New music comes with a variety of connotations. Experimental. Abstract. Weird. Niche. Incomprehensible. Exclusive. Electronic. Immersive… the list goes on. In some ways, they’re all true but to be completely honest, they’re all at odds with one another. Trying to box new music and art into a single definition is like going to Aldi and only buying the one thing you came in for. There are just too many colours, textures and ideas sitting on shelves waiting for us to fleetingly notice in our peripheral vision.
But in all seriousness, where does experimental music and art lie in a contemporary [and Australian] landscape? It’s a question that I have no answer to and, perhaps, that’s the best state to be in. In an effort to question my own practice, I’ve quickly learnt that collaboration is not just great fun – let’s face it, what’s the point if you don’t get to work with equally quirky and enthusiastic people – but key to developing an understanding of where your own vision lies within a broader context. That’s not to say that you cannot maintain individuality while being faced with the challenges of communal creation.
In 2016, Sonant Bodies was established as a sound-art collective between composer James Maher and myself. We’ve been lucky enough to be included in an array of festivals, from VIVID to the Sydney Fringe Festival 2017. Our next set of performances is in collaboration with Newcastle-based flautist, Sarah Monk as part of the Crack Theatre Festival at the THIS IS NOT ART Festival. Masterminded by Sarah herself, the Sound of Spaces performance unlocks the sonic and musical potential of public and private spaces for a blindfolded audience.
By playing with senses, electronic soundscapes and live performance (flute, melodica and voice), our collective sets of compositions allow for the exploration of music that goes beyond the border (if such a frontier exists) of the acoustic. It is a multi-sensory approach that is fascinating and very much, for me as a composer, in its early days of development. Understanding how sounds operate and move within specific spaces has been a recurring motif in our group discussions since Sonant Bodies started to our current work with Sarah. You could say that it’s a concept that has ground our individual work into a central theme. Again, it was only though extensive collaboration and experimentation that such a consensus could have been reached.
James, aside from being a composer, is also a poet, Sarah a flautist and performer, and myself a composer and bizarrely, an archaeologist. Our eclectic mixture of interests all find a central focal point in music. It is the ability to exchange hundreds of seemingly unconnected ideas with the purpose of creating music out of them that is the result of collaboration. It doesn’t really matter what our background is, no two individuals will be the same (and sometimes it means learning to negotiate) so connecting on a project is also an opportunity to refine your own artistic choices.
What has also proven to be incredibly valuable is maintaining a collaborative spirit that spreads across two districts, Sydney and Newcastle, where the three of us a based. It is a testament that art is ubiquitous and as a consequence, welcomed in areas regardless if they are metropolitan or regional. I had never intended to stumble so deep into the realm of sound-art installation and for that, I am very grateful for the training that the Sydney Conservatorium gave me. Although I have occasionally had accusations of not being a true ‘composer’ or ‘musician’ and that such a venture is really into the world of art, I have come to think that new music is about multi-disciplinary collaboration and exploration. Whether or not you want to exhibit the sounds of a found object to composing a new work for string quartet to writing for instruments you have little experience with to transforming field recordings to cut to a film, these are all modes of new music.
New music isn’t exclusive or incomprehensible. I won’t deny that sometimes it can be bizarre or a little strange, but perhaps that is just a reflection of the modern world and the myriad of people who occupy it.
Sarah Monk, Victoria Pham and James Maher present The Sound of Spaces at TINA as part of the Crack Theatre Festival on the 30th of September and the 1st of October. More information and tickets here.