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Education feature: training the sound artist

A thrilling sono-cranial re-wire

Bruce Mowson

Bruce Mowson is a Melbourne-based sound artist and co-curator of the Liquid Architecture National Sound Art Festival.

See Jonathan Marshall's coverage of Liquid Architecture

Nigel Helyer (see interview), whose sound sculpture Meta-Diva won the 2002 Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award, questioned whether there were any courses in Australia which allowed for the study of sound in proper depth, responded by asking “Is there anywhere that teaches [among other sound subjects] psychoacoustics, soundscape concepts and electronics?” Given Australia’s predominantly deaf visual culture, it is typical that sound not be resourced at the level of other cultural practices.
Sound arts being what they are, a collection of disciplines ranging from post-digital music theory to film soundtracks, live performance to interface hacking, field recording to physical acoustics, it is difficult to find an institution which embodies these in a singular structure. The reality of the practical application of sound is that it is used in a variety of ways dependent upon the needs of individual projects. Yet the sheer variety of applications and their relative potency, especially compared with the ubiquity of visual media, suggests that Australian educational and cultural institutions are unaware of or unable to respond to the need for structures that support and develop the sonic arts in substantial ways. The establishment of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and the new building for the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne, for instance, highlights this emphasis on visual culture. A proposal for a major soundscape studies facility in Melbourne was recently rejected, and funding for sound culture at the level of screen, visual and music institutions continues to be denied. For people wishing to study sound at a tertiary level beyond the superficial offerings of the black box focussed SAE style course, there are a number of institutions run by passionate and committed practitioners who can’t guarantee you a job, but can guarantee a thrilling sono-cranial re-wire.

While it is possible to study a sound subject here or there as part of a more general curriculum, some of the most comprehensive courses in sound in Australia are at Media Arts, RMIT in Melbourne and the School of Contemporary Arts, University of Western Sydney. Media Arts offers workshops in Video, Animation, Installation, Fine Art Imaging, Sound and Soundtrack and lectures in Audio/Visual theory. Students can study any combination of these and can complete sound projects exclusively, if desired, for the full 3 years of the degree. This interdisciplinary/poly-arts model has the advantage of creating a culture of collaboration—sound artists study alongside, and often develop projects with, photographers, film-makers and animators. The staff at Media Arts RMIT include contemporary practitioners Phillip Samartzis and Phillip Brophy, and the department is very much a driving force in the Melbourne scene, having spawned events such as the Immersion surround sound concerts, the Cinesonic Film Soundtrack and Sound Design Conference, the Variable Resistance international sound art events and the Liquid Architecture National Sound Art Festival (see review). Brophy offers some of Australia’s only specialist soundtrack subjects and Phillip Samartzis teaches a series of open ended, workshop and project driven subjects, which see students pursuing their own directions, be they Post-Digital Music, Surround Sound and Immersive Environments, Hip-Hop, Drum and Bass, Rock, Post-Rock or Soundscapes. The course curriculum is intensely student-driven, and syllabus changes for the workshops are a reflection of developing trends and themes in the ongoing collisions between sound, music and media. Anything a student produces publicly (performing and/or releasing material) is incorporated into their assessment and the sound culture of the course is deeply threaded: all the current lecturers in the time-based workshops were once students when Brophy ran the Sound area prior to taking over Theory and Soundtrack duties.

Sound at the University of Western Sydney, headed by the multi-talented and highly proactive Julian Knowles, offers a 3 year, 6 subject sequence in Music Technology which takes students from the ground level up to professional level in music and sound technologies through either a Music Technology major in the Bachelor of Music degree or a Sonic Arts major in the Bachelor of Electronic Arts degree. On top of this they offer Spatial Audio, a subject which is dedicated to the creative potentials of 5.1 audio and multi-channel composition; subjects titled Sonic Landscapes/ Electronic Cinema 1+2 which focus on experimental sound in the context of macro and micro cinema (screen, installation and web); and Pressure Waves and Electric Fields which focuses on experimental approaches to instrument design (soldering iron stuff). There are around 9 specifically focused semester-long sound subjects outside of what you might call more ‘traditional modes’ of acoustic music making. A number of core subjects allow students to work on self-proposed creative projects in an open and supportive environment. It is therefore possible to do a bachelor’s degree where up to three quarters of your subjects see you working with sound in some practical capacity. The remaining subjects are theory subjects which nevertheless allow for sound to be made a focus. Broadly speaking, all sound subjects are available to students in all degrees. There is no rule which locks a student out of a subject due to their discipline base or the degree in which have chosen to enrol. Students are quite heavily connected with festivals: What is Music? (Oren Ambarchi teaches a New Musics subject), Electrofringe, Freaky Loops and regular Sydney series like and Frigid. Students have also received a grant from the NSW Ministry for the Arts to run gigs and exhibitions in an abandoned drive-in at one end of the campus and have had a partnership with AudioDaze on 2SER-FM.

Another opportunity to study sound within an academic context in Sydney is at the Department of Media Arts at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). The department offers theoretical subjects: ways of listening, culture and sound, music and popular culture which develop a critical approach to listening and historical and cultural contexts for sound; and practical sound subjects including audio production, creative audio techniques, audio workshop (producing experimental features for web/broadcast), soundtrack and installation and exhibition for sound and new media. The philosophy of the course is that sound should be an active and considered element of production—whether it be pure sound or music, or fused with other elements in a soundtrack or installation. The students at the course are active contributors to local film and video culture, various music scenes and some are involved with the more experimental DJ/VJ scene, and with sound art oriented installations and exhibitions. The department has links to 2SER, particularly through James Hurley, the sound facilities manager, and the staff include Norie Neumark who has been associated with Radio National and The Listening Room and creating new media work such as Shock in the Ear, and Shannon O’Neil, whose activities include running the Electrofringe festival, and working in broadcasting, composing and performing. The department previously offered a sound major which, regrettably, was discontinued due to funding pressures.

The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University, offers a range of studies in sound. In the context of the well regarded Music Theatre and Acting courses, sound students enjoy a highly professional environment. Sound Design is treated as a discipline at the Academy and covers sound physics and speaker placement in all possible environments as well the use of audio to both create and enhance content in theatre, music theatre and film. Most of the lecturers and tutors work in the industry, and class sizes are small, currently averaging 8 students per year. The faculty has 4 studios, 3 digital and one analogue, which are networked and one of the digital studios is designed for surround sound. The Academy has rehearsal and production slots every 5 weeks, and each slot has 3 to 4 productions. The productions are most often theatrical although some include contemporary, modern and classical dance, and the Academy produces 2 films per year. Students put in on average a 60 hour week and are also expected to develop independent projects within the community, often appearing as DJ’s, engineers, and recordists on local productions. The students come from all parts of Australia and a third of these are women.

The usual place of sound, however, is as a module or elective within a larger curriculum of media studies, media art, fine art, new media and communication. At the School of Creative Communication at the University of Canberra, Mitchell Whitelaw lectures in new media, and offers several sound components in subjects in the degree course. Similarly, the College of Fine Arts, University of NSW, in Sydney offers some practical sound segments, and formerly offered a theoretical class The Art of Sound taught by Virginia Madsen, and the Department of Media and Communication at Macquarie University offers sound within its Time-based Arts subjects. The best scenario for these situations is that the lecturer or teacher of the subject has experience of sound practice. The interesting thing about sound’s position within media arts is that although it exists in a fragmentary form, an understanding of how it works will be of benefit in a range of situations, from paying keen attention to the voice while directing, to determining sound stream information to the audience in theatre, from making a video projection sonically effective in a gallery, to understanding temporality and composition for all media in terms of rhythm, layering or spatialisation.

While these and other institutions provide a lively atmosphere in which to study sound, and while sound culture, through live performances, releases, installations and other forms, continues to flourish, some practitioners have concerns about the future overall direction of education in Australia. Julian Knowles, for instance, comments that “we need a new government. People need to value education and intellectual life and start voting for a government which sees these areas as more important than detention centres, border protection and major sporting events."

Bruce Mowson is a Melbourne-based sound artist and co-curator of the Liquid Architecture National Sound Art Festival.

See Jonathan Marshall's coverage of Liquid Architecture

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 8

© Bruce Mowson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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