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experimental sounds in the city

chris reid lunches at the sial concert series


SIAL SOUND STUDIOS, IN COOPERATION WITH THE CITY OF MELBOURNE, STAGED THREE PERFORMANCES OF EXPERIMENTAL MUSIC AS A LUNCHTIME CONCERT SERIES IN THE MELBOURNE CBD. THE FIRST CONCERT WAS HELD IN THE TOWN HALL, BUT THE REMAINING TWO WERE HELD OUTDOORS, BRINGING NEW MUSIC TO A PUBLIC OUTSIDE THE CONCERT HALL. SIAL—SPATIAL INFORMATION ARCHITECTURE LABORATORY, PART OF THE SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN AT RMIT UNIVERSITY—TAKES AN INTERDISCIPLINARY INTEREST IN SPATIAL AWARENESS, SOUND IN THE ENVIRONMENT AND THE INTERRELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SOUND AND ARCHITECTURE.

Concert two was held in Fulham Place, off Flinders Lane, an area densely populated with shopping malls and office blocks. Fulham Place is an urban canyon, about 4m wide, 80m long and four to five storeys high, with gracious neo-classical architecture on one side and a bare concrete wall on the other. Performer Karen Heath’s work Artemis occupied the program, a work paying homage to the Greek goddess whose sacred animal was the deer, and she was suitably attired in antlers, fur and makeup. Playing a miked bass clarinet, Heath steps ritualistically around the space as the work unfolds. The sound is slow, with gentle, simple motifs repeated and blended with pre-recorded voice and percussion, as well as ambient noise picked up by microphones in the laneway. An array of loudspeakers projects the sound into the reflective walls, and live processing by Lawrence Harvey and Jeffrey Hannam creates a complex, layered orchestration. There is a delay of variable length in the rebroadcasting of the live clarinet, creating an artificial echo of shifting dimensions to contrast the acoustic character of the space.

Heath’s performance concludes as the sun reaches its zenith and floods the laneway with light, and she kneels to blow into the clarinet’s microphone, creating the sound of wind. At nearly an hour in length, this is a demanding work for the soloist. Artemis is a delightful composition, and its mythological references, especially in this location, create a sense of longing for an unachievable past in a world of decline.

Concert three was located on the north bank of the Yarra River, outside Flinders Street Railway station. The work was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Spirale, performed by Michael Fowler, a post-doctoral fellow at SIAL. Spirale, composed in 1968 for short-wave radio receiver and an instrument of the performer’s choice, is an important work in Stockhausen’s oeuvre. The performer must broadcast a moment of sound from the radio, which might not be tuned to any station, imitate it and then use the resulting sound as thematic material to develop variations and elaborations. Fowler used a Doepfer analogue synthesiser and Korg micro synthesiser in conjunction with the radio, and worked from a score that outlines overall parameters but leaves much to the performer. The result — carefully executed hissing and whining signals and staccato beeps and squeaks, of varying pitch, duration, frequency and volume, interspersed with occasional keyboard notes—was highly musical, with a delicate subtlety.

The performance utilised the north bank’s Signal sound system—16 pairs of speakers mounted just above head height at intervals along a 100 metre stretch of the path bordering the river. The use of a 50 millisecond delay between each pair of speakers added to the spaciousness of the sound. In this setting, the listener’s attention is not focused as it is in an auditorium. Rather than reaching us from a fixed point, the sound floats in the air and blends with ambient sound, especially the clatter of suburban trains from the adjacent station. The listener becomes aware of the parallel universe of radio waves and of the electronic communication that permeates our lives, and also of other sound in the space. Such a realisation of the Stockhausen work adds considerably to it through its integration into a space already alive with sound and movement.

Artistic director Lawrence Harvey indicated that the intention of these outdoor lunchtime concerts was to bring experimental music to the city public. Fulham Place was chosen for its acoustics and, being a dead-end, it would normally attract little through traffic, but the north bank of the Yarra is a busy promenade, especially on a workday lunchtime, and numerous passersby heard at least a few moments of Spirale. Importantly, both concerts explore the shifting of spatial awareness and the incorporation of environmental sound into the material—sound both as installation and as a mutable, dynamic element of its environment. As well as bringing new music to the public, locating these events in public space adds significant sonic and conceptual dimensions to the works themselves.


SIAL Sound Studios, Lunchtime Concert Series, Karen Heath, Artemis, Fulham Place, Nov 9; Michael Fowler, Spirale, composer Stockhausen, Yarra River, Melbourne Nov 16

RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 41

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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