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Composing potentials

Gail Priest talks with Garth Paine

Garth Paine Garth Paine
Garth Paine is a composer, sound designer and installation artist. He has worked in dance and theatre and his immersive sound and video installations have inhabited galleries, gardens and museums. Behind all of Paine’s work is a desire to explore human behaviour within defined environments and a relentless pursuit of new technologies to implement his vision. Currently working as a Senior Lecturer in Music Technology at the University of Western Sydney, seconded to the MARCS Auditory Research Labs, I caught up with Paine between meetings with his PhD students.

Paine began his career as a flautist with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Realising that playing Beethoven was not his true calling he undertook a sound engineering traineeship at the ABC. While working as a sound engineer in a commercial studio, he began to write his own music which led to several years as a composer for Tasmanian companies such as Zootango and Terrapin Puppet Theatre. "That’s where the technology really started coming into the composing and production side. Theatre companies never have any money and as a composer you want to make a rich score so you need computers and samplers." However it was while working with the London-based dance company Second Stride that he really started to engage with ideas of interactivity.

"Second Stride have a workshop every year called Fast & Dirty where they get people they are interested in working with and spend a couple of weeks doing quick little exercises to test things out. For a Fast & Dirty experiment I went to a guy who did keyboard repairs in London and asked him to take the brain out of the keyboard, stick it in a box and attach terminals so that I could plug floorpads into it–security triggers and light beams. I had 20 triggers that sent out a midi note whenever it was turned on, replacing the keys on the keyboard, and we made a little interactive dance piece with it."

Moving to Melbourne, Paine continued to develop his ideas working in theatre, and by 1996 he’d created his first large scale interactive installation, Moments of a Quiet Mind, at Linden Gallery. "I’ve always had an interest in music and sound as an exploration and communication of our environment, and our relationship to it–physical, emotional and spiritual I guess. So Moments of a Quiet Mind was the first of a series of interactive environment pieces [in which] movement behaviour patterns generated the quality of the environment. I was starting to ask questions about how you perceive your environment, how your behaviour conditions your environment and how the environment conditions your behaviour... I made CDs with 99 tracks of audio ranging from meditative–the space in stasis–through to intense, chaotic sound and the length got shorter as the intensity increased." Building an interactive system, the work collaged up to 6 sound elements at a time accompanied by 5 video projections working on similar parameters to create an immersive environment. "[It] was interesting because it was composing lists of potentials rather than structures and form. The actual composition of the polyphony occurred realtime."

Paine continued these investigations in his next installation Ghost in the Machine (1997) in collaboration with Rebecca Young, however in this the interactive response was inverted. "The space treated any human presence as an irritant. It worked through these stages of intensity in an effort to rid itself of the people in it. The more energy you put in the calmer it got, so by running around continuously in the space you could send it back to this single cell amoeba and it would be really tranquil while you were going crazy. I always put comment books outside these pieces and I got long diatribes about how I didn’t understand what interactivity was. People expected that their instruction to the work would dictate the outcome rather than the work dictating their behaviour within it. It forced people to make those decisions about what kind of environment they wanted to inhabit."

Through his installation practice Paine was approached to create work for the then newly constructed Crown Casino. While he declined the offer, it did make him aware of other potential avenues for this work, and so by approaching exhibition designers he began to create immersive environments for clients such as the Immigration Museum, the Australian Jewish Museum and the Museum of Victoria.

"The first major project was the Eureka Stockade Centre at Ballarat. I think all my experience in theatre and dance (I’d been working at that stage with Company in Space developing interactive sound scores with them) came into play. I was wanting to influence these exhibition designers to think about these museum experiences as immersive, creating a sense of being in the history–an active engagement in the history rather than the passive."

Working in the museum sector allowed Paine to realise large scale installations with relatively permanent outcomes. "The [work in the] Museum of Victoria has 70 loud speakers and 36 channels of computer driven spatialisation. We have speakers through the floor, through the roof, 3 foot off the ground, 7 foot off the ground–it’s fantastic. It was a business decision to do this work where the funds were available to realise it at a high level. I’ve always been bloody minded about my creative output so I’ve pushed those jobs to be about what I want them to be–fulfilling and interesting, [utilising] new technology that nobody has used in Australia before."

Paine’s interest in discovering new technologies and repurposing them is very much at the heart of his practice. For the Immigration Museum he had to find a company to import a demo model of the Richmond Audio Box to enable the desired multichannel spatialisation. For his Reeds installation in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens created for the 2000 Melbourne International Arts Festival, he was attempting to create custom weather stations to relay data to the reed pod sound sculptures floating in the pond and was told by several major companies that it was technically impossible. Eventually he found someone to custom build the technology, Paine himself adapted an in-ear monitoring system and then invited the original companies to see it working.

"I believe the arts drive a lot of these [technological] developments because somebody has got to be out there making the vision. Industry is often driven by the fact that they can now put all this on this little chip, but what are they going to do with it? They have a whole team thinking up applications but it’s driving it from the technology rather than need."

Paine was recently invited to a 2 day workshop on gesture and interactivity at the National Innovation Centre (Technology Park, Sydney) in which the tensions and potentials of collaborating with science based research was made very clear. "In the sciences they often have very heavy constraints. An example was some video tracking technology for perfecting golf swings. The technology is really fantastic but if the person steps a foot to the left it doesn’t work any more. I was saying this is all terrific but let’s start applying it to dance choreography. Let’s remove the constraints and evolve the technology so we can deal with this stuff. The arts can push these technologies forward. Industry often fails to see the benefit of that as they want to package something they can sell. But there are a lot of good illustrations of where companies have been aware of that–Interval Research in the States and other things that Microsoft have bought up over the years–because they could see these hotspots of technology development. All of that is being driven by artists saying ‘I want to be able to do this’ and engineers and specialists getting together and solving the problem. ARC (Australian Research Council) need to pay more heed to that. We need to have major funding injections...pools of equipment that can be shared and broader resources...a 2 way street [between art and science]. We can make that operate better with ARC support."

Paine is practicing what he preaches and is currently working with industry on a ‘secret project’ developing a new electronic musical instrument. Other upcoming projects include Metrosonics, an online adaptation of the Reeds installation. People will be able to ‘play’ sonic interpretations of the data from weather stations in Canada, England and Australia. He is also continuing his Endangered Sounds Project premiered at BEAP04 which is looking at the trademarking of sounds. Paine sends volunteers test tubes and asks them to capture the air through which particular sounds have passed and return them to him. The resulting installation includes these along with large vacuum flasks into which trademark sounds are played, illegally–however in the absence of any vibrational medium the result is silence. Paine is not only exploring issues of copyright and the corporatisation of the very the air through which we hear, but also the idea that the sounds we make today live on indefinitely, possibly forming the basis of the silence of the next millennium. (See Sonic Difference Conference Report, and other BEAP online coverage).

Garth Paine is also concentrating on live performance, experimenting with using a Wacom Graphics tablet as a musical interface. His explorations with Michael Atherton on acoustic instruments, including the hurdy-gurdy, are planned to be released by the end of the year. Paine will also be performing at the upcoming Australian Computer Music Conference Conference in July (see page 6) where he may even bring back the flute. Well, it’s a possibility.

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 12

© Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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