21:100:100 – Shapes of sounds to come

October 23, 2008 § 2 Comments

Published: The Age, A2, October 4, 2008.

Melbourne’s 21:100:100 installation surveys the extremes of where music is going, writes Dan Rule.

JUST GETTING IN TOUCH with someone like Scott Walker represents an achievement. Persuading him to contribute to a large-scale sound installation in Australia, one might suggest, leans towards an absolute coup. One of modern music’s great enigmas, the lead vocalist and principal songwriter for ’60s boy band the Walker Brothers has led an increasingly reclusive existence since the ’70s, fashioning an ever more sporadic and uncompromisingly avant-garde body of compositions and albums in virtual isolation.

The achievement isn’t lost on Oren Ambarchi, one of Australia’s most celebrated sound artists and a co-curator for 21:100:100, an extensive survey of 21st-century experimental music and sound art that opens next week at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival.

“I really believe that what he is doing is very, very important,” says the 39-year-old. “I mean, it takes him 12 years to make a record because he basically has an existential crisis every time he creates, and he questions everything that he does.”

“He’s a serious artist, especially in the song context, and he’s really taking that to the extreme of where it can go.”

It’s a theme that permeates 21:100:100. Co-curated by Melbourne sound and visual artist Marco Fusinato, as well as Alexie Glass and Emily Cormack of Gertude Contemporary Art Spaces, the installation features 100 works produced by 100 sound artists in the 21st century and bills itself as Melbourne’s “first significant survey” to engage with sound art’s contemporary directives and explorations in a gallery context.

Alongside Walker sit prominent international artists of the ilk of US improvisational legend John Zorn, Austrian visual and multimedia artist Hermann Nitsch, Japanese noise guitarist Keiji Haino, and avant-garde turntablists Christian Marclay (US) and Philip Jeck (UK). Also in the collection are works from US doom metal ensemble Sunn O))), electronic composers such as Ryoji Ikeda (Japan) and Fennesz (Austria), French musique concrete artist Jerome Noetinger, German producer Florian Hecker, Jim O’Rourke and Sonic Youth.

In addition there’s a diverse Australian contingent, including Philip Brophy, electro-acoustic artist Natasha Anderson, Rod Cooper, Will Guthrie, Alan Lamb, Tasmanian pop experimentalist Francis Plagne, improvisational trio Pateras/Baxter/Brown and cult black metal act Striborg.

Fusinato, 44, who describes his own sound practice as involving “the use and abuse of the guitar”, says: “We are just trying to cover all aspects of people using sound in a progressive way.”

“It’s people who are extending the language of whatever genre or movement they’re in,” adds Ambarchi. “These are people who have put their own personal stamp on a particular genre or strand.”

Experimental music and sound art have long been something of a hard sell in an Australian music landscape polarised by popular rock-based genres and a largely traditionalist classical infrastructure. Despite the best efforts of recent events such as the inaugural Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music in March and April and longstanding sound art festivals such as Liquid Architecture and What Is Music?, Australian experimental musicians are still virtual unknowns in their own country, while renowned throughout Europe, Japan and parts of the US.

Ambarchi’s own reductive tonal guitar work – from which he’s released more than 20 records – has him touring internationally for much of the year (he just returned from co-curating and performing as part of the sound component of the Yokohama Triennale), yet he’s hardly even recognised in Australia.

For him and Fusinato, tendering sound in the setting of a major gallery installation is a way of recontextualising the art form as just that – art – rather than some distant, oddball cousin of live rock. “We used to have a What Is Music? stage at the Big Day Out for a couple of years,” recalls Ambarchi. “But that world can treat us like we’re some kind of freak show and that we’re not serious, whereas in Europe we’re treated a lot more seriously than stuff at some big rock festival.”

“Putting something like this in a gallery context doesn’t seem all that different to us within the scene,” adds Fusinato. “But I guess it’s a pretty big thing to have sound in a prominent gallery for a major Australian festival.”

Eight months in the making, the installation will comprise 100 sets of headphones extending from the gallery ceiling, each of which will play a singular sound piece on loop. “The headphones themselves will be quite spectacular visually,” says Fusinato. “It’ll be quite sculptural.”

The show will also feature a visual collaboration with award-winning graphic designer Fabio Ongarato – who is designing a publication to be released at the close of the exhibition – and what is sure to be a spectacular live concert at BMW Edge at Federation Square. It will include extremist Sydney performer Brendan Walls, a sound and laser show from Melbourne electronic artist Robyn Fox, Fusinato and young classical musician and composer James Rushford. “Expect smoke, sub-volume and scorched eyes,” jokes Fusinato.

Ambarchi and Fusinato see 21:100:100 as attempting to fulfil an important role for sound art of all persuasions, prominent or not. “I think it’s really amazing to have someone like Scott Walker or John Zorn sitting next to an artist from the Blue Mountains in NSW or from some Queensland border town who is self-releasing CD-Rs,” says Ambarchi.

“All these artists are linked and connected by that same sense of inquiry and, I guess, research. While one might be coming from an experimental metal world and one might be coming from extended technique improvisation, they’re all just constantly refining and doing the work, without any motives.”

Fusinato frames it in simpler terms. “I really see this stuff as … the new punk rock,” he says.

“A lot of this stuff really started to come to the surface – these movements have become more popular and more overtly influential on the mainstream. There are more people going to shows and more people going to exhibitions all over the world.

“People are actually thinking about what sound is, what it can be and the many directions it can take.”

21:100:100 will show at Gertrude Contemporary Arts Spaces in Fitzroy from Saturday, October 11, to Saturday, November 8. Free entry.

The concert will take place at BMW Edge, Federation Square, on Sunday, October 19, 9pm.

Ticketmaster 1300 136 166

www.melbournefestival.com.au

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