CULTURE JAMMING SOUNDCULTURE '96 KEEPS THE BEAT FOR AUDIO ARTISTS, SOUND ECOLOGISTS, AND OTHER SONIC REVOLUTIONARIES. By Neva Chonin
IN A ROOM strewn with metal skeletons, a three-foot-tall robot nicknamed Fey Boy fixes an eye (he has only one) on his neighbor, Tabla Boy, and emits a piercing chirp. Tabla responds with a drumroll, and before you can say "anthropomorphic" the two are jamming away like a pair of seasoned players. Across the room StringBoy -- a towering robot with a harp for a ribcage and metal strings for tendons -- plucks away at himself, head cocked quizzically as though listening to his own amplified drone. A little headless character beats out rhythms on a two-by-four; other automatons take up the beat, using congas, wood blocks, and anything else they can get their claws on. In minutes, the room is reverberating with a clattering symphony of tweets, rattles, and rolls.
This isn't Saturday night at 924 Gilman Street. It's Saturday afternoon at the Bayview studio of Amorphic Robot Works, where artist Chico MacMurtrie and his crew are busy preparing a tribe of mechanical musicians for their performance in SoundCulture '96, a 10-day Bay Area event exploring the diversity of contemporary sound practices in the Pacific Rim. "This tribe of machines has its own culture," says MacMurtrie proudly, gesturing at his robots. "And because it has its own culture, it has its own soundscape. And the sound is a means to move listeners through a series of transformations and emotions."
If there's anything indigenous to SoundCulture, it's variety of soundscapes, from MacMurtrie's robotic music to the channeled buzz of a beehive. The third in a series of festivals that began in Australia in 1991, SoundCulture '96 is the largest event focusing on sound art ever staged in the United States. The program, which runs April 3 through 11, includes (at last count) 118 local and international participants encompassing performance artists, musicians, researchers, and cultural theorists; 17 exhibitions and 61 events sprawled across 33 sites, including radio waves, the Internet, and even the obtuse world of voice mail; and 32 presenting organizations, from academic institutions to dance clubs.
Why a festival of sound? Participating artists can list a thousand reasons. "Sound art has existed on the fringe of art for decades, and this is one of the first events where sound is central," says local sound sculptor Paul DeMarinis. "SoundCulture recognizes all the possible varieties of how sound can be used to explore, divine, and communicate. It celebrates sound as a viable art form."
At SoundCulture's aesthetic heart, it aspires to displace -- or at least shake loose -- the privileged position of the visual arts and open a dialogue between aural and optic aesthetics. Nigel Helyer, an Australian sound artist who cofounded the festival, notes that contemporary culture "always uses visual metaphors; we even say we 'go to see music.' SoundCulture wants to balance the senses and give a meaning and place to the aural world that isn't just defined by music, which tends to gobble up what we think of as sound. While we acknowledge music, we also go beyond it."Music has traditionally set the standard for audio art, but many SoundCulture participants view it as just one highly codified aspect of a larger, and infinitely more diverse, whole. Now, some say, the advent of sampling is returning music to its noisy roots.
"My own idea is that music became a part of sound art with the invention of the phonograph," DeMarinis says. "When [people] listened to the first recorded sound, what they heard played back was in fact three sounds: the first was the sound they meant to record; the second was the background noise; and the third was the sound of the phonograph itself, the machine's autobiography of scratches."
While sound artists are united by a passion for all things sonic, they differ widely in their interpretations and modes of expression, from the encoding of geographical sounds practiced by sonic anthropologists to the apocalyptic experiments of Japanese noise artists. Some are busy defining new technological paradigms, while others are equally busy dismantling those same definitions.
German-Canadian composer Hildegard Westerkamp will be participating on a panel discussion of acoustic ecology, which gauges the quality of a rural or urban site by listening to its auditory landscape. "Our soundscape is the voice of our society," Westerkamp says. "If we listen to it like a person's voice, then just as we can hear what's going on in that person's psyche, we can also hear through the voice of our society who we are and what we're doing. Acoustic ecology concerns itself with whether or not our soundscape is a balanced one."
Bay Area composer and performance artist Pamela Z also works with soundscapes. By displacing everyday noises or verbal signals from their accepted contexts, she says, it's possible to create new systems of meaning and interpretation. "The average person on the street doesn't pay attention to sound that isn't music. I listen to sound the way a photographer looks at images -- the sounds of scissors snipping, of traffic moving, of language itself. To me, all sounds are music in a John Cage-ian kind of way."
Another composer, Miya Masaoka, explores the ways "culture organizes through sound, and the potential for injecting ideas of improvisation within that imposed structure" through manipulation of environment. For her SoundCulture performance, she'll jam with a hive of 3,000 live bees by controlling their aural output. "It's usually around a middle C, but if you isolate them, they synchronize their wings and buzz in rhythm. So I'll use different tubes to isolate small masses of bees." And if the bees won't cooperate? "Chaos!" laughs Masaoka. "And that's fine, too." The theoretical aspects of sound and culture will also be explored in a series of panels and symposia tackling a spectrum of topics ranging from copyright law to the textual voice. "There are built-in issues of location because sound dissipates over a distance and over time," says Ed Osborn, the director of SoundCulture '96. "Yet technology enables you to record sound and take it elsewhere, so there's an ongoing tension between how sound functions in a technological environment and how we've used technology to alter it."
SoundCulture was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1991 when a group of artists involved in The Listening Room, a national radio program spotlighting audio experimentation, decided they wanted to expand to a larger format. "The essential motivation was that there was a lot of representation in Europe focusing on nonmusical sound production because there the lineage of avant-garde music was well established," Helyer says. "But elsewhere, the distinction between sound and music still confused people."
Following the Sydney festival's success, another festival was held in Tokyo in 1993. Organizers limited participation to Pacific Rim cultures such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the United States, to highlight cultural sound practices reflecting an aesthetic outside the European paradigm. "The medium of sound has always been central in the Pacific area, whether acknowledged as such or not," DeMarinis notes. "It's such a broad area that for a long time sonic communication was the only way through this vast space. It provided a channel between very diverse cultures."
In the spirit of Pacific panculturalism, SoundCulture avoids favoring one country over another by rotating host sites with each festival. "We thought it should be handed on to someone else everytime so that there was no central control, and so that a local flavor and character was given by the host country," Helyer says. "While there's an international commission, we don't impose any sort of rules. It's a very open network.
"Funding, like staff, fluctuates with each site. In the Bay Area, resources have been lean because of cuts in government funding for the arts. Still, the Australian embassy, the Tamarack Foundation, the Goethe-Institut, and other institutions have offered financial help, there are volunteers aplenty, and participating artists and organizations have donated resources out of their own budgets.
Such enthusiastic grassroots support doesn't surprise DeMarinis."There's a lot of tradition here in the Bay Area. I can't think of many places in this day and age where such an eclectic assortment of organizations and individuals could work together so selflessly. It's been heartening to see it develop in such a healthy way, with so little money and so little bureaucracy." John Bischoff, coordinator of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, credits a Bay Area tradition of embracing experimental music dating back to the 1920s and the work of composers Henry Cowell and Charles Seeger (father of Pete). "There was always a strong Eastern influence and emphasis on non-western music in this area," he says. "Even John Cage lived here a while and studied with Cowell."
Metal machine music
The recording industry's more lively souls are getting into the SoundCulture groove as well. Local noise label Charnel House and ambient label Silent Records will host showcases, and Berkeley's KPFA-FM radio's Eleventh Hour program will air nightly audio presentations in conjunction with the festival, offering experiments in sound collage, voice performance, textual docudrama, and tape manipulation. Eleventh Hour host Susan Stone points out that radio, as one of the means through which sound travels, is ideally suited for an event like SoundCulture. "The most distinctive role radio will play in the festival is simply to do what it does best, which is explore acoustics in a disembodied way," she says. "Being a very solitary listening experience, it raises questions about intimacy and internal dialogue."
That the majority of SoundCulture's artists choose to deal with how sound works in public spaces might have something to do with the elusiveness of this universal, yet individualized, internal dialogue. "[It's] the one great unrecorded sound," admits Osborn, "because the body is the one space that resists colonization by technology."
Considering sound's role in the vanguard of telecommunications, sound artists are mighty irked that, in current on-line technology, sonic effects have taken a back seat to visuals. "Historically, there's a strong relationship between sound and technology, so it's ironic that within multimedia sound has been typically overlooked, particularly in the CD-ROM area," Helyer says. "In a sense, it's not really multimedia, it's monomedia. We're keen to see sound occupy a more prominent role."
Sound artists are already infiltrating the world of technology. A WorldWide Web installation titled "Netfield" is the result of a collaboration among computer artists Tim Perkis, Philip Perkins, and Bill Thibault. The site (http://www.ins.com/sc96.html) creates "a spatial sonic environment" composed of urban and rural environmental recordings from around the world. Another installation by artists Ian Pollack and Janet Silk, "The Museum of the Future," explores issues relating to the future and is accessible only through voicemail at (415) 522-0605.
The possibility that the art world might be poised on the brink of a post industrial techno revolution is an exciting one for sonic pioneers more inspired than irritated by the noisy world of machines. "Whether a phonograph or a car engine, I think machines have boisterously inserted themselves into the soundscape in a way that we can't help but accept," DeMarinis says. "These machine noises have become animate; they're alive for us."
Fey Boy and his robotic counterparts back in Chico MacMurtrie's studio would likely agree. So would their maker, who is presently developing a mechanical larynx machine to expand their sonic vocabulary. "The human voice is really specific and defined, whereas this will be more primal, closer to the sound these little creatures make," he says. "There are a lot of drummers; now I want to bring them into chant and song." With luck, practice, and a good supply of oil, Tabla Boy and friends should be ready to make their vocal debut at the next SoundCulture extravaganza, scheduled to take place in New Zealand in 1998.