What’s Happening #4: Big Red (2007-2017)

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Continuing the recent trend of looking back at past work and its intersections with present activities and preoccupations, I thought that this time around I would return to where I found myself approximately ten years ago.

This is essentially a post about how a teapot salvaged my Masters degree and went on to form the basis of an installation work that I’ve presented a couple of times over the years. The teapot in question began its sonic journey ten years ago and has been used in conjunction with loudspeakers, microphones and other electronic paraphanalia more than actually brewing tea. This was to be its fate.

Trust in Crate.

To set the scene it was mid-March 2007. I’d arrived in the morning at Sebastian Tomczak’s parents house in Brighton carrying my Tascam 424 Portastudio and a milkcrate full of non-musical objects. The milkcrate and its contents were an important component of this visit. In 2004, Seb hosted the first Milkcrate[1], a music project he devised whereby participants are required to create music using only the contents of their milkcrate over a continuous 24-hour period. I’d participated in the second Milkcrate which was held in the Brighton scout hall in January 2005. That was a strange experience. I’d recently come off a particularly humiliating break-up and had spent a good week shacked up in my room not speaking to anyone. By the time I arrived at the scout hall on a sunny January morning I was having tremendous difficulty verbally communicating or acknowledging anyone present. Eventually I loosened up and got into the flow of making a racket with a pair of speakers, a couple of objects and load of feedback. Good times!

 [1] http://milkcrate.com.au

By March 2007, the ‘Crate was up to its thirteenth installment and had been hosted in a variety of locations including Adelaide University, my sharehouse in Stirling and a former art and music venue, The Gallery Delacatessen. All manner of objects were exploited during these sessions – various kitchen implements, plastic tubing, wineglasses, aerosol cans, etc – with the musical outcomes encompassing a variety of styles. Where one participant might be producing a soothing ambient bed of textures, another might be rendering a monolithic slab of abrasive noise. Up to that point I’d participated in a few of the sessions with results ranging from admirable to fucking horrendous. Whilst one could sometimes attribute (or pass off) the dubious quality of their work to a lack of sleep over a 24-hour period, some of the ideas I incorporated into given pieces (in spite of dulled faculties) now seem downright inexcusable. A track from Milkcrate 6 comes to mind, a piece entitled “Carnal Pivot” where a short shrill EDM beat is followed by the audible penetration of a peach with a blunt pencil. Throbbing Gristle much?

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Some of the ingredients that made up the awful, awful track, “Carnal Pivot” (2006) Penetrated peach pictured top left of image.

I arrived at Seb’s parents house with next-to-no fruit molesting intentions and instead set my motivations on exploiting a variety of resonant objects in my Milkcrate, including a big red teapot. This is where my eventual work, Infuser took its origins.

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March 2007: Miserable, broke and making art.

At this point in my life I was pretty miserable. I’d (again) come off a break-up and was looking more worse for wear than usual. I had begun to live in a shit-brown coloured leather jacket with wide lapels and not bothered to wash my hair in about a month. I was pretty much broke with a dribble of income coming in from music technology tutoring and trying desperately to resurrect my Masters after acrimoniously abandoning it the previous year. My life was a depressed slag-heap consisting of misery, apologies and late rent, so surrendering myself to spontaneous music making over 24-hours seemed like a good idea.

Paging Alvin Lucier.

* * *

 I Am Sitting In A Teapot

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Alvin Lucier.

One of the composer Alvin Lucier’s lesser know later works is a piece called Nothing Is Real (1990) and consists of a performance involving a piano, teapot and amplification system. The title of the work derived from a line in The Beatles’ 1967 track, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and the melody which accompanies the song’s lyrics are played on the piano during the performance; albeit with a deliberate free-time feel and sustained tone clusters giving the melody a slightly disjointed, yet recognizable feel. On top of the piano is a teapot, and placed near the teapot is a microphone. Whist the pianist is playing the melody to “Strawberry Fields Forever” a recording is being made of the performance. Once the pianist has finished the melody, a small loudspeaker positioned inside the teapot broadcasts the recording of the performance. At various points the lid of teapot is lifted and this radically affects the resonant response of the piano – with blooms of rich harmonics materialising from the piano’s body.  It’s a beautiful, elegant work. You can watch a performance of this work performed by Lucier below.

* * *

With my Tascam 424 Portastudio, a little loudspeaker, small microphone and Big Red I would record the sound of the teapot and broadcast its sound back into the teapot’s chamber until its natural resonance had reinforced fully. Whilst my teapot process was in part inspired by Lucier’s work, Nothing Is Real it was his seminal electro-acoustic work, I am sitting in a room (1970) that really brought my own process to fruition.

Explained succinctly, I am sitting a room consists of a performance work which involves spoken text and two recording devices. Following the initial recitation of the text, a recording of this is then broadcast back into the performance space – whilst being simultaneously re-recorded – until the natural resonant frequencies of the room are reinforced.

The spoken text also operates as a score:

I am sitting in a room. Different to the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice, and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the natural resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves. What you will hear then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated my speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but rather to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.

Depending on the dimensions of the room, a performance of Lucier’s work can take up to 40 iterations of the process of broadcast/re-recording until the natural resonant frequencies are reinforced. Applying this process with the intimate confines of a teapot streamlines the iterative process considerably whereby the resonant frequency of a teapot can be established over 3-5 repetitions of this process.

The process utilized in I am sitting in a room is similar to the process of photocopying the same thing over and over again. Imagine you have the front page of a newspaper consisting of a header, headlines, some images and a bunch of text. If you make a photocopy of this material and then proceed to photocopy it again and again, gradually certain elements of the material will become indistinguishable from their original source – losing aspects of their detail and semblance – and eventually becoming a homogenous blot of ink.

So I went to work: hunched over the teapot, making sure the microphone was positioned appropriately within its chamber and placing an appropriately sized loudspeaker in place of the teapots lid. Four to five iterations of the process of recording/broadcasting brought the Big Red’s voice out.

Big Red salvages Masters degree

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April 2007: First proper recording of what would become Infuser. Electronic Music Unit, University of Adelaide.

 In the past couple of weeks I have re-activated my status as a post-graduate student at Adelaide University. Though I had considered my life as a student to be officially over after last year’s debacle, a handful of people managed to coerce me back into the fold. The research on Alvin Lucier re-commences!, complete with rocks, teapots, stairwells and the University’s resources at my disposal. The provisa [sic] is of course I am undertaking my study as a part-timer and I won’t complete my degree until around December 2008. This means plenty of research centric posts over the next 18 months. Hooray for you dear reader! (blog post, 29th March 2007)

Enthused by the results of this Milkcrate session, the following month I booked a studio at the Electronic Music Unit and used my MiniDisc recorder, microphone, an amplifier and ProTools to replicate the process.

A key aspect that distinguished the teapot process from the one utilized in Lucier’s I am sitting in a room was that the teapot process didn’t begin with a voice or any other sound, rather it began with silence. This was one of the most compelling things about exploring this process during the Milkcrate session; hearing a resonant voice coaxed out of seemingly nothing. Of course, there was something there, and within the context of the Milkcrate session, the activity of fellow participants in adjoining rooms of the house and street traffic could be heard on the periphery of the teapot’s quiet chamber. Over a couple of repetitions of the process, these incidental sounds would dissolve into a harmonic texture consisting of several perceptible harmonic frequencies.

Obviously, the architecture of a room differs significantly from the inner chamber of a teapot, so the complex acoustic properties of the teapot’s interior made the process of coaxing out and reinforcing resonant frequencies an occasionally delicate affair. For one, I needed to dutifully monitor the volume level from one iteration to the next as the unpredictable harmonic response within that little chamber would cause frequencies to amplify significantly and materialise in all their ugly distorted glory. Rather than being frustrating, this instead became a way of learning how to bring out the teapot’s frequencies effectively – a tweak of the volume here, a slight attenuation of middle-band EQ there. Later on, when I would put Big Red with other teapots for an ‘ensemble performance’ I would need to learn how to play other teapots of various dimensions and materials. Every one is unique in itself. I’ve found that porcelain teapots are the most manageable during a recording process, whereas thin metal teapots are an absolute nightmare to get anything worthwhile out of[2].

 [2] In 2007 I acquired a bunch of about 6-8 metal teapots from the 1950s. Whilst they were aesthetically interesting from a visual point of view, they were absolutely useless for furthering my research. Later that year, I was packing the last of my possessions for a move to a new sharehouse I decided that these teapots were not going to join me on the next stage of my life. As it was very late in the evening and being a bit wired by the whole moving ordeal, I took the teapots down to the nearby beach, arranged them by the water’s edge and let them be taken out by the tide. This is (now) known as littering.

Installations

By around 2008 the teapot process began to find form as an installation work which I had called Infuser, the title being a poetic reference to the process of brewing tea leaves which I also considered an appropriate analogy for the technical process of reinforcing the resonant frequencies of the teapot.

I can’t recall the exact background, but in 2009 I was invited to participate in a group exhibition at a newly established artist-run gallery in North Adelaide. The exhibition was called The Art of Tea and featured work from painters, ceramicists and sculptors. The exhibition seemed like the a perfect opportunity to present my work to the public for the first time. Three teapots featured in this version of the work.

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A couple of years later I submitted Infuser for the 2011 Format Festival and it was exhibited  in the front area of the Format venue in the Adelaide CBD. Seven teapots featured in this version of the work.

For each of these installations, I sequenced the looped playback of each of the channels so that there would be a fade-in and fade-out of the resonant frequencies, followed by a silence. I made each of these sequences at different lengths so that when each of the recordings began a new loop they would fall out of phase with each other creating different tonal and textural patterns. Obviously, the more teapots that were introduced the more complex and varied the patterns became. This was certainly the case of the Format installation.

Infusing the present

Infuser hasn’t been exhibited since the Format installation in 2011 and as other projects have taken priority in the following years, I haven’t really had an opportunity to revisit the work. I did utilise a very similar process to the recording of the teapots for my work, Five Voices (2015) where bottles of different sizes were recorded in a manner so as to reveal their resonant frequencies.

Where I had previously begun the recording process with silence, by this point I had discovered that it more favourable to begin the process with an impulse (similar to Lucier’s spoken text) as this allowed the subsequent process of re-recording to be a bit easier to manage in terms of volume, equalisations and following the behavior of the resonant response with each iteration. Since I didn’t want to use anything readily identifiable or dynamic as a voice or instrument, I used a clip of continuous white noise that would serve as a consistent acoustic impulse for the resonant frequencies to reinforce themselves around.

So, what’s happening now? Well, Big Red’s currently in the upstairs studio joining a few of the others for some impromptu jam sessions. There’s nothing to present as yet but I’m pleased with outcomes so far – it’s been lovely to reacquaint myself with this work and hopefully there will be another installation sometime in the future.

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March 2017: From left to right: Big Red, Neko, White Ghost and Iron God.

Reflecting on Big Red, I tend to regard this teapot as I would any other musical instrument. Much like a guitar, it’s symbolic of various artistic and social activities over the years. It also wears the marks of usage with a couple of scratches and a very recent chip near its spout. It’s imbued with good memories and long may it continue to be there as a familiar and reliable presence in my practice.

Having said this though, every teapot is significant whether it’s used for sound art or conventionally making tea for oneself or good company. As an object, teapots can possess a deep personal significance – tied to aspects of domesticity, socialising, ritual and aesthetics. These are broader and potentially interesting threads to follow, but that’s something to explore another time. The tea’s getting cold.

 

 

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Shout-out: New Me-ism

A shout-out to my old buddy, Sebastian Tomczak and his new excellent blog, New Me-ism where the emphasis is on self-improvement and reducing waste. This is something I can completely get behind. Check it out via the link.

Regular visitors to my blog will have noted that I’m currently  following a similar train of thought – largely reevaluating aspects of my life and creative practice. Not so much the waste aspect, but quite remarkably I was planning to write about this soon. Seb’s blog will most certainly give it a kick along in the schedule.

Love on ya’s.

TLR

Flashback 2014: Mulberry Farm dam recording with hydrophones

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Back in September 2014, L and I spent a weekend at a family friends farm near Yankalilla. One morning a went out to make some recordings across the property – exploring the surrounding scrub, hills, gullies and creeks. Near the homestead there’s a dam where I made some hydrophone recordings. Though I’d listened back to some of my above-grond recordings made around the farm, I never got around to properly examining these hydrophone recordings.

I was going through some Fleurieu-centric recordings, scouring my archive for some material to put on the Fleurieu Sound Map when this one came up and it piqued my interest. I imported it into RX, tweaked the EQ and gain slightly and it came to life. What is revealed is an underwater environment teeming with life and activity – everywhere. The spatial quality that I captured in this recording is very impressive. I thought I’d mislabelled this with one of Rolf Julius’ dense polytextured installation pieces. There’s a lot going on here.

The recording consists of three primary sound elements:

  1. A high-pitched cloud of incessant activity – micro-gestures, metallic flutters, sibilent voices and crackles.
  2. Distinctive scratching and rhythmic activity of (what I presume are) yabbies. There’s some really nice foregrounded polyrhythmic activity that can be heard distinctly on the left and right channels.
  3. A myriad of other voices – some weaved into the texture of dense sonic clouds, others emerging occasionally into the foreground. A variety of squeaks, flutters, gurgles and other related verbs and adjectives that currently elude me.

Enjoy!

Lauren Playfair: Seeing The Sights

Lauren Playfair: "Shifting Panorama" (2013)
Lauren Playfair: “Shifting Panorama” (2013)

My partner, Lauren Playfair is exhibiting new work at CACSA this month. Louise Vodic and Joe Felber are also exhibiting at the gallery.

CACSA (Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia)
14 Porter Street
Parkside, South Australia

OPENING: Friday 13th June 2014; 6-8pm
EXHIBITION DATES: 13th June – 13th July 2014; Tuesday to Friday 11-5pm; Saturday to Sunday 1-5pm

SEEING THE SIGHTS is a convergence of photographs from different places and times, re-addressed, the images are seen altogether differently than by their first audiences. The truths of the images shift with time and context, each reading changes with circumstance, and they are no longer the same images as when they were freshly printed, published and circulated.

Lauren Playfair is a visual artist from Adelaide. She completed her Masters degree by research (Visual Arts) at The University of South Australia in 2013. Her work has been exhibited at Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in Hatched ‘10, in group shows at FELTspace, The SASA Gallery, Light Square Gallery and at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation with the Shoot Collective.

Living with noise

Our residence March 2013 - March 2014
Our residence March 2013 – March 2014

Up until March 2014 my partner and I had been living in a first floor two bedroom unit which is located on Cross Road near the south eastern Adelaide suburb of Westbourne Park. Cross Road is one of several major transport arteries which comprise the southern network of roads in the Adelaide city area. Cross Road is particularly significant as it leads on from the Princess Highway and carries a large density of cars, public transport and semi-trailers at all hours of the day. As a consequence there is the almost constant presence of vehicle sounds; increasing in frequency and volume during the peak periods of the morning and the late afternoon. During this time, the ambience of a domestic environment is held to siege by the activity on the road; surrounded by a dense sonic cloud of  shuddering engines, screeching brakes, bleating horns, the wail of sirens and a sustained murmuring of low frequencies.

When we moved to this location the previous year I wasn’t particularly concerned about living next to a major arterial road, drawing comforting sonic parallels between the clamour of traffic and a rushing river – full of complex frequencies and dynamics, yet predominantly consistent and relegated to the background.  Surely it couldn’t be all that bad?

This optimistic view remained with me throughout 2013 at various points as this entry in my notebook from November 2013 attests:

“As I write this now at close to 10pm on a Tuesday night, I have the spare room’s window slightly open and the activity on Cross Road has dissipated considerably from a heavy continuous stream of indecipherable vehicles to an infrequent trickle of cars passing by.  These water references are appropriate  as I happen to be listening on studio monitor speakers to Annea Lockwood’s ‘Soundmap of the Housatonic River’ with its gentle ebbing and rushing of waterways making for an ironic sonic accompaniment to the vehicle sounds outside.”

I knew this outlook was precarious and my aesthetic position (which I believe was initially due to the excitement and distractions of moving house) rapidly gave away as the day-to-day routine of life resumed.  Whilst the noise was not unbearable, it was certainly an unwelcome presence on a number of occasions. The idea that one can live with noise (aesthetically or otherwise) is ridiculously naive. The road and its vehicles were not the only source of noise as the neighbours’ house on the eastern side of our block played host to incessant techno, revving engines and the occasional domestic dispute.

I started to imagine our first floor unit as a tiny island surrounded by a vast ocean of noise.

There was also the aspect of noise affecting the other senses, such as the visual boundary that a major road represents, as well as the occasional stench of engine fumes and a the oily byproduct of a nearby McDonald’s wafting through the kitchen window.  Maybe I’ll touch on these other forms of noise another time.

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Now, far removed from our tiny island and that ocean of noise, I write this post in the peaceful environment of a quiet suburb, where the window is open  and only the sound of birds, a distant lawnmower and (if I strain my ears) a very faint murmur of traffic is heard.

Noise – by its very definition has negative connotations, and it’s certainly apparent that this post’s preoccupation with the negative aspects of the past year run the risk of suggesting that an otherwise good year of domestic life with my partner was just a day-to-day ordeal of living with noise. I can reassure you that this wasn’t the case. Rather, noise became a backdrop to our lives: like a radio station prone to occasional interference and drop-outs, but carrying on nonetheless.

 

 

Thoughts On Frank Cook (1951-2013)

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Last week Frank Cook died.  He was a stepfather of sorts.  A stepfather of sorts because he and my mum weren’t ever married, so I guess he was more of a defacto stepfather, or something.  He had been the partner of mum’s since around 1995 and their relationship was nothing short of exceptional, inspiring and occasionally confounding to me.

Frank was a fiercely intelligent individual who read constantly and wrote poetry, stories, polemic, ripostes and countless letters over the years.  He joined political organisations, ran an Anarchist bookstore, dodged the draft, assumed pseudonyms and personas and built two of his own houses.  He is the biological father of four children – Sean, to his first wife; and later Conan, Adric and Karna-Mia to his second wife.  When he and my mum first met, he was recently widowed and iving in his second house on Kemiss Hill (outside of Yankalilla).  Being a young teenager whose parents had recently broken up I was initially intimidated by this man – handsome, charming, erudite, educated, intelligent and dangerously upfront.  My notion of human relationships had already been upended by mum and dad’s acrimonious split and the last thing I needed was this guy courting my mum.  These were confusing times.

I eventually got to know Frank over the next couple of years and discovered we shared common interests in music (Dylan, Leonard Cohen), politics and a bit of literature.  He was always supportive of my early creative endeavours (mainly songwriting) and was always constructive and thoughtful in his observations of my work.  In recent years, he and mum regularly had attended electro-acoustic performances and art installations of mine and I always found Frank thoroughly engaged and enthusiastic about what I was currently doing with my art practice.

Aside from their shared interests, Frank and mum ran a business during the late 90’s – The Piranha Republic Salvage Yard, out of the former Myponga Cheese Factory and later the former Myponga Bank.  These were great times. I often visited on weekends away from uni in the city – hanging out, working in the store and perusing the goods – including an ancient NASA computer module that I could never get to work.   I didn’t see Frank or mum very much between 2001 to 2007 when they moved from Normanville to Lismore, in upper New South Wales.  During this period they ran a series of secondhand bookstores (The Book Box) around the town and when I would occasionally visit I would often find the house festooned with walls of books and had a great time hanging out with Frank drinking coffee and dissing John Howard/Dubya in the store.  Later in 2008, they moved back to South Australia to look after Frank’s ailing mother and during this time set up the final (physical) incarnation of The Book Box in Semaphore.  It did as well as the other incarnations, but in early 2011 they decided to migrate the store online and head north to the South Australian regional town of Peterborough.

In mid-2011 Frank was diagnosed with lung cancer and life wasn’t quite the same after this.  This was the first time for me that the reality of a parental generation dying was made real and I didn’t quite know what to make of it.  Shortly after I received the news from mum, I took a bus south to Normanville with a hiking bag and camped for three nights in Normanville Caravan Park, during the middle of a freezing winter.  Upon reflection, the only real method to this apparent madness was an overbearing sense of nostalgia that this news had triggered and a desire to reconnect with the region that I spent most of my life growing up in.  Looking back now though, it resembles a fairly misanthropic reconnection – a ‘crisis mission’ to make field recordings, listen to Dylan on an iPod and get drunk in my tent.

Now following Frank’s death, I don’t necessarily feel inclined to repeat the same trajectory though the notion has crossed my mind a couple of times over the past week.  When Frank was given notice nearly two years ago it hurt like hell and my initial instinct was to counter the feelings of confusion and dread with a dramatic escapist retreat to where my identity and a considerable sum of my memories reside.  Now in the wake of his death, it’s hurt even more and there’s a sizable void that no solo sojourn is going to fill anytime soon.  Instead, I’m trying to tend to my incredibly stoic mother and get on with my life.

I loved this man. He was remarkable, inspiring, thoughtful and I’m incredibly sad he’s gone.

(1951-2013)