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Romancing the sound - Julian Day on The Sound Barrier!

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Spotlighting Australian composers continues to be one of the really extraordinary pleasures of presenting The Sound Barrier, so fertile and so diverse is the talent that is emerging from this country in experimental and avant-garde music.

And to be able to kick off those spotlights for 2014 with the music, and the thoughts, of Julian Day was, for me, extra special.

On this most recent edition of the show, Julian spoke about the things that interest him in creating music – an interest that embraces the breadth of things that make up the space within which music is created, performed and heard.

Julian is interested in how sounds sound, and in how we hear them. He is interested in how those sounds interact with space and how our own movement through performance spaces can shape the way we hear them. He is interested in the ways people create sounds, and in how sounds morph and move when multiple performers are given a single instruction and when they all take that instruction, at first minutely, and then more divergently, into different directions. He is interested in the things we discover in tiny, tiny bits of sound, when a bit of a sound heard over and over again, and when imperfections and irregularities creep into it as it's repeated.

All of this, and much more, is what Julian talked about when I interviewed him in between the fascinating range of his works that we were able to present on the show last weekend.

He talked, too, about his admiration for the work of Steve Reich, and for the ways in which Reich's simple act of musical phasing, where sounds are presented at first together and then slowly dropping out of sync with one another (and returning to it) reveals to us a whole new way of hearing and understanding a single sound – something that Julian's frequent musical collaborator, Luke Jaaniste, spectacularly demonstrated on the show, a few months ago, in his marathon work PORTAL on PBS, for multiple keyboards, performed live in the PBS studio, uninterrupted, for almost four hours.

While Julian does not exactly adopt this same technique in his own music, the concept has clearly been one of the germinal seeds from which his unique musical language has grown. His music, like Reich's, shows us the ways sounds evolve when the main source for their evolution is their own sonic DNA. It makes you aware of what an incredibly fecund thing it is, that little bit of vibrating airwaves we call sound.

During our chat, Julian also mentioned his love for the music of Phill Niblock – another composer who, like Steve Reich, you may have heard from time to time on The Sound Barrier. Certainly Phill Niblock's fascination with drones, particularly through drawing out miniscule sonic variances around a single extended note, usually through electronically manipulating the sound (as opposed to someone like Giacinto Scelsi, for example, who did it more through requiring his musicians to find ultraminimicrotones from their own instruments and voices), is something that Julian develops mesmerisingly, and in entirely new and interesting ways, in his own music.

And then if you can throw into that mix a little bit of Cornelius Cardew's late 1960s Scratch Orchestra's commitment to the democratisation of musical performance, bringing in both skilled and unskilled musicians to play within the broad performance parameters that he as a composer sets, along with a dash of the Fluxus movement's disregard for the boundaries that have conventionally separated music from fine art, and you blend all that into a 21st century aesthetic conveyed through 21st century technologies, often assembled on the sorts of oily-rag budgets that aspiring young 21st century composers are forced to operate within, you might begin to have some idea of what to expect in Julian Day's incredibly engaging and interactive music.

It is engaging in the sense that the music has a strange tendency to take hold of you. Not in a violent way, but in the way that some things do when you stare into them.

And it is interactive in the sense that the music often gives you a strange sensation that you are somehow wandering through it – which of course you often actually do when you attending performances or installations of Julian's work. But even on a radio, with all the limitations that that has a medium for bringing you music as encompassing as this is, you feel encompassed by it.

Unusually for this blog, I am not going to go individually through each of the pieces that were played on the show. Throughout the interview, Julian does that much more eloquently than I can do here. Rather, it is something of the totality of the experience of his music, and of the way it has grown such unique and distinctive blooms from the various roots that lie beneath it, that I was especially keen to convey to you here.

We managed to get through a pretty interesting range of his music, too. From the glitchy sounds of a stammering CD in Opening, through the interactions of two simple droning keyboards in Live at FBi Social, and the blaring, wailing saxophones of Hallogen, to the utterly transfixing and immersive 45 voices of Voice Field, we heard Julian's music from such a whole compass of angles and yet, in doing that, got, I believe, a real sense of what it is that binds this music together, and makes it so unmistakeably the work of Julian Day – its endless love affair with all that lies within sound.

You can, as always, access the show's audio archive to hear not only the music of Julian Day and my interview with him, but also, at the beginning of the show, a small tribute to the great conductor Claudio Abbado, who died a few days earlier, and, at the end of the show, some music by two of the composers who Julian mentioned during out chat – Steve Reich and Australian born composer, now living in the UK, Matthew Shlomowitz.

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