It has been a long time since I’ve checked in to write a reflection (or even look at my website!). The final weeks of the university semester involved marking approximately 140 assignments, finishing up tutoring, and preparing for a micro-festival at work. In between all that, my research and my music got put on hold for at least a good month. Yikes!
I made a conscious decision to put my personal music aside during this time, and focus on completing my immediate obligations well. I decided that I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it, or even THINK about what I was putting off, until after I’d met all my deadlines. And honestly, it worked quite well! It’s okay to take a break from your overall goals, even with a faraway deadline starting to loom. I’ve come through the other side, gained some peripheral experience and a newfound drive and inspiration to complete my projects.
Part of that came from attending the Australasian Computer Music Conference at Monash University last week, organised by Lindsay Vickery. This was combined with the TENOR Conference, organised by Cat Hope. Seeing academics present in both fields was an unexpected treat for me, usually so mired in my non-notational sounds; being reminded of the various ways in which we record music and prompt others to interpret made me think about how I communicate my music. Is there space for my practice to grow? I love thinking about sound in terms of texture – maybe I should start producing interpretive scores to go along with my work?
Anyway. I also presented on my thesis topic – embracing Small Diffusion and composing for the Non-Ideal Listening Situation. I’ve incorporated some new concepts into my research lately, and it was lovely to hear peoples’ genuine interest and feedback on my work for the last two years, and even comment on and grow the ideas I’d put forward. Stay tuned for more in-depth explanations soon!
So after arriving back in Sydney, one week before semester starts, I have some goals which I want to share publicly (if only to make me answer to them when demotivation hits):
It’s quite daunting, trying to pick up everything from where you left off. It’s much easier picking up one thing at a time, than trying to get everything off the ground at once (unless you’re deadlifting, I guess). My first step is to get back into a mindset where I know what I’ve achieved, what I must do, and creating simple steps to get there. That’s why I started with this reflection; to take stock of where I am, and put my future goals within the framework of my past/present.
This article was original published in ADSR Zine, April 2019 edition.
Last year, I travelled interstate to an art gallery. I was excited to hear some stereo works of mine diffused alongside a collection of other electroacoustic pieces. This installation-style octophonic diffusion would take place in one of the gallery’s front rooms. The works ran on a three-hour loop that listeners could dip in and out of as they desired.
Alone at first, I sat on a padded bench placed in the centre of a cool, white room. Arranged at regular intervals around the walls were eight high-quality speakers. A small black screen announced the title of the current piece in bright white capital letters. Just enough visual information to contextualise the listening experience.
When your ears are primed to listen in a 360-degree field, you become hyper-aware not only of the incredibly designed sound bursting in the air around you, but of:
In the quiet moments, the hum of the air conditioning moved into the foreground of my awareness. I realised I could differentiate between ambient sounds designed to be perceived as far away in the music, and the dull roadwork noise which bled into the room from the street. As a staunch headphone supporter, I was unused to the subtle sense of distance between myself and the sound source, located approximately 2 metres away in every direction. I left after two hours of impressive electroacoustic diffusion, having come at just the wrong time to hear my own work.
Every reasonable effort had been made to minimise disturbance to the listener; in effect, to make this an ideal listening space. These seemingly small factors were enough to periodically pull me back from complete immersion in the music, even though in other situations, I will happily listen to the unedited, imperfect cityscape with my eyes closed and a smile on my face.
So why did this experience give me a case of the slight irks?
Was I being overly fussy? Most likely. But in a world where smartphones, online dissemination and solo listening is increasingly common, I think my inability to focus on designed sound within the world’s larger, permanent cacophony is not rare. This listening environment insisted, “You cannot hear anything but the composed music!” while infiltrating the same space as those outside world sounds. I don’t believe that the key to creating an ideal listening space (which is subjective anyway) is to hide music further and further away from the world, but to embrace and prepare for the non-ideal listening space. Not ignoring the world around us, but working with it to enhance the musical experience you give your listener. Music for buses? Sure. Compose it in a way that works with the percussion of the bus doors, the bubbling of conversations, but also accounts for the peaceful silence of an empty bus ride. Maybe people will be less likely to crank the volume up too high, trying to drown out the world. But that is a whole other article.
Composing for the non-ideal listening space extends not only to the content, but the dissemination method.Composing for headphones has been successfully explored by many, using spatial and recording techniques to evoke a realistic image of the listener within a certain space. Composers can also subvert this reality, placing the sounding space within the listener. Bernhard Leitner’s 2003 album Kopfräume gives the goose bump-inducing effect of drums rolling joyously around the interior of one’s skull. This use of in-head acoustic imaging demonstrates that the ideal listening space can be, literally, all in your head.
I have an almost exclusive interest in composing stereophonic and monophonic works for what I term “small spaces.” That is, stereo or mono works which are diffused over monitors or through headphones to create intimate, immersive experiences for individuals. This term can also encompass the size or feel of a listening space; whether that is the passenger seat of a car, a train, a tiny office or a bedroom. The worlds which can be conjured between two speakers (or indeed, headphones) is an endless source of curiosity for myself as a composer. While often seen as a stepping-stone to mixing for surround or other large diffusion methods, I truly believe that these spaces can be treated as effective end-points for acousmatic works, that creatively challenge the composer to conjure a universe between two ‘walls.’
While music can bring people together, arguably like nothing else, it can also be a profoundly intimate and personal experience. Music gifts people the ability to escape reality and immerse themselves in another world. As a sound artist, headphones are a way to extend that ability to more listening spaces, both non-ideal and easily accessible. My new work, Paranoia in the Bush, was composed on and for headphones, using field recordings drawn from the Bundanon Homestead in the Shoalhaven. The work features the sounds of vast green fields, a humming forest, the playful splash of river water; however, these are all transferred to inside the cranial cavity, creating a strong sense of introspection that cannot be translated to speakers or shared with others in the moment. I’m hoping that rather than use headphones to isolate, I am simply bringing awareness to the gallery space within.
Alexis’ work can be heard as part of lost+sound’s pop+up ii event, taking place on May 25that ARCHIES in Jubilee Park, Sydney.
It is universally acknowledged that every human who has ever needed to save something digitally…Will eventually realise that they shouldn’t have put off backing up everything.
My big I’m-An-Idiot moment came while on my residency at Bundanon Trust, when my (admittedly cheap) hard drive decided that it was going to elope with all my most important project files and never come back. It also invited along my entire sound bank (six years’ worth of field recordings, processed sounds with no discernible source and some very nice synth recordings from MESS).
Sounds can be re-recorded. The real heartbreak was realising that I had never exported a recent copy of a work I’d spent all of 2018 on but not yet finished, and a 5-minute work that I’d finished that morning.
As with all elopements, it ruffled feathers. A teary visit to the IT shop. More tears once it became obvious my hard drive probably wouldn’t return from its honeymoon. More tears upon learning that advanced data recovery options were likely to cost hundreds, if not eventually thousands.
Determined that this hard lesson would be learnt, I got to work.
SALVAGE WHAT YOU CAN
I made a list of all the things I had potentially lost, and all the things that had been haphazardly backed up via cloud storage, other hard drives, or even preserved through streaming services. After scouring every corner of my digital history, it came down to losing a few years’ worth of photos, my historical project files (oh well, I was never going to get around to re-working them anyway) and the two live projects. For the most part, my portfolio was unharmed. Phew.
LEARN FROM BEING AN DIGITAL IDIOT
That same afternoon, I purchased another two (admittedly also cheap) hard drives and additional cloud storage, then uploaded absolutely everything I still had to all three. If I back up each after every session (a matter of seconds), I have three identical copies of my current data, two physical. A clunky solution, but also convenient in some ways; I can leave the house with one, or no hard drives, and know that I have everything I need so long as I consolidate the other as soon as I get home. If one fails, the other is there. If both fail, I have the cloud. If I have slow Wi-Fi, my current work is still backed up.
WRITE YOUR DAMN COMPOSITION NOTES
I write this post approximately a month after The Elopement, on the verge of finishing the second rendition of the 5-minute work I lost. Approaching this task, I was devoid of the emotional energy to do so. However, once I began, I realised that the copious reflections, diagrams and even brainstorms I made on good old-fashioned paper allowed me to recreate the ambience, structure and even sound content of the work. Dare I say it…Easily.
Not only is the act of writing meditative and grounding, but these days you’re probably less likely to lose your work due to water or fire than you are to a hard drive failure. Write often, write badly, and then be surprised at how much it can jog your memory about your own composing process.
ENJOY THE SMUG SENSATION OF SECURITY
I am almost ready to pop this piece out into the world now. While I’m kicking my former self, this has been a necessary learning curve. I’ve consolidated my back-up process, I’ve created a work that has been doubly-considered and is probably better for it. Paranoia in the Bush is a work which celebrates the uneasy sensation of being watched while bushwalking in deep wilderness.
I like to think that my hard drive and my lost data are out there somewhere, holding hands and watching my personal growth fondly.
January is already well established, so it seems like a good time to take stock of 2018. While there were some proud musical successes, there were many more instances of pulling my hair out in front of my computer screen. If asked to name one defining phrase to sum up 2018…It’s “writer’s block”.
Or more specifically, composer’s block. I like to think that it afflicts even the most prolific of my peers from time to time.
Last year, it was a common occurrence for me to find myself with only an hour or so of solid composing time per day. This often came at the end of a work day, after dinner (it’s impossible for me to function on any higher level while hungry), just when I was hoping to fling myself into bed and not think any creative thoughts for the next eight hours. As a young 20-something with no dependents, I can only imagine what juggling work, study, creativity and caring for a family must be like. Does it only get worse from here?*
Rather than quake at the thought of another year spent forcing myself to write mediocre minutes, I am attempting to develop a process to ward off writer’s block. While this particular method may not work well for everyone, I’ve discovered that following a few quick physical and mental steps tends to re-frame whichever task I’m hoping to achieve and renew my focus. At least for ten minutes or so, which is often enough to leave you feeling like you’ve at least achieved something productive with your time.
So, what is the best way to overcome writer’s block in the short-term (while working towards better planning, focus, and motivation in the long-term)?
For me, it starts with backing away from the laptop (or the manuscript, or the instrument), closing my eyes, and taking some deep, yoga-like breaths. Often when composing, my brain becomes so saturated with the tiny section of sound I am working on that it becomes hard to hear where it fits into the work's overall structure. I liken this to smelling coffee in between testing different perfumes; reset your senses, so that when you’re ready to come at the work again, you can appraise it objectively.
LISTEN - DON’T LOOK
In her Treatise on Writing Acousmatic Music on Fixed Media, Annette Vande Gorne makes an important point:
“The audio result...may even be the opposite of what the eye sees on the mixing board.” While she is talking about analogue tape techniques here, the same rings true for the computer screen. Stop looking. Close your eyes, and ask yourself, "does this sound as good as it looks?" Vande Gorne drives the point home with,“focus on the loudspeakers, immersed in the sound rather than paying attention to gesture or the computer screen...Mix in interrelation with sound, not its visualisation!"
I often find when I cut out my sight, I can hear which phrases need more time to breathe. I now make a habit of listening to the whole work before making changes, perhaps writing down notes on paper as it progresses. Again, this gives me the ability to re-contextualise that small niggly section, and see what the work needs done holistically.
GO BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
Sometimes it's worth pulling yourself out of the sound bog and doing away with that sense altogether. Before I start a piece, I tend to write or draw some sort of mind map which helps me to focus on the theme or feel I want. Returning to this planning stage in the middle of a piece seems to work just as well. For one person, this might involve pictures: illustrating texture, a scene you want to evoke next, etc. For me, writing down the feel, timbre and texture I'm aiming for in words seems to work best. I've been known to write down lists of onomatopoeias and adjectives and call this 'planning' - but hey, whatever works. When I'm once again ready to listen back to my work-in-progress, attempting to draw the existing and future structure gives perspective, and often clarity.
KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP
This doesn’t necessarily mean walking away completely. If now is just not the right time for you to compose, there are numerous other associated activities which deserve your time and effort.
*If you want to read more about the increased obstacles to creativity and income that female composers with families face, there are plenty of detailed resources which have been released in the past couple of years; you can start with my article here).
On the verge of creating the first work involving a traditional Western instrument in 3 years, I find myself reflecting on one of the most successful instrument+tape collaborations I’ve ever come across - Transient Landscapes by Leah Barclay.
The album involves collaborations with numerous instrumentalists from around the world, pairing their performance with beautifully pure soundscapes from their local area, collected and composed by Barclay.
Barclay’s ability to process abstract and natural sounds and make them meld seamlessly into instrumental music is extraordinary. Her fascination with waterways is very clear from all her works, but especially in this album dedicated to the rivers of the world, and the people and animals that depend on them. Everglades (2012) is over too quickly. Plucked guitar harmonises with gentle water splashes, picked up via hydraphone. It’s hard to pick a favourite out of the collection, but this may be mine. Han River, a much longer work based on the Korean waterway of the same name, uses snatches of voice, drums, bells to reflect how waterways not only inspire raw existence, but culture and community. The 15-minute work oscillates between meditative and energetic, even using snatches of voice as another layer of texture and meaning, but always the essence of the water bursts through.
With Leah’s innate ability to conjure a certain landscape, using both sounds drawn and inspired by place, it is hard not to feel a pull to create something in a similar vein. A few days ago, my artist neighbour said, “residencies are places where you can make mistakes freely.” While I’m hoping it won’t be a mistake, I picked up my flute this morning and began to experiment with random notes, recording everything and noting which accidental phrases resonated. I’ve recorded flute clicks, my laptop keyboard, bird call, and when everything cools down a little bit in the early evening, I’ll gather some field recordings on the short strip of beach on the Shoalhaven river. Armed with these tools, I plan to make a work which reflects Bundanon, the Shoalhaven river, and the many different faces it presents to its human visitors.
As I write this post, a light rain waters the bright green grass outside my artist studio. I can hear faint grunts and rustlings from the wombat who lives in the artist complex; he has come out of hiding to chew on the grass outside my door. I attempted to record him earlier, but as I approached him with my hand-held recorder, he gave me an extremely human glare before trundling off to a safer spot over on the other side of the plaza.
Having the space and time to enjoy these small encounters, to explore the relatively uncharted bush, to allow ideas (good and bad) to float over to you like a lazy current in the nearby river, is a privilege. I have been allotted two weeks in the idyllic Bundanon Trust Artist in Residence complex, to turn my time to whatever creative pursuits I deem necessary. There is no deadline, no expectation of producing a new masterpiece. Just time to create, reflect, and then hopefully create some more.
After just under 72 hours here, I feel like I have been more focused, more inspired and more driven to create and think than I have in all of the past year. Having a period of time uninterrupted by studies, employment, or even the pressure to catch up with friends and family is rare for artists, who often rely on secondary employments(s) to get by. This is my first artistic residency, and I am already gobsmacked by the difference it has made to my creative mindset.
I've knocked over life and work admin, attended to some much needed planning for composer collective lost+sound, started a new radiophonic work and begun thinking about three others. I've made a dent in my thesis reading list, and have even found the time to do some writing. I've been lost in the bush, had a stand-off with some very muscular marsupials, and found peace at one of the Shoalhaven river's hidden beaches for an hour or so.
If this is Day 3, I can't wait to see how I feel on Day 14.
3 miniatures for headphones (2018) is a triptych composed for a specific non-ideal listening space. In this instance, the work was installed around a concert space, for audience members to listen to as they desired during the concert interval. Before writing these short, one-minute acousmatic works, I knew the following of the eventual listening space:
3 miniatures were thus created to work within these decidedly non-ideal parameters. Certain acousmatic explorations, such as extremely soft dynamic levels, had to be discarded due to their likelihood of being undetectable. What I term “obnoxious” use of other techniques such as extreme spatialization, strident frequencies and rapid switches between textural states, prioritized.
For obvious reasons, the work would need to be experienced through high-quality, close-backed headphones. Thus, the listening becomes an intimate, individual experience.
A short, sharp structure was chosen to capture the audience’s fleeting attention. Each miniature is complementary, yet autonomous; the listener is free to listen to one or three before re-joining their companions.
To take the challenge of the non-ideal listening space further, the 3 miniatures were burned onto a cheap CD. To hear the works, the audience member was instructed to put on the provided headphones and press play on an unassuming, mid-2000s CD player. The method of delivery imparted a subtle crackle, settling like a layer over the existing sound. Interestingly, rather than masking the sonic detail, this added a new layer of depth which threw each sound object into stark relief. The noise layer also added the missing link between the works, filling what would otherwise be dead silence between each track.
Miniature 1, in particular, was composed to demonstrate extremes of stereo panning. The sound objects are often edged with high frequency content, and very immediate in the foreground - both qualities which allow the material to be better heard in non-ideal listening situations. The fast and urgent feel of the work is exacerbated by sharp cuts between different textures, and heavy use of a manual cut-and-paste technique. This technique in particular is exploited to create everything from smooth, linear volume ramps to disjointed call-and-response passages between the listener’s ears. Recordings of various wooden toys have been used in their raw and processed states to create the contrasting textures within the work.
The next two pieces show a steady increase in the amount of pitched content, with miniature 2 the next step in the progression. With a more meditative feel, this work features many instances of emergence and disappearance. A shifting, ringing background fades in and out of the listener’s focus, while sustained textural lines burst into existence and gradually dissipate. Subtler panning and reverb greatly increase the sense of depth, opening up the narrow sounding space established by miniature 1. The fore-and background sound objects commune with each other in a version of the call-and-response technique heard in miniature 1.
Miniature 3 is the only piece to feature traditional musical instruments: piano and voice. Both are distorted, warped, to give this final movement a jumpy and dream-like quality. The miniature combines traits from its predecessors. There are many instances of the cut-and-paste technique, at different distances from the listener in the sounding space. A recurring piano tone weaves in and out, taking on different textural forms. The piece builds on the sense of depth established in miniature 2, and adds an eerie sense of “the uncanny valley” via its mobile, floating voices.