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Sound Narratives:
An Interview with Philip Samartzis

Melbourne’sPhilip Samartzis is one of the leading lights of Australian experimental music. A talented composer and supremely gifted field recordist, he works with a rich array of electronic sounds and environmental recordings to create his delicately structured sound pieces. While he now has an academic pedigree, with a doctorate in sound art and post as a lecturer at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Samartzis began his sonic adventures in the 1980s in true DIY-style as one half of the avant-turntablist duo GUM. Fueled by a love of post-punk and aural abrasion, he and partner Andrew Curtis abused both record and player with an engineer’s precision to form densely textured, noise collages akin to the experiments of Christian Marclay, Otomo Yoshihide, and Martin Tetreault. Their recordings have recently been reissued on a definitive, double-cd set titled Vinyl Anthology on the U.S. label 23Five.

After Gum parted ways in 1990, Samartzis stopped working with vinyl altogether and began to focus on recording techniques, digital signal processing, and sound spacialization, eventually studying at IRCAM in France and visiting and working with some of the bigwigs of musique concrete, such as Pierre Henry, Michel Chion, and Bernard Parmegiani. Though he’s been active as a performer, composer and curator for quite some time now, his level of activity has increased exponentially in the last year or so, as a number of long-term projects are now coming to fruition. This summer and fall alone he has four cds coming out, including the stunning Unheard Spaces (Microphonics), which is based an field recordings that he made while in Venice, and a phenomenal split release with Bernard Parmegiani (Plates of Sound), featuring stereo mixes of a pair of surround-sound pieces created for Samartzis’ Immersion festival.

Last year, I interviewed Philip for an article that appeared in the Spring issue of Grooves magazine. Given the large number of Samartzis records now on the docket, I thought it was a good time to print the interview in its entirety and Philip was gracious enough to answer a few additional questions about his recent work and upcoming plans.

When and how did you first begin making music/working with sound?

I only became interested in working with sound once recording technology became affordable, which occurred in the early 80s with the introduction of cheaper synthesizers such on the Pro-One by Sequential Circuits and the Moog Prodigy, as well as the Tascam Porta-Studio, an early cassette based multi channel recording system. Before then I was a keen listener of experimental and electronic music as well as punk and new/no wave but had no aspirations of actually being a musician or composer. However once the tools of production became affordable I found I was attracted to the possibilities they afforded me and began a series of experiments in order to develop a skill set that could convey my conceptual interests.

Could you describe these early experiments? What kinds of instruments/equipment did you use? Were you working alone or in collaboration with other musicians?

The experiments were more or less focused on the way technology operates, the residue they impart and the kinds of results achieved when altered from tools of reproduction as in the case of records, turntables, tape and amplification to ones of production. Gum eventually embodied most of these experiments in a series of works that began with prepared records and extended turntable techniques to tape editing, looping and layering. During that time we also moved from basic four-channel to sixteen-channel recording that afforded more complex mixing and effects delegation.

I understand you were active in Australia’s art punk scene — how did that develop into an interest in more abstract sound work?

Melbourne is a city informed and shaped by a confluence of musical movements and styles since the 60s that coalesced to forge a robust yet eclectic live music scene. When I tapped into it in the mid to late 70s there were a host of seminal electronic and experimental groups such as Essendon Airport, Laughing Hands, Primitive Calculators and Tsk Tsk Tsk that were referencing aspects of minimalism, electronic, punk and ambient music. The mixture of references as well as the irony, satire, cynicism and sarcasm underscoring them allowed me to appreciate the expansive range of attitudes, concepts and practices that informed each musical project. Add other influences such as the Birthday Party, SPK, Severed Heads and Hugo Klang and I was left with an enormous range of possibilities in how sound could be shaped to render profound musical experiences.

Could you tell me a little bit about origins and history of Gum?

Gum was founded at a time when I was looking to meet and work with people with similar interests. I happened to see an advertisement in a record store by Andrew Curtis who wanted to form a band, citing a long list of Industrial influences such as Test Department, Einsturzende Neubaten and Zoviet France. Having no real musical skills other than a fundamental knowledge of recording technology and synthesis, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be in a band, but I was attracted to Andrew’s enthusiasm and knowledge of experimental and industrial music. Several other people answered the ad that had similar aspirations but after a couple of jam sessions Andrew and I were left as the only survivors. We spent a lot of time listening to and discussing the nature of experimental music in order to determine the type of contribution that we were prepared to make. With the guitar and synthesizer dominating the musical landscape we decided to pursue other forms of sound generation and decided upon the record player and prepared record as the best means of articulation. After a year of experimentation in which we discovered various ways of manipulating vinyl through marking, baking, melting and smashing an assortment of records, we embarked on our first studio recordings during the middle of 1987 that were eventually published by ourselves in true DIY style under the title Vinyl. Our second album, 20 years in blue movies and yet to fake an orgasm, was produced a year later and was far more expansive in the range of production and performance techniques that were incorporated into the recording. Although conceptually both Andrew and I don’t think it was as successful as Vinyl, it was an important project in allowing us to develop our engineering and production skills that were pretty limited up to then. Our final works as Gum were released as singles for Korm Plastics and RRR Records and were perhaps our most satisfying explorations of vinyl as they incorporate our most sophisticated approach to composition and production.

What influence do you see your work with Andrew Curtis having on your current musical activities?

Although Gum ceased to function during 1990 after one too many letters from fascists declaring their admiration for the band, the spirit of research and discovery continues to inform my current work. I must admit that since we ceased working together as Gum it has been interesting to monitor the rise of turntablism as a genre and the various approaches that have been forged with the record player and record. I admire the perseverance of people like Christian Marclay and Philip Jeck and the body of work they have produced but in our case we felt that we had done all we were prepared to do with the medium and that it was time to move onto other ideas.

How did your working methods develop post-Gum? I’m also very curious about the period between Gum and your work at IRCAM [i.e. how you got from point A to point B (or point G to point I)?]

I spent the first five years exploring the potential of digital signal processing, hard disk recording and midi construction to forge new methods of production that were distinct from the analogue processes that I had honed in the 80s. I wasn’t so much interested in publishing works but rather interrogating the technology to discover new modes of articulation and aesthetic appreciation. I eventually published these experiments as Residue in 1998 on Dorobo. At this time I became quite interested in surround sound and began to focus on the history of film sound technology to learn more about mixing and spatialisation techniques. I also began a series of investigations into the history of the loudspeaker orchestra and visited the GRM in Paris to learn more about it and while there visited composers such as Pierre Henry, Michel Chion and Bernard Parmegiani to gain first hand knowledge of their concepts and methodologies. I was eventually invited to IRCAM to work with the Room Acoustics team to compose a new piece based on field recordings of Venice using a variety of microphones including ambisonic, binaural and hydrophonic systems. An excerpt was included in the Liquid Architecture sampler that was available with The Wire a few months ago. I plan to publish the work, which is called Unheard Spaces early next year on my own imprint Microphonics.

There have been a number of different iterations of Soft and Loud — what is the history of the project and what has led to you to revisit the sound sources on multiple occasions?

In 1996 I embarked upon a series of projects in which I traveled to countries where English was not the dominant language in order to enjoy a purely abstract sonic experience devoid of any verbal meaning. After spending a specific amount of time purely listening to the environment in which I found myself, I would begin a series of field recordings to capture acoustic events that held some form of personal meaning in the way I interpreted or experienced a specific place or event. I wasn’t so much interested in presenting a soundscape of a place but rather a composition underscoring my personal impressions of places in which I did not belong.

Soft and Loud is the latest and most ambitious iteration of the concept and commenced with a three-month field trip to Japan in 1999 documenting various sites such as temples, forests, subways and suburbs, each extraordinary for the set of signifiers that determine the acoustic dimension and characteristic of each site. Once I had completed gathering field recordings I began to compose using multi-layering and juxtaposition to construct various movements to highlight the discrete sounds that permeate throughout the Japanese soundscape and how they combine to mark a place with its own personality. This approach is inspired by film sound design where the score is painstakingly constructed from multiple events to forge a sophisticated audio-visual discourse.

At the end of the field trip I had arrived at a rough composition, however I was unsatisfied with what I achieved as it felt unnatural and turgid and failed to reflect the atmosphere and tension I felt while living in Japan. After spending more time refining the composition I decided to perform live to test aspects of Soft and Loud directly upon audiences to ascertain the projects successes and failures. An early version of the composition was published by Staalplaat in the Mort aux Vaches series recorded in Amsterdam in September 2000. After sporadically working on Soft and Loud for four years, publishing extracts on Grain (2002) and Variable Resistance: Ten Hours of Sound from Australia (2002), I eventually arrived at a version that I was happy with.

Is the Soft and Loud on Microphonics and that of the upcoming vinyl release the final [version of ] Soft and Loud, or is it still a work in progress?

The upcoming vinyl release of Soft and Loud on Plates of Sound is the same version as the compact disc. Although I never intended it to be released as a record I am very excited that Joey Rhyu is using it to launch his label. The dance floor will never be quite the same again.

You mention that the field trip to Japan that eventually yielded Soft and Loud was one of a series of such excursions. What other trips did you make and did you use the sounds from those trips in any single recording?

I started a series of works in 1996 based on traveling to non-English speaking countries with no preconceived ideas or prepared material. The idea was to limit myself to the technology I found on location and complete the composition as much as possible while there. The concept took me to France several times as well as Denmark, The Netherlands and Japan publishing the results as Residue (1998), Windmills Bordered by Nothingness (1999) and Soft and Loud (2004). I plan to continue the series over the next several years with an eye on Siberia, Argentina and South Africa.

How did the project Unheard Spaces originate and what was the compositional process behind the piece itself? In your liner notes for the CD, you mention the influence of film on the work and I was particularly interested in how that influenced its composition.

Unheard Spaces is the latest in the series of works focusing on the dynamics of site. It is a significant departure from works such as Soft and Loud or Windmills Bordered By Nothingness as it does not contain any abstraction or electronic sound. Instead I wanted to do a piece that solely used microphone selection and placement to render unusual perspectives of a familiar place. I was attracted to Venice as it is one of the most recognizable cities in the world, and comprises a broad range of acoustics that shape sound events in intriguing ways. It is also a city absent of the intrusive sound of motor traffic, which is such a strong sonic signifier in nearly all built environments. Instead Venice is a city in which pedestrian and maritime traffic mingles in a complex acoustic environment to afford a unique aural experience.

Film scores and sound design have been a major influence on my compositional practice. It is through films such as Death in Venice and Don’t Look Now that I first became interested in Venice. Generally it is the narrative function of film music that I find intriguing which is quite different to the structures informing popular or classical music built on statement, repetition and resolution. Instead film music is often modular, concise and unresolved, reduced to its essential elements to enable all elements of the soundtrack to successfully coalesce. I originally became interested in film scores through the dissonant soundtracks of horror films such as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Bird With the Crystal Plumage and Psycho. Needless to say composers like Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone are household names these days but back in the 70s their work was relatively new to me. What attracted me to their scores were the extended techniques that they borrowed from Western Art music, which drew my attention to the power of texture as a means of generating and sustaining atmosphere. It is from their work that I became interested in 20th century avant-garde music.

As I was looking through some reviews and descriptions of your recordings, I was surprised to see your work likened (in this case the Mort au Vaches recordings) to some of the ultra-minimal techno published on Raster Noton and 12k. Do such comparisons ring true for you? What artists/musicians/others would you cite as especially influential on what you do today?

I am always surprised by the comparisons that are made about my work. The great thing about living in Melbourne is that I can choose to disconnect myself from the discourse that informs sound culture in the northern hemisphere. This is a strategy I often employ so that I can focus on areas of production and composition that don’t necessarily belong to any dominant theory or practice. There is so much that we don’t know about sound and my whole practice is devoted to discovering new modes of articulation by working on projects that continually raise questions about the nature of production and presentation as well as listening. To achieve this I tend to be strategic in what I am prepared to do to ensure that the outcome justifies the time and effort or else I risk becoming a performing monkey on the festival circuit. I think there are enough people already doing this without me joining them.

The artists that I have the strongest rapport with are the ones who are asking the difficult questions about the nature of music and how it can be advanced beyond a sequence of self reflexive movements recycling post WW2 concepts and practices. Especially influential on my own composing are Bernard Parmegiani, Luc Ferrari, Ilhan Mimaroglu and Pierre Henry, for the way they are able to adapt technology to service a sophisticated set of concepts incorporating poetics, culture, politics and science. I am also inspired by improvisers such as David Brown, Seiichi Yamamoto, Michael Vorfeld, Reinhold Friedl and Jean-Luc Guionnet for their inventive approach to live performance. Of course there are many others working in various genres but I guess you get the idea.

What kinds of strategies do you employ? Is your live presentation fairly stable in terms of your general set-up?

It always begins with a series of questions. What is surround sound and how can it be used to render sophisticated experiences beyond the cinematic domain? What happens when you flatten the hierarchy that determines audio-visual discourse to privilege atmosphere and sound effects over voice and music? Why do certain conventions exist that determine the temporal-spatial trajectory of most live performances? I am good at asking questions but the task is finding answers!

One of the topics that’s touched upon in the recent profile of you in The Wire is your use of sound spatialization as compositional technique. After reading that, I was very curious to know more about how you use sound spatialization in works like Immersion and Unheard Spaces. What was the origin of your interest in working with such a specialized compositional technique? Also, how is spatialization linked to the narrative structure that often informs your work, such as Unheard Spaces?

My interest in sound spatialization stems from an interest in film sound technology and the manner in which it has evolved since the 1920s to afford increasingly sophisticated cinematic experiences. Parallel to this is an interest in the history of electronic music and how various institutions such as the GRM and WDR, as well as composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Iannis Xenakis used multi-channel sound systems to forge immersive environments in a range of performance and exhibition settings. Through this interest I began a series of formal investigations to better understand the concepts, practices and technologies required to work spatially that included visiting composers such as Pierre Henry and Bernard Parmegiani to discuss their ideas first hand. To generate more knowledge about the field I began curating Immersion which is a festival devoted to issues and practices around surround sound spatialization. Each Immersion has had a different focus including explorations into the cinematic space, the loudspeaker orchestra, and the art gallery. The next presentation of Immersion will be presented in Berlin and is based on live audio-vision in which musicians and video artists will engage in a series of improvised exchanges using a multi-screen and multi-channel sound system. The point of all this activity is to discover new and innovative ways in which to present sound beyond the stereo sound field, which has been the dominate mode of auditory experience since the early 60s.

I have no fixed ideas around spatialisation and tend to vary my methods based on the circumstances of the presentation. For installation works I like to use an eight channel sound system to choreograph space with sound in order to formulate densities of space and zones of aural activity. As outlined in the liner notes to Soft and Loud, spatialisation enables me to modulate the listener’s perspective to draw their attention to specific details comprising the mix. It also allows me to play with notions of natural and artificial space as well as elements such as width, depth, absorption and envelopment to arrive at a variety of creative outcomes. The intention is to immerse an audience in sound so that they are hearing it from within the sound field and not outside of it, which is generally the case with stereo presentations.

In performance I tend to be more spontaneous, working with multiple loud speakers and/or musicians located throughout the site of performance to respond to the specific acoustics informing the site. For instance Absence and Presence was initially presented as a piece for five musicians and four loudspeakers spread throughout the auditorium in order to explore relationships between amplified and acoustic sound sources displaced from one another to highlight the way in which architecture colors the final outcome. Therefore there is a large research component that is attached to these types of presentations as they operate outside the normal parameters of performance. Spatialisation is a burgeoning field and I am hopeful that it is one that will draw the interest of musicians from all styles of music.

An aspect of your work that I imagine a lot of listeners/readers are less familiar with is your work with improvisers and other musicians, as on Western Grey or Absence and Presence. What is the appeal of working with improvisers and what kind of challenges does it present?

Like most artists you tend to have different phases in your development. I began my musical career with Gum, which was a collaborative venture. I then spent a number of years working as a sound designer and discovered that I missed the social interaction of working within a group context. In 1998 I was encouraged by David Brown who is the Australian equivalent to Derek Bailey/Keith Rowe/Fred Frith to try my hand at live performance again. It took me a while to figure out how to exactly play live considering I don’t play an instrument, but after much trial and error I developed a system around CD players and electronics that enabled me to translate my studio concepts into the live domain. Once I had established my system I was keen to perform with other musicians and it seemed natural that I work with David, as he has been a long time contributor to my solo CDs. After a while I thought it would be fun to formalize our collaboration by forming a trio with Sean Baxter, which we titled Western Grey after the kangaroo. Sean is also a longtime contributor to my solo CDs providing much of the raw material that I use for abstraction. As a trio we tend to do two or three concerts per year, which is just about right, as we like to treat them as special occasions. We published our debut CD Glacial Erratic in 2002 and I am in the process of completing our second CD that should be available in 2007.

The thing I like about working in improvised music settings is that you can work spontaneously in contrast to studio projects that tend to require a lot of time and consideration. It also allows you to test ideas on a live audience in order to gauge the success or failure of a concept or process. Working with other improvisers also enables you to hear your ideas interpreted in a new context that can be incredibly useful in reaching a resolution. Ultimately though it is about balance and I try to spend equal amounts of time between composition, performance, curation, exhibition and publication so I try and ensure that one doesn’t dominate too much of my time.

What is your job like at the RMIT University? How did you come to be employed within the academy and in what ways has it had an impact on your overall work?

Many people are curious about my position as a lecturer in sound. They often refer to their own experiences of university in judging what my job would be like which may or may not be accurate depending on where you studied. I am senior lecturer and coordinator of sound within the school of art at RMIT University where I present three classes including sound art, immersive environments and studio recording. The focus of the course is to introduce students to fundamental technological processes contextualized within a broad theoretical, conceptual and historical framework so when they learn about a piece of technology such as a sampler they not only learn how to play it but the history that goes along with it including listening to a host of artists working with sampling.

I developed a strong relationship with the Media Arts course area as a student and technician and over time was offered casual lecturing positions before obtaining a full time position in 1997. Although I never really had aspirations to become a lecturer circumstances seemed to intervene to a point where the job chose me and not the other way around. At first I found it quite difficult as I felt I lacked the objectivity and expertise to meet the demands of all students but as I settled into the role it became much less daunting. The important thing to note about where I work is that all staff are artists first and academics second so it is about leading by example and treating students as peers. Therefore the impact of lecturing has been quite positive as you are teaching from experience and conversing with people who are genuinely interested in getting the best out of themselves. I also end up testing my ideas out on students who are pretty good sounding boards and aren’t afraid to let you know when they think something sucks.

Are there any current/upcoming projects that you could tell me a bit about?

There are a couple of releases that are just out or will soon be available.

Wireless_Within is a collaborative project with Gunter Müller and Voice Crack based around several studio improvisations that I edited and rearranged. It features one of the last recordings made by the extraordinary Voice Crack so I was conscious that the project should in part pay homage to the legacy of Andy Guhl and Norbert Möslang.

Immersion is a split record with Bernard Parmegiani that has been a long time coming but I have been promised that it will be out by the end of the year. Over the last several years I have curated a series of events called Immersion focused on the theory and practice of surround sound spatialisation. For the inaugural Immersion I commissioned Bernard to compose a piece for Dolby surround sound playback. The piece is called Immer/sound and will accompany a track that I produced for the second Immersion called Transparency based on field recordings I made of the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art in Paris in 2001.

It’s now almost one year on. What other projects and/or releases are currently on your plate? I know you’ve got the festival in Berlin coming up fast….

The next twelve months is quite a busy time. I am presenting Immersion 4 in Berlin as part of the Interface Festival for Music and Related Arts. I have spent three years working on it with Elke Moltrecht so it will be a relief to finally see it come to fruition. In November I commence an Asialink Arts Management Scholarship to research Japanese sound culture in order to develop cross-cultural curatorial projects involving Japanese and Australian sound artists and composers. I will be based in Tokyo for four months working with Christophe Charles at Musashino Art University and am looking forward to learning more about Japanese art and culture, in particular artists who have yet to receive international attention. At the end of the Scholarship I will be based in France for a further four months performing with Eric La Casa and Jean-Luc Guionnet who share my interest in spatialisation. I will be back in Australia in July in time for the next Liquid Architecture festival. We are currently working on a compendium on sound culture with contributions from numerous Australian musicians, and hope to launch it at the next festival so the pressure is on.

 

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Comments

hey, susanna. thanks for the link, whereever it is… nice site!

Thanks, David. I believe the link was in an old news item, but your comment is a fine reminder that I should update the links section! Some pretty big changes are imminent with the site (fingers crossed), so I need to get all my ducks in a row….

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