The theatre work group (actual name TBC) I’m a member of has been workshopping ideas over the past couple of months for a new theatre project to be presented in 2018-2019. Each fortnight a different member of the group has run a session incorporating texts and activities which benefit the development of ideas and concepts for the eventual project. A couple of weeks ago I ran a sound-based session focussing primarily on the work of Alvin Lucier; specifically a performance work called Vespers (1968) where performers navigated themselves in a space (either in the dark or blindfolded) using sound devices to map out the space. Whilst our session performances in the video below are not entirely faithful to the original Vespers score (the lack of clicking Sondols diminishing the echolocative emphasis of the work), I would regard these performances as broad interpretations of Vespers, using the performance format of the work as a point of departure for exploring aspects of group listening, sensory depreviation, acoustical awareness and exploration of space.
As a few of my followers are aware, I regard Rolf Julius as one of the biggest influences on my sound art practice. I was pleasantly suprised today to find a rare video interview of Julius on YouTube. In the video he is describing his compositional/performance approach in a Turin gallery.
Is this the final instalment of my 2017 trilogy of exestential despair? I’d like to hope so. It’s not so much a case of the energy and time required to write stuff like this that concerns me, but rather the scale of anguish and torment that feeds the material. The last 12 months have by far been one of the more stressful and ridiculous passages of my life and with the financial year clocking over into the second half of the year, I’m set on making the rest of this weird year more enjoyable for myself and those around me. I feel okay right now.
Three weeks ago I was hunched over the toilet bowl in my office bathroom throwing up my lunch as discretely as possible. Following this, I splashed water on my face, walked back to my desk, slumped in my chair and stared vacantly at a spreadsheet. It was stuffy and too warm in the open plan and the weak afternoon sun angled itself unwelcomely across my desk making the situation even more intolerable. There was nobody (and rarely is anyone) in the open plan aside from a box containing a plastic Christmas tree, stacks of folders and vacant desks covered with a light film of dust and grime. Unfortunately, inanimate objects aren’t going to casually read your body language and make suggestions. So, I got up from my chair, gathered up some spare change, left the office and bought a bag of nuts from a vending machine a short walk away. I got back to my desk, felt panic arise again and desperately tried call my gut’s bluff. The inanimate objects remained unmoved. This was a thoroughly miserable time.
Prior to my body needing to hurl out of irrational panic, for the past month I’d been knotted up with all manner of anxiety, frustration, stress and depression. Along with the other things going on my life (buying a house, playing gigs, etc.) since last September I’d been holding down a finance role at work – a reasonably daunting prospect given that I’d only had cursory experience dealing with financial things in my previous, more project-related role. Initially I’d gone into the role with gusto and motivation to get across the tasks, responsibilities and processes as efficiently as possible and do the best job I could within a 12-month term. Fairly quickly things started going awry and I struggled to keep things on a level footing. There were a few reasons for this – firstly I had to relocate to the city; not a biggie, but the pressures associated with a new environment and building rapport with a bunch of new people took awhile to adjust to. Secondly, I had to get acquainted with a new team, who were geographically scattered across the country and compounded what began as a discrete feeling of isolation eventually sliding into deep lulls of lonliness and an inability (and occassionally reluctance) to communicate or ask for help.
It’s important to note that when I started the role I was holed up in a private office in one of the more dismal areas of the building. Intially I was excited about the prospect of having my own space and relished to opportunity to scribble stuff on whiteboards and spread paperwork out everywhere, not to mention the luxury of cranking some tunes with the door closed. But of course the benefits associated with a private space aren’t going to amount to much when there’s a distinct lack of natural light, a non-ergonomic desk layout, horrid peppermint-coloured decor and a crowd of voices in your head chanting: what the fuck are you doing here? Thank goodness the end-of-year break was approaching with three weeks to get my head together and recalibrate things! Things would better in 2017 I whispered repeatedly to myself.
If only the three weeks off had been a little more relaxing. Don’t get me wrong, two weeks in Thailand with family was mostly lovely, but if you’re like me eventually you end up loathing the seemingly constant doing-things-by-committee approach with a group of people and spending most of the last four days of the vacation glowering in your room drinking beer, writing sad songs and listening to Morrisey. The husk of your former self who declared on the first couple of days, “this is the greatest time of my life” is now seated on a lurching ferry filled with horrible tourists and you’re desperately longing to find a quiet pocket of the universe to be left the fuck alone. The final week of my break was spent at home and was relatively quiet and relaxed, but I wished I’d spent less time drinking and becoming obsessed with Myer-Briggs personality tests (often dangerously at the same time) – its results uniformly pointing out that the worst possible career options were aligned with a) finance; and/or b) selling cars. Supplanting the notion into my head that one of these vocations was a horrible fit a few days shy of returning to work struck me as both timely and a bit foolish.
Whilst the intervening six months haven’t amounted to complete disaster and there have been rays of sunshine here and there, I’ve arrived at this point where I could swear there are about a dozen dead versions of myself dumped somewhere that had fizzled out at given points only to be replaced by a slightly more broken and inferior version of myself. A bit like successive models of smartphones with cheaper components, incompatible cables and a propensity to freeze or shut down at inconvenient moments. I’m certain several of my work colleagues are now convinced I’m on track for a monumental mid-life crisis and will spend the rest of my days shacked up in a monastary. As Howlin’ Wolf once put it, “I’m goin’ down slowwwwwww”. If Hubert Sumlin was there in the corner of my office playing searing lead guitar whilst the Wolfman wailed away, that would have been the perfect sonic accompaniment to the spectacle of me at my desk on a given day: nervously jumping at the sound of the office phone ringing, clutching my head in my hands, moaning quietly, and – yes – throwing up in the toilet. The blues come in many contextual shades.
The other day I had a conversation with my manager reflecting on the past nine months in the role. Like an incompatible couple self-mediating we both arrived at the consensus that finance probably wasn’t the best fit for me and resolved that I’d be going back to my old role in a month or so. I’d arrived at this conversation more relaxed than expected since I’d already been tipped off by a former colleague about a week prior that I was expected to return to my old role. I have no idea if there had been talk about me behind closed doors (frankly I couldn’t care less) but upon learning this news something miraculous occurred – all of the culminative tension I’d built up in my body began to unwind and my head felt as if it had been immersed in a cool body of water after spending half a year in the sun. So by the time I was talking with my manager I was totally prepared for a conversation that went along the lines of: “you’re not really that good at this are you?”; and “I think it would be best (for everyone) if I got out of here”.
Although I felt a bit numbed after the meeting, I still knew I was making the right decision. And if it means I’ll no longer be coming to work knotted with anxiety and gifting my meals to the alter of the toilet bowl on a regular basis, I’ll take it. This old role is a good fit for right now – a bit of familiarity with a few things that have changed here and there. I think it will be a very welcome stop gap in the short to medium term. Better still, I won’t be bringing my work home with me like a pair of stale underpants that constantly evade the washing machine. That reminds me, I need to do some washing.
The moral of this tale? Don’t do things you’re not good at if it makes you continually miserable.
So – and I say this with a degree of trepidation – I think I could be out of the knotty woods.
I’ve submitted a proposal to perform my work, Goyder’s Line (2014-2017) at this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference which is taking place in Adelaide this year. I’ve reproduced the text of my proposal/abstract below. Although I’ve regularily commented on the inspiration and development of Goyder’s Line in the past on this blog, I feel as though this text perfectly sums up the essence of the work. With thanks to L for her thoughts and input.
The plains that I crossed in those days were not endlessly alike. Sometimes I looked over a great shallow valley with scattered trees and idle cattle and perhaps a meagre stream at its centre. Sometimes, at the end of a tract of utterly uncompromising country, the road rose towards what was unquestionably a hill before I saw ahead only another plain, level and bare and daunting. Gerald Murnane, The Plains (1982)
The plains surrounding the ghost town of Dawson are situated in the lower Flinders Ranges – a vast arena of ochre-coloured earth and sparse vegetation. The presence of distant hills that stretch around the plains appear to reinforce the utter stillness of this place. As if time and motion are suspended or are just inclined to unfold at their own pace. As one spends more time in this place, its unique properties are revealed. A subtle scent carried on a breeze that sends a rustle through dry leaves, the droning buzz of busy insects, the brief relief that lies in the shadows of clouds drifting slowly over the terrain and discrete rumbles that exist just on the audible periphery.
Sometime during 1865, a few kilometres south of where Dawson would be settled twenty-three years later, George Goyder was travelling across the region on horseback. Goyder, who was the South Australian colony’s Surveyor-General had been tasked with the duty of mapping the boundary between areas that received regular rainfall and those that were prone to drought. Based on Goyder’s Line of Rainfall and the subsequent report detailing his findings, farmers were discouraged from planting crops north of the line. In most instances, this advice was not heeded.
At the beginning of the 21st Century as much of Australia was enduring the Millennium Drought (1997-2009), Goyder’s Line became a point of reference for meteorologists, climate scientists and farming communities. During the drought it became evident that the line of rainfall as identified by Goyder in the late 19th Century – whilst being subsequently regarded as a highly accurate tool of analysis and agricultural planning for most of the following century – was requiring reassessment and pointed to a southward trend in light of protracted drought, shifting seasonal rainfall patterns and the impact of anthropogenic climate change.
Goyder’s original line of rainfall and a recent 21st Century revision inform the basis of this electro-acoustic work. The lines – their relative patterns and trajectories- represent the fundamental frequencies of two sawtooth waves, which are routed as inputs to a vocoder and extended effects modules. Although each of the frequencies remain distinct throughout the work, the resulting modulations reveal expansive sonorities and rich harmonic textures. At regular iterations the lines are purposefully suspended in parallel, allowing their harmonic relationship and modulations to unfold and develop.
I regard this work as an ode to the South Australian interior, as defined by Goyder’s original line and its contemporary revision. The interior, at its boundary appears as a vast, seemingly boundless space – rich with the possibility of uncertainty, terror and fascination.
TLR, July 2017
So far these semi-regular instalments have featured commentary and rumination on activities, projects and my general state of mind. Whilst all of the posts so far have been grounded in the present day, I’ve been surprised how retrospective they have become in some instances – drifting back as much as ten years or so. This isn’t necessarily how I planned it, but it’s been an interesting process to go through and oddly therapeutic at times. It’s also interesting given that I haven’t written on such a regular basis about a bunch of different things ever. At times it feels like I’m writing disparate sections of a future memoir. A common theme that I’ve identified across the six posts – which all deal with my creative practice – is seeking a contentment with what I’ve done so far whilst looking for some kind of pathway to lead me out of this protracted period of creative uncertainty and doubt. Therefore, in this instalment I’m not going to dwell on something I’ve done in the last ten years and instead interrogate a couple of things that interested me as a child. Increasingly I find I’m tracing lineage back to the early periods of my life and reflecting on just how critically things like geography, silence and space, technology and music informed many of my interests over the years.
This time around we’re going to pull anchor, catch the wind and slip back into the mists of the 20th Century. 1987 to be exact.
I was six years old at the time. We were living in my hometown of Normanville in a cottage at one end of Field Street. Our living room was made up of a pot belly stove and furnished with a couple of huge patterned velour armchairs. A similarly vintage lampshade hung from the ceiling, covered with a brown tapestry with long string tassels hanging down. Guitars hung on the walls. The carpet that covered the room is etched into my memory – an uneasy rhythm of lurid red, blue and green splodges floating on a black background. Our television was a small colour screen encased in a off-white plastic shell with various dials and knobs. I recall watching news footage of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster around this time, as well as episodes of The Goodies, Dangermouse and Doctor Who. To further reinforce this nostalgic onslaught, a Commodore 64 personal computer took pride of place next to the television.
Touted as being the ‘best selling computer in history’ the Commodore 64 was ever present in my childhood. Back in these days you could route such a computer into your television, so often I’d be seated a few inches from the screen steering clumps of pixels across the screen with a joystick. This could be my memory playing up, but I distinctly recall a couple of episodes of light sunburn from prolonged exposure to the screen.
When I wasn’t scorching my retina or getting flustered by a game designer’s tendency to not thoroughly debug a program (causing regular crashes), I was really into Cyclopedias, flags and maps. My parents had been purchasing a set of small volumes which came out every week; they were hard-bound with silver covers and a big circular image featuring anything from a camel, a test tube or a guy working on an oil rig. My favourite part of the volumes was the entries on countries, particularly European countries which I was fascinated by. Each of the entries in these volumes would feature a written description of the country, its flag and a map detailing cities, roads, rivers and symbols representing prominent industries (oil, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.) Think of this as the 1987 equivalent of Wikipedia. I also had a large world map with flags framing the border. I took pride of place on a desk in the front room of our house where I would often draw pictures of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
LOAD “*”, 8, 1
Around this time, my mum bought me a new game on cassette which – in spite of the reservations she had with me spending so much time at the C64 – she thought would be vaguely educational. The artwork on the cassette case featured a cartoon of a mole leaping into a bi-plane whilst being chased by a couple of police officers.
By 1987, the Commodore 64 was still a leader in the low-end market, though the limitations of its 64 KB of RAM and 16-colour graphics palette restricted what was possible in a steadily expanding computer and videogames market, with the newly released Commodore Amiga already beginning to exceed the capability of the C64. In many respects, 1987-88 represents the bell curve of popularity and innovation for the C64, with many of the games from this period (The Last Ninja, California Games, The Giana Sisters) pushing the limitations of the C64 as far they would go in terms of handling content, gameplay, memory, graphics and sound. It’s remarkable just how well something like The Last Ninja (1987) holds up in this respect – a beautifully crafted game.
By virtue of attempting to keep up with the innovations led by Amiga, Nintendo and Sega, the bottom steadily fell out for the C64 as the limitations of the computer could not match the sophisticated gameplay and graphics of its peers and the computer gradually drifted towards niche-dom before being withdrawn completely in the early 1990’s.
Released in 1987, Auf Weirdersehen Monty consisted of a flick-screen platform-style gameplay with its visual design carried across from the hugely successful Monty On The Run (1985) and Jet Set Willy (1984). Each of the screenshots would represent a section of European country, sometimes incorporating landmarks unique to the country into the screen’s architecture. The visuals were also really trippy too. I’m fairly sure that blinking eyeball in the screenshot below is a nod to the Spanish filmmaker, Luis Buñuel.
Nowadays we take story arcs for granted in videogames, but in 1987 I guess this was fairly unique. The action in Auf Weirdersehen Monty picks up from where Monty On The Run left off. Monty’s story began back in 1984 with Wanted: Monty Mole where following his intervention in the British Miner’s Strike (yes, really) he’s hunted by authorities and by the time of the following year’s Monty On The Run we’re guiding him through buildings and sewers, eventually culminating in a dangerous high-speed car ride to reach a boat in time. At the opening of Auf Weirdersehen Monty he’s beached himself at the Rock Of Gibraltar and we’ve got to help him cash up across Europe and avoid death so that he can buy a Greek island and live the rest of his life in sunny exile. Not bad for Thatcher-hating communist mole. The political overtones don’t end there. This was 1987 after all, so Germany is split down the middle – the glitzy West on one side and the otherside resembling the backend of a toilet. Very subtle. The game is memorable in so many other ways – by taking a bottle you become drunk and walk the wrong way, Monty breakdances in Luxembourg, there’s a chairlift to catch in Switzerland, you can repeatedly murder your evil doppelganger in a biplane and there’s a parade of surreal shit that makes no sense whatsoever from Italy to Greece (via Czechoslovakia). As was par for the course with a majority of sophisticated C64 games, Auf Weirdersehen Monty is ridiculously difficult. In certain parts of the game (especially in Italy and Greece) a lazy twitch of the joystick will lead to repeated death and it’s GAME OVER, BRO. Then you have to start all over again. Adding to this is the precarious requirement of taking various items back and forth across the continent in exchange for money – again and again. Saving progress is not an option. I have vivid memories of hurling the joystick across the room in frustration, breaking down into a pool of tears and being consoled by mum because I couldn’t deliver a football to Sweden.
I have no idea how many hours I spent playing this game. I could never finish it and in spite of engaging the help of friends to develop various strategies and carefully sketching out the screenshots to form a big guide map, it never came to much and more often than not we repeatedly checked out on our way to Greece with a trail of bloated dead moles in our wake.
It wasn’t just the futile and brutally Kafka-esque gameplay combined with a love of geography that kept me so engaged with this game. The soundtrack composed by the legendary Rob Hubbard (not the Scientologist) who, utilising all three-channels of the SID soundcard produced an absolute belter of a soundtrack that perfectly accompanied all the highs and lows of Monty’s traipses across Europe. Electronic drums clomped along beneath woozy synth textures with wailing bursts of (emulated) shred guitar. I’ve already mentioned just how innovative some of the C64 programming was around this period and this carefully composed soundtrack is just extraordinary in terms of its structure and sophistication.
Thirty years on
Out of the mists and back into the present. Nostalgia can be a foolishly naive enterprise sometimes; I’ve lost count of the recent things I’ve revisited lately (mostly films) only to walk away disappointed and – in some instances – appalled. Some things just shouldn’t be revisited later in life and should instead be left to dwell within the little universe they were first encountered and experienced. Memory tints, exaggerates and smoothens the edges and everything from here looks idyllic and appealing. Our past viewed through a vaseline smeared lens. Leave it there.
Rarely though, there are exceptions to this rule and Auf Weirdersehen Monty is a case in point. This is a game in recent years that I’ve revisited (via a C64 emulator) and become lost within all over again, whilst recalling my early fascination with geography, Europe and electronic music. Despite faithful attempts I couldn’t finish the game and instead applied a cheat mode (Jesus Mode!) to evade death, cash up, successfully deliver the football and land Monty on his island thirty years on from my first attempts. Sometimes you’ve just got to give a guy a break.
Another new realease. “Nodes/Old Waters” is a meeting of sorts – a studio improvised amalgam of live instruments, Fleurieu field recordings and samples from old red_robin tracks. Listen/purchase below.
A new little release. Two new pieces drawn from field recordings made in Thailand last year and studio improvisations.