Liquid Architecture – Celebrating the edifice of sound

July 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, July 4, 2009.

Liquid Architecture is the longest-running sound art festival in Australia, writes Dan Rule.

FOR composer David Shea, notions of space, structure and architecture have always been central to an understanding of sound. The Melbourne-based New Yorker – who first came to the avant-garde community’s attention via his collagist turntable and sampler work in the late ’80s – understands sound’s interconnection as intrinsic.

“I don’t really ever see a time when architecture wasn’t an integral part of music,” says the 43-year-old. “If you look at medieval church composers, they were composing for the architecture. They knew the architecture well and they knew the demands of it and that influenced the way it was written.

“But I think the idea of space and the way sound is put into space is something that people now are approaching very directly.”

The assertion somewhat neatly articulates the creative and conceptual directives behind Liquid Architecture. Celebrating its 10th consecutive year, Australia’s longest-running sound art festival – at which Shea and collaborator, Kristi Monfries, will perform – compels a more expansive engagement with music and sound than the average pub gig. Over four weeks and across seven cities – including Melbourne, Castlemaine and Bendigo – the touring festival will present upwards of 50 local, national and international artists in contexts as various as dedicated concerts, gallery and room installations, exhibitions, screenings and discussions. It has come a long way since its inception as a Melbourne-only event run by RMIT undergraduates in 1998.

Founding director Nat Bates was part of a movement of sound and experimental music students who helped push sound-related work into Melbourne’s artist-run galleries in the late ’90s. “We started using this term ‘sound art’ years ago without really knowing what it meant ourselves,” says the 37-year-old. “All we knew was that it was loose enough to apply to several different forms. It could include people doing performances, people making recordings and it could work in a gallery context or not.

“The whole notion of Liquid Architecture was just a really nice articulation of that. Sound is kind of fluid in a poetic sense and sound always describes the space it’s in or the space it comes from, or both, which to me is what architecture is about.”

While sound practice is now well and truly part of the contemporary art vernacular, in terms of public awareness, it seems, there’s still some way to go. Billed as a “sense specific” rather than an “art form specific” event, this year’s festival aims to continue to foreground contemporary sound and experimental music practice against their more privileged visual counterparts.

Among the artists on this year’s program are veteran Hamburg musique concrete composer Asmus Tietchens, electronic musician, multimedia artist and fellow German Thomas Koner, pioneering American mash-up artists the Evolution Control Committee, renowned Sydney improviser and member of celebrated trio the Necks Chris Abrahams, and Melbourne instrument builders Dale Gorfinkel and Rosalind Hall. Also on the bill is a recreation of the late Edgar Varese’s revolutionary Poeme Electronique – a multi-screen and 400-speaker work he composed for the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels – that will screen at the Melbourne Planetarium.

The event prides itself on presenting not just an array of material from emerging talents, but – as the likes of Tietchens and Varese attest – some of the forefathers of avant-garde sound practice.

“I think history is really one of the key elements to what we’re trying to do,” says Bates, who is working on a PhD in sound at RMIT. “Technology keeps moving and developing so quickly that people actually now have in their hands, in a domestic setting, the tools that only cutting-edge artists were able to use a decade ago. But what’s missing, then, is the historical, theoretical, conceptual context. We’re trying to present some of that.

“The festival has always been a chance for people to get a kind of sampler of what’s happening locally and globally, but also some context about where it’s come from.”

For their piece, Shea and Monfries are working to reappropriate and reconfigure 10 years’ worth of sound and video footage of previous Liquid Architecture festivals. While Monfries will make a fixed edit of the video material, Shea will compose a flexible score using a sampler; the one self-imposed restriction is that each time Shea comes across the work of an artist who gave a performance, he must use their techniques to rework their music.

“If I come across someone who uses small loops or something, then I’ll cut and create small loops out of that material, and Kristi is working in some similar ways,” he says. “We’re trying to kind of make a wedge between doing a tribute piece and a completely new piece and to move back and forth between the two.”

While known for his exotic field recordings, 30-year-old Brisbane-based sound artist Joel Stern will use old cassettes and homemade instruments in his performance. “I found all these old motivational cassettes from the ’70s and ’80s, which are just hilarious,” he says. “I’ve become kind of obsessed by them lately. They make the most bizarre and incredible pronouncements about what will happen to you if you follow the instructions.

“I’m really fascinated with how you can arrive at moments of great musical beauty in a really roundabout way, not using any of the conventional means or techniques of musical practice.”

Melbourne trio Plump (sound artists Dave Brown and Philip Samartzis and sculptor Marc Rogerson) take ideas of sonic architecture to new lengths with their site-specific work at North Melbourne Town Hall.

Comprising illuminated fibreglass spheres, steel framing, high-tension cables (which will be connected to the building) and a series of contact microphones and electromagnetic sensors, the large installation will effectively play the role of a giant live instrument.

“It’s for a lot of cabling and resonant chambers, so Dave uses everything from a violin bow to sandpaper and a wire brush and rubber mallets to generate sound,” Rogerson says.

“Philip is then mixing and dispersing the sounds, and then I use an invented, low-tech light desk where I actually rub wire on an electrical terminal and that sparks away nicely and creates this sort of jittery illumination in the fibreglass pods. Using sound like this is just so transportive and rhapsodic. As a sculptor, I always found myself drawn to sound but I really don’t know why. I do know that it’s profoundly beautiful, albeit cacophonic and atonal and psychotic.”

It’s a telling statement from someone who is technically a visual artist, and one that Shea believes to be increasingly symptomatic of the current generation of artists.

“Having all these categories is kind of interesting on one level and useful on another, but it really doesn’t seem to reflect people’s work,” he says.

“That’s what I really like about Liquid Architecture. Even though it started as a sound art festival, sound art embraces visual art and now you have this stuff happening at galleries and museums all the time. The distinctions have become less important now and we don’t actually need to have our minds opened. It’s the way artists are working and I think that’s something to follow.”

Liquid Architecture plays in Castlemaine July 5, Bendigo July 8, 9 and 23, and Melbourne July 9-12.


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