Goodbye Rolf Julius (1939-2011)

Source: http://www.recalling-terryfox.de

German-born sound artist Rolf Julius passed away on the 21st January 2011 at his home in Berlin.  Whilst it’s a great loss to the sound art community, on a personal note Julius’ work has been immensely important to my development as an artist over the past five years – in the conception, composition and realisation of my studio and installation work.  More critically, the work of Rolf Julius has had a profound and lasting impact on the way I listen to and experience the world.

I first came across the work of Rolf Julius in a sound art text a few years ago (Resonances: Aspects of Sound Art, Kehrer, 2002).  There was one particular work that captivated my attention.  warum grau warum gelb warum grun (2002) is an installation of loudspeakers, coloured wires, playback devices, photographs, ceramic bowls, and at the far end of the space; a resonating iron plate with cement dust scattered across its surface.

warum grau, warum gelb, warum grun (2002)

At first glance it looked like an unholy mess of sonic detritus, but upon closer inspection one could sense a harmony to the arrangement. There appeared to be a natural order to everything, like an abstracted network of neural pathways or some kind of organic structure.  The book that featured the work came with a CD that contained an audio recording of warum grau.. which gave some much needed audible context to the work.  What I heard was a dense sonic cacophony of multiple voices (sourced from electronics, found sounds and conventional instruments) coalescing in rich homogenous textures and sounding a bit like a field recording that had been made in a synthetic rainforest. In 2009, I wrote about the work in my post-graduate research thesis:

Warum grau, warum gelb, warum grün is, on the one hand about the transparency of process itself. From the far end of the exhibition space we observe an arrangement of objects unified by their association to each other as carriers and projectors of sound (wires, loudspeakers, amplifiers), objects conveying sensation and symbolism (colours, bowls, loudspeakers as containers of sound). The iron plate at the entrance illustrates the transparency of its sounding process in a less metaphorical sense, instead it conveys the physical relationship between sound and object. The vibration of the metal surface and the cement dust is analogous to the propagation of the resonant sound waves. For the listener, the work appears relatively homogenous on the surface – disparate sounds blending with each other to form an elaborate sonic texture. However upon closer inspection through the observation of both sections of the installation, the listener is made aware of the modes and sources of the sounds (locational), and may observe (visually) and make perceptive estimations as to the representational meaning of the bowls and photographs on the gallery floor.

Aside from his technical proficiency, part of the beauty of Julius’ work lies in the relationship that it fosters with its audience – the unpretentious and thoughtful composition of his installations encourage a unique mode of participation, a deeper appreciation of sound through the suggestion of metaphor and symbolic meaning using a combination of sonic and visual media.   Loudspeakers, photographs, bowls, cisterns, cooking utensils, detritus, pigments, ash, dirt, telegraph poles, walls, clearings, frozen lakes, forests, rivers, oceans… What would otherwise be ordinary or inglorious outside the context of Julius’ work is transformed and rendered into beautiful and captivating reflections of nature, space and life itself.

There’s a temptation to go further into detail here, but I’m really trying to keep this post succinct.

I did (sort of) manage to experience Julius’ work first hand when I was in Berlin back in 2008.  That is, without the crucial sound component as I had missed the exhibition in question by a couple of days.  Through the glass windows of the Galerie Anshelm Dreher I could see a couple of works still on walls and plinths, but that was as close as I got.  I pressed my ear to the glass hoping to hear something in a desperate attempt to make further connection with the works, but to no avail.  It was pretty disappointing. I shared a couple of brief e-mail correspondences with Julius around this period and we had planned to meet during my stay in Germany, but a meeting didn’t come about regrettably due to clashing schedules. If only I’d stayed in Berlin a couple more days.

Rest in Peace Rolf Julius.

Thesis: Sinking and resurfacing

I’m escaping one of my thesis chapters temporarily as the basin appears to be overflowing with rhetorical clusters.  I thought it might be appropriate to use my blog space as a willing reciprocal.   I’m a little bit stuck at the moment with the process of finishing this off, in recent weeks I haven’t seemed to be able the channel that high octane lucidity that propels me out of these tar pit moments.

The area in question is this elusive fourth chapter that serves as an expanded commentary on everything that’s come before it – in short, explaining why focused listening/sound art and the work of Lucier, Julius and my creative works are relevant in the 21st Century.

*sigh*

Yes I know, dangerous territory.  So far I’ve managed to snare, immolate, lacerate, dissolve, amputate, puncture, crucify, drench, poison and stink out my arguments in a flurry of seemingly aimless references to globalised culture, urban decay, data clouds, iPods and Umberto Eco.  So far, so shit.

However, today it would seem with my bullshit detector recharged and my fog lights on high beam, I’ve struck a little vein of coherence and relevance.  Hoorah!  I’m making an effort to emphasise the simplicity and minimalism of the cited works (with special reference to the respective performance aesthetics of Sachiko M and F.Lopez) and how an rapport may be facilitated between the work and the listener through the work’s apparent antithesis to the ills our modern existence.  Or something.  It makes more sense to me I’m sure, it just needs to be expressed a bit better and spread over a couple of thousand words.

Incidentally, my metaphor count is on a catastrophic level tonight.

Masters: the final leg

I thought it was about time I posted something relating to my Masters research project which I’ve been undertaking since 2006.  It’s been a long hard journey in the ensuing years, but I’m pleased to say that it’s beginning to come to a timely conclusion.  Since 2007 I’ve been going at it part-time, a result of having a freak-out and failing dramatically at balancing the whole work/study ratio in 2006 when I was cocky enough to believe I could handle it full-time.  The period from 2007 to the present hasn’t been that much easier, but at least I’ve been afforded a bit more breathing space by only having check in with my supervisors half as much, write/research half as much and be able to earn a living at the same time.

The research (to once again, refresh your memory) examines the act of listening within the context of sound art, and how a particular form of listening – what I have dubbed as focused listening – is inherent to specific forms of sound art.  The research is broken into three main sections:

1) A definition of what focused listening is, using composer James Tenney’s concept of focus and applying this model to both musical and artistic contexts.

2) A study of works by composer Alvin Lucier and sound artist Rolf Julius respectively, making particular note of their aesthetic and how focused listening is endorsed in their works.  A key work from each artists oeuvre is then analysed.

Alvin Lucier (image: alucier.weslyan.com)
Alvin Lucier (image: alucier.weslyan.com)
Rolf Julius - warum rot, warum schwarz (2007)
Rolf Julius - warum rot, warum schwarz (2007) (image: momak.go.jp)

3)  The works of Lucier and Julius inform the following section which documents three creative works by the author (i.e. me), two installation works (Infuser [2007/2009], Sumi [2007-2008]) and a concert film (190409 [2009]).  Although the installation works have more in common with Lucier and Julius with respect to aesthetic and focused listening, 190409 is an important inclusion as it encapsulates a significant part of my practice since mid-2008, which has been live performance and the examination of the role of listening in live sound art.

tristanlouthrobins_infuserInfuser (2007, revised 2009) – exhibited at ARIspace (October 2009)
tristanlouthrobins_Sumi2008Sumi (2007-2008) – home studio set-up (December 2008)
tristanlouthrobins_190409190409 (2009) – exhibited at the Adelaide Festival Centre (Moving Image Program, July-September 2009)

So far so good, so what’s left to do?

I’m currently writing a commentary chapter that will examine other areas of (particularly, performance based) sound art where focused listening is apparent, looking specifically at the work of Sachiko M(atsubura), Francisco Lopez and Philip Jeck.  This chapter is intended as a way of bringing things more into the 21st Century and speculating where listening in situated within these examples and the present tense.

Then it’s a conclusion, compiling the portfolio and we’re done and dusted come February 13th 2010That’s right, I’ve set a fixed date for submission!

So I’m pretty content at the moment, save for the fact that my final presentation at the University (a Music Technology Forum gig) last week was a listless, flaccid calamity.  If I have a resolution to make for the new year it will be to get my knack back for giving decent presentations.  It must have been apparent to the audience that this research project has been dragging on a little too long and I’m a bit over talking about it at length.

Now it’s time for tea, scones and some heavy duty tome-ing.

Rolf Julius: Small Music

Image: www.weserburg.de, "Further Away (Music For The Glance Downwards)", 2008
Image: http://www.weserburg.de, "Further Away (Music For The Glance Downwards)", 2008

Over the past week I’ve been enjoying listening to Rolf Julius’ Small Music Volumes 1 to 4, released between 1994 and 1996.  They collect together works from the 90s and each of the releases are tied together by respective themes which allude to colours (Vol. 1 White, Yellow, Black), environments (Vol. 2 Klangboden, trans. ‘earth sound’, Vol. 3 Music For A Garden)  or shapes/objects (Vol. 4 Dance For Two Blue Rectangles.)  I hadn’t heard these releases until very recently when a kind soul somewhere in Europe made these ‘available’ to me.  I had been trying to obtain legit copies in the past, but on the couple of occasions I’d pursued the Japanese distributor my order/shipment got lost in translation and transit.  I love the music on these volumes – Julius’ work is remarkably unique sounding, all at once chaotic and simple compositions made up from cyclical patterns of metallic drones, sibilant hisses, mock birdcalls, mutant crickets and camouflaged field recordings.  Listening to these you can visualise places, locations, sensations and colours – the music dissolves into your surroundings and consciousness.   I’ve had a lot of enjoyment in listening to these works in various contexts too – situated in the backroom, the study, the garden, the park or on my iPod in the city.  I still have much to learn about Julius’ work (as his work makes up a fair portion of the masters thesis) but these releases make the process all the more enjoyable and rewarding.