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3-D and other worlds

Gail Priest

Given our everyday listening is spatial—the sound of the world is not in stereo, it’s 3 dimensional—it is interesting that its recreation through surround sound systems still seems a novelty. We are used to listening to our Dolby Surround Sound in cinema complexes, but it is still not standard sound event procedure to gather enough speakers and people with the techniques to perform live spatial audio mixes. So there was a degree of understated excitement about the evening at Lanfranchi’s Memorial Discotheque in Sydney’s Chippendale, featuring live surround sound performance by Sam Smith, Julian Knowles, Alex Davies and Melbourne duo Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras.

First up was Sam Smith, who has been appearing over the last year, as both sound and visual artist, but who is a relative newcomer to spatial audio. Smith’s soundscapes are luscious, featuring snippets of keyboard chords and broken melodies that drift in and out of focus, mixed with static sprays, tweaked harmonics and pulsing drones. He also blends in organic sounds, in this case the squeals and groans of children, perhaps, and grating metallic timbres. His spatialisation was intense, sometimes verging on the hyperactive, a temptation when you first discover the joy of pinging sounds around a room. It will be interesting to hear some more of his work when he has settled into the ideas and technology.

Julian Knowles is one of the undisputed masters of spatial audio, having worked in the area for many years before recent technology made it more accessible. Knowles’ sounds—the familiar palette of electronic hiss, click, crackle and drone—are so finely processed and sculpted that they take on new depths. His sense of composition is meticulous with an underlying tension, yet he never gets caught in the crisis of endless crescendo, instead shifting through different textural territories with fluidity, giving momentum and intensity to his work. What distinguishes Knowles from other artists is his restraint. He very rarely moves a whole sound, but sprays out elements of it. The effects play around you, frequencies swim while the core remains anchored. Knowles avoids the special-fx rollercoaster ride, preferring to work on a deeper psycho-acoustic level, expanding the sonic space of the room and creating a sphere of sound in which you are aware of every vibrating particle.

The initiator of the evening, Alex Davies, is well known for his interactive audiovisual installations so it was good to see him hone in on audio. Initially he showed a similar restraint to Knowles with a very slow accretion of details. Starting off with the organic sounds of voices, the work gradually developed into a beat piece with big bass and rhythmic glitch loops. Davies’ samples have a beautiful clarity, however some structural anomalies meant that the piece lacked cohesiveness, as we were often lead into zones that were not explored and then dropped. There is an interesting perceptual shift in spatialised audio when sounds are organic or completely synthetic. With organic samples there is a tendency to look for a ‘narrative’ cause and effect moving it closer to a cinematic experience, however when using digital sounds the placement becomes purely about the movement through space.

Restraint is not a word to be used when describing Melbourne’s Robin Fox and Anthony Pateras. Fox on laptop processing Pateras’ vocals and mixing desk emissions make for a fantastic aural assault. Facing each other like old men playing some demented card game they rupture the dominant trend of slow sustained works with pieces that are short abrasive bursts the length of rock songs. Each piece explores a different set of ideas. From Pateras there are snuffles, gurgles and belches, a bubbling cauldron of hisses and pops, bleeps and wild cries. Each of these textures is ripped apart and cellularly rearranged by Fox’s magic fingers creating sonic meteorites that burn brightly and disintegrate on entry. The works are so dense and fast that the spatialisation served merely to make the pieces twice as loud.

Fox and Pateras performed the same set 2 nights later at in stereo, and nothing was lost with fewer speakers. In fact the multitude of speakers tended to separate the sound from the source, so that in stereo there was more of a visceral quality to Pateras’ cacophonic mouth clicks, lipsmacks and utterances, making the pieces, edgier and grittier. The piece based on kissing noises was particularly impressive in its uncomfortable over-amplified closeness. However even more impressive were the artists’ solos.

Robin Fox created a stir by bringing visuals into the well-defined audio only environment of (There have been 1 or 2 moments of visual stimulation previously but such things are generally not encouraged.) In Fox’s words his photosynthetic piece “explores the 1 to 1 relationship between sonic electricity and its effect on a single light photon excited across a phosphorous screen.” In other words his crafted oscillations make a little green dot grow and dance. The purity and fusion of the sound and visuals creates an interdependent realm that is at once mesmeric and invigorating.

Anthony Pateras performed a prepared piano improvisation on the already battered baby grand at the Frequency Lab. His approach to everything seems to be fast and furious, bashing at the keys to reveal all manner of timbres. Top notes rattle and vibrate like demented toys while bass notes thump and ominously thud. You hear the wood, the metal, the hammer, the pluck. Pateras plays a lot of notes...and then he doesn’t...letting a clanging chord ring out naked, carving silence out of chaos. A magnificent performance.

Fox and Pateras have just departed on a European tour, and it will not be long before they join Pimmon and Oren Ambarchi on the A-list of Australian sound exports taking the international scene by storm.

Sam Smith, Julian Knowles, Alex Davies, Robin Fox & Anthony Pateras, Lanfranchis Memorial Discotheque, April 2; Fox & Pateras,, The Frequency Lab, April 4

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 52

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

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