Audiosketch

Thursday 22 October, 2020
1:45pm – 2:30pm

  Auslan translation

Sound maker Roslyn Oades has embarked on a series of art dates with artists about their practice, with conversations particularly referencing how they are listening at this moment in time. Join us for a listening session as Roslyn shares excerpts from conversations with sound artist Ros Bandt and vocalist, producer and multi-disciplinary artist Rainbow Chan.

These excerpts are drawn from a series of long-form conversations hosted by Roslyn and commissioned by Chamber Made to be released in coming months.

{Signature title music by Fia Fiell}

Roslyn: Welcome to Audio Sketch, a Chamber Made podcast dedicated to innovative artists working across performance, sound and music. I'm Roslyn Oades, and in this episode of Audio Sketch, I'm on a virtual art date with the extraordinary vocalist, producer and multidisciplinary artist Rainbow Chan. Rainbow works across popular music and experimental club music, as well as video, sculpture and live art. If you're not familiar with her work, you should be. And I strongly recommend a visit to her website.

{Signature title music by Fia Fiell}

Roslyn: Rainbow, the first question I wanted to ask you is, if you were a sound right now, what sound would you be?

Rainbow: I would be the sound of Mahjong tiles clacking against each other under the fingertips of middle-aged ladies with lovely manicured fingernails.

Roslyn: Oh, beautiful. And why that sound?

Rainbow: I watched Crazy Rich Asians recently. Again. And there's a scene where the protagonist and the mother-in-law she's trying to win over are playing a game of Mahjong. And for me, Mahjong has always been a family affair. In the Chan household we will play Mahjong for hours on end, as well as when I'm in Hong Kong with my relatives. And I guess at the moment, with everything that's going on and COVID and not be able to travel, I have this really nostalgic yearning to play some Mahjong with my family in Hong Kong. I haven’t been- I was meant to go back twice this year for residencies, but I haven't been able to travel. So, I'm getting my fix by watching Crazy Rich Asians.

Roslyn: And is that a sound that you've ever explored recording?

Rainbow: No, not yet. Even though it seems like such an obvious sound to record. It's very tactile. Have you ever played Mahjong Roslyn?

Roslyn: No, I've seen people playing.

Rainbow: OK, so for listeners who are unfamiliar with what this might look like or sound like, you have these tiles that are about the size of a large ice cube. And you have to shuffle the tiles at the beginning. I can't remember exactly how many tiles there. But they are like hundreds of tiles that you have to shuffle. And you have this big table that’s quite smooth. And everyone's hands gets into the action. It's like brushes against a snare drum. Almost like that kind of sound as tiles rub against the surface of the table. So that's one layer of sound. And then the next layer is the actual tiles hitting against each other as tiles being mixed up. And then on a top layer, you can hear everyone's fingernails clanging against each other every now and then, and people going, ow, ow, sorry, sorry. Oo, sorry. (laughs)

In those moments where you're shuffling tiles, you're gossiping or you're preparing for the, the next strategy in your head for the next game or you have a little tea break and people are getting nuts and snacks and eating chips. So, it's this really raucous moment of preparation for when the game actually starts. But that's what I really enjoy the most.

Roslyn: Mmm, beautiful description. Rainbow I wanted to ask you, you have so many strands to your artistic practice. How do you describe what you do?

Rainbow: I... Actually, someone described to me yesterday. She said that, my practice is sort of this lateral web of connections and actions, that all kind of speak to each other over time. I think in the past, when I was focusing solely on making more pop music and following a trajectory that's like, you know, recording, touring and more of a conventional kind of pop musician, artist life. It was all about trying to get bigger. This vertical climb of, the next hit’s going to have more plays. The next album's going to get this rating on that blog. And, over time, I realised that's just not me. I'm much more about trying to work across different disciplines. Like, to view my music as something that will burn slowly over time and not trying to achieve success in this sort of vertical manner. And so that's when I branched out my music into more other forms. So, working in visual arts has been really helpful to have a bit more time to think about my music in a conceptual or theoretical way. I guess the confines of making pop music is you only have a limited time to catch people's attention. You've got three to four minutes and that's the message. And you kind of have to, you know, have the chorus, the hook, and there's these existing structures. Whereas, in say, live performance art or in visual art, the temporality of it is very different to when you're listening to a pop song. There's more space for the audience to contemplate the meaning of what I'm doing. So, when I moved into more of a visual arts practice it opened up my works to explore socio-political issues in a deeper level, while still maintaining sort of a pop sensibility on top. And over time, I started to look at the way that supposedly highbrow art and lowbrow art actually are so interconnected. And really any kind of boundaries between these supposedly different disciplines are actually just constructs. For me they all exist together. And they reflect my personal interests and also my kind of cultural heritage, which has always been navigating different influences, languages simultaneously. Ah, so, yeah, I move between sort of pop music, visual arts practice, live performance. And it really depends on the context of the space I'm performing in, whether I take more of a traditional gig performance and playing music and singing or deejaying a set - I love that as much as I love making it more of an installation or conceptual kind of performance piece.

Roslyn: Mmm, I find it such an exciting space to see an artist working in. You know, with the pop world it’s so accessible, in that it opens the door for everyone to come in. And then you can take your audience with you – there’s a clear entry point. And artistically it’s exciting to see you harvest from those different worlds.

Rainbow: Harvest is a really nice word. I might use that in the future.

Roslyn: Yeah, I like that word too. For me, it's like I have different levels of investment in different types of projects. Y’know some are real signature projects and then others are more gun-for-hire, but I feel like I'm always harvesting. No matter what I’m doing, there's always something useful.

Rainbow: Mm hmm. For sure.

Roslyn: I want to ask you a bit about the way you use the name Rainbow, and you also use your Chinese name, Chun Yin. Can you explain how you label yourself in different contexts and why?

Rainbow: Sure. This is when, when I go into a bit of an existential crisis. So, I was born in Hong Kong and for the first six years of my life, I was known as Chun Yin, my Chinese name. And I knew theoretically that my English name, or my Western name, was Rainbow. So, my parents gave me that at birth. So, my name is Chun Yin Rainbow Chan, but I never practically used Rainbow because everyone just called me Chun Yin back at home. Then I migrated to Australia and suddenly my parents are like you, you have to go by Rainbow now. I remember at the age of six learning how to spell Rainbow and kind of shifting gears to be like, this is the new, new me. And then embracing that as well. Every time I introduce myself, it always sparks some kind of conversation because people are like, wow, that's a very unusual name. Or they're like in disbelief that that's actually my real name. It's almost like lost in translation or something and I have to be like, Oh, well, in Chinese culture people can choose names from any word in the vocabulary. Like in Chinese. And that will be their name. So, I think my parents, sort of, applied the same logic to my English name. And they were like, we love rainbows, so we're going to call her Rainbow. People are like, Are your parents hippies? Are your parents, like, on drugs? I was like, No, no, no, no, they're just Chinese. [laughs] As a joke anyway. So then for the last 20 plus years in Australia, like, I'd just gone by Rainbow and Chun Yin was very much hidden away. And it would only be used with my family. And, it was only later that I started to really embrace my cultural heritage more. And be like, I should look into this and celebrate this. And partly it came from making music and having a lot of industry folks project certain things on to the music I was making. Like if I made something that didn't actually have any Chinese or Asian influences, sometimes there would still be write-ups where they would read that into it. And then also fixating on the fact that I'm a female, or assuming that I didn't make the beat because I am a female. And suddenly the politics of my gender and my race became more and more pronounced as I was a young adult. And partly it was also out of practical, pragmatic reasons because Rainbow became my performing stage name. But if I wanted to play some shows that didn't have all the, you know, management control or like booking agent control and stuff, maybe more sneaky kind of shows for community or for friends, I needed an alter ego. So, Chun Yin became this sneaky, semi-anonymous, faceless persona that I would take on. And it was also really liberating, because I decided that Chun Yin as a project wouldn't have my voice in it. So, it would be this sort of amorphous entity that people couldn't read gender or race into it. It was just sort of this abstract instrumental music where I could go really hard. And now I find that my music, whether it's Chun Yin, whether it's Rainbow or whether it's my art practice where I go by my full name, Chun Yin Rainbow Chan, they've all started to converge. And I'm much more open about how all these different aspects of myself interact. And, it's nice having these categories but really, they, they're always shifting as well.

Roslyn: Mm, how interesting.

Rainbow: Yeah, I guess it is.

Roslyn: It feels like it gives permission to try quite different things. And stretch out in three different ways?

Rainbow: Yes. Yeah. And when I realised that it was actually really liberating. And I am the one that's controlling how people perceive the project and how to contextualise a particular work. That's when I felt like I had more agency in the construction, or the understanding of a particular voice I wanted to present at a particular time.

Roslyn: Mm. I think agency as an artist is so important.

Rainbow: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. I teach music production and songwriting at the Conservatorium of Music at Sydney Uni, and one of the things I say to my students is, when you're making music, really think about why you're doing something. Why do you want this to sound this way? Or why do you want to use that particular lyric? Because I think when you understand the meaning that you are projecting out into the world, and what you want to say through a particular sound or a particular story, then that's when you start to understand your agency a bit more. When you're being more self-critical or more self-aware, that's when you actually have a bit more control, because you can defend yourself. If people say, oh this must mean this and that, and haters are going to hate, but I think at the centre of it, if you know what you're trying to say, then you're always going to remain grounded because you don't take things so personally anymore. And you just know within yourself why you're making something and what it means to you.

Roslyn: That's great advice. Going back to sound, when did you first start playing with sound? And what drew you to it?

Rainbow: Oh, I think my first really visceral understanding of sound was back in Hong Kong. So, I must've been three or four years old. And I grew up in a village in Hong Kong called Tong Tau Po. And my uncles played in the local lion dancing troupe. And every Chinese New Year, there would be the lion dancing and the Dragon Dancing in the village. And I remember one time standing next to one of the really big drums. I must have been shorter than the drum. I was very little. And, feeling the pulse of the drum in my rib cage. And in my heart, and feeling it vibrate inside my body. And just being so incredibly intrigued about the sensation of resonating with this sound. And, and then after that, I think, like music's always been in my family. My older sisters played piano. And I would listen to what they'd do and I would go to the piano and try and work it out myself. And my parents, like, they worked in a Chinese restaurant almost every single day. Sunday was the only day they had off. And, on those days, we would go out for a little day trips to the beach or to get ice cream somewhere. And they would always put these cassette tapes on in the car that my grandmother had put together just from things she'd recorded off the radio and then send, like sent over to us in a little package from Hong Kong. So, music was a really important way for my family to stay connected to people at home. Back in Hong Kong. But, also between each other. Because mum and dad would be working all the time. And me and my three sisters, we've got really big age gaps, so conversation wise, we, you know, had a lot of differences of where we were in life and the things we could talk about. But music was a really good way we could all get together and sing a little song or harmonise and that, for me, has always been such an important way to belong to people and the world.

{Signature music sting}

Roslyn: Also on sound, I wanted to ask you a bit about technology and sound and what your favourite toys are? Your favourite production tools?

Rainbow: Yeah, I love using instruments or gear that are quite cheap or free. I mean, I have a few synths that are a little bit more expensive, but I always think the best ideas come from not what gear you have, but what ideas you have and how quickly you can act on them. So, I actually work a lot off my phone. I have an app that I love. It's called Voloco. And there's a free version, which I recommend to people all the time. And it's essentially like an autotune kind of free app. That you can record your voice on the fly and export and use later on. So, on Pillar, my last album, a lot of the vocal manipulations are literally just done out in public thinking of an idea, or can hear a melody in my head, and I quickly sing into my phone. And I think that's why a lot of my recordings don't sound necessarily very clean, or have high fidelity. There's a lot of textures in, in my music because it's capturing all these different spaces very quickly. I also love finding instruments or knickknacks or, or little sounding objects in second hand shops. I like the idea that that object belonged to someone before and contains a history or a hidden sort of story. And I'm now the new owner of it and sounding that history up. A lot of the beats I make actually are spliced from the sounds of – whether it's like a ceramic bowl that I bought from Vinnies or the sound of a shoe or something like... There's all these little intricate objects that I embed into my music. They're like little diary entries. So, that's what I like to work with. Found objects or founds sounds.

Roslyn: I wanted to ask you a bit about time now. So, it's been a really wild year for artists, and I know it's been a wild year for you, you've had to change a lot of your plans. What has 2020 taken away from you and what has it given you as an artist?

Rainbow: (Laughs) I, I'm a firm believer in when one door closes, another one opens. So, I don't feel like it's taken anything away from me. I feel like I've learnt to be more resilient. When there are limitations placed on you, you have to think of new ways to tackle that challenge. I've had really amazing opportunities, that have arised out of COVID limitations. So recently I did a performance, a virtual digital live stream, at the Sydney Opera House, which, if it was a live performance, it would be completely different. It's been amazing to see how artists have bounced back and tried to innovate new ways to keep making work. In a more sort of practical manner, like, not being able to travel this year has slowed me down a little bit. And I've actually found it really good for my songwriting because I've been able to listen to albums from start to end and enjoy that. Like with a glass of wine, on like a Wednesday night with my cat, light some incense, and that ritual of just listening to music for joy, for pleasure, has allowed me to write really quickly. When I do go into my studio to work, like I found that I have more things to write about. I feel more reinvigorated. Because I've had all this space to contemplate and to reflect on this global moment that we're in. Partly, it's also just getting a bit older this year. (Laughs) When I turned thirty – not that that's old. But it's like a milestone where you're like, Oh. I'm like looking towards the next decade of my life. And with something as drastic as the bushfires and then Black Lives Matter. You know, these ongoing issues that are happening all the time, but because we're not as distracted by moving all the time and being so connected, this year is a time for us to really critically reflect on ourselves and on our social engagement, on the climate. Yeah, just really big questions and I think that translates into my music more and more.

Roslyn: Mm. That's a great answer. It feels like a real time of reckoning and reflection. And a real opportunity to reassess.

Rainbow: I mean, it's really... I understand it must be just so exhausting for people who are in less privileged circumstances. And, you know, people just trying to survive or trying to subsist. The fact that I can, you know, chill out with a glass of wine on a Wednesday night is, is a position of great privilege and luxury. And that's something that I really have gratitude for now and go, Oh my gosh, what else can I do to lift others up? What can I do to improve the networks or the community engagement around me? But then also, what can I say in my music that continues to speak to this wider conversation.

Roslyn: Mm. You mentioned the work you did at the Opera House as part of their digital streaming program. I watched In the Mood the work you just referenced, which is a homage to Wong Kar-wai's beautiful film In the Mood for Love. That work felt like a real piece about longing. A tribute to things that will never be, and the struggle between letting go and holding on. Themes that really resonate with so many of us in lockdown. Can you talk a bit about how that idea of longing speaks to you as an artist?

Rainbow: Sure. Longing has, I think, is always the thing that drives my work. I like to play with the idea of nostalgia and the tension between fantasy and reality. This particular work for me and, and not being able to travel to Hong Kong this year, really marked a shift in my relationship with my birthplace. I can't take it for granted. Even though I have lots of family back there, suddenly having this physical distance imposed. And obviously politically, a lot of things have changed in the last year. The future is so uncertain. And what I thought was always going to be, like, my relationship with Hong Kong now is changing. Making this work, In the Mood, was not only just a sense of longing for romantic love, but as Wong Kar-wai had intended, like these films were a homage to Hong Kong and the rich history. And it's like a farewell letter to the Hong Kong that I know and knew in my childhood. Longing is so multifaceted in this work. In terms of like personal history, family lineage and the future of how I'm going to relate to Hong Kong and say my future children, if I do have children, like what that's going to mean and what that's going to look like.

Roslyn: Mm. You performed In the Mood at the Sydney Opera House. What was it like to perform live in such a huge auditorium with no audience present?

Rainbow: It was really surreal. And when we realised it was going to be performed in a completely empty Joan Sutherland Theatre, that only amplified the concept of the film and the idea of distance. And there's a line in the film where the two protagonists are sort of rehearsing a break-up scene and the line is, ‘Don't cry, this isn't real’. And it felt like the performance was this perpetual rehearsal because there was no one watching. But we knew people were watching. And it was like I was writing in my diary. I was telling people secrets and I knew people were watching, but I couldn't see them. So, it had this really eerie, haunting feeling to it… OK, so you finish a performance and there's no one there to clap… (Laughs) You know, you don't take the bow. It's just like, it just finished. Alright, everyone get off the stage. Go home. And then upon returning to my green room and like, turning on my phone again, I received like this flood of messages of people who were live streaming into the performance that I didn't expect were watching. So, number one, it was my family in Hong Kong. They'd organised a little screening of it and watched it live. And they were eating dinner. And then they sent me little screenshots and I just burst into tears. It was this really strange feeling of being so far away from them, but at the same time, so close. And I have a niece. She lives in Germany. And my sister as well, and my brother in law. And they were watching. And for them it was like morning, or something, but they'd tuned it at the same time. Sent me little screenshots of her watching Aunty Rainbow on the screen. Again, I just like burst into tears. And then just lots of friends and family texting in. Yeah. It was just this strange moment of being so far away from everyone, but feeling so close in that moment. Yeah. I might try and do more of these performances.

Roslyn: Wow. I love what you said about far away, but so close. What a time warp.

Rainbow: Yes. Yeah.

Roslyn: All these empty seats looking at you would have felt strange, too.

Rainbow: It felt like the space was haunted for that moment. I could sense that there were other people there that have existed before us. And other people that have sang on that stage and are no longer with us. And my ancestors. It seemed very thick with feeling, or something. I dunno, something was in that room, even though it was empty. Maybe it was just the smoke machine, I don't know. (Laughs) But it felt, it felt good. (Laughs)

Roslyn: There's was a lot of smoke.

Rainbow: There's was a lot of smoke, yes.

Roslyn: I wanted to ask you, what is occupying your creative headspace at the moment? Can you talk a bit about what you're working on right now?

Rainbow: Sure. Over the last three years I've been learning traditional Hong Kong folk songs as sung by women. So, my mum is Weitou, which is the first group of people to have settled in Hong Kong, around 900AD in the Song Dynasty. And they were farmers with their own culture, their own language, their own rituals. But then the British came in the eighteen hundreds and Hong Kong changed drastically. And Weitou culture is now like on the brink of disappearance and hardly anyone speaks the dialect. My mum can speak it, but she never passed it on to us because it was very stigmatised when she was growing up. So, she speaks Cantonese and we learnt Cantonese as kids. But the last couple of years I've gone, Oh, I really want to dig a bit deeper into this. Without any expectations of what I was going to discover. But upon, I guess, opening the Pandora's box, I realised that there's actually so much rich history, particularly female narratives, that have been underrepresented in the understanding of Weitou culture. Women sang to boost morale. To form community with other women. And they used song as a way to express their grief. Weitou culture is highly patriarchal and women had absolutely no rights. Treated just so poorly and, you know, had to raise children, but also farm and do all the housework. And the one way that they could deal with that adversity was through song. And they would pass it on through oral tradition, sang it to the next generation. Because they weren't taught how to read or write. So, a lot of this knowledge is disappearing because there's not much documentation of it. And now there's a sort of push from the younger generations to try and conserve what's still there. And most of the women who can sing these songs are in their 80s or 90s. So, over the last three years, I've been trying to go back and work with different social workers and communities to learn these songs and reimagine them, sort of, in my own way. So sometimes I perform it like in the more traditional way. But other times I want to kind of reinvigorate it. And relearn it or reset it in a way that I would make music as well. To show that Weitou culture is continuing and living. And not just belonging behind glass in a museum.

{Excerpt from Rainbow’s track, Lull ft.Chuiping & Choilin}

So that's one thing I've been working on and will continue to work on for the rest of my life. I've found a project that is a lifetime in the making and will continue to grow and change. The other thing I've been working on is writing my next album. I've been listening to a lot of old school East Asian divas. So, Teresa Teng is a huge influence. She's my mum's favourite singer. Anyone who's not familiar with her music, she's like the famous goddess ah, who was really popular in the 70s and 80s. And then she died of an asthma attack in the 90s, when she was quite young. She's Taiwanese and her music were these really cute and quaint love ballads about longing and romance? Nothing like X-rated or anything like that. But her music was banned in mainland China because it was promoting bourgeois ideals. But people would bootleg her music all over the country. So, she was super, super popular and underground as well. So, I love, I love her music for not only the sounds, but politically what she represents. And yeah, like a lot of that classic Cantonese Chinese pop writing has found its way into the music I've been writing recently. Where I just sit down with a guitar or a piano and I'm just writing on live instruments initially. And then I shift it onto the computer. Whereas previously, for the last two albums, I've been starting at the computer and then sort of working backwards. So yeah, the stuff I've been working on has more of a classic sound.

Roslyn: Mm, Great. And do you want to tell us what the name of that album is and when it'll be launched, or is that too far away?

Rainbow: It's too far away.

Roslyn: No pressure, sorry.

Rainbow: Yeah. Right now. Yeah. Right now there's, it's like, it's this blob. It's a big blob.

Roslyn: Uh-huh. Can you talk a bit about what your process looks from this blobby stage to making something concrete?

Rainbow: I love working with visuals. I find that seeing the overall aesthetic of where I want to take the project to be really helpful. So, I have lots of Pinterest mood boards that I create. Whether it's like a particular colour or a particular style of fashion or look or a particular interior space. I guess in a way it's quite filmic. Thinking about the music in this three-dimensional way. And I think eventually that always translates into the cover art or to the live performance and the animations that might accompany the live performance, through to the video clips I end up making. So, having those things inform the music as I'm making it is really fun and really helpful to deepen the music and embed it with more detail and vibrancy.

Roslyn: Mm hmm. Thanks for sharing that tip.

Rainbow: Hot tip.

Roslyn: So, I wanted to end by asking you Rainbow, in terms of sound-based artist that you find inspiring, who do you have an art crush on at the moment?

Rainbow: Oh, this is such a, this is such a big question. Oh, my gosh... Mmm... I'm going to keep it local and say I love Corin. Corin, who is a dear friend of mine. But her music just always evolves into next level magic. And I remember working with Corin, maybe like eight years ago now, when she was making more sort of piano, classical like inspired or ambient kind of inspired music. And seeing the evolution from that to the crazy futuristic, cyborgian soundscapes that she's making now. And also seeing her practice evolve into really collaborative spaces. She works a lot with Justin Shoulder, an amazing performance artist. And then also with Tristan Jalleh, seeing the 3D animation also coincide with Corin's music. For me it's just like so exciting. And again, I'm in a similar manner to the way I see my music work in different spaces, I think Corin's stuff is so exciting because you can play it in the club and it hits so hard, but then it totally makes sense in the space of a museum or a gallery or on headphones. It's just this four-dimensional experience that I, I'm just in awe of her talent. And, and she's just a beautiful, beautiful person. So lucky to have such a wonderful friend. So, yeah, Corin is like my ultimate art girl crush that I will just admire forever and ever and ever.

Roslyn: Great. Well, that's who I'm going to listen to this weekend. But right now, I’m going to play a fresh little audio sample from Rainbow Chan. On each episode of Audiosketch, I’ve invited our special guest to share a rough-draft audio experiment or field recording they’ve made, as a way of offering us a little insight into their current creative thinking… This Audiosketch you’re hearing from Rainbow, is titled Mahjong sketch. Rainbow, thank you so much joining me. It’s been so nice having an art date with you.

Rainbow: Thanks Roslyn. It's been a pleasure.

{Rainbow’s Audiosketch sample plays}

Roslyn: You’ve been listening to Audiosketch, hosted and produced by Roslyn Oades. With title music by Fia Fiell. This episode’s guest was Rainbow Chan. The track you heard inspired by traditional Weitou song was called Lull featuring Chuiping & Choilin. Lull was written, performed and produced by Rainbow Chan, mixed by Matthew Hadley and mastered by Becki Whitton. You can access links to these recordings as well as a full transcript of our conversation on the Chamber Made website. 

Audiosketch has been made possible by the Australia Council and was commissioned as part of Chamber Made’s Hi-Viz Practice Exchange. Hi-Viz is supported by the Helen Macpherson-Smith Trust and The Substation. Chamber Made receives multi-year funding from Creative Victoria.

 Thanks for listening.

 Running time: approx. 35.47 mins

RosO: So, what we might do to start is do a clap together so I can synchronise the claps after. So, I want you to close your eyes for this because we might be in slightly different, um-

 RosB: There might be a latency. Yeah, yeah.

RosO: So we’ll go, three two one clap.

Ros B: Okay.

Ros O: Ready? Three, two, one, clap

{Clap – signature title music by Fia Fiell begins}

RosO: Great. Weird. It's weird that we're not quite in the same moment in time, isn't it? We're out of time… And in time.

Ros B: There's no such thing as time.

Ros O: Yes, I know it's dissolved.

Ros B: Don't get me onto this argument. You'll be here all night! [Laughs]

Ros O: Welcome to Audio Sketch. A Chamber Made podcast dedicated to innovative artists working across performance, sound and music. I'm Roslyn Oades. And in this episode of Audio Sketch, I'm excited to be on an art date with internationally acclaimed sound artist, composer, musician and scholar, Dr Ros Band. Ros was recently honoured with the Richard Gill Award for Distinguished Services to Australian Music. And if you're not familiar with her pioneering audio works, I strongly recommend a visit to her website.

{Signature title music by Fia Fiell}

Ros O: Hi, Ros.

Ros B: Hi Ros.

[laughter]

Ros B: I love this.

Ros O: I know. I feel a bit weird about us both having the same name.

Ros B: Oh, it's really lovely. And I wanted to meet you face to face for ages. So, I think it's really great that you invited me to do this.

Ros O: Oh, it's so lovely to have you here. So, Ros, if you were to be a sound right now, what sound would you be?

Ros B: I would be the Currawong. In my fountain.

Ros O: I love that. Why Currawong?

Ros B: I've been totally obsessed with them during COVID lockdown here because we've got one that visits. And I imitate back to it. And I've made thousands of recordings. This morning I got up and I really couldn't get my Zoom recorder together in time. And the acoustic was magnificent because it was really warm and sunny very early, at about quarter to six. And it's just got to be in my head. So now that Currawong sound is in me.

RosO: Can you give me a sample of your Currawong?

RosB: Um, I could probably play it on an instrument. Would that be...?

RosO: Oh my gosh, I'd love that.

RosB: I've been transcribing them for about six months. Um…

{RosB plays a sample of her Currawong composition}

RosO: Oh, wow. That makes my heart sing.

RosB: Oh, good, because I've been struggling with these, all these pitches for some time now. And, you know, the resonance of the different weathers and everything. They tend to fly over right above the window in this room. And I've had the big, bold man, the beautiful woman teaching the baby to preen its feathers, to... oh, learn to sing. It's making this sound like errrrr at the moment. [laughs] So it's a very beautiful discovery. And I never felt so attached to a currawong in my whole path. Done pieces about magpies and pelicans and rectors and all kinds of birds. I even play in a baroque group called Trio Avium. So, you know, I’m pretty birdie.

RosO: You're known as a pioneering international sound artist, and I know that you draw a lot of inspiration from the world around you. You've made some incredible site-responsive works in collaboration with water tanks, a giant chimney stack, underwater environments with the winds of Mungo Lake, wailing koalas, eagles in Arizona, sea whistles in Japan and in a dripping underground cistern in Turkey, which I loved. As an artist, you seem to be constantly moving. So, I'm really curious to know how you've adapted to this very restricted, localised moment in time during the age of COVID.

RosB: I think it's been a gift in lots of ways. Cause we don't have as many planes going around. People are listening to each other and they're more aware of where they are in relation to each other. So, the selfishness of capitalism has been put on hold. And, I've enjoyed that part of it. And I'm never bored. I've always got so many ideas and I never have enough time to finish things off.

And, I've always been really quite obsessive about recording sound and having my own palette from all these strange instruments that I play like, you know, Ancient Greek lyres and the cross-cultural tarhu. And I've made a big glass flagon and I've made other kinds of music box contraptions that are amplified and wind-up rabbits and silly things. Anything to make a sound, you know? And this sort of adaptability is always given me really, really a lot of joy… I just see it as embracing everything that makes a sound and seeing the potential, if you can run with it and find out things that you don't know from that first incidence.

I was lucky to get a little COVID grant, so that's going to be Currawongs. On the day that we're all allowed out, I am going to fill this whole room with all the Currawongs from all over Australia. And I appealed to the Australian Wildlife sound recordists, and they've all sent me their recordings of Currawongs. From Queensland, all over New South Wales. So, I am making this into a huge piece for an outburst. [Laughs] So that Currawong is going to have a very big journey.

{We hear a field recording of Currawong bird calls}

RosO: Ros, I love the black and white photos on your website of you as a young woman standing on top of a big water tank and I'm aware you've also done some collaborations with wheat silos. Can you tell me about the wheat silo project?

RosB The Voices of the Wheat Silos.

RosO: Mmm.

RosB I started in, whenever is was? 1980 something. I got a bit struck. I think it was because my mother, she taught me to drive in her snazzy automatic car on the Ouyen Highway. And I was 14. And y'know, that was sort of wild - because she was from the farm, and, you know, she wanted all of us to be able to drive and all this sort of thing. And so, I was out there and I was just so dumbstruck by this image of these clusters of these big silos. And in Geelong, we used to ride our bikes up the Deviation Road to the Geelong cement works where they were all made. Eighty-nine foot cement, big clusters of eight, that you see all over the landscape. So, I just decided that they were going to be my cathedrals of the landscape. Because that's how it looks. You're just driving forever. We don't have churches. We have, we have silos. [laughs] This is what colonial Australia is celebrating. Wheat. Okay. I can tell you some horrendous environmental stories of what I found in all of those - arsenic and rat poison and dead animals. And, you know, and this is the wheat that we're eating.

RosO: What did what did the farmers make of you coming along and falling in love with the sound of their silos?

RosB: Well, the first time I did it, it was really exciting. I was on a Musica Viva tour with La Romanesca Early Music Ensemble. And we were staying at one of the really modern farmers. And oh, they were young and spunky and gorgeous. And he had all these different kinds of silos on his property. It was at Young, Lambing Flat. And I said, Oh, I'd love to go and see the big cluster in town. And he said, I can arrange it. So, he just arranged for me to go in there. And of course, we had all of the ABC guys recording La Romanesca. So, I said, hey, where did you come down, and y'know, see if we can capture something? And it was just so spontaneous. Because after you’ve been up a ladder for 90 feet in the air and you've got your Nagra, and all your bits on your back, you know every molecule in your body. I was so terrified, I can't tell you. I was just like, this buzzing thing. All these little terrifying... It was like I was photosynthesizing or something. It was just such an amazing experience. In the end, I realised there was not really a shelf where I could slide in through the door and put, catch myself from going down the funnel. So I didn't think that was really a good idea. So, in the end, I was sort of over the door on my hip level, just waving my, top of my body inside and doing a test. And it really wasn't all that great because the funnel, the top part... It's all happening underneath, at the bottom of the funnel. Through these beautiful mediaeval cannon Bishop-hat style things. So, in the end, we put the microphones facing out into the far silos. And John and I played back-to-back without looking. And it was getting mixed as a result of us throwing it against the end walls and then coming back and making this confluence. So, in that first vinyl there's no editing whatsoever. In the water tank or in the wheat silo. They're just straight takes. I never set out to do that, it was just explorations of my curiosity, really.

RosO: Wow, that sounds exhilarating.

RosB Oh, it was amazing.

{We hear a soundbite from Dr Ros Bandt’s wheat silo recording: No.10 Fragment for bamboo flute and voice from the Album Improvisation in Acoustic Chambers}

RosO: And is that a signature creative process of yours? Like, are you quite spontaneous? Are you the sort of artist that just plays and discovers? Like, if you could describe your mode of work, where you get good flow, how would you articulate that?

RosB: I think I'm flowing in counterpoint the whole time and I can go off in any direction at any moment. So, watch it! [Laughs] And I think that that's how life is. You know, we're living in all these different temporalities of our reality, of what we think we're doing.

And in my installation, in Time Warps, that I did in Adelaide, where I set eight anthropomorphic figures to represent J.T. Frasers categories of how he saw time from, you know, all these different layers…. I was talking about new temporality, the kind of consciousness of time that we can know all of our menstrual cycle, our lunar cycles, our seismic geographic... You know, frogs can only make sound when they can contact their mates. So, if they live outside the perimeter of the width of the pond, they won't get to have that little froggy that they want. Because it's acoustically determined sex…

So there’s all these different layers. Anyway, I commend that book Time, the Familiar Stranger by J.T. Fraser to everybody. I was totally mad about it. I buy copies of it for people. Because it's it gets you to think about the plurality of the times…

So, I made this installation and each figure that I made had a speaker and a sensor… And this whole chaotic system of multi-channel. If you have a look at my website, it's all explained in the article I wrote called Designing with Chaos, Allowing the Unprogrammable to Occur.

RosO: Ros, for those unfamiliar with the term, what is Acoustic Ecology?

RosB: Ah, acoustic ecology. Yeah, well, this term was coined in 1993 in Banff, where we had the first ever meeting of the World Forum of Acoustic Ecology. This was the studies of the soundscape and everything to do with sound in the environment and acoustic spaces and the relationship between species. And it was very much coming from Vancouver and the work of the Aesthetic Research Centre, in Canada there, in the 70s, headed up by Murray Schafer and his colleague Hildegard Westerkamp and also the father of Granulation, of course, wrote the Dictionary of Acoustic Ecology, Barry Truax...

And there were two people from Australia. Jonathan Mills and myself. I gave a paper and everybody laughed because I was writing my book on sound installation artists at the time, and I was trying to give everybody a guernsey. I wanted the whole world to see what Australia was doing… Now it's a big club with all these little groups all over the world. And they have meets and it's, they're really exciting. And I encourage you all to be a member. Leah Barclay is the head of the Australian Acoustic Ecology Foundation at the moment.

RosO: Ros, I'd now like to play the audio sketch you've brought along today. To let our listeners in on this, in the spirit of sharing practice, I invited Ros to bring along a soundbite that offers us a little insight into some of her current creative thinking. Before we have a listen, is there anything you wanted to say about this recent field recording you've made on the banks of the Yarra River in Melbourne?

RosB: Well, it's just a documentation of the soundscape of a prominent sound signature in the middle of town. The next day, I was going to be working with architecture students in a master's class with the Federation Bells App. And as that's very beautifully documented, the whole of the Birrarung Marr site and everything, from the Federation period when those bells were made so beautifully by Anton Hasell and Neil McLachlan. They made these cross-cultural bells and I marked Anton's PHD on his amazing journey researching the cross-cultural bell. Which I thought was a really fantastic piece of work. And I was teaching Advanced Improv at Box Hill this year, and I realised what a good thing this was, that they had this app. That we could all play the bells from wherever we were. And what a good thing this was in lockdown. So, one of my students had moved to Kalgoorlie. So here we are playing all these bells for the six months. You all have to download the Fed Bells App if you haven't. Have a play. Your two-year old can play it, it's really great. There's thirty-nine bells, and you play the app however you want. But you can key up different kinds of scales. You can do it in meantone, you can do it in pentatonic. You can do it in whatever you want. And you can compose for it. And they play music that people have either been commissioned. At the beginning there was 10 legit composers. This is in 2001. But when I went down there this week, and I listened to it, this was my experience.

 {We hear Ros Bandt’s audio sketch field recording of the Federation Bells}

RosB: The thing about this was that I was sitting there reinvestigating. And seeing my city after I hadn't been in there for six months. And we sat on the river and I'm thinking, Yarra Yarra. Birrarung Marr. I'm listening to metal bells. Bang, bang, bang, bang. And something just didn't sit right with me at all. As beautiful and all as it is. I'm walking around, in through the sculptures. If you actually listen to that recording on headphones, you can hear the spatial wandering. And, it's a sound walk on a certain day. And, it's very interesting from up there because you can see the river straight in front of you. And the riverbank is all gravel. That's not the real riverbank. Why have we allowed that to happen? I'm sitting in a flat plain. I'm looking at 40 big screw bolts through tin. And everybody's coming and being guided down this sheep run. Of where you allowed to go there. Every time we build a wall we change the acoustic space. And people have to take more responsibility for this.

RosO: So, what is it about that audio clip that you want to draw attention to?

RosB: I wanted to give everybody an invitation to go and sit in your city and think about what should be the sonic signature of Melbourne. Should it be that? That is a beautiful thing. And there's nothing wrong with colonial music. I play it too. I tour and perform in concert halls. However, when we talk about hearing Australian identity, is that our representation? And okay, if this was the Federation. It's a colonial thing. Federation is a confederation of colonial nations that have stolen the ground. And I just couldn't really accept it twenty years later on. So, my question to everybody is, if you have a great idea for a sound signature for Melbourne, let's hear it. I think it's a really good story, the Federation Bells. The Melbourne city has done a great job curating it. They've made it accessible. There's so many good things about it. I'm not canning it. But I'm putting it in the bigger picture. In Japan, they have 100 soundscapes of Japan and people go to these places to hear the sound of the something-a-rather, at the time when it occurs. How many people have seen a Brolga? What about all the things that aren't there now? I've said in a lot of my writings on sound, sound is an amazing barometer of the health of a nation.

{We hear a sting from the Audiosketch title music by Fia Fiell here}

RosO: Your career spans 40 years of working internationally. Looking back, is there a project in particular that stands out as a personal favourite, and why?

RosB: Oh look, I'm just totally immersed in what's ahead in in a constant present. So, for me to do a comparative thing, um...

RosO: Is there one that lingers, even after you've put it to bed though?

RosB: Yeah, there are lots. But I have to say that in the Yerebatan Cistern in Istanbul in 2010 with Erdem Helvacioglu and the South North Ensemble that I got together. We ended up doing two concerts at the Yerebatan Cistern in Istanbul. Sixth Century Water Palace with Romanesque ceilings.

RosO: Which sounds beautiful

It was a site-specific electroacoustic symphony. First night we did a duet of sounding the basilica. And I put the live hydrophone feed in. You could hear the fish. So, the audience is sitting on these elevated little pathways that are over the water and they're looking up at, like, a huge Romanesque cathedral. And illuminated faces of Medusa on the pylons. So, the whole thing has been a contested architectural collage. And it's been a rubbish tip. But it's been restored to become a venue. And I was so lucky to be able to get in there for two whole Saturday nights to do whatever I wanted. Can you imagine?

RosO: That sounds extraordinary. It sounds like the most beautiful performance venue.

RosB: And the second night, Erdem and I were doing this amazing sounding, bringing the acoustic spaces to life. The fish, the reverberation on the wall is sending the sound right down the corridor. And before we went in, Nat (Natalie Mann) and I went in there to do a bit of a sound check for our acoustic instruments. Because it's really wet. And to get a full-sized concert harp in there and my tarhu could nearly kill ourselves, you know? And slip into the watery abyss. We needed to be a bit in control. And we've got four sound systems going and leads everywhere and I'm thinking we're gonna electrocute the audience. We'd better have a bit more knowledge about this. So, Nat and I went in there and we just called to each other in the pitch dark. There was only one guy there to let us in, who clattered around with his chair and everything. And Nat and I just ran the open mic. I think it was an Eddieroll on a chair. And those recordings are on the Tarhu Connections CD, of her and my improvisations.

RosO: I heard a little excerpt on your website. It sounds like you can hear dripping, is that right?

RosB Yes. It all drips off the ceiling because the condensation. And the more people that are in there, the more drips. Yeah?

RosO: It sounded amazed amazing.

RosB: People have said I was born in a water tank…

{We hear a soundbite from Ros Bandt’s recordings at the Yerebaton Cistern, titled Yerebaton Sarnici II, from the album, Tarhu Connections}

The thing about these acoustic places is that when you make a sound, you're puncturing a space. It's a holy gift of listening and being in the sound. And when you're in a place that's got an amazing acoustic. Whether it's a water tank, a wheat silo, a church, a Neolithic cave of ritual performance, a sacred oak tree in Dordogne where the first oracles were brought down, they are so totally special. You can feel not only the acoustic, but the life that's gone before you. And this makes you do work that you can't know you're going to do. And you've got to completely trust and give over.

RosO: Wow beautiful. As an artist myself, I'm really inspired by the breadth of your body of work and how you've continued to experiment, take risks and evolve as an artist throughout your entire career. You’ve just kept moving. You’re clearly very curious and passionate. And, I'd love to ask you, who's been your artistic role model?

Um… I’ve had lots of helpers along the way but I'm Lou Bandt's daughter. He invented the ute and he told me in Geelong when I was about nine that I could do anything I wanted if I was clever enough. And if I wasn't, ask someone who was. Such great advice. Because how do I know how to use a lath? I know how to use these things now. You know, I've made Aeolian harps. I've cut glass  . You know, as Chris Wallace Crabbe kept saying to me in the next room when we were at the Australia Centre, ‘Oh, Blue, you're pretty good for a girl from Geelong.’ [Laughs]

My mother was a fantastic musician, too, and we had two pianos in our house and they'd have everybody in after church. We had something like twenty-five sets of angels’ wings in the in the attic. And he'd put on plays and I'd have to get up and do stuff. And you just did things. So, like, that was kind of like before community arts, you know? Just live with Lou Bandt.

And I guess I was very lucky in that because of his fame I lived all over the world at a very young age, and I was exposed to archaeological people digging in the Middle East when I was 12. And It had a huge impact on me… I wanted to go to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. I so wanted to go when I was eight. I couldn't stop drawing them. And all this sort of thing. So, it was no, no surprise, really then. You know, I was more interested in ideas than being a musician.

And I probably, if I could have done more science, I would have been some other kind of an alchemist because I'm really interested in gravitational fields and quantum theories and parallel universes and different kinds of nebulae and all of that sort of thing, in the simultaneity. And that's what I've done with doing my chaotic system in the sip of all those installations. I've had multiple elements of sound confluencing, being triggered by the audience. The auditor. Which answers, if a tree is falling in the forest do you hear it? In my installations, you are the tree. However much time you spend there, that's all you'll hear. So tough. And I remember getting a critique from ArtLink, “Dr. Bandt expects so much of her listeners”. Bring it on. [laughs]

RosO: That's great. Well you have an incredible mind. And it's been so lovely to talk to you. It’s been a real honour. Thank you so much for your generous time and just for entering into the spirit of sharing your practice with us. I really appreciate it.

RosB: I really take my hat off to your generation. I think you're doing great research. You're getting terrific plasticity in the way you're thinking around new ways of doing things. And I give you all my great support.

RosO: Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you so much. It’s been great.

{Signature title music by Fia Fiell begins}

RosO: You’ve been listening to Audiosketch, hosted and produced by Roslyn Oades. With title music by Fia Fiell. This episode’s guest artist was Dr Ros Bandt.

The excerpt you heard from Ros Bandt’s wheat silo project was titled “No.10 Fragment for Bamboo Flute & Voice” from the album Improvisations in Acoustic Chambers, and the excerpt from her Yerebatan Cistern recordings was titled “Yerebaton Sarnici II” from the album, Tarhu Connections.  If you would like links to these recordings – or any of the other great resources Ros Bandt has mentioned - you can access a full list of episode references, as well as a transcript of this conversation, on the Chamber Made website.   

Audiosketch has been made possible by the Australia Council and was commissioned as part of Chamber Made’s Hi-Viz Practice Exchange. Hi-Viz is supported by the Helen Macpherson-Smith Trust and The Substation. Chamber Made receives multi-year funding from Creative Victoria.  

Thanks for listening.

Image credit: Carolyn Connors

Chamber Made acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which we are based and where we make work, the Boon Wurrung and Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri) peoples of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and to all First Nations people throughout Australia.

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