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Sonica’s good-looking sounds

Gail Priest: Cryptic’s Sonica, Glasgow

Herman Kolgen, Seismik Herman Kolgen, Seismik
photo Caroline Hayeur
Despite the emphasis on the aural implied by the festival’s title, Sonica is equally about the visual. When sound meets vision (and vice versa) there is some sort of implied interdependency and with no overt theme to the festival, I found myself looking and listening to the works of the first weekend of Sonica 2015 via the conceptual framework of interrelation—cause and effect—in particular how aesthetic choices either clarified or obfuscated (not always in a bad way) the connection between sound and vision.

Tipping Point

UK artist Kathy Hinde’s Tipping Point, commissioned in 2014 by Cryptic for Sonica, offers a pleasing level of complexity within a cause and effect relationship. In a darkened room 12 tall glass tubes containing water are suspended in counterbalanced pairs and lit from within. A mechanical armature raises one tube above the other syphoning the water between them in gentle seesawing motion. Unseen microphones in the tubes generate pure feedback tones, amplified via speakers at the base of each pair. As the water level changes it affects the resonant frequency of each vessel and the tone glissandos to another pitch.

I experienced the piece in performance mode, where Hinde ‘plays’ the rise and fall of the tubes, augmenting the pure tones with processing via guitar effects pedals. The ‘choral’ result is both visually and aurally mesmerising. While it is clear that what we hear is a direct result of the activity of these tubes, the actual mechanics of the sound generation remains mysterious, the tones essentially drawn from the varying ‘emptiness’ of the vessels. Here the aesthetic choices add a complexity to the cause and effect; we have to interrogate the work to understand the magic.

The New Alps

A 2015 Cryptic for Sonica commission, The New Alps by Robbie Thomson (UK), offers an example of a clear one-to-one ratio action to sound relationship. Housed in an empty swimming pool at the Govanhill Baths, Thomson’s kinetic sculptures are made from heavy industrial materials and produce sharp, angular sounds—all about the attack. One machine drums a spasmodic riff on a sheet of metal culminating in a skull-reverberating gong; another goes through a series of motions to expel a sudden blast of compressed air; another whirls a speaker around at speed, the susurration of static bouncing back at us from the tiled pool walls. The machines seemingly graze on the edge of a rusty puddle of water down at the deep end, occasional water spurts and bubbles softening the clang and rupture. Adrift from any industrial function, Thomson’s melancholy machines are caught in a non-productive cycle of cause and effect—a bleak poetic postscript to our end of days.

Order and After

In the Ladies Bathing Pool at Govanhill Baths is the Sonica-commissioned Order and After by Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto. Working with notions of national identity viewed through the lens of the post-Suharto Reformasi period, this is a poetic interpretation of cause and effect—an extended transitional terrain of political action-reaction-action. Through the haze of artificial fog and blinding spotlights, two large red flags adorned with gold script are suspended over the empty swimming pool. Over the roar of industrial fans, which cause the flags to flutter, we hear a voice singing fragments of song and speaking a collage of verbatim texts from interviews and speeches. Without warning the flags drop to the bottom of the pool, only to be later re-hoisted, the cycle of reformation and nation-building activated again. While simpler than Kuswidananto’s previous army of robotic soldiers, this piece is no less performative and effective for the concentrated metaphoric power expressed most strongly in its visual aspects.

Herman Kolgen

It’s clear from the Sonica 2015 program that Cryptic curator Cathie Boyd’s tastes favour the highly polished, energetic and spectacular—a combination well-realised in the practice of Québécois audiovisual artist Herman Kolgen. In the first of three pieces, LINK.C, Kolgen performs the visuals to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 2 played by the Maxwell Quartet (UK). Kolgen’s vertiginous flyovers of 3D-rendered high-rise cityscapes in constant slice-and-dice reconfiguration meet the cyclical propulsion of Glass head-on, creating a dramatic and immersive visual hymn to urbanity.

In AfterShock, Kolgen takes over the sound as well, offering an aestheticised nightmare of a post-apocalyptic world. His non-specified disaster is introduced with jarring bolts of noise probed from his modular synthesiser with what looks to be a screwdriver. Once the world has ended the game-like flyover perspective implicates the viewer, we become collapse-porn voyeurs cruising around the broken artifacts of the Anthropocene, the scene propelled by a soundscape of uneasy roil and rumble. Rendered in smooth-skinned, monochromatic 3D animation, the apocalypse has never looked so good.

In the final and most substantial work, Seismik, Kolgen uses realtime seismic data from around the globe. This is sonified and augmented by his own synthesised rupturings. Placing a microphone in the space he also hopes to make a feedback loop that will shake the building. His visuals have us floating through fault lines, twisting between tectonic plates and soaring over vast and terrifying topographies, all sliced and fractured with his by now familiar spidery data feeds. It’s stunning and awesome in scale but with not quite enough variation or development to sustain its extended duration of 45-50 minutes. Also, given the emphasis on the realtime data feed, the actual presence of this as a clear sonic element and driver of the action is not so evident. Here the aestheticisation of the cause dilutes the effect.

Oscillon Response

Scottish artist Mark Lyken’s Sonica 2015 commission, Oscillon Response, is also a highly aestheticised audiovisual work. Based on six examples of electronic pioneer Ben F Laposky’s Electronic Abstractions—beautiful spectral images created using an oscilloscope—Lyken has created six audiovisual studies. Lyken’s is a sensuous interpretation of Laposky’s images, his music a textured ambient electronica, laced with processed choral vocals that swirl around his animated versions of the oscillator figures. However, given the oscilloscope’s ability to visualise sound as electrical wave a stronger relationship of sound to image was missing with the sound-image interplay appearing merely decorative. Of course Lyken has to find his own way into this material, but it was hard not to compare it with the tightly-sutured dynamism of Robin Fox’s oscillator work, Volta (2006).


As well as delivering a presentation about the soon-to-be opened Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (M.E.S.S), which I didn’t catch, Robin Fox was at Sonica for the festival’s opening night performance of Transducer, created with Speak Percussion’s Eugene Ughetti. (See Totally Huge 2013, RT online Given space constraints I’ll concentrate on the other half of Speak Percussion’s concert, Fluorophone, which explores the relationship of light to sound. The program opens with Damien Ricketson’s Rendition Clinic, inspired by the click of the electrical discharge of strobe lighting. Performers Louise Devenish and Matthias Schack-Arnott undertake small rhythmic studies—the tapping of stones, the spinning of wind wands, the chime of struck metal tubes, underscored by just audible sub-bass tones played from a laptop by Ughetti. All action is illuminated by strobes creating a cool fracturing of image that is somehow softened and unified by the delicacy and subtlety of the sound palette—a clever balance of spectacle and understatement.

Ughetti’s Pyrite Gland also challenges expectations, refusing to deliver any sound that we expect from the featured instruments, three tom-tom drums. The toms house sound-sensitive lights that respond to succinctly scored extra-musical experiments involving air mattress pumps, balloons, water and tensioned strings. The result is a rigorous yet playful study of sonic and visual expectations.

Simon Løeffler’s enigmatically titled piece, e, is the most ambitious in the program, using a triangular sculpture made from fluorescent lights. With foot pedals the performers switch the lights on and off in increasingly complicated sequences. Meanwhile the electrical current running through their bodies issues an underscoring of hums and buzzes. The audible clicks of the pedals sync tightly with the on/off of the lights, while the electrical sounds are harder to parse with the action, the body conduction causing buffering and delays. The final section introduces the metallic clang of a struck triangle nested in the centre of the sculpture, a curious and unexpected sound in the midst of the clicks and buzzes. Løeffler’s work is as sonically challenging as it is visually arresting.

Beyond aesthetics

From the dozen or so events I experienced of the festival’s first weekend, it seems that what makes Sonica unique is its prioritising of the aesthetic—everything just looked so damned good! However I did want some of the works, Kolgen and Lyken for example, to present a more complex intertwining of sound and vision that reaches beyond illustration to a point where each element actually challenges our understanding of the other. But perhaps my concern can be satisfied elsewhere in the realm of media art with festivals that have a more interrogative agenda (sometimes at the expense of aesthetics). But really, I am being greedy, because even only experiencing half of the festival, there’s no denying that Sonica offers a rich and generous banquet of sonovisual delights.

Cryptic: Sonica 2015, curator Cathie Boyd, co-curators Patrick Dickie, Graham MacKenzie; Tramway, Centre for Contemporary Arts, Govanhill Baths, Mitchell Theatre and various venues Glasgow; 29 Oct-8 Nov.

Gail’s travel to Sonica was assisted by the Australia Council and Arts NSW, and accommodation was provided in Glasgow by Cryptic.

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 53

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

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