Review: Ross Bencina at EMU (15/8/2014)

Ross Bencina. Image source:
Ross Bencina. Image source:

The Electronic Music Unit at the University of Adelaide hosted Melbourne-based composer and software developer, Ross Bencina on Friday night. Bencina is the creator of the music software program, Audiomulch – which incorporates patching paradigm software with extended applications in composition, interfacing and live performance. 

Adelaide-based composer Christian Haines opened, presenting an iterative feedback work clearly influenced by Alvin Lucier’s seminal work I am sitting in a room (1970). Haines’ approach was similar to Lucier’s, albeit confined to a relatively straightforward patch on his laptop – I learned after the performance that Haines was using Audiomulch to realise this work. With Haines seated behind the laptop; an audio snippet of a familiar voice began, uttering a statement which sounded at once rhetorical, pretentious and yet vaguely knowledgable. Yes, it must be Kevin Rudd – the former Prime Minister of Australia; an erudite individual with a formidable vocabulary but frequent partiality to using impenetrable language for the sake of it. The statement, which alluded to the anticipated outcomes of an enquiry repeated a few times before any change was noticeable. Then gradually the voice became reverberant as the audio file underwent an iterative process through a series of crude reverberation modules in the software patch. The native resonant frequencies of the reverberation modules become increasingly apparent, until only the rhythmic quality of the speech are perceivable amidst a texture of smeared resonances and harmonics. Eventually the the speech’s rhythm is lost altogether and at this point (or shortly thereafter) the performance is brought to a gentle fade. Though this technical process of resonant feedback has been well-worn, the subject of the work brought an enjoyable dimension to an otherwise familiar performance approach. There was a pleasure in listening to such a pretentious statement – uttered by an equally pretentious individual – being periodically annihilated by the iterative procedure of a simple software patch.

Bencina took the stage with a set-up of laptop, MIDI controller, pedalboard and a metal bowl fixed with two contact mics. The first half of Bencina’s performance consisted of a work solely for his laptop and the MIDI controller. The performance began with very short blips of noise rebounding from the left and right speakers, slowly shifting back and forth between sparse and complex densities. A frequency spectrum steadily became apparent as the blips lengthened in duration and discrete pitches could be heard. Amidst the mid-to-high end activity, low end pulses gradually filled the space – assisted by a sub woofer – with Bencina carefully managing the pacing and overall dynamic with minute adjustments to the faders of his MIDI controller. A musical quality to the sounds appeared as the duration (of what were obviously now tones) lengthened further and the timbre of plucked strings could be heard forming rich and detailed harmonies. It was an elegant and well executed performance, with careful and thoughtful consideration given to the material and its evolution over a well paced duration.

The second part of Bencina’s set incorporated the footswitch, metal bowl, contact mics and laptop. Bencina explained that this part of his set would be divided into three sections and began the first section by holding the metal bowl (with contact mics attached) and gently dropping what appeared to be very small ball bearings into the bowl. With the bowl tilted slightly towards the audience, the contact mics picked up the minute movements of the ball bearings rolling and eventually settling. With this activity being recorded into the laptop, processed sounds appeared emphasising the movement of the ball bearings in the bowl – sonically magnified in great detail with rumbling, metallic textures. Bencina would occasionally tilt the bowl from side to side to assist the movement of the ball bearings, still being recorded and superimposing layers of live and processed sound on top of each other. By design of the software patch on the laptop the sound built to a crescendo of textures before dramatically fading away back to the unprocessed sound of the ball bearings’ movement in the bowl. This development was unexpected and very impressive – as with the first section of his set – Bencina’s understanding of pacing and structure was remarkable. The second section began with Bencina again holding the bowl (with contact mics in a slightly different position) and activating a couple of switches on the pedalboard before carefully dropping what appeared to be dried beans into the bowl. The processed effect was much more apparent this time around, with the initial impact of the beans striking the bowl followed by an eruption of noise and deep resonances. Similar to the process of the first section, these sounds would progressively layer against each other. For the final section Bencina put aside the bowl, removed the contact mics and placed each of these in his hands. Once again activating several switches on the pedal board, he proceeded to gently squeeze, tap and scrape the surface of the contact mics resulting in the activation of a rich musical texture, which evaded precise identification. As with the previous two sections, the layering and creation of dense textures was the main approach here, however unlike the performances with ball bearings and the beans, Bencina’s micro-gestures of squeezing, tapping and scraping the contact mics would result in such diverse and unexpected behaviours in the resulting musical texture that it became apparent Bencina had considerably more control over the expressive and dynamic elements of this process.

Overall, Bencina’s set was a hugely enjoyable performance of live electro-acoustics, frequently demonstrating a masterful ability for gesture, timing and the morphology of sound.


New Sounds at EMU 1/8: Review by Andrew Lord

via APLord –

On August 1st I had the pleasure of going along to the Adelaide Uni Electronic Music Unit for an evening of New Sounds.

First a bit of journalistic disclosure. Tickets at the door were $15. I handed over a $20 note and they didn’t have $5 to give me in change. Instead they gave me $10 and said that if they got a $5 note they’d come and find me and I could give them the money back. By the end of the night I still had the $10 in my pocket which means I still owe them $5. So this review needs to be read in the knowledge that I got in cheap and might be trying to pay them back $5 worth of good opinions. However I’ll try to be up front about this and note when I’m paying them back.

There were four artists playing. Tristan Louth-RobinsTarabChristian Haines and Simon Whetham. Louth-Robins and Haines are local Adelaide artists, Tarab is from Melbourne and Whetham is from the UK.

(Did you notice I included the links to their websites there? A small favour, but surely worth 50c of the $5)

Tristan Louth-Robins played first – a piece called Goyder’s Line – for sawtooth waves, vocoder and “extended effects”.

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.

Louth-Robins is curator of the Fleurieu sound map and a sense of place seems important to his work. (Another link – 25c) So I wonder about that title – Goyder’s Line. Is it reading too much into it to suggest that this music also reflected a place?

Goyder’s Line, by the way, is more correctly Goyder’s Line of Rainfall and is named after George Goyder, Surveyor General in South Australia from 1861 to 1893.

In just two months in 1863 Goyder drew up a line across South Australia extending from Ceduna across to Pinaroo north of which the rainfall was too low for crops.

Goyder was a fascinating man and you can read about him here and here. (And that little lesson on South Australian Colonial History is surely worth $1)

Oh, and Tristan Louth-Robin’s Youtube Channel can be found here. (A plug worth 50c? I think so.)

Next up – Tarab. He began by place a small stand on the floor in the centre of the room in the middle of the seating. On the stand he placed a tin can and some sand. Both were wired up to his equipment. Now he didn’t explain all this, but the stand certainly had a speaker in it and I’m guessing that the can had a microphone inside feeding back into the mixer.

The piece began with crackling staticy sounds that eventually came from three sources – left speaker, right speaker and from the floor in the middle of the seating. What I take to be the rattling of the can was mixed in making a meditative, quiet soundscape that allowed for concentrated listening. I could have listened to it for a lot longer, but it just wasn’t going to happen.

Instead there came the sort of clanging crash that you get when someone drops a tray full of plates and glasses in a quiet restaurant. I have to admit looking around to see just who had dropped stuff. But of course it was a part of the music as it went into an extended section of presumably found or field recorded sounds.

Interestingly the sounds that Tarab used were not the sounds that might have been expected. It was as if Tarab had taken all the bits that a lesser artist might have cut out and deleted  – the clicks, pops, wind noise, jets flying over head, footsteps – and then presented them as if they were the most important sounds available.(“lesser artist” – see that compliment? 25c worth surely!) As a result I found myself listening to this stuff that might normally be the detritus of field recording with new ears. It was nice work – but I wish I could have heard that first section for longer.

Tarab, I am told is an term in Arabic Music is a term without an exact equivalent in the western world. It’s used to refer to the emotional response to music. (Ethnomusicology – you’ll thank me later, but for now? 80c)

Now I’m not sure exactly how far we were intended to respond emotionally to Tarab’s music – often electronic new sounds tends towards the head rather than the heart  and often the response electronic music is grave head nodding rather than an emotional one –  but it would be interesting to hear Tarab’s thoughts on what sort of response he hopes for.

(Thoughtful reflection – 75c seems fair)

Th last time I saw Christian Haines perform he had a large bank of mixers feeding into each other to produce his no-input sounds . This time her had pared his setup back to what looked like only two mixers and a cross fader plus one or two other bits and pieces I couldn’t identify. From this simple setup he called up an array of howls and shrieks and stuttering wails that were noise at its purest.

There is, lets face it, something magnificent about this sort of noise. Haines’s seemed very much in control and really didn’t put a finger wrong.

And the thing is that Haine’s performance was exactly that – a performance.

Because let’s be honest – electronic music performances often consist of one or two people with their heads bent over a bank of equipment staring intently at a range of mysterious knobs and screens. Exactly what they’re doing is far from clear and exactly what’s happening to produce the sounds we’re hearing is a complete puzzle. Part of the pleasure of a performance with a violin or an oboe or a piano is watching the fingers and seeing the instrument and understanding what’s going on.

And Haines gave us something of that – his hands flicking over the mixers and sliders and really playing them like an instrument. It was  pretty authoritative.

Finally we had  Simon Whetham from Bristol.

He began by suggesting to us that we listen to his set with our eyes closed and told us that one audience member at a previous performance had open his eyes and spoiled the magic.

Now the last time I was at a show where the performers told the audience to close their eyes and let the magic happen was in the mid seventies at a Flinders Uni Radical Feminist Agitprop performance and everyone had pigs blood (or reasonable facsimile) thrown at them. They were, I seem to remember, trying to “reclaim menstruation”. So since then I’ve been a bit wary and kept my eyes open I’m afraid.

(By the way, these memories of my student days are priceless, but for you $1)

But since I kept my eyes open I know what Whetham was up to.

Low level sounds that gradually lulled you  into a meditative state that only to be interrupted – at one point quite violently interrupted – by harsher, louder noises. And all the while there were spatial games going on with sounds coming from different parts of the room, sounds coming out of bins, sound sources being carried about the room, being held high over people’s heads, in between audience members. There was something ritualistic about Whetham taking his shoes off and then silently moving around the room with a bell.

The silence at the end of his performance suggested an audience resurfacing from somewhere deeper before applauding.

(By the wat, did you see how I diddn’t actually give the trick away? 25c thanks!)

We need to hear these new sounds and EMU is to be thanked for making it possible to do so. More power to them and I hope they do it again soon.

Oh and by the way. I added up the money and now you owe me 30c.

REVIEW: The Path Described – Textura

Tristan Louth-Robins: The Path Described 

In an introduction included within The Path Described, Australian sound artist Tristan Louth-Robins waxes nostalgic for the relative purity of the natural sounds which surrounded him when he called Normanville, a small coastal town on the western side of the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia, home. Field recordings made on the western and eastern coastlines of the peninsula as well as the lower lake regions adjoining Lake Alexandrina and the Coorong National Park form the core of the three long-form settings featured on the thirty-five-minute 3LEAVES release. In some ways, it’s a standard field recordings-based work in its emphasis on natural sounds of water and bird and insect species (faint traces of, in Louth-Robins’ words, “the clamour of the man-made world,” also surface now and then), but it’s also an engaging one, especially when the text and photos included with the release are factored in.

Though Louth-Robins has provided detailed text that clarifies what is happening at each stage within the tracks (and where, as GPS coordinates are also included), one obviously can choose to either listen while following along with the text or experience the three settings on purely sonic grounds (in what follows, I chose to record impressions not supplemented by Louth-Robins’ commentary). That precise locations have been provided by Louth-Robins means that, if one wished to do so, one could re-trace the various routes captured in the recording.

“Fleurieu W. (Across Two Bays)” immediately transports the listener to an outdoors setting where waves crash amidst bird cries, the seeming near proximity of the water heightening the visceral intensity of the sound material. As the water burbles so loudly that all other sounds are drowned out, some sense of disorientation sets in, making it unclear whether one is standing on the shoreline or beneath the water’s surface—until bird sounds appear to clarify that one must be above though still close to the water (even if exactly where can’t be determined as it’s equally possible that we’re in a boat as ashore). The immersive journey continues, with water always the dominant element despite the occasional re-emergence of bird and distant traffic sounds. “Fleurieu E. (Across Two Islands)” perpetuates the water-heavy focus of the first track by plunging into a part of a river that’s at first turbulent and then becalmed, so much so that one’s attention shifts to bird and crackle noises. A below-water plunge blocks out other sounds before a resurfacing brings back in faint traces of humanity and the chirp and percussive gobble of various bird types. With the quiet simmer of water in the background, aggressive caws inhabit the forefront of the listening space, suggesting that the creatures are close, perhaps uncomfortably so, to the listener. “Alexandrina Flux” begins with a violent intermixture of water and bird noises before widening the panorama to include wind sounds, near-subliminal dog barks, traffic noise, and a dense, electrified array of insect thrum and chirp—a gradual hydrology-to-entemology transition deftly executed by Louth-Robins.

As mentioned, for listeners keen on matching the sound material to specific locales and for acquiring in-depth info about the sounds recorded, the textual commentary included in the booklet offers precise details regarding where the field recordings were captured. One learns, for example, that “Fleurieu W. (Across Two Bays)” opens in the early morning on a bridge overlooking the Bungala River and that bird types heard are crows and finches, and that “Fleurieu E. (Across Two Islands)” comes to an end on a long sandbar near the Murray Mouth where gulls, pelicans, cormorants, and finches gather. On a final note, the conjunction of photography and sound also works remarkably well in this particular case.

January 2014

RealTime Arts: Adhocracy 2013

Ben Brooker has written a piece on Adhocracy 2013.  My project, Reclamation gets a mention.

In Reclamation, Adelaide-based sound artist Tristan Louth-Robins presents an enigmatic soundscape crafted from site-specific field recordings taken in Port Adelaide during the course of Adhocracy. What emerges is a sort of living record of the region’s historical and continuing conflict between the natural and industrial worlds, Louth-Robins’ hydrophones collating a complex and contradictory array of sounds: circular saws, jet-skis, the trilling of dolphins and the clattering bows of harboured boats. Or maybe—and Louth Robins embraces this possibility—it is none of these things and, like so much else we have seen and heard over the course of the weekend, imagination, prejudice and deceit fill the spaces a reality denied to us creates.


Resonate Review: Panoptique Electrical in Sydney

via Resonate, a review of Panoptique Electrical’s performance in Sydney.  Review by Geoffrey Gartner.

Jason Sweeney, the brains behind Panoptique Electrical, has spent August on the road promoting the release of his album Yes to Fear, Yes to Desire. Joined by cellist Zoë Barry, electric guitarist Jed Palmer and Tristan Louth-Robins on electronics, the group’s tour has taken in Adelaide, Mt Gambier, Melbourne and Canberra, with this Sydney gig the last stop on their travels.

The venue for the Sydney performance was the unbelievably tiny Don’t Look Gallery in Dulwich Hill, a space devoted to experimental New Media. A small but appreciative audience filled the space to capacity, yet despite the cramped confines there was a general atmosphere of bonhomie amongst the attendees. With no room for seats people either stood or sat against the walls. Fortunately there was a fine selection of colourful pillows at hand to ease discomfort. I perched on a pillow covered with manga imagery and waited for the show to begin.

First up was a performance by Catfingers (Ashley Scott). His short set was mostly comprised of sample-based material overlaid with occasional, discrete beats. Unfortunately, with the gallery door left open, his pleasantly innocuous soundscapes came off second best to the continual barrage of traffic noise from New Canterbury Road.

Thankfully, once the Panoptique Electrical quartet began their performance the door was firmly shut and stayed so. Surrounded by a goodly variety of laptops and other electronic impedimenta, the four performers set themselves up in a tight-knit little unit, with the cello and electric guitar players seated behind their colleagues on a small dais in the gallery window.

Using the rich, open C-string of the cello as a tonal basis, the Panoptique quartet slowly established a thick wash of pulsating, reverb-drenched sound. In this near beatless sonic environment, the melodic content was the controlling element, with Jason Sweeney dictating the musical flow with mellifluous dyads from his MIDI keyboard. These melodic droplets fell on an undercurrent of elongated instrumental samples and processed cello and electric guitar tones. There was a real sense of cohesion to Panoptique’s sense of ensemble, aided by an implicit sense of communication amongst the four players. However, it would have been nice if there was less dependence on pre-recorded cello samples at the outset, especially with the real thing at hand.

The live mix was quite something, and enveloped the Don’t Look Gallery in a treacly morass of sound. Although this occasionally swamped some of the finer effects, such as the cello pizzicato, the Panoptique quartet displayed a fine sense of control, pulling back the volume and intensity whenever things threatened to get overwhelming. However, this proved to be something of a double-edged sword, with each new iteration of melodic material from Sweeney heralding a predictably long sustained build-up followed by an equally long release. The entire set became rather episodic as a result.

That aside, the Panoptique Electrical experience was a gratifying one, the environs of the Don’t Look Gallery adding to the overall feeling of being immersed in an intimate sonic installation. This was a musical experience in which to wallow.