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Education feature: Sound


Education Feature: Circuitous journeys

Gail Priest


Glowing sound sensitive plinth in Hannah Clemen's IntraSpectral, 2004 Glowing sound sensitive plinth in Hannah Clemen's IntraSpectral, 2004
photo Hannah Clemen
There has been a significant shift in the approach to sound education over the last decade in response to its engagement with rapidly evolving technology. Formerly taught through time-based art classes in visual art degrees and experimental and electronic modules in music courses, the predominant methodology now combines sound studies, video, computer and media based practices in electronic media arts or creative communications courses. Since most of these have developed over the last 5 years it is too early to tell what effect they will have on emerging artists and the practice itself. The artists interviewed for this article graduated over the same period and were thus on the cusp of the new courses.

From dots to digits

Somaya Langley’s (ACT) trajectory illustrates the multi-input approach to sound education. She studied a Bachelor of Music (Composition) at the Australian National University in Canberra with a focus that was split between Instrumental and Vocal Composition, and studied Electroacoustic Composition at ACAT (Australian Centre for Art and Technology), graduating in 2000. “At the time they were 2 very separate streams of education, separate ideas on how you should approach your composition [and] done in complete isolation. You would hand in your folio of 10-15 score-based works and then walk over to the other building and sit in front of a UNIX work station and do some coding, trying to get something interesting happening algorithmically.” From these different approaches she felt that the electroacoustic stream was more process oriented, while the traditional composition put more emphasis on final product. She was always seeking a synthesis of these apparent clashes, adding to it her own research into popular electronic music and radio production. “I was trying to find the bridge between popular culture electronic music and art based electronic music, so I’d present a paper on Kraftwerk and argue with traditionally trained composers about the validity of that.” However she is quick to point out that this is not the case now. “At the Centre for New Media Arts which is what ACAT just evolved into, there are people in there with the technology and the ideas, and they don’t care about where an idea came from, whether from the popular world, from advertising, from a dance party last week, or some history book from 50 years ago.”

Hannah Clemen also developed her interest in sound art from the classical instrument training and composition. She initially undertook a 3-year diploma course in classical clarinet at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) where she was drawn to 20th century composers such as Arvo Pärt, Gorecki and Stockhausen. Her disillusionment with the classical repertoire, and encouragement from her Harmony teacher, led her to undertake a Bachelor of Composition at the University of Western Australia. Through listening to artists like Brian Eno, Faust and Einsturzende Neubauten she developed an interest in electronic music and was tutored by Lindsay Vickery who was at both the University of Western Australia and the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). Clemen describes the discovery of digital tools as feeling like “this was the orchestra I had been waiting for...Although I’d liked writing for instruments I always found it a little bit abstract and detached...Actually working with these sounds that I could see and hear and play was amazing.” Since this discovery Clemen has now almost finished a Masters degree focusing on interaction involving performance and installations.

From visual to sound

Both Sam Smith (NSW) and Thembi Soddell (VIC) have approached sound from the visual arts perspective. Soddell started a Bachelor of Creative Arts at the Victorian College for the Arts (VCA), but after a year entered the Bachelor of Arts in Media Arts at RMIT on the strength of her visual arts folio. “[It was] from studying sound in first year that I first engaged with it on a more serious level, and discovered I found it far more interesting than photography. From there I began to do less visual work and ended my degree specialising in sound.”

Smith already has a hectic exhibition and performance schedule despite only just completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours in 2003, majoring in Sculpture/Performance and Installation at the College of Fine Arts (COFA), University of NSW. During the course he took 3 sound classes which he describes as technically-based. “From the sculptural base I have always been interested in the spatial qualities of sound and also the constructed 3 dimensional space inside a 2 dimensional video screen. I am pursuing an interest in constructing spaces with sound through the use of multiple speakers. This has come directly from working with 5.1 surround sound in my audio-visual gallery installations.”

Tech plus theory

Soddell believes one of the main benefits of studying at RMIT was “access to equipment and being taught how to use it proficiently.” However she does wish that there had been a more intensive theory component. “Media Arts was always very focussed on your practice...Theory classes were always fascinating, but still tended only to touch on things, never going into too much depth or encouraging much critical discourse beyond the 2 hours allocated in class time. In my year of Creative Arts at the VCA (which was very academically focussed) the Media Arts theory subject really challenged the way I viewed cinema, through essay writing and discussion, which provided me with a lot of inspiration in my photography and video work.”

Smith would have liked a little bit more of both. “I would have like to have had an advanced technical class in sound production, focused on the use of Max/MSP or similar software for the creation and exploration of specific sound ideas for both live and installed audio. Also I would have liked the opportunity to take a history/theory class devoted to sound.”

As Clemen moved into sound art at the postgraduate stage she has found that she has developed the technical skills herself, with assistance from Vickery, research into other interactive projects and mailing lists, while research has developed the conceptual side. Somaya Langley found that taking a sub-major in Interactive Media Arts through the Canberra School of Art was really beneficial in developing a conceptual framework for her practice that she felt was lacking from the traditional compositional ways of thinking.

Out of the bedroom

Of course there are many sound artists who forge a path for themselves, learning software and exploring techniques in their bedrooms. Scott Sinclair, one of the forces behind Brisbane’s Small Black Box is one of these. A Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Queensland, he had discovered guitar at 17, developing his practice through experiential learning, going to performances, tinkering and exploring the internet. Even though the a shift in approach within sound-based courses was already underway at the time he was commencing tertiary education, he felt that his lack of formal musical training or technical grounding was an impediment to entering a sound oriented course.

Communities and collaborations

Soddell is keen to point out that one of the major benefits of studying at RMIT was being part of a culture of creativity and developing networks that helped her professional practice. This has also been beneficial to Langley who now collaborates with her photomedia lecturer David McDowell on installation works and is part of Hypersense with CNMA lecturer Alistair Riddell. Sodell and Langley both thought their education beneficial in terms of seeking funding, either through professional practice classes in grant writing or through networks with established artists.

Sinclair points out that in the process of running a monthly sound art event his contact with university communities has been very valuable. “You can draw upon their infrastructure. They have the most accessible audience base for people that you know are interested in music.” Mutually beneficial, universities can assist in financing visiting artists through artist presentations.

Present practice, future studies

Frequently it seems that the pursuit of a sound art practice qualifies the artist with a side-line career in information technology. Scott Sinclair works as a self-confessed “IT Geek.” Somaya Langley has drawn on her interactive media submajor to work at the National Library as a Web Audio Analyst/IT Business Analyst. Sam Smith works as a graphic designer part time, and also manages to sell artworks. Hannah Clemen has survived in the past on clarinet teaching and arts administration. After spending the last 11 years in tertiary education institutions, she is going to wait before she considers a PhD, and feels it may be in a different area of study.

The artists are all involved in significant projects. Sinclair will play events in Sydney in early August and Small Black Box will present a large scale installation in the Queen St Mall, Brisbane as part of Queensland Biennial Festival of Music 2005. Langley has funding for a site-specific installation called Familiar Circuits in Canberra at the end of October. Both Soddell and Smith will be involved in i.audio at Performance Space in September, and Smith and Clemen will give presentations at Electrofringe in October.

It will be interesting to follow the trajectory of graduates from the more tailored electronic media art, creative industry and creative communication courses over the next few years. Sinclair is concerned that a new approach targeting and attempting to second guess “industry” may perhaps backfire, producing a glut of artists doing what is already being done, instead of producing artists who can provide new ideas and ways of thinking. However collaborations between tertiary institutions and major sound culture events such as RMIT and Liquid Architecture, QUT and the REV festival, John Curtin University and BEAP, the recent collaboration between UWS and Electrofringe and initiatives such as the newly established UTS Sound Collective presenting the monthly disorientation event, indicate that the impetus for innovation and new ideas remains at the forefront of the education agenda.

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 34

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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