Australian Sound Artist

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Welcome to Canberra.....

Time has been a precious commodity of late. After spending majority of the year planning, sitting, waiting - pieces of the puzzle are finally falling into place.

And of course - all at once - because where would the challenge be if it was all a realistically paced timeline...

Plans for the upcoming release at the Moozak festival in Vienna have been put on the back burner after a frantic move interstate and acquiring of a new, 'Day Job' - one that I have coveted for a while. After previous knock-backs the opportunity arose and I grabbed it. The position is as a Sound Archivist at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and is one considerable step closer to the artist's utopia where you can live, eat and create, based purely on your passions in your artform. Who would have thought that the lost night hours of listening to, 'Dreaming Daisies' (3D community radio) would provide me with priceless pieces of knowledge to reference some 20 years later? Can you think of a better way to spend your days other than accessing, collecting and collating the sonic past, present and future of your favoured sounds? Other than being trapped in a perpetual loop of collaboration with Autechre or field recording with Chris Watson and his family in Africa - I cannot...

The move came less than two months before I leave for France, Germany and Vienna and I must say I am a bit anxious about preparations for the live performance and album launch at the 'Moozak' festival. Details to come later but for now - I want to fill you in on my experience of the NFSA's vaults.

As luck would have it, my starting week in the new position was also the same week that fellow archivist Tamara Osicka, unwrapped a number of precious artefacts that had been carefully stored in the archive for number of decades. These items included original wax discs, metal mothers and stampers created by a gentleman called Stuart Booty, in the mid 1920's. Please see my definitions below.

Wax disc: This was the first medium used in a process that involved a series of mediums to create and duplicate recordings via cutting lathes. To record sounds, musicians would play into a large horn, which would amplify and channel the sound down the lathe's arm, to the cutting stylus attached. This stylus rested on the wax disc and worked much in the same way as a phonograph pickup but in reverse that is - feed audio in, get mechanical motion out meaning, as the sounds were 'read' by the cutting stylus, it transcribed them into a spiral groove on the wax disc.

Metal mother: The metal mother was the positive metal mould that could be plated to make a number of negative metal stampers. These stampers were then used to produce the shellac records.

Stuart Booty is an interesting character in Australia's recording history. He was an electrical engineer who also dedicated a number of years attempting to produce records in Australia - round about the 1920's onward. By this time he had built his own cutting lathe under his brand and record label, 'Vitavox'. At a time where record companies tended to record discs for mass production of pressings, Booty put his efforts into creating discs as a small, private operator, utilising his own skills and resources. He also had friendly relations with several classical and vocal artists of the age and made recordings of their works for private listening and even a few for public sale. As you can imagine - there were not many Australian record labels at this time and, 'Vitavox', was one of Australia's earliest. Booty was a bit of a pioneer in the recording and translating of Australian music to record.

:: Underside of a metal master :: Image courtesy of the NFSA Canberra ::

:: Wax disc details :: Image courtesy of the NFSA Canberra ::

Historical facts aside - I was struck by the physicality of the objects and the weight of presence their history conveyed. I guess I see similarities with my response towards spaces and places? More and more I refer to what I have coined as, 'Sonic Memory', which if anything - is an idea of my own that combines the sounds as generated and/or affected by the physical characteristics of a space and the knowledge that these sounds have been, are and will be - living/generated within these space irrelevant of our presence to listen to them - completely independent of our own experience.

I like the idea that listening to a sound reacting with a space could be viewed as a window into the memories of a space itself.

Hence the term: Sonic Memory.   

Many thanks to Ian Gilmour for assisting with his technical expertise
Tamara Osicka for her research expertise and inviting me to tag along.