Sound maker Roslyn Oades was commissioned by Chamber Made to create a podcast series. Roslyn conducted a series of art dates with artists about their practice, with conversations particularly referencing how they have been listening at this moment in time.

Listen to each of the podcasts using the links below. 

{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.


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.

{Signature title music by Fia Fiell}

INTRO: Welcome to Audiosketch, a new podcast dedicated to innovative artists working across performance art and music. I'm Roslyn Oades, and in this episode of Audiosketch, I'm thrilled to be on an ‘in real life’ art date with critically acclaimed theatre director Adena Jacobs. Adena's distinct body of theatre work encompasses feminist renderings of ancient text, hallucinatory images and operatic sound scores. If you like your theatre, wild, haunting and intelligently crafted, Adena's work is a must see.

{Signature title music by Fia Fiell}

ROS: Right, that's, you know...

ADENA: (Laughs)That's, that's great.

ROS: Is that in the ballpark? It's hard to describe your work, actually. It kind of hovers between being really visceral and so sophisticated. It's sort of hard to define.

ADENA: I've really struggled to define it over the years for marketing purposes and grant purposes because it's, it's intentionally in between all of those things. Sometimes descriptions feel too heavy-handed at times, somehow.

ROS: Which must be satisfying as an artist because it's clearly not meant to be a piece of written work, it's... it exists as this visual, aural, visceral thing?

ADENA: I think so. I mean, it's kind of... I'm so conscious of the transaction between audience and, and performance. Or audience and scenography and sensory environment, that in a way that is where the content is largely made. And so, you know, after the fact you have photos and a video or whatever, and that does capture the tone of the show, or the visual language of the show, but it actually is a whole other product. It's not, the thing itself. Which I guess is live performance, which we've all been missing, very much.

ROS: Yes. I think there's something like a conjuring when I come and see one of your works. And it is about being in this space with people. And I don't know, you draw back to something quite ancient. Yeah, it's a bit of magic that happens.

ADENA: There is a witchiness that that I always feel like is somehow embedded in the, in the collaboration's I have. In those theatre works where we're working from ancient texts, we're working really long from improvisations and in a kind of a hallucinatory mode or definitely an asocial kind of mode. And, I feel like through those improvisations, this conjuring that you're talking about, arises in some way. It's kind of about the thing that's created between those performers and between the composer, between the designer, that's sort of made on the spot and then somehow transferred to the audience. I really enjoy that aspect of the actual making process where things erupt and arise. And then you just think, how can I capture that and create that experience for the audience that we're all experiencing in that rehearsal room.

ROS: The first question I like to ask all my guests on Audiosketch is, Adena, if you were a sound right now, what sound would you be?

ADENA: I'm terrible at these kind of questions I feel like that's very difficult… I think if I was a sound right now, I would be a plane taking off. Or a plane about to take off. That's, that's my mood today. Or, maybe, that's such a familiar sound from a previous life before this year, which was about anticipation and surrendering. And I'm a terrible flyer as well. So, a kind of jolt of terror. And, all of those things that are part of, I guess, motion. The sound of motion. Taking off.

ROS: That sounds positive?

ADENA: Yeah, that's partly positive. Terror and motion, is the adrenaline of life, I guess. Which I do think is returning…


{Plane liftoff audio clip}


ADENA: The sound that I return to in my work is more to do with breath than the human body. I think often there is a layer of breath in those soundscapes. Or, a work might start from a bodily sound, which has been magnified in some way. So, I think, the landscape of the sonic world has to do with the body. The archive of the body.

ROS: Which, I guess must be one of the first sounds you heard in utero.

ADENA: Yeah, I guess so. Although, I think that sort of sound world in utero - which is totally a fantasy, I guess, from an adult perspective - that imagined space is often part of the sound worlds in my work somehow. And so, we're creating imagery that's very... Things are hyper-visible in some ways, but then sound worlds are really organic and internal. There's definitely a juxtaposition between the visual and the sonic.

ROS: Yeah, and I noticed just listening to the score from Howling Girls, it starts off so intimate, you know, to hear someone's breath that close. If it were film it would be like a close-up. But, you’re in this vast space but you’re hearing a close-up sound.

ADENA: Yeah. I mean, the sound of Jane's voice, I mean, that kind of reverse breathing that she does, which goes for thirty-five minutes in the dark. She's incredible, and she was under layers of sheets and fur and miked and she had this track in her ear. And, I'd go up during the tech, and we're good friends, and we would just laugh and go, what are we, what are we doing here? It was quite extreme. But as an audience, you could hear every bit of her breath, every bit of her movement, swallowing... Which is such an exposing thing for a singer. For you to hear everything that they're doing for thirty-five minutes. Uninterrupted by the visual. So, all that was happening in that work is a very small light, and then a kind of scanning light that sort of scanned over her body, but not much else.

{Howling Girls excerpt: Jane Sheldon’s breathing at head of show}

ROS: So, I'd wanted to talk to you in more detail about this extraordinary award-winning work, The Howling Girls, which you directed and conceived with Damien Ricketson for Sydney Chamber Opera. Yeah, I was blown away by this work, which I've only seen on video. And I really hope it comes to Melbourne because I would so love to experience it.

ADENA: I hope- It was supposed to this year and it was one of the casualties of COVID.

ROS: One reviewer referred to The Howling Girls as having a dream logic. And in experiencing it, I felt like I'd been hovering on the edge of something very dark and unknowable. And then moved through that and was delivered out the other side into the early morning light. Where did that work come from?

ADENA: That is a really good question. Where did it come from? It came from a few places, one of which was a longform conversation I had with Damien Ricketson. So, we had been a match-made by Jack Symonds at Sydney Chamber Opera. I never had a process like that before, I usually initiate my own work or I have longform collaborations with people. He just, sort of, put us together and said, go away and see if you come up with something. And so, we just started coffee dating. And, our work is very different but there was also some shared interests, particularly around creating something which was sensory and kind of formless in a way that felt like it was really about a pure state. And we initially actually spoke about doing a 24-hour work where a soprano was singing herself hoarse. Like a kind of ritual swan song, I guess.

ROS: Wow.

ADENA: But we knew that no soprano in their right mind would actually do that. But there was something about the extremity of that idea, the focus on the voice, a kind of really distilled piece of work that we could make together, and a focus on the female voice, that led us forward. And we were sort of swimming around in it for ages. But I had read this anecdote - it was just in a bookshop, opened this book and read this anecdote by Susan Faludi - and it was about these five young girls after September 11th who all presented at different hospitals in Manhattan with these symptoms. And they thought that they had swallowed some debris. And these young women didn't know each other. It was kind of a phenomenon. And it was just this image that had sat in my mind for ages.

ROS: And this is a true thing… True phenomenon?

ADENA: This is a true story. And I didn't know much more about it, but it was just this image that had kind of, hovered in my mind. And somewhere down the very long, many years of conversation with Damien, that image returned in relation to this work. And so, we fused those things together and then went from there. And I think also it was... I don’t know, I guess a lot of my work is drawn from very heavy patriarchal sources, and it's about me trying to reframe and reimagine them. And, conceptually, those works are very rigorous, but they're also... It's very heavy kind of task to do. And I'm continuously wondering if that's the right task to continue doing. And I think with Howling Girls, it was an opportunity to make something outside of that frame. And, something which just went into this world of pure sensations, which was trying to capture a feeling of terror. Trying to make a work which was about the body, but which was bodyless. You really don't see the bodies of the performers very much. Not until the end. We were intentionally depriving the audience of sight so that their listening would be magnified.

ROS: It's interesting that the work clearly inspired by quite dark material, but I found it quite an empowering work in that, you know, the voice hovers between wailing and suffocation, as well as song, and angelic sounds. And by the end, you are kind of left in light, and the female chorus finds… They find a voice.


ROS: And that's really powerful.

ADENA: It's really interesting. Depending on who the audience member is, also the context - we premiered it in Sydney and then we did it a year later in Tokyo and they read really differently - because of the global politics, I think, that are constantly changing. And, some people read it as utopian and some read it as a kind of entrance into death, or sort of an annihilation of some kind. And I sit between all of those things. I think when we were making it, I read that final section - where there are angelic voices and where there is a kind of, sort of utopian gesture I think, in terms of these young women speaking in this proto language and claiming the space and also moving out of this space of trauma into some other mode or some other language, some of the grammar. When we first made it, I saw it as a kind of fantasy or a speculative future where they were imagining their way out of it. And then a year later, when I watched it, I thought, oh, no, it's not a fantasy. This is right. And then it felt like a clearer political gesture second time around. But I don't know what I… I don't know how I actually read it myself.

{Howling Girls excerpt: girls choir performing proto-type language}

ROS: That's interesting that you instinctually know where the work's going, but you don't fully intellectualise it.

ADENA:  I don't think I understand my work completely.

ROS: Do you feel like you're in service to the idea and it partly knows what it is. And you, you serve it like a midwife to find itself - but there's a sense of mystery embedded in it?

ADENA: That's a really good way of putting it. I think that's right. There will always be for me a seed at the beginning of the project, usually a visual image of some kind, whether that relates to the source material or whether that's something that comes out of the blue in a sort of more abstract. But it's a recurring image that I need to uncover in the making of that piece. And in a way, once you open that door, the door shuts behind you and then you're in that. You know, you're in that making space, which is a mystery. And it's sort of equally out of control and in my control. Of course, as I maker I'm responsible for the direction of the process and the questions that are asked to continuously interrogate and be rigorous and to shape. But, at the same time, there is a kind of uncontrolled force once you enter into material which is dark and which is mysterious and which is about unknowable subjects. And I think I'm always interested in a space beyond what we can understand, and an unstageable, impossible realm of some kind. I think with Howling Girls, what was really different was that it was more like working with a playwright - which I really rarely do, or maybe never have done to its completion - because we were conceiving together but then Damien is the writer. You know, he wrote the score. I think If I had written the score, which of course I'm not a composer and I'm very glad Damien masterfully made that score, I don't know if I would have found the way for those voices to inhabit such a, kind of, freeing and beautiful space. As a female artist, I would have wrestled with much more in relation to kind of freeing the female voice. Whereas I think for Damien that was essential as a thread, which makes sense, and something we spoke about. There was something new for me that opened up in that work. Because of that direction, which was a struggle, but also a really interesting opening. So, it twisted me out of my usual shape. I remember watching it and thinking I'm so surprised by where we've arrived.

ROS: It sounds exciting as an artist. Do you feel like a new thread has open up from that work for you?

ADENA: I think it has, although I don't yet know how that will lead to new works. And I have new works in the pipeline. Some of which are based on an ancient text yet again, and some of which are not. So, I don't really know and I feel like I'm in a   confused space maybe or an in-between space. But I do think that the Howling Girls cracked open something. And it was much more untethered. And I felt that in the tech for that, cause I had two nights of tech, and the first one where we were making that first section that's thirty-five minutes in the dark - and then we sort of bring Jane out of the dark into this choking sound that she makes on the front of the stage – working in tandem with Jenny Hector as a lighting designer to mold that, with the music, and as that was sort of evolving, it was honestly the most exhilarating moment in a tech I've ever had. Because we all were riding this thing and we're just… Yeah, it was kind of thrilling. And then, of course, the next take ago, it all falls apart. And you think, Oh no, what are we, what are we making? But it was truly being made in the moment.  

ROS: And it takes great confidence to be that director that can just respond instinctually at that point in a project.

ADENA: I think it takes confidence because... Until you're in the space with the full sound. Until we have lighting and, you know you've, you've got a soprano lying on a bench in a room. In a way, the confidence was about pushing it to an extreme place and trusting that. That also requires the confidence of, in this case, Jane and the designers as well. And I think what's brilliant about Jane, beyond of course her voice and her artistry, is that she creates this sense of permission where you don't have to worry that she's going to go, that's too weird, or have any ego around things. She's really trying to find the most exciting, most dangerous, most interesting position for the total work to be in. And she can see it from the inside and the outside. And so, you know that you can go anywhere without having to sort of dance around that, which opens everything up.

ROS: That's a real gift.

ADENA: It's such a big gift.

{Musical interlude by Fia Fiell}

ROS: You've worked with some incredible sound designers and composers. What's your approach to collaborating with sound artists? Does it require a different language?

ADENA: Hmm… I don't think it does require a different sort of approach for me. Particularly with the more music driven theatre works, I'm really working with a whole team in a collaborative way. And the way that we're speaking about the work is really outside of our own art forms. And, it's really about understanding the work and cracking it open and creating usually a kind of visual language for us, but also always talking about the sonic world, in conjunction with it. I've worked with Max Lyandvert a lot over the past few years and a lot of this early conceptual conversations are often about the mode of transmission for language or for speech or for sound. And so that's always embedded into the early phases. But then in the room, with most of the sound designers I work with, they usually improvise live on the floor as we're improvising. And so that's a really key part of the process. Part of the, kind of, memory bank for the performers, and for myself, when we're creating the work are these sounds that keep coming back to the space and these musical motifs, and it becomes part of the fabric of the work. And triggers for certain things to happen on the floor. I'm sort of lost when the sound design is like, oh wait, I need to come in two hours late. And then I'm playing on my iTunes. And I just think, oh, it's so empty. And you can feel the performers think, oh, hopefully, you know, we'll get back to… Because it's such a rich, evocative aspect of the making process.

ROS: In your ideal scenario, would you have the sound designer or composer with you for the entire rehearsal devising process? Is it that essential?

ADENA: Oh, yeah, definitely. Because a lot of the work is made out of improvisation. And sometimes it's really hard to capture the good parts of what we've what we've made. Um, if I'm sort of thinking about past few works that I've done with Max, in those contexts he will find something musically that hooks into whatever the real core of what's happening is. And then that will be the thing that continues to develop. So even though what's happening on stage might be quite different between that first good improvisation say, and where it ends up, the core of it remains. And the memory for all of us is sort of linked back to those musical motifs. And it becomes more embodied somehow.

ROS: How does that start?  Like, can that come from anyone or do you always lead and sound follows?

ADENA: The beginning of the process it's usually me setting a very open task.  But then over time, as we're kind of building a language and a grammar, then sometimes yeah, the sort of sound can just start and performers will just know what to do. Or there'll be a new rack of strange costumes or something that might, you know, set it off in motion. But yeah, usually in the beginning it's more framed and then it evolves. And then at a certain point in a process, improvisation ceases to work anymore. And then, it's time to make some decisions.

ROS: Looking at your website for Fraught Outfit, you describe yourself as a director, but you seem to be more akin to a world builder. Why do you use the term director and not writer / maker / conjurer?

ADENA: I know. I've actually, I was inspired by Daniel Schlusser, who’s my very good friend, I remember him saying once, I call myself a theatre director because I think directing should be able to encompass all of these things and it shouldn't just be aligned with a more kind of conventional way of making theatre. And I was like, yeah, that sounds good. Because I do feel my role as a director, I do associate with that more strongly I think than those other terms. But I know that it doesn't catch all of the different modes that I'm interested in working with. And it implies something more traditional than what I would like, I guess. But I think when he said that, that resonated and I think we should try to open up what that is, because that role is evolving over time. In any process I do still feel like, even though it's deeply collaborative, that I'm usually initiating the world building and then directing the process. In a way, it's a sort of dance between the singularity of the director and then the total collaboration. That singularity for me is really important. And the work is, on the one hand, made by all of us, but for me there's a really strong personal drive as well. I sort of sit between both of those modes.

ROS: Yeah, it definitely seems to have your signature on it somehow. Like it's got your DNA in it, the works. There's a real kind of thread through...

ADENA: I wouldn't know how to make it work otherwise. This is probably the most honest answer. It's not really even wanting a signature, or kind of even knowing what that is. I mean, in fact, actually, when things kind of start to recur in the works, I think, oh God, no. I'm like repeat to back to this sort of thing.

ROS: It just means you're not finished with it.

ADENA: Yeah, yeah, exactly... But as a guiding principle… And, and also, over the years, I think you start to understand where your work comes from more and more. That feels really important to keep mining that.

{Audio montage: Plane decent announcement/COVID news clips/call waiting}

ROS: So, the last year has been a very wild ride, to say the least, as an artist what has it taken away from you and what has it given you?

ADENA: I don't know, I just feel like we're coming out of a cave or something. It's hard to even have perspective on what this year has been. I mean, what it's taken away is being in rooms with other people and being in our bodies and taking actual risks in the moment. And I think all of those things are at the centre of how I understand making art to be, and making performance to be. And there'll always be a period before where I'm doing research or it's more introspective, but then that's actually quite a safe place for me. And, the point at which we are thrown into the mess of the making is the terrifying place, and it's where it really happens. And so, I think that was taken this year. And conversations, and the way that we sort of meet people through an arts community, and just seeing other people's work and being inspired by that. So yes, many things we're taking away. But what was given? I think for me, what was given was just having all that time with my family. And I have a twenty-one-year, month, I was about to say as a 21-year-old. She is not! Maybe she seems like a 21-year-old in her spirit. She's a 21-month-old, daughter. And I think that having that really uninterrupted time was amazing. I mean, it's maddening to be trying to get work done and having a toddler knocking on the door and screaming. But it was also, day to day, getting to watch all of those changes happen, and that was really amazing. And I had one core project that I've been working on, on Zoom, with some collaborators. Which is a production of the Trojan Women that will happen overseas. And, there was something really weird and new about saying to everyone, Oh, let's meet on this day. Everyone was free. All the time! And so, we really went deep into this dreaming and research phase. All from our own closet offices, in different houses. There was something about being able to go deep in that way and do a lot of reading and be in solo spaces, but then coming together over this period of time. We did so much dreaming. So much research. Maybe like how I used to do when I was at VCA and had all this time or something to really swim around in all of this reference material and dreaming. And for me, research is like a kind of dreaming process. Which is really opening and not rushed.

ROS: And do you think any of the residue of that physical reality of being locked down and having a restricted footprint will make it into Trojan Women?

ADENA: I think so. I mean, we sort of realised, Eugeene Teh the set designer, and we realised that the set is like this kind of vacuum waiting room sensation anyway. And we're like, oh, shit, we're trapped in this waiting room of this sort of show that we've made. But it definitely captured this sort of sensation of waiting and the unpredictability of being caught between one state and another in some way, and that's in the visual language of the work. And also, I think we were stuck in place physically, but the world was incredibly turbulent. The gap that the virus created has allowed so many different layers of trauma to erupt and become hyper-visible. And being physically still, but witnessing all of this stuff happen while trying to make this work, which is about a group of people kind of at the end of a civilisation who are waiting for their fate to be handed to them, was really wild. And I thought maybe you have bit off more than I can chew here… I'd made the decision to make this work before this year but I think the virus has brought so much to the surface… That also makes decisions about what kind of art to make really confusing, because there's so much at stake. And there's so much noise and there's so many different voices. In the past, maybe for me there's always this interest in stepping over an invisible taboo, or trying to play with this transgressive material to take myself, and to take an audience, into kind of an unknown terrain. But now I sort of feel like, well, there's nothing left to be transgressed. I just feel like everything has kind of exploded out. It's a really strange time to be making...

ROS: But it's actually exciting that you're already part way through making a work when this has happened. it's got quite a bit of momentum behind it. It's going to happen, so you have to keep making it. So, it's quite interesting that you'll be absorbing all this stuff in the unknown space...

ADENA: And sort of feeling it in. Yeah.

ROS: And like, you could end up anywhere with that work.

ADENA: I know. I think what's really odd about that work is we've created the set design, because we thought we were going to start rehearsing in about six-weeks-time. And so the frame is..

ROS: Is set.

ADENA: Yeah, the frame is really set. I mean, we could change it, but it's been birthed really, and it feels very clear. And so, there is something really interesting about having that clear frame and then being able to respond to the world as it changes over the next while and that it can be filled with those things. I agree, I think that momentum is good. Although, it did feel like a sort of, on the one hand, a lifeline to have that project. But also, it did feel like going against the grain of this time where I felt like everything was about just slowing and stopping. And then we were just sort of quietly making this really ambitious work. Just trying to kind of move forward in a time when everything had stopped. So energetically it felt weird to be creating something without adrenaline, actually. Just this total slowness. It's been unlike any other process for that reason.

ROS: Are there any sounds that come to mind when you think of that time?

ADENA: Well, my daughter started speaking language in this time of the lockdown. She had had a few words before then but she's really now speaking. What was interesting is that she's obsessed with the sound of aero planes because they're so rare to hear. And so, these things became so heightened. The one aero plane or hearing birds. Everything did feel like it got louder in that stillness. And I think because she was noticing and naming and hearing and… Simple things became elevated somehow...

ROS: Well, this feels like the right moment to play the audio-sketch Adena has kindly sent us. Which is a field recording of her daughter in the backyard…

{Adena’s Audiosketch of her 21month year old daughter in the backyard}

ROS: It's such a privilege to witness the pre-speech and learning speech. And seeing a child really enjoy sounds.

ADENA: Yeah. It's incredible. And I think actually my work had always been interested in this sort of preverbal sound world, or this place before speech, but it was pretty abstract. I didn't really know what that was and...

ROS: Apparently, it's different in every language as well, like in his actual pre-speech sounding. Like, they're learning through making all those, dah-dah-dah, bah-bah-bah sounds.

ADENA: Wow, because of what they're hearing around them? That's really interesting. That makes sense. And rhythm and things like that.

ROS: I want to ask you one last question, thinking about sound-based artists that you find inspiring, who do you have an art crush on at the moment?

ADENA: I think my long-term sound-based art crush is my old friend Jenny Hval. She's a Norwegian musician and lived in Melbourne, went to Melbourne Uni. She actually composed my very first show at La Mama, which is pretty Internet. No archive. But she lives in Norway now and she's gone on to make totally incredible albums, which are sort of beyond categorisation, I think. And they're drawing from Vampire mythologies and Pop and B-grade. And also, she's an incredible musician and singer and… She also has written two novels now. She's done performance as well. And she has created these ethereal worlds, but they're also, there's some deep irony in there. And they're dealing with the body and gender in a way that a lot of music kind of doesn't do head on, I think, or I haven't found that much that did. But I'm also, I guess, unexpert in the kind of music and sound world in a way. It doesn't feel like the place that I know very well.

ROS: Which must be what's exciting to you. Like, because, you know, I think of, y'know I think it was Janet Cardiff, when I heard her talk the other day, she was talking about the reason her collaboration with her partner is so great is because they're so different. And there's something exciting about that. When you can work with a form or an artist that has such a different skill set to you. That's quite an exciting place to meet in the middle.

ADENA: Definitely. I mean, I think I'm kind of always thinking about what kind of new collaborations could take place with people whose forms are really outside of my own. And what would that collision be. And, I know, I totally agree. And I think, I mean, I say that, but actually maybe I don't feel very at home in theatre either. There's something about it that I don't actually understand inherently. And I think that place does feel kind of interesting to me. That sense of being an alien inside something that you do. To come at it from that place of thinking I don't totally get this, so I'm going to enter into it new in some way. Obviously with theatre and performance over the years I do feel more grounded and skilled, of course, as work develops and when projects at the outset feel really ambitious, I do have a history of now understanding, OK, we can start at this place, and you can get to the end of it. But it's still new every time. It still feels like just stepping into some uncharted place.

ROS: I agree, I think like being able to say to myself, I don't know, has been the most liberating discovery. If you're making something new, you don't know what you're doing. Even the most experienced artists, if you are genuinely making a new work, you just don't know what it is at the start. Like, you can have a few guesses, but you won't know it until it's been birthed.

ADENA: No, you can't know it. Also, because you can only take one step at a time. So, you're always just in the place that you're at in terms of that process, in that project. I think it's important to ask questions from the outside, or try to sort of see that, what that bigger frame might be. But I feel surprised every time when I'm sitting in the audience. And I always think that's so weird being the director, that everyone else is working and on stage and you're sort of just sitting there amongst the audience, like kind of in disguise or something. Like just, sort of seeing it from this other perspective. And, yeah, I always kind of get a sort of jolt of going, oh, we've ended up here

ROS: Is it like you're seeing it for the first time?

ADENA: Definitely. When we're in a kind of like a theatre context for the first preview, I'm seeing it for the first time, and that is a terrible feeling. I just dread that first encounter because you always hope that it all works. And then, of course, I realise, oh no, there's like all these things that really sort of don't. And I think because I am trying to create these circumstances between audience and the work, I really don't know what it feels like, or what the rhythm should really be like, until that audience is there. And so, that's often quite a painful trying out of different things and airing my dirty laundry in public. And the not-ready-ness of it being out for all to see. But so much of that, when I have the luxury of having some previews, which is it's been a really good thing, we have made huge, huge changes in those times. Flipped full orders around. Chopped off an act. Because it's glaring with an audience. Like we feel like, okay that's worked, and then other things where it's like, I feel sick. I can't watch that. And that is great. You know then and there, you know, I can make those changes - if I can in time - and, that's a really important part of the process. Then when I get to opening night, usually I just choose to go, it's, it's done. And I, I enjoy that feeling of release. Even if we're working to the last five seconds before, then still, it would just be like, it's done.

ROS: I like that feeling too, where it's like, okay, I work really hard.  We've all worked really hard, this is… We've done everything we can with what turned up... And going, OK, that's it. Even though it is a rough diamond in parts.

ADENA: Exactly.

ROS: Even though there's bits that aren't perfect. That's part of what it is, isn’t it?

ADENA: That's part of it. And I think also the more work that I've made over the years, I feel more comfortable with that as well. And it doesn't feel so identity-based anymore. I think when I was younger and starting out, I felt like every single thing that happened on that stage was a reflection of me in some way. And there's ego and insecurity that's part of that. And that's not true, of course. I mean, that's not how people are absorbing a piece of work. That's not how I absorb other people's work. But I think it was very hard to separate those things early on. And now I can see it as part of something larger. It's ongoing. Just keep working...

ROS: Which is hard to see when you're at the start. Cause it's like, this is the work.  

ADENA: This is the one. The only one I'll ever make. It's taking me so long and everything goes into it, and I feel like my whole life was kind of captured in that.

ROS: Yeah, I agree. And I think looking back at artists that I admire with big bodies of work, actually, I think the most exciting artists are the ones that have had big failures. They're the big risk takers. Like, a really fascinating idea that falls, is so much more interesting than the well-crafted work that you're very familiar with, and you know what it is, and there's not a challenge there. I’d always choose to go and see the, you know, the ambitious concept.

ADENA: With a big crash.

ROS: Yeah, with the big crash. It's, I still find that a really worthwhile work to go out and see.

ADENA: Definitely. And I think it's what they do after the big crash. You know, that's really interesting.

ROS: Cause, that's where you really learn as an artist, isn't it? There's something unfinished that you keep grappling with.

ADENA: I know. And sometimes those things are huge things, like huge process things that have gone awry and then you can really change courses. And sometimes things are just about experience. All of that stuff, I think, is really part of the choices of what you do next then and how you make those decisions.

ROS: Thank you so much. It's been so nice to sit down and have an art date with you.

ADENA: So nice. Thanks for having me over...

{Signature outro music by Fia Fiell}

CREDITS: You’ve been listening to Audiosketch, hosted and produced by Roslyn Oades, with title music by Fia Fiell. This episode’s art date with Adena Jacobs was recorded in Melbourne, on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation.

 Musical excerpts from The Howling Girls, directed by Adena and composed by Damien Ricketson, are provided courtesy of Sydney Chamber Opera.

 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.

{Signature outro music by Fia Fiell till end}

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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