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Hearing sounds - Sam McAuliffe talks about environmental music

The Sound Barrier : Blog

Sounds as audio instructions – this is how Melbourne improviser, composer and guitarist Sam McAuliffe describes his approach to working with environmental sounds in this week's edition of The Sound Barrier, where I explored just a little of the many ways in which the sonic environment, the things we hear around us, make their way into music.

Sam described the process of capturing sounds, like the lapping of water beneath Port Melbourne Jetty, and then seeking to understand their essence, and then transform, translate, that essence into music.

It was one of an array of approaches he talked about as part of his ongoing exploration of the ways in which the sounds of the environment can shape music. It's an exploration that can yield the immersive drones that we heard in his piece Music for the Port Melbourne Jetty, as it was on 25-06-15 that opened the show, or the narrative journey from footsteps on a path beside a creek, as they make their way, surrounded by birds, to the pounding dissonance of a construction site in Music for the Darebin Creek Trail, Afternoon, Clear Weather, as it was on 29-06-15, that followed my interview with him.

This breaking down of the barriers between noise and music is, of course, something to which I often refer on the show and tonight's episode was especially devoted to exploring that very space where these two apparently different sound-worlds overlap and, as Sam suggested in my chat with him, it is a difference more of perception and choice than of reality: we can hear the sounds wafting our way from the neighbour's stereo system as noise, and we can hear two rocks being rubbed together as music – it comes down to how we perceive them and how we choose to listen to them.

Working musically with sounds that are often discarded as noise has become a particular focus of Melbourne sound artist Clive Bourne, whose work in phasing the sounds of what he describes as the 'urban bushland' that is heard from beneath Melbourne's Bolte Bridge, for his work Confluence, which he has just presented as a site-based sound exhibition in Melbourne, and was also heard on this week's show. Stick on a pair of headphones for this one – and listen to the ways in which the sounds layer upon and between one another across the stereophonic spectrum. Abstracted from its harsh and threatening concrete environment, these sounds develop a kind of malleability, an ambiguity, where the sounds of traffic and construction could almost be the sounds of waves and wind. Again barriers overlap and cross.

That malleability of environmental and more traditionally musical sounds was perhaps driven home most of all in Jim Denley's captivating hybrid of sonic worlds, Your Breath on my Lips where two quite separately conceived works – one using the sounds of 100 snails, and the other the sound of balloonsax – were mixed together to create an entirely different piece and, with it, an entirely different world of sound. It suggests that not only can music be created from environmental sound in the sort of teleological way that we heard earlier in the show, but that the two can be merged together, even after both have been created independently of one another.

And perhaps another angle entirely in approaching the relationship between environmental sounds and music can be found in the work of Jon Rose, whose starting point is not so much what he hears in the environment, but rather the possibilities he finds there for the violin. From his famous Fence Music, where he uses wire fences as string instruments, through to works like the one we heard on tonight's show, Digger Music, where a violin improvises around the sound of a huge industrial front-loader, digging in the middle of outback Western Australia, Jon Rose is constantly seeking ways to remould the ways in which we have habitually thought of the violin and, in the huge expanse of the Australian environment, he finds countless possibilities for doing that. In this way, for Jon Rose, the environment becomes almost an extension of a musical instrument, just as the musical instrument had, for Sam McAuliffe, become an extension of the environment.

I closed off the show with the work of Australian composer Ron Nagorcka who, in his Just Bluffing for Quamby sampled a whole bunch of sounds that he recorded at Quamby Bluff in Northern Tasmania, and then recreated them into this two-movement piece in just intonation. It has, really more than any of the other pieces we listened to tonight, the feel of conventional music – and yet every one of its sounds comes from the untamed world of the environment.

The environment provides a vast, fantastic orchestra of sound. In tonight's edition of the The Sound Barrier we managed to get just a glimpse of the ways, the countless ways, that that orchestra can be orchestrated.

With the curiosity of talented musicians, and the openness of receptive audiences, and in a universe where now even gravitational waves from a billion years ago can be heard, even the sky is no longer the limit.

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