What’s Happening #8: Therapy Part III, or How I Learned To Love The Fact I’m Not Very Good At Certain Things And Stop Worrying

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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.

However.

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.

What’s Happening #7: Ode to geography, SID and 64 kilobytes

 

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c. 1987 with my brother, Sean.

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.

Cottage lyfe

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.

Computer Age

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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.

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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.

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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 NinjaCalifornia 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.

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Ah, Spain! Don’t take that bottle of wine – it’s dodgy stuff.

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.

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All of the screenshots in Auf Weirdersehen Monty making up *most* of mainland Europe. A shame Portugal and Finland missed out.

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.

SID Love

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s Happening #6: Fleurieu Drift

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Handheld mic, hat and beer at Normanville Surf Life Saving Club – April 2017

Over the past couple of weekends L and I have made our way down the coast to check out a few events happening as part of the annual Festival Fleurieu program. On the first weekend we checked out longtime family friend, Ruth Eisner’s open studio at her wonderful property, Mulberry Farm; then this weekend we checked out a couple of exhibitions and attended a concert by Margie Russell at the Yankallila Agricultural Hall supper rooms. Both trips have been enjoyable and revitalising since it’s been great to get down my hometown digs and catch up with some folks I haven’t seen in a while. This weekend also provided a good opportunity to make some more field recordings for my Fleurieu Sound Map project which is now in its seventh year.

Fleurieu Sound Map beginnings

From 2011-2012 the Fleurieu Sound Map gathered momentum with a flurry of activity as I darted all over the region with a handheld recorder in tow. This was an exciting time as I found myself revisiting familiar places and redicovering them with a fresh aesthetic appreciation. At the time I had an Edirol HR handheld recorder for my captures, and whilst it was up to task most of the time, its flimsy windshield and noisy preamp prevented me from capturing certain environments faithfully – where winds sheared over the microphone’s diaphragm, or conversely where environments were so quiet that the noise floor of the device would be the most prominent feature in the recording.

Beyond the recorder itself, I started building my own hydrophones as a way of capturing sonic activity in bodies of water. I went through a number of hydrophone variations incorporating piezo transducers enclosed within pill boxes, film canisters, shoe polish cans and on one occasion, a condom. What I realised – each time I heard the DIY hydrophone fill with water – was that I probably wasn’t up to the task of making hydrophones that are reliably water tight and that I should get around to buying some, which I did later on. Still, a couple of my inventions worked for a while and captured some nice sonic activity in water and beneath sandy substrates.

“Nancy” the hydrophone in 2012.

One of the reasons why 2011-12 was such a fertile period for skipping all over the region and making hundreds of records was because I was engaged in an art project with the WIRED Lab and Country Arts SA which would culminate in the latter half of 2012 with the National Regional Arts Festival, Kumawuki in Goolwa. Our work, Southern Encounter was a group multimedia work and my headphone installation, Echocline featured field recordings from around the region.

With this project behind me by the end of 2012, in the following years I managed to keep exploring the region and expanding the sound map, largely thanks to routinely visiting the sculpture I constructed south of Lady Bay and compiling an album of Fleurieu-centric field recordings for my 3Leaves edition, The Path Described (2013).

Five Year Itch.

Prior to heading back down south for the Festival events this month, I realised it had been over a year since I’d last updated the sound map. The last update in February 2016 included a dearth of material from a weekend in Carickalinga the previous year and a single recording made in Yankalilla during January 2016. In spite of finding time to get down to the region I was finding it to be a struggle to find new locations to capture, let alone finding reason or motivation to capture particular locations.

It didn’t help that some of the locations I found (when I had a recording device with me) just weren’t very interesting at all:

Why bother recording this location? Why am I here? Nothing’s happening at all! OK, I haven’t documented this particular location, but let’s be honest there’s nothing going on here and I believe that nothing is going to happen. I’m wasting my time here.

This was happening a lot. I’d arrive at a location with the best intentions and nothing would happen at all, or – to an equally frustrating extent – a potentially good recording where a chosen element unique to the location was clearly emphasised would be compromised by a human (I presume) cranking up a chainsaw, angle-grinder or techno album somewhere nearby. I was caught between two extremes on an axis of a) nothing or b) too-much-information – the former is a waste of everyone’s time, the latter is a blemished document.  I was becoming fed up with the whole process and the limitations of what I could achieve with my equipment on hand. I was still restricted to a handheld recorder since I didn’t have the motivation to invest in more high scale equipment due to my growing discontent with my sound practice at the time (see What’s Happening #1: Therapy for more on this.)

So I purposefully took a break from updating the sound map. When L and I went down to visit the Nude sculpture in August 2016 it was the first time I hadn’t taken my recorder with me, instead opting for my camera to document the state of the largely destroyed sculpture.

Solastalgiac

Diverging from the sound map, over the years I’ve watched the Fleurieu region change in visible increments, noticing prominent swathes of vegetation reclaiming the hills and gullies whilst conversely land is cleared and houses pop up in towns and on their outskirts. The tension between nature and human activity is particularly felt on the Fleurieu. It occasionally causes a measure of anxiety in me.

I remember the first time I felt an unease towards changes in the surrounding landscape. In the early 1990’s a large parcel of agricultural land was sold off near Lady Bay and a large scale housing development covered the hillside and a golf course was carved out of the ground. The Links Lady Bay took a long time to get going and for its first decade it looked like a geniune folly with only a few houses constructed and the golf course stalled at nine holes and situated in what looked like a cow paddock (which is what it was previously). Now, over 25 years later it has the semblance of something like what the original scale model looked like when myself and the locals saw it proudly displayed under perspex outside Normanville’s shopping centre. Elsewhere, other pockets of land have been sold away and a combination of residential and holiday houses spread over plains near the town.

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It’s a delicate topic of discussion for a town like Normanville. After all, a significant chunk of the region’s economy and employment has relied on tourism and development since the 1970s. The resort at Wirrina Cove was one of the first developments of this kind in the area. I completely appreciate this reality and that this sort of progress in regional towns around Australia is a vital component to keeping communities intact.  The Links development and its golf course are hugely beneficial to the area and it employs plenty of people including some I knew in high school. The compromise is, of course trading off bits of the landscape (and potentially the environment) for progress. Within the scope of my experience, this can be summed as a solastalgia of sorts and has comprised a large part of my ongoing relationship with the region when I was living there and when ever I’ve returned.

The term solastalgia was coined by Australian,  to describe the emotional impact on the inhabitents of a community who experience significant changes to their immediate and/or surrounding landscape. Albrecht’s case study that derived this term related to the impact felt by communities in the Upper Hunter region of New South Wales where the large scale expansion of open cut mines had radically altered surrounding landscapes whilst impacting aspects of the environment – such as the air quality and wildlife. Aside from communities’ ongoing concern with open-cut mines, unconventional gas extraction and a certain coal port development threatening the Great Barrier Reef, a significant issue for communities is the sprawl of suburban developments which encrope into native vegetation or agricultural land.

In the case of sprawl, this is what one will see as you make your way  to the western coast of the Fleurieu. From Noarlunga through Seaford to Aldinga and Port Willunga, expanses of large houses pop up, creep and rub against pockets of farmland. So again we return to that onerous issue of progress and what we’re willing to compromise for it. From the vantage of what’s been happening in and around Normanville over the past 30 years, this is small fish compared to things like the current aberration that is Seaford’s Vista development which saw a huge chunk of farmland progressively covered with McMansions and an obligatory Aldi supermarket. Enough said – I won’t go there for risk of steering this post into rant territory; my cup of tea’s not strong enough to clearly articulate where that particular thread is heading. Another time, maybe.

Thankfully, nobody is mining for coal or extracting gas in or around Normanville, there aren’t plumes of coal dust filling the air and there are no spikes in lung infections or cancer in the community. All that is really happening is that more houses are being built to accomodate growing families whilst fufilling a demand for more holiday accomodation in the area.

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Normanville Heights, as seen from the Bungala River running through the local caravan park.

When I reflect on such a thing it seems like the term solastalgia was custom built for such a dramatically nostalgic individual myself – one who is so acutely affected, moved or piqued by the slightest of change to an environment. I believe this is one of the reasons why I started the Fleurieu Sound Map – where photographic media failed to adequately document (and in some way preserve) a place, the audio option would come in.

The here and the now

Given the struggles with my mental health this year, my lifelong tendency to get so hung up on the rampant scourge of humans and their prediliction or expand their turf across and into everything might not seem like such a good thing to ruminate on, especially when I’m making an effort to clear my head of particular anxieties. However, to my suprise (and relief) I found on my recent trips to Normanville that my concerns relating to this have diluted somewhat and that I’m comfortable accepting it as more of a drift of ‘stuff that happens’. I’m cool with it – as long as everyone looks after the native vegetation, sand dunes, animals and stops pumping vile shit into the Bungala River.

 

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The places we inhabit hold a deep significance for us. We feel connected to them through memories, objects, landscapes as well as the mysteriously intangible – the things we can’t quite put our finger, eye or ear to. Familiarity and change are part of this drift. There’s such a strong poetic to a hometown and through the Fleurieu Sound Map and its various field recordings I found myself slipping further into the mystery of the town I grew up and its surrounding areas. Since it continues to change and unfold, I don’t see any reason why the Fleurieu Sound Map should end – or ever end for that matter. I’ve just got to scope out some interesting locations and wait patiently for the angle grinders to abate. Unless of course the recording emphasises the angle grinders. It could happen.

So, with that in mind there will be some new additions to sound map shortly. It’s something a little different and it may potentially raise some new questions and possibilities for this project. But more on that when I get around to posting.

In the meantime, drift on.

What’s Happening #5: Therapy Part II

WH5-TLR-Therapy

You (don’t) Want It Darker

I was just informed by my sweetheart, L that the yearly day of reckoning will be upon us once the 11th hour clocks over into midnight. More accurately but no less dramatically, I regard it as my personal reckoning since South Australia’s daylight savings ceases and the evenings are plunged into premature darkness along with increasingly colder nights and mornings. I dread this time of the year because I like daylight. I need daylight. Whatever proclivities I once had for seasonal darkness were left on the shores of a dismal coastline of seemingly endless depression. I used to relish the darkness and general climactic shittiness of the colder months. I don’t know exactly why, since I’d pretty much established an analytical framework from when I was about 16 which basically told me: “Stay inside, make a cup of tea, don’t go outside..well if you must, at least put a jacket on. It’s raining; do you care? Oh, that’s right..you’re being hard and brooding. Forgive me. You’ll be miserable when you get back…oh, fine – fuck it, don’t listen to me then.” So there I was on a given day walking along the beach in the middle of winter, occasionally it would piss down with rain. It would – more often than not – make me feel miserable, but at the same time there was a peculiar contentment to be had feeling lonely and bored whilst my shoes filled with water.

Shoot forward a couple of decades and whatever romantic notion I ascribe to walks along the beach in the middle of winter are now accompanied with a rainjacket and sensible footwear. Better yet, I don’t even get out the door and instead I make a cup of tea. Strategies!

A strategy is critical when you’re someone like me – partial to the whim of the elements, whether it’s coupled to the drift of seasonal activity or coughed up in a random spasm thanks to anthropogenic climate change. February and March are traditionally the time I lay the groundwork for segueing into not-daylight-savings-time relatively free of anxiety, insomnia and the odd panic attack. Unfortunately, this plan was scuppered by being busy and besieged by a myriad of…anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks.

You may recall the first of these long posts was written at the beginning of February this year and laid out some of the groundwork for feeling better about myself and my art practice. If someone was to read only this blog as a measure of my progress since then, you would potentially glean an impression that things have been alright, maybe even downright rosy. The evidence is there – lots of posts about engaging with own and others activities. It all seems reasonably upbeat and there’s loads of writing too (which I hope is gradually improving). The blog’s been great in this sense since it’s provided me with a point of focus, allowing me to steer my brain toward routine activities which are thoughtful and fulfilling. This sort of thing is also known by that fucking awful (awful, awful, awful) thing called ‘mindfulness’, which I equate more to a KPI dreamed up by a global HR thinktank as opposed to its supposed Buddhist connotations.

Doomed

So, on the surface of things the blog makes out that things are good, and in some respects they are. Jump over to another social media/self-publishing portal of mine such as Instagram and you might encounter the odd doomed fantasy-vision of a dystopian society. Behold:

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Look at the framing of that image. At the bottom the upper stories of a domestic idyll are ruptured by this dismal-looking building under construction that dominates the rest of the image. Desaturated completely of colour, amped-up contrast enriches the grim monochrome whilst the caption of ‘Ballardian skyline’ wraps everything in a neat little package of Depressed Chic.

Sometimes I wonder what an image like this does contextually in a given Instagram user’s photo stream. Of course it depends on whom the user is following and what other users might be posting, but occasionally I think that an image like my Ballard Building might have the chance of temporarily ruining someone’s afternoon. I’m trying not to judge here and this is a very general assumption, but a given person’s photo stream might hypothetically go like this:

picture of someone’s food >cute dog > picture of someone’s food > drink in mason jar > LOL cat > duck face > picture of someone’s food > Tristan’s picture of building in dismal monochrome > picture of someone’s food.

If the image hasn’t ruined their day then that’s excellent; I didn’t set out to purposefully ruin someone’s day. But, perhaps someone dwells briefly over this grim image and thinks to themselves, “wow, that guy must be really miserable”, the cogs tick over in their head and they proceed to unfollow my profile out of self-preservation because they don’t want to see shit like that in their feed. That’s totally fair enough. I must admit that  hypothetical photo stream description of mine above lays out a barely veiled contempt for all things food porn, cute dogs and mason jars. Who am I to judge if someone doesn’t like a photo of some fanstasy-dystopia? I despise mason jars. Each to their own.

Therapy Redux

I’ve veered a bit off track here. What I’m trying to suggest here is that in spite of the good stuff broadcast on this blog, there’s been a lot of grimness occupying my mind for the past couple of months. That domestic idyll in the picture is the blog, the ugly building erupting in the sky and ejaculating bad vibes into the air is pretty much everything else that’s been going on. Whilst life has remained relatively coherent and I haven’t overexploited my partner or friends patience and generosity, it has felt at times as though I’ve been losing my mind completely. This is why I haven’t been able to make a plan for dealing with the dreaded seasonal drift since I’ve been cracking up, recovering, analysing and making the best effort not to crack up again.

It’s been (or it’s felt like) a lengthy process of taking steps to get to a relatively safe position where I find myself now.

First of all I moved out of my private office at work and back into an open plan space. That worked wonders. I’d always fantasised about having my own office and shortly after my relocation into the city I jumped at the opportunity. I could get past the horrid early 90’s pastels that covered nearly every surface and the meagre slither of natural light entering the space because I had my own office. Since moving out of that space I’ve had conversations with fellow staff about the office and barring one exception practically everyone who’s occupied the space had to get out of there. I’m not supernaturally minded but I do enjoy spooking myself from time to time. Realistically, the problem was that I was learning a new role in an isolated space with minimal natural light and shitty decor, however I can’t get over the fact that there were some seriously bad vibes in that office. Note to self and anyone else: don’t work in dismal offices by yourself when your trying to learn a new role. It will fuck you up big time.

The second thing I did was arranged to see a councillor via work to talk through some of my issues. This is something I did once before a few years ago and mostly hated the process. I mostly hated being given homework to do. Thankfully, this current counciller hasn’t given me any homework to do and instead we talk through various issues pertaining to stress, anxiety and maintaining a work/life balance. If that sounds dry, it mostly is except this counciller actually has a personality and by the end of the first session we were already waxing broadly about the state of the global economy under Trump’s presidency and the virtues of Brian Eno’s ambient music. This might just work out and I do feel much better as a result of attending these sessions. Hooray for work who are completely subsidising the cost of this experiment, including the tangential waffles off-topic.

The third thing is a bit more multi-tiered and relates to improving aspects of my day-to-day diet and fitness. I ride my bike to work everyday and walk a fair bit to get around the place. This is one of the huge advantages of living so close to the city. So whilst I wasn’t putting on weight or remaining idle for long stretches, in the pits of my recent blues I found myself eating more bad stuff and drinking a lot more (thanks, Festival season.) So I’ve sorted that out to an extent and have curbed my booze intake marginally, though this is still an uncomfortable work-in-progress since I really, really like drinking wine. A critical workaround for this compulsion to eat bad food or drink a bit more than usual is to question why you’re doing it. If I find myself hankering for something deliciously fried, then I should be asking myself: “Do you really want this?; do you really need this?; Oh, don’t make me digest this…please.” At that point I might eat a banana instead. By this same token, if something alcoholic is on the agenda, I will most likely be asking myself: “what is the purpose of this? To get a bit numb and distract yourself from the horrors of your existence? Don’t go there, man.” At which point I might make myself a cup of licorice tea. So that’s working to an extent.  On the fitness front, I’ve recently gotten into the habit of jogging around the local oval in the mornings before work. This is the kind of bourgeois activity that would have made me mock myself verbally in public five years prior, but it’s pretty excellent and is just the thing I need to switch my brain off for five to ten minutes at a time as I amble around the oval in a daggy t-shirt. Walking doesn’t work so well since I use my brain a bit too much. It’s better if I’m entirely focused on not passing out and keeping in a straight line.

Beating Dem Ol’ Seasonal Affective Disorder Blues

Now it’s just past 6pm and the light’s beginning to wane. By 8pm it will be virtually dark. This time tomorrow night it will probably already be dark.

I’d like to think that I’ve gotten better at adjusting to this time of the year. The chemical interactions in my brain are probably following the same pathways they were twenty years ago when this stuff started to happen. I just have a better awareness of it nowadays. I think for the first few years (maybe even the first ten years) I had no idea what the hell was going on. I don’t even think the term Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADS) existed back in the 1990’s, so how on Earth am I going to know what’s going on with me if I don’t have a label to stick on it? An accredited label at that. I need labels, boxes, categories, schematics, gannt charts and to-do lists put my stuff in, under, around or through.

Life is too complicated and I’m getting too old to follow a miserablist’s  whim which lands me in my underwear on the beach in the middle of winter shouting at the ocean. I’m past that now.

I’ll still keep taking photos of depressing buildings though because I find them particularly beautiful in my own damaged kind of way. I do apologise in advance if it does happen to spoil your day.

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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.

 

 

What’s Happening #3: Distance and decay – Revisiting journeys south of Lady Bay and the construction of the land sculpture, Nude (2011-2016)

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South of Lady Bay – July 2011.

Sometimes being alone in the wilderness can do strange things to me. I love being alone and some of the happiest times during my childhood was when I was left to my own devices and my imagination. A child is expected to do weird things – after all, they’re preoccupied with exploring the world and observing how it gives way or pushes back to their whim. When you’re a fully grown adult such curiosities are less permissible, largely by virtue of bodies that don’t readily recover as quickly as that of a younger human.

It was mid-winter in 2011.  I had set off before dawn from Normanville caravan park and had made my way down south along the coastline. A gloomy light had emerged as a approached Lady Bay with the roar of the ocean in my ears and breeze chilling my face. I was on a field recording trip, starting what would eventually become the The Fleurieu Sound Map – documenting sites along the coastline. Lady Bay was my primary destination. Having arrived there by around 7am, I made some recordings of the water gently ebbing over the reef at low tide, the ambience occasionally punctuated by the cry of a distant crow. As I sat on a compacted lump of seaweed drinking coffee from a thermos I looked further south down along the coastline. It has been a long time since I’d ventured beyond Lady Bay on foot. I recalled a trek south of Lady Bay sometime in during high school with my brother and a friend. We’d almost made it down to some caves before the failing light made us wary and we decided to turn back. Slightly intoxicated by that bit of sudden nostalgia, I ate a couple of mandarins, packed up my recording gear and set off for the caves.

By the time I’d reached my destination an hour or so later, the allure of discovery and trekking through a fog of mild exhaustion had firmly established itself and the caves weren’t good enough for me – I wanted to go further. This involved scaling a steep two-metre  incline comprised of brittle slate and sandy soil. The destination in mind was frankly ridiculous since all that lay beyond this impasse was the breakwater of Wirrina Cove – not an awe-inspiring man-made wonder. I got about a metre up the incline and was focused on securing my foothold when a lump of soil gave way in my hand and I embraced nothing but air for about half a second. Hitting the ground thankfully wasn’t too bad (a grazed hand and bruised arm) but the mental admonishment I gave myself was particularly severe. Yes, I do strange things when left alone in the wilderness. Had I seriously injured myself, no-one would find me for days…maybe weeks. In local lore it is mentioned that only weirdos venture as far as the caves. So on the remote chance I been found I might have had my kidneys harvested and been subsequently tortured to death.

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Maybe it’s the fault of an adult imagination, untethered and unencumbered from its real-world responsibilities. In this scenario your guard is let down; the natural world soaks into the consciousness, full of allure and curiosities: C‘mon! Climb this! Look under that rock! Eat this! You’re only atoms, it doesn’t matter! Everything’s in a perpetual state of entropy!

Maybe nature’s a similar enabler to alcohol and drugs – unlocking an index of escapism. Nature won’t necessarily inspire you to climb onto the roof of a train at high-speed, but it still may lead you to do a myriad of dangerous shit which might lead to – maybe – perishing on a remote beach with a twisted ankle.

I started my long trek back to Normanville, but shortly after leaving the caves I decided to rest on a grassy rise which overlooked a stony beach. I went down to investigate the beach, which consisted of an even stretch of covered in large rocks and stones; and a slope consisting of small pebbles and shells which fell away into the shore. At one end of upper section of the beach a surfeit of driftwood had accumulated from a recent storm. Without thinking about it too much, I gathered some large pieces of driftwood and began constructing a sculpture. My intention was to construct this sculpture as a personal landmark of sorts – something relatively innocuous, but which distinguished itself enough from the surrounding landscape to be recognisable to the wandering eye. I also thought it would be interesting to have a work in a remote location that I could return to from time to time.

***

My hometown of Normanville is full of personal landmarks which I didn’t happen to construct. One such landmark was a small house on the corner of Field Street. I wrote about this house quite recently since I had been  informed by my mum that it had been demolished and sent through a photo of the vacant lot.

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October 2016

I was fairly rattled by this image; it was as though a chunk of my memory had been erased. Houses and buildings are routinely demolished, but this is the first time it had ever occurred so close to home – so close to an actual past home since the property pictured on the left is my childhood home. The only trace of this property which remains is the concrete dome-shaped enclosure for what I believe is a septic tank below the ground. Everything else is gone: the cream coloured exterior, thick wire fence and a corrugated tin shed with a cross painted on it.

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Corner of Cheeseman and Field Street – January 2011

Demolition is such a radical, immediate way of demarcating the present from the past. Rather than following a linear trajectory of transformation and/or decay, within a matter of hours visible histories are wiped out and can now only be experienced through reproduced images and memory.

***

The sculpture that I was constructing on the beach some five years earlier would never be demolished per se, but rather would be subject to the transformative (and occasionally destructive) whim of the elements.

I called the sculpture Nude, owing to its raw materials and exposed proximity to a body of water and surrounding environment.

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Nude – July 2011

2012-2015:

In order to get to the Nude sculpture, you’ll need a sturdy pair of shoes, some water, maybe a snack, plus surveying the state of the weather is always a good idea. Between 2012-2016 I would park at a lookout point off the main road, a couple of kilometers south of Lady Bay. From here, there’s an excellent view of the southern coastline – the impressive cliffs, rocky beaches and procession of coves and bluffs from Wirrina down to Rapid Bay. Nude‘s location is a couple of kilometers from this point and the beach that hosts the sculpture is obscured from view. It takes roughly about 45 minutes to get there on foot.

I’ve visited the site five times between 2012 to 2016, managing to get there once a year – mostly in Autumn when the weather is less prone to arctic-style wind chill and dumping buckets of rain. On a couple of occasions my partner Lauren has joined me on the trip and I’ve been frequently surprised how much further the journey actually is compared to the idea I have in my head..much to Lauren’s chagrin.

The steep hills on one side, the ocean on the other. I’ve always found these hills impressive. Whilst not necessarily cliffs, they convey such a strong physical dominance over the surrounding environment – gentle grassy slopes graduating into steep cliffs of clay and rock.  On clear days I’ve spotted hawks gliding gracefully on thermals against the blue sky. On one occasion, Lauren and I watched a fox make momentary eye contact with us before darting up the hillface with incredible speed and precision. When walking south toward the site, I cant help but spend some time looking up at the summit of the hills and scanning the rock outcrops for signs of life – expecting to see something indistinct move from one point to another, casting a curious gaze downwards at me/us. When I’m alone on this trip, occasionally I feel this overwhelming feeling of contentment couple with a deep sense of insignificance. As the trip progresses the bars denoting reception of my mobile phone ebb away – I’m at the mercy of nature here. The ideal tonic for doing stupid shit, perhaps?

Further along, the remnants of a man-made boundary appear.

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Following the boundary up the hillside, lopsided fenceposts and a tangle of rusty fence wire disappear into the hillside. At the summit, a couple of lonely posts lean out along with a small bare tree bent by the wind.

In May 2015 I attached a couple of contact mics to the fenceline as it rattled in the wind. Thanks to the wonderful Kate Carr for the inspiration on that one.

After rounding a couple of coves that involve climbing over large boulders, the beach that hosts Nude comes into sight. It always takes me a while to locate it from this point, but my reference is a small thorny shrub that sits alongside the sculpture. Approaching it is always a new experience – observing the way it’s altered its appearance in between each visit (roughly a year each time) – being collapsed to one side, its wooden planks on the top bent by the weight of rocks, or its regular inundation of sour sobs and the occasional weed.

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Nude in 2013.

Photos are taken of its current state for documentation and then I search for a plastic bottle concealed under a plank of wood and several rocks:

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And within the bottle:

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A series of notes – starting at the time of construction in July 2011 through to (currently) August 2016. Each of the notes details the date of the visit and the current state of the sculpture.

2016 – an ending of sorts:

As Lauren and I made our way down to the site in August 2016 I had reservations about this visit. In the previous month, the metropolitan area of Adelaide and Fleurieu Peninsula had been hit by severe storms. Torrential rains led to flooding in many areas whilst wild winds and powerful tidal activity wreaked havoc along the coastline, washing away dunes and completely destroying a couple of jetties. The Bungala River – with its estuary at Normanville beach surged with volumes rarely seen in living memory. It seemed as though no area along the coastline had been spared. With this in mind, I expected the worst for my sculpture to the south.

Obviously, part of the intention of constructing the work was to observe its gradual degradation and ultimate return to the natural environment as its materials decayed and are pulled away by winds, gravity and the tides. All original intentions and recent knowledge of the storms aside, I was still suprised and strangely moved by what I encountered.

 

The sculpture, which on my previous visit in May 2015 had retained a degree of its original semblance was now practically obliterated, save for a square of planks and rocks on the ground. The array of wood and stones that been torn from the sculpture now lay scattered around its foundations with the ever-present sour sobs poking out through the vacant spaces.

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August 2016

In spite of this destruction, the bottle was still there and I added a new note to it before concealing the bottle amongst the remaining wooden planks and stones:

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I was feeling slightly melancholy at this time, but wasn’t exactly sure why. Lauren and I commenced our journey back to the car and I wondered if I would return to the sculpture the following year.

Looking back now, I can see a correlation between this event and my more recent reaction to the demolition of the house on the corner of Field Street that had prefigured so strongly during my childhood. Perhaps in the case of Nude, its decay from one iteration (2015) to the next (2016) had occurred too rapidly? Over the past four years I had grown accustomed to the sculpture’s elegant collapse against the elements, yet I hadn’t anticipated a shift as dramatic as this. Its appearance on this visit had given the impression it had been demolished much like the house – albeit by nature.

When I originally constructed the work in 2011, I knew (at the very least subconsciously) that I would grow attached to it and documenting the work through photos and notes would only reinforce this feeling. I had suspected that one day it would be wiped out, but I always thought that its position on an elevated section of the beach would protect it from the most monstrous storm and tides imaginable. In August 2016, I stood at the wreckage of the work imagining that destruction by natural forces. It must have been extraordinary – with gale force winds belting the landmass and huge waves thundering into the rocks, waters surging upwards and penetrating the sanctity of a structure laid bare.

That’s something that I can certainly appreciate now: how one can ascribe such intense feelings of possession, protection and expectation over an object regardless of its form – a body of work that represents (initially and/or over time) something deeply meaningful and personal. That its destruction occurred in isolation has heightened this appreciation: I wasn’t there to protect it, I couldn’t protect it, and yet I never intended to protect it.

***

It’s late in the evening. I’ve spent the last three days coming and going from this post. Whilst fairly certain of the direction this writing would take, the work itself has come to mind with increasingly intensity; insofar that I’m very tempted to make the trip this weekend, just to see…what’s there? An array of memories are down there – my clumsy fall from the incline near the caves, Lauren’s little rock towers by the sculpture, the inclement weather – but there’s still a spot by that thorny little bush, where in 2011 I marked a spot for myself to return to. It’s still there, it’s changed…but it’s still there.

 

 

What’s happening #2: Composing ‘Goyder’s Line’ (2014-2017)

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With a Goyder’s Line mapping sketch from 2015.

A tiring week is behind me. Following on from the previous blog post, Adelaide (and the rest of Australia) was plunged into an intense heatwave. Whilst Adelaide only copped a string of three days above 40C, other parts of the interior and Eastern centres were hit with ridiculously scary highs of 46-47C, smashing all kinds of Summer climate records. The planet’s getting crankier with us. Meanwhile during the same week – as cities and regional centres sweltered and bushfires sprung up all over the place – the federal government mocked renewable energy again and taunted the Opposition in the House Of Representative with an actual lump of coal, espousing the virtues of ‘clean coal’. Wind turbines and solar farms be damned, this is apparently part of the ‘Australian energy mix’ for the next fifty years or so.

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2017 – The Age Of Coal: Federal Treasurer, Scott Morrison brings a lump of coal into Parliament. Not satire.

It seemed remarkable that our own government could beat out Trump this week in terms of demoralising me and our tenuous existence, but this was like a kick to the brain of any sensible, educated person. Oof.

Oh well, we’ll face the music and dance.

Or in my particular case, I’ll sit down at my desk with various notes, a Max/MSP patch, vocoder, effects and resume working on a project I’ve been nurturing since 2014 – Goyder’s Line. Heatwaves, drought and more recently climate change have prefigured strongly in the inspiration and development of this work since 2014. So in that sense, my introduction was less of a political rant and more of a providing a prelude to this very long post.

Goyder’s Line has been mentioned at regular intervals on this blog as it’s gone through various stages of development. The work is unique in the sense that this is the first work that I’ve regularily returned to over the years, making numerous refinements to its technical process whilst further investigating the broader contextual aspects of the work.

What is ‘Goyder’s Line’?

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‘Goyder’s Line’ is an isopleth[1] starting near the Ceduna region then extending across South Australia and terminating at the SA-Victorian border north of Pinnaroo. This boundary was developed during 1865 by Surveyor-General of the South Australian colony, George Goyder. Goyder had been asked to map the boundary between areas which received good rainfall and those that experienced drought. This would allow settlers to determine where the best climate and growing conditions were to the north of Adelaide and beyond. Goyder traversed over 3000km on horseback surveying the region and submitted his detailed report consisting of a line of demarcation. The areas above the line were deemed liable to drought whilst areas to the south being predominantly  arable.

[1] Used specifically in meteorological and cartographic fields, an isopleth is a noun used to define a line on a map connecting points.

Background of the Goyder’s Line work (2013-14):

My first encounter with the concept of Goyder’s Line occured early in 2013 upon a visit to Peterborough – located approximately 300km north of Adelaide. If you travel to this region, by the time you reach Peterborough the climate and terrain is arid and crop based argiculture is virtually non-existent. The region of Peterborough situated closely to Goyder’s Line and heading further north reveals an increasingly arid, dry and inhospitable environment. One day during my stay in Peterborough, I made a trip with a couple of family members to the abandoned town of Dawson.

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North of Goyder’s Line: The abandoned town of Dawson – located approximately 30km north of Peterborough. April 2013

The town of Dawson (est. 1881) is located about 30km north of Peterborough. A dirt road stretches between empty grazing paddocks then winds through shallow gullies of hardened red earth, rocks and sparse vegetation. Following the road over a steep hill, the town comes into view below: a church and school on the left, whilst a ruin of the town’s hotel and an occupied residence[2] sits on the right.

[2] This residence, with its own off-grid solar power unit appeared to be the homestead of a local family. I believe that they are also the caretaker of the town, managing the schoolhouse and church.

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A paddock and ruin in Dawson. April 2013

The terrain across the township area is rust coloured, hardened and cracked. Drought tolerant vegetation propagates unevenly across the ground – scattered across empty paddocks, through dry creek beds and beneath the few trees that are around. My visit to Dawson was in late April (mid-Autumn in Australia) – a relatively mild climate. It was clearly evident that this was a region that scarcely receives any consistent rainfall year round.

The town’s existence was essentially doomed by two factors – firstly, that of ignoring George Goyder’s advice and establishing a town north of Goyder’s Line; secondly, Dawson was originally intended to form part of a rail network, situated between the rail hub of Peterborough and Broken Hill. However the rail line was redirected to Ucolta instead, depreiving Dawson of a vital trade route for essential supplies. In spite of this, remarkably the town existed until 1981.

It was this visit to Dawson that got me interested in Goyder’s Line, what it repesented geographically, its historical importance and its relationship to the environment – both past and present. I became interested in creating a work based upon the Line and finding a way I might be able to contextualise it in a composition. Following on from my visit to the region, early in 2014 I came across a couple of published articles highlighting the remarkable accuracy of Goyder’s Line, although speculating that as a consequence of frequent drought conditions and the prevelant impact of climate change that the Line is trending southward [3].

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2006-05-02/climate-change-may-shift-goyders-line/1743886?pfmredir=sm

After finding a graphical representation of the modern-day Goyder’s Line and considering this with the original Line, I now had two lines to work with which presented themselves as a graphic score of sorts. I just had to find the right application and process.

Discovering the Vocoder:

In early 2014 I was exploring the sonic possibilities of a Korg Microkorg synthesiser. One afternoon I was curious about the vocoder so I gave the manual a cursory read and started plugging in audio sources to serve as  the vocoder’s carrier and modulation signals. It was when I routed two sawtooth waves of differing frequencies into the vocoder that things became very interesting. A sawtooth wave – as I reminded myself – contains all of the integer harmonics – so if you start sending sawtooth signals into a vocoder it’s going to start responding in a colourful and slightly unweilding manner.

Hang on (some of you may be asking) – 1) what on Earth is a vocoder?; 2) and how does it work? I’ll give myself about a paragraph and attempt to explain the process:

A vocoder consists of three primary elements – a carrier signal, a modulation signal and a bank of bypass filters. The modulation signal uses the filter bank to analyse the harmonic characteristics of the carrier signal and produces a modulated version of the carrier signal. So, let’s say for example that our carrier signal is my voice speaking into a microphone and the modulation signal is produced by a synthesiser tone played on a keyboard. What will happen is that the speaking voice (carrier) will be analysed by the filter bank and subsequently have the modulation signal applied to it, so that the voice will sound like a synthesiser tone, yet maintaining the semblance and characteristics of human speech.

Here’s a good example of the process (play from 2:10 mark):

So, how did my experiment sound with the sawtooth waves? Well, as most of you will probably know, a sawtooth wave has a distinct buzzing sound. When both of the sawtooth signals were sent to the vocoder a messy sonic texture resulted – far removed from the more simple, elegant process previously described of speech being modulated by a synthesiser tone. With two sawtooth waves as carrier and modulator there was a far more complex harmonic process going on and I have to admit that at this stage it didn’t sound very good at all – a bit like two dueling bansaws intimidating each other in a small room.

This experiment was ultimately redeemed when I whimsically pressed a key on the synthesiser’s keyboard. I wasn’t expecting anything to occur since I thought that the keyboard’s oscillator (as modulation signal) would be overridden by the incoming sawtooth signal routed to the modulation input. This wasn’t the case, so I now had two modulation signals – one from a sawtooth wave, the other from the synthesiser’s oscillator. This enhanced process produced a sonic result that was far more interesting  – both sawtooth waves (although perceivably distinct from each other) appeared to have certain harmonics  blur and smear against each other, a result of the  influence of the modulation from the synthesiser affecting the sawtooth waves whilst producing  also a continuous and consistent drone.

The desert appearing right before my ears: 

Aspects of the sound texture reminded be of David Berhman’s On The Other Ocean (1977) and some of Eliane Radigue’s drone works (1980’s Tryptch). These are elegant works where tonalities and sound textures drift and evolve subtly over long durations. Berhman’s work in particular has this knack of evoking spaces and landscapes in a beautiful way. Though my experiment had a long way to go, already it appeared to be recalling the desert environment in and around the town of Dawson – evoking its enveloping stillness and openess with the space and depth to observe discrete changes: subtle breezes, the shadow from clouds drifting across the landscape, slight change in temperature and minute movements of surrounding vegetation and objects (leaves, weeds, fence wires, the rattle of tin roofs, etc). I was on the right track.

 

First version and performance of Goyders Line (July 2014):

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Performance at EMU (Electronic Music Unit, University of Adelaide) in July 2014 supporting Simon Whetham (foreground) and Tarab (background). The Microkorg with additional effects is pictured to the bottom right.

The 2014 winter in Adelaide was an absolute shocker – an arctic barrage of freezing winds, constant drizzle and to heighten the experience further, I ended up with pnumonia for a couple of weeks. When I wasn’t convalesced in bed I crawled into my studio space to rehearse a primitive version of Goyder’s Line as a support act for an upcoming concert by artists Simon Whetham and Tarab.

I no longer have my original notes for this performance, but I believe I had drafted a diagram on graph paper plotting the the two lines over a traced map of South Australia.

I must admit that the sawtooth waves’ respective trajectories were approximations of both Goyder Lines since I didn’t have the appropriate means to map the lines at this point to frequency over a duration of 15 minutes. Goodness, bearing in mind I had pnumonia as well. I recall simply tweaking the frequency knob of an oscillator for each of the ISOs and reading each of the lines in real time. A bit like feeling around a room in the dark. It’s certainly not accurate, more of a poetic interpretation of the Lines, but it worked in its own way at this early stage.

Although sending the sawtooth waves directly into the vocoder produced an interesting result, by this stage I decided to use some extended effects processors as a means of further affecting and warping the harmonic relationship between the two waveforms before they reached the vocoder.

The technical process of Goyder’s Line Version 1 went as follows:

  1. Two pre-recorded sawtooth waves of different frequencies are played back from an iPod simultaneously, their repsecitve frequencies gradually descending until they reach zero Hz. The upper frequency (which we’ll call ISO1) is mixed to the left channel, whilst the lower frequency (ISO2) is mixed to the right channel.
  2. ISO1’s signal is sent to the left input of an Electroharmonix Memory Man (EHX-MM) – which is a stereo delay pedal with additional reverb effects. ISO2 is routed to the Memory Man, but before it reaches the right input of the EHX-MM it is sent via a Moog MF-108M (MF-108M), which is a fancy flanger.
  3. The left and right output of the EHX-MM are then routed to the vocoder inputs of Microkorg – ISO 1 is routed to the Carrier input of the vocoder and ISO2 is routed to the Modulation input of the vocoder.
  4. A customised setting on the Microkorg is selected, which allows a chosen interval (C-E-A) to be sustained over the duration of the performance.
  5. At the beginning of the performance, the sawtooth waves are played back from the iPod, with ISO 1 and 2’s signals subject to discrete modulations before reaching the Microkorg’s vocoder.
  6. The performance concludes one both of the sawtooth waves have reached zero Hz.

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Here’s a couple of brief snippets from the performance that night. Captured by Sebastian Tomczak:

Andrew Lord, who was present at the performance offered the following observations on this early version of the work:

This was gentle, still music with a throbbing texture that ebbed and flowed, slowly developing and changing. It seemed to be music more about textures than about events, but Louth-Robins seemed to pull off something of a magic trick – you realized at the end that it had become something completely different from what it was at the start and it happened under your nose and you didn’t know how. The throbbing pulses that were playing off each other gradually disappeared and left purer extended tones before the piece ended. [4]

[4] https://tristanlouthrobins.wordpress.com/2014/08/07/new-sounds-at-emu-18-review-by-andrew-lord/ NOTE: Andrew’s website (aplord.com) appears to be not active as of February 2017. This is a link to a republication of the review on my blog.

Second and Third versions: Max/MSP comes into the mix (early 2015)

 

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Draft mapping for Version 2 of Goyder’s Line (Feb 2015). In this mapping, ISO1 and ISO2 are plotted across basic and coordinates – representing a frequency (a multiple on this instance) and representing duration. Note also the red line which indicates where the work begins in this version.

Following the performance in July 2014, Goyder’s Line was put on ice for the remainder of the year as other projects and activities took priority. By the time I returned to the work in 2015 I was eager to refine the Lines and render them a little more accurately and faithfully. Max/MSP seemed like the most ideal way to realise this.

Max/MSP is patching paradigm software which I’ve used on an infrequent basis since 2002. It can be used and applied in number of ways. Although it is predominantly music and sound based, more recent iterations of the software (Vizzie, Jitter) have provided the ability to design and control aspects of visual media.

I employed Max/MSP for two reasons: to be able program the ISO line mapping and to draw the ISOs as faithful representations of both Goyder Lines. The ISOs would – like the previous version – provide the trajectories for the respective frequencies of the sawtooth waves to follow.

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Goyder’s Line Version 3 in Max/MSP.

Looking back now, with Max/MSP I easily achieved one of these goals (presets) whilst the other (drawing the line) was an arduous process of complex sub-patches, refinement, losing my patience…and further refinement. The line drawing function was particularly laboureous insofar that I can’t believe I subjected myself (or the software for that matter) to such a painful process.

The mapping of the lines to frequencies was derived from the above sketch, whereby the points on the axis (marked 0-14) would represent a multiple of a frequency. So that a point at 11 would be subject to a simple equation (axis point * 100 / 3.5 = frequency) so that a point at 11 would equal 314.28 Hz.

With the extended effects (EXH-MM and MF-108M) still in place, I made several recordings of this set-up in mid-2015, with Version 3 of Goyder’s Line released as part of my self-released Maurilia Sound Studio series.

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Maurilia Sound Studio Volume 4: Goyder’s Line (recorded April 2015, released July 2016)

Each of the three variations on the release are identical in duration (12 minutes) but vary significantly in terms of timbre and harmonic behavior due to the chord position played on the synthesiser. So Variation 1 consists of a C-E-A chord pattern, whereas the other two Variations consists of E-A-G and F-A-D. The influence of the synthesiser as modulating signal radically affects the vocoder’s behavior, resulting in three unique variations of the same process.

An additional feature developed in Max/MSP patch permitted a delay (what I’ve termed as a ‘suspension’) at each of the draw points. This created a wonderful effect, whereby the intervals between the ISOs would be briefly suspended at a given point, allowing harmonic interplay and modulations to develop before the next stage of the line is drawn.

For example:

  • 1) Start point at coordinates x axis 1.0, y axis 11.0.
  • 2) Draw line to coordinates x axis 2.0, y axis 10.8, taking 1000 milliseconds (10 seconds) to perform this process.
  • 3) Once reached 2.0, 10.8 pause (suspend) next line draw for 10000 milliseconds (10 seconds)
  • 4) commence next line draw.
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The sub-patcher which coordinates the line draw of each of the ISOs. There are 24 line draw points for each of the ISOs – each of them defines the and y points, the duration of the draw (in seconds) and the duration of delay (or pause) before the next stage of the line draw commences.
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Revised technical set-up of Goyder’s Line. With Max/MSP patch replacing iPod.

 

You can listen to these three variations below:

Fourth version (late 2016 to early-ish 2017):

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Goyder’s Line Version 4.4 in Max/MSP (February 2017): a faithful rendering of lines with lots of additional features

Although the third version of Goyder’s Line was regarded as a genuine release in July 2016, it still very much represented a work in progress.

In the development of Goyder’s Line version 4 significant refinements were made in Max/MSP to the rendering of the ISO lines whilst the patch design now included an array of features which allowed the control of various parameters. As you can see in the above image, it’s a lot more easy on the eyes.

The ISO lines were now plotted using a ‘function’ table which allowed points of the respective lines to be plotted and dragged into place, allowing the composition of lines with more accurate degrees of elevation, descent, trajectory and contour.

The features in Version 4 include the following:

  • A duration function – allows the duration of the line draw to be defined (can be a short and bumpy 30 seconds to an epic 48 minutes)
  • A transpose function – this feature allows the frequency range of the ISOs to be adjusted.
  • A stand-by function – allows the piece to begin as a ‘suspension’ at the ISOs starting point and commence upon deactivating the stand-by.
  • A auto-hold function – this feature sets the frequency of ‘suspensions’ during the line draw. Can currently be set between 2-20 seconds or can be deactivated altogether.
  • Manual hold/resume function – this can be used in place of the ‘auto-hold’, whereby suspensions can be manually performed.
  • An ‘actual time’ counter – this was incorporated to accomodate the duration setting and hold functions, since performing ‘suspensions’ throughout the work will inevitably make the duration longer than the defined duration prior to performance.
  • A spectrograph to visualise the interplay between the two ISOs throughout performance.
  • A low pass filter for the ISOs to attenuate frequency response below 50Hz.

Below is a video clip featuring the latest recording of Goyder’s Line. However, it has been abbriviated to 15 minutes since that’s the maximum length permitted on YouTube:

Where to now?

With this latest version performing beautifully in the studio, it feels as though the design of the system that drives Goyder’s Line is finally complete and is doing what I intended it to do. However work still needs to be done exploring the thematic and contextual aspects of the work.

Currently I’m working on a more academic-styled paper for the upcoming Australasian Computer Music Conference which is being hosted here in Adelaide during September 2017. There’s also a plan to perform the work at ACMC. This should provide an excellent and exciting platform to present and discuss the work further.

***

So that’s it for now. Hopefully this epic blog post (by my standards) has been reasonably informative and understandable.

Thanks for reading.

Peas and larvae,

TLR

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