. But as we wander toward these market-bound and tradition-bound people, coming at them as we do from every direction on the map, today we find that they seem a bit quaint, rather than heroic or portentous. I think this is because we're coming at them from a thousand interesting directions.

On the global charts, there are hybrid musics boiling up almost everywhere. People used to look at these weird spliced cultures with the attitude that cultural "purity" was disappearing, but now, today, there are new directions for approaching mixed musics, and I think this is an excellent development. One person might hear Kronkong as post-colonial music; another person could hear Hip Hop as a branch of Krautrock; someone else might hear cellphone ringers as electronic pop. The spew of recorded sound everywhere has jaded all of us, and we only hear stuff the way we want to, making our own decisions about it, because the "consumerist" idea of "choice" has backfired, exploded.Too much Top 40 has vaporised musical culture, blown it all over a worldwide, freeform, multidimensional perceptual map. In that space, a lot of the directions are sutures or pseudopods, and most of them are interesting.

Art critic Tony Godfrey has suggested that much contemporary work is simply a reworking of ideas conceived in the 1960/70s – that the work today is simply more polished, with higher production qualities (for him this is a negative thing). What's your opinion?

Some work today is, of course, really polished versions of previous stuff. The most famous example of this trend in Western music is JS Bach, whose sons were shaping the new idiom while the old man fussed over the older principles of baroque style.

However, today something very interesting is happening at the other end of the spectrum entirely, because of the relative perfection of recording technologies. People are finding it more and more possible to take "bad" production values seriously, or even to more or less ignore production value as a critical factor altogether. Maybe this "aesthetic" of acceptance began at the bottom end of the economic spectrum – when people listened carefully to "bad" early recordings of bebop or country blues. Maybe it began with John Cage's cutups and music made with toys. Maybe it began with punk. In any case, I am hearing a lot of liberated usages of "bad" sounds today – "bad" versions of earlier work, ideas, and techniques. And some of this stuff is certainly opening our access to fresh and unexplored ways of listening.

How have you been able to sustain your own practice over the decades? Can you list some strategies and methodologies that keep you going as an artist?

What else should anybody say?

How similar or dissimilar is your current practice to your early years of working as an artist? In what ways is it different? What are some reasons for any changes?

In 1974 I became a college teacher. At some point I decided to try to change, rather than destroy, music or film, by creating work that could intervene disruptively into the field's critical machinery. I also have had the experience of changing the basis I had for inventing images – from a problem-solving approach to an understanding involved with ideas of social power. Overall, my sense of time has changed, as my own experience has begun to encompass a greater historical scope. As people have died around me, I have (ironically) seen more reason to save and sustain my own output, whether or not it is valued by others. 

I have spent a lot of time seeing value in working as an "animator" – one who abets the productive activity of others, rather than exercising their own ego – and giving up my public role as an "artist" per se. This change brought me more or less into line with some ideas that have recently surfaced under the rubric "relational aesthetics." I have decided, too, that a good idea might be to reveal the relationships that culture has had with state or other systems of power in the West, and to revisit historical junctures in music with a purposeful attitude that might point out how music has been complicitous with various power structures. But of course, this is only skimming over the surface of a deep sea of changes, full of cross-currents and eddies.


Published on the Liquid Architecture 5 website, archived here.

Pierre Bastien postgraduated in 18th-century French literature at University Paris-Sorbonne. In 1977, he built his first musical machinery. For the next ten years, he composed for dance companies and played with Pascal Comelade. In the meantime, he constantly developed his mechanical orchestra, which, since 1987, he has concentrated on through solo performances, sound installations, recordings and collaborations with such artists as Pierrick Sorin, Karel Doing, Jean Weinfeld, Robert Wyatt and Issey Miyake. Around 1986, Bastien built his own orchestra, the "Mecanium": an ensemble of musical automatons constructed from Meccano parts and activated by electro-motors, playing acoustic instruments from all over the world. 

As Michel F. Côté notes, the Mecanium is a "composer's dream; a fail-safe orchestra at one's fingertips obeying ever-so-gently his every command; a timeless-sounding orchestra, both futuristic and slightly Dada, conjuring ancient traditions in its surprisingly sensuous music. This is, in a nutshell what Pierre Bastien's Mecanium is all about – a daydream of sorts that he has successfully pursued since 1976. The musicians of his orchestra are machines. And the idea behind it is simple, efficient and poetic: to have traditional instruments (Chinese lute, Morrocan bendir, Javanese saron, koto, violin, sanza, etc.) played by mechanical instruments made of meccano pieces and recycled turntable motors. These hybrid, self-playing sound sculptures perform a series of short pieces, charming and hypnotic." 

Luke Jaaniste speaks with Pierre Bastien about then and now.

What are the main similarities between sound arts and music in the 1960s and the 1970s and today? What are the main differences?

I will answer about the '70s mainly, as I started playing concerts and building sound devices around 1972/73. First of all, I did not hear the term "sound art" before 1986, when I first came to show my work at the Apollohuis in Holland, at Paul Panhuysen's invitation. As far as I remember, in France we were talking of "sound sculptures", like the Bachet brothers did. Before 1986, I was naive: I was convinced, for example, that only a very few artists were involved in what is now called sound art. I could not believe that this activity would develop and become an important stream. One reason is that art critics and music journalists were discouraging us as much as possible: at their best they would consider us as Harry Partch followers.

Paradoxically, many composers from the '60s and '70s were trying to find a third way between popular and serious music. There were several attempts and propositions to create a third stream: they all failed and the alternative came eventually from an unexpected type of artist, a mix of well-trained and self-taught musicians, university-graduated and primitive sculptors who have in common the idea of breaking down the borders between Music and Art.

What do you think are the most interesting directions in sound arts today, and why? Do you feel that current sound arts are a continuation of the experiments and sensibilities of the 1960 & 1970s, or do you feel there is a new paradigm afloat?

I am interested in every direction, in every new piece I see. I don't know about this question of continuation. I just note that by using electronics instead of acoustics – new instead of old technologies – you don't transform an art work into a radically different object. I mean that the technical advancements did not give birth to a radically different approach. 

Art critic Tony Godfrey has suggested that much contemporary work is simply a reworking of ideas conceived in the 1960/70s – that the work today is simply more polished, with higher production qualities (for him this is a negative thing). What's your opinion?

Ah! This reminds me of some beautiful music magazines I inherited from my father. Reviewing Charlie Parker's master pieces – Koko, Yardbird Suite – immediately after they had been released, the critic says that Charlie Parker was not in a good mood for this recording session. He was not relaxed enough, he says – he did not play anything new. Then he gives him one star (out of five). This literature is very funny to read some fifty years later.

How have you been able to sustain your own practice over the decades? Can you list some strategies and methodologies that keep you going as an artist?

In the early days, I had more free time than now. I took the opportunity to start building one, two, several – many – automatons in order to get an orchestra: my own orchestra. This activity helped me two times: first I kept busy working with my hands, which is a good and healthy occupation. Then, my robots strongly influenced my compositions: the semi-automatic music I am playing with them cannot be related to any style, and at the same time can be related to every style. Thanks to them, I perform in very different contexts and play the same music exactly, and meet people who put a different name on it.

How similar or dissimilar is your current practice to your early years of working as an artist? In what ways is it different? What are some reasons for any changes?

Was it the same in Australia? I remember that in France we had only one museum of modern art until the end of the '70s, and it was the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris (and in Antibes the Musée Picasso, but this one was very specialised). There was also only one contemporary music festival, one jazz festival, and so on. Later on the situation changed quite rapidly: nowadays many cities are organising a festival, every region has a contemporary art centre and some have several. The possibilities of playing some new music and showing some recent works have been then multiplied by one hundred. In my opinion, this is the biggest difference, which of course influenced our practice for the better by giving us the feeling that we are no longer dilettante and that we are now part of the human society.