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.

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Notes on Goyder’s Line

I’ve submitted a proposal to perform my work, Goyder’s Line (2014-2017) at this year’s Australasian Computer Music Conference which is taking place in Adelaide this year. I’ve reproduced the text of my proposal/abstract below. Although I’ve regularily commented on the inspiration and development of Goyder’s Line in the past on this blog, I feel as though this text perfectly sums up the essence of the work. With thanks to L for her thoughts and input.

 

The plains that I crossed in those days were not endlessly alike. Sometimes I looked over a great shallow valley with scattered trees and idle cattle and perhaps a meagre stream at its centre. Sometimes, at the end of a tract of utterly uncompromising country, the road rose towards what was unquestionably a hill before I saw ahead only another plain, level and bare and daunting. Gerald Murnane, The Plains (1982)

The plains surrounding the ghost town of Dawson are situated in the lower Flinders Ranges – a vast arena of ochre-coloured earth and sparse vegetation. The presence of distant hills that stretch around the plains appear to reinforce the utter stillness of this place. As if time and motion are suspended or are just inclined to unfold at their own pace. As one spends more time in this place, its unique properties are revealed. A subtle scent carried on a breeze that sends a rustle through dry leaves, the droning buzz of busy insects, the brief relief that lies in the shadows of clouds drifting slowly over the terrain and discrete rumbles that exist just on the audible periphery.

Sometime during 1865, a few kilometres south of where Dawson would be settled twenty-three years later, George Goyder was travelling across the region on horseback. Goyder, who was the South Australian colony’s Surveyor-General had been tasked with the duty of mapping the boundary between areas that received regular rainfall and those that were prone to drought. Based on Goyder’s Line of Rainfall and the subsequent report detailing his findings, farmers were discouraged from planting crops north of the line. In most instances, this advice was not heeded.

At the beginning of the 21st Century as much of Australia was enduring the Millennium Drought (1997-2009), Goyder’s Line became a point of reference for meteorologists, climate scientists and farming communities. During the drought it became evident that the line of rainfall as identified by Goyder in the late 19th Century – whilst being subsequently regarded as a highly accurate tool of analysis and agricultural planning for most of the following century – was requiring reassessment and pointed to a southward trend in light of protracted drought, shifting seasonal rainfall patterns and the impact of anthropogenic climate change.

Goyder’s original line of rainfall and a recent 21st Century revision inform the basis of this electro-acoustic work. The lines – their relative patterns and trajectories- represent the fundamental frequencies of two sawtooth waves, which are routed as inputs to a vocoder and extended effects modules. Although each of the frequencies remain distinct throughout the work, the resulting modulations reveal expansive sonorities and rich harmonic textures. At regular iterations the lines are purposefully suspended in parallel, allowing their harmonic relationship and modulations to unfold and develop.

I regard this work as an ode to the South Australian interior, as defined by Goyder’s original line and its contemporary revision. The interior, at its boundary appears as a vast, seemingly boundless space – rich with the possibility of uncertainty, terror and fascination.

TLR, July 2017

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 #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.

 

 

The past is a foreign country

Field Street, Normanville. At no.3 is the cottage that I spent most of my childhood and teenage years. On the corner of the street was a property which sat adjacent to no.3 – a small, relatively unassuming early 20th Century cottage with a couple of large spaces which used to have horses kept in them. This afternoon my mum sent me an image revealing that this property had recently been demolished. I was slightly stunned – it feels as though a significant personal landmark has been erased. Whilst the little cottage and its surrounds are nothing particularly striking, the more subtle elements of the property – its creamy pink colour, the rusty corregated fences and the peculiar white cross painted on the outside of a backyard shed – are images that have resonated with me since early childhood. I also have a particularly strong childhood  memory of routinely running my hand along a rusty, yet smooth thick wire which ran through its fence on Field Street. A lot of what I have associated with Normanville in recent years (aside from the cottage at no.3 and the town’s main street) strongly gravitates to this now demolished and razed property.

This significance is further illustrated by the fact that the two Garden Ruin albums – their material drawing heavily from memories and observations in and around Normanville – both feature this property on their album covers.

As you get older, living with the past becomes all the more beguiling.

Life Is Short and Long: Wirrabara field notes (part 1)

A trip (back) to Wirrabara – July 2016, PART 1.

The parentheses in the title are intentional since I’d visited Wirrabara once before – some thirty years prior in either 1985 or 1986. Given such a considerable span of time has elapsed since my first visit, it seemed only appropriate to regard this as a second visit, but the first visit as an adult with the majority of my childhood memories lost to the chasm of the intervening years. It’s tricky attempting to consolidate disperate experiences like this.

For my first visit to Wirrabara the primary destination was the Wirrabara forest reserve (about 10km west of the township) where my dad was participating in an orientation sport event. I remember our 1970’s Ford Cortina station wagon, a blue tent and my younger brother being carried around by my mum in a harness. We were camped on the edge of a pine plantation – the spires of the tall dark trees towering up into an overcast sky. Sonic memories – from such a young age, as always – are harder to come by and are virtually non-existent.

So now in mid-July 2016 I found myself on route via Port Wakefield, Crystal Brook and  Gladstone to my destination. The purpose of my visit was as part of a rec (i.e. research) visit as sound designer for Emma Beech’s Life Is Short and Long project, which has been joint facilitated and funded by Vitalstatistix and Country Arts SA. You can read about the project on Vital’s website[1], but in summary – and in Emma’s words – the work is described as “a performance installation created from three years of travel yarns and investigation of how people respond to crisis and change.” Wirrabara is one of three locations that Emma has spent time in – the others being Port Adelaide and Barcelona – conversing with locals and discussing how aspects of crisis and change have affected their lives.

Whereas communities in Barcelona and Port Adelaide have been primarily affected in recent years by the respective crises of the GFC and decline of local industry, Wirrabara’s crisis is more reflective of the plight of regional Australian communities in the 21st Century – affected by aspects of climate change, industrial decline and dwindling populations. The main street of Wirrabara now hosts a few functioning businesses, the remainder of properties (formerly cafes, specialty stores and restaurants) are now either vacant or have been sold as private residences. I remembered witnessing a similar situation in a nearby town I’d visited several times in 2013.

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Main street in Wirrabara, July 2016.

Peterborough, located approximately 50 km west of Wirrabara and situated near Goyder’s Line was once a thriving agricultural and industrial hub servicing local communities in the lower Flinders Rangers, whilst functioning as a crucial railway network between Port Augusta and Adelaide. Since the decommissioning of industrial railway services in the late-1980’s the town had since experienced a rapid decline in the intervening years, coupled with the dual-related factors of long droughts and a declining population. In 2013, the town looked broken and half-ruined – the main street had a handful of active businesses, the rest – similar to those of Wirrabara, save for a defunct bookstore and video rental outlet – were now empty and fading into the routine main street visage of threatened regional centres.

Post collapse Peterborough Railway Station.
Peterborough Railway Station, February 2013.

That familiar tableau was mirrored in several of the townships that I passed through on my way to Wirrabara – the burnt out pub in Locheil, visibly abandoned homesteads on the outskirts of Red Hill and several gutted petrol stations over a stretch of a hundred kilometres.

By contrast, my arrival in Wirrabara on a Sunday afternoon was characterised by activity, commerce and the sound of a lively community. Existence. I’d managed to arrive within the last half-hour of the Producers Market on the main street where locals sell their produce, knick-knacks and hang out with each other. It was probably the best possible way to arrive in a town that I’d been told was in considerable decline. There’s something  particularly invigorating about withessing an event consisting of groups of people within such a small locale – voices and activity spill out into the street, inviting you to engage and participate. And so I found myself being instantly drawn to the markets with enthusiasm, eager to experience this community interacting with each other and see what the market was like. It was fleeting. No sooner than I’d arrived, the market was in the process of closing up and the eventual absence of people and activity couldn’t have been more striking – the emptiness and deadening quiet of this small town rapidly encompassed the space. What energy there was had dissipated.

[1] http://vitalstatistix.com.au/performance/life-is-short-and-long/