(Re) Presenting 2021 | Sonic Sketchbooks | A Weekly Podcast | ARI Remix feature interview with artist Gary Warner
Sonic Sketchbooks is a weekly podcast offering of sound art, art music and field recording produced and presented by artist Gary Warner. Mostly drawn from his creative practice and decades of using sound in art projects, film and video, performances, installations, public art and museum exhibitions, the series features interviews with fellow artists working in creative sonic realms. New episodes every Tuesday.
ARI Remix artist and DIY co-ordinator Paul Andrew speaks with artist Gary Warner about a new podcast collaboration. 9 February 2021.
Gary Hi and thanks for your time! How did you begin working in sound art, art music and field recording Gary, where, when, with what tech and why?
My first forays into using sound as an art medium were with Adam Wolter and David Dolley in 1974, while we were finishing year 12 at Yeronga High School. We made cut-up collages with found sounds (eg short wave radio, television, AM radio) and sounds we recorded including our own voices and noises made with anything we could find. I don’t recall us using any actual musical instruments. We used domestic cassette recorders and would generate sounds from one recorder then record that sound along with other sounds made in the space – it was all VERY lo-fi.
At the end of our senior year we did a sound event in the school’s new 200 seat theatre space. It was titled ‘Forced Audience’. I think by this stage we’d managed to make a 4-track recording but however it was done, we replayed a carefully constructed cutup composition that included a lot of harsh metallic noises, feedback and distorted voices. Adam, David and I had exited the auditorium, locked the exit doors, turned up the sound in the bio-box and hastily left the premises, leaving our forced audience to make what they might of our dada-inspired imprisonment.
Why [analogue] sound as a medium? What, or whom, were your key inspirations?
Adam and I continued to make sounds together in different ways over the years before and after I left for Sydney in 1981. Analogue sound was all there was back then! Digital came later. I procured some different tape recorders including a 2-speed Superscope cassette recorder – this was a significant device for me because it opened up the world of time-stretching sound, something I continue to enjoy exploring, now with the ease of digital systems.
The key inspirations for me in sound were John Cage, with all his various outputs of writing, composition, performance and provocation, and, in a different way, William Burroughs and Brion Gysin with their cutup methodology. Importantly, when John Nixon came to Brisbane he had recently commenced his Anti-Music collective activities and he asked me to work with him on that, making recordings after-hours at the IMA with various groupings, assisting with things technical, contributing to his Pneumatic Drill pamphlet series and so on.
Also, working at the Discreet Import Records store in Elizabeth Arcade for a couple of years of Saturdays (1977-79) introduced me to a wide range of experimental music, from labels such as Manfred Eicher’s ECM to Eno’s Ambient, and the explosion of independent music rising out of the Punk phenomenon.
How did this analogue sonic approach intersect with other art making forms you employed in early career work?
The principal overlap was with Super 8 filmmaking. There was a natural affinity there for me because of the DIY nature of both cassette recording and Super 8, especially the crossover available between cutup methods of editing film and tape. I have always been comfortable working with machines and enjoy experimenting to make them do things they’re perhaps not designed or expected to do.
Can you tell me [in some detail] about one of your earliest [and fondest] forays into sound that is featured in your podcast series ( episode?) ?
In 1988 I went overseas for the first time, taking a program of Australian video art I’d curated to screenings in Japan and Denmark and attending various electronic media arts festivals. I took my trusty Marantz stereo cassette recorder, a pair of lapel mics and a trove of TDK SA-60 blank cassettes. My intention was to field record along the way to build up a library of ‘exotic’ recordings to add to my growing collection of improvised performance and Australian urban environment recordings (mostly building sites and city atmos).
My process was to set up the recorder with the two mics spatially separated, fixed onto whatever I could clip or tape them to. Then record whatever happened in the sound field for the period of one side of a cassette, about 30 mins. For some of the recordings I attached the mics to my collar and carried the shoulder-slung Marantz through spaces like a Tokyo fish market, the streets of New York or the electronic media installations of the 1988 Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria. This last recording is played in full in sonic sketchbooks episode 15, released on 13 April 2021.
One of the Ars Electronica installations made a lasting impression – it was titled ‘Solar Music Hot House’ and was by Fluxus artist Joe Jones. Out in a park by the Danube river, a small demountable glasshouse had been erected. Inside were a suite of assemblages involving early small solar panels powering low-voltage motors with attachments that struck and strummed various zithers, tambourines and ‘world-music’ drum types creating a chaotic mesmer of sound that varied greatly as the sun was obscured by the inevitable cloudscapes of central Europe.
The piece resonated greatly with me, for its playfulness, it’s autonomous generation of music-like sound, its unpredictability and direct connection to local environmental factors, and the fact it wasn’t powered by mains or batteries. My ‘aleatoric ensemble’ of the past decade owes direct allegiance to my experience of that work. Recently, I was contacted by an American academic who will be publishing one of my photos of that work in a new Routledge publication “A History of Solar Art and Design’ – he found the pic on my flickr account.
On that particular trip, I also carried a pair of portable battery-powered speakers that could be plugged into the Marantz cassette recorder. On the steps of the Linz Opera House, I set up the Marantz and speakers and played back the Tokyo fish market recording in full, as a kind of guerilla art action. Later I used the Tokyo recording as the soundtrack to my video and slide projector installation ‘Confabulator’ shown at the 1989 Fourth Australian Video Festival.
Can you tell me [in some detail] about one of your earliest sound collabs?
‘Music for Three Computers’ was an installation project with Adam Wolter shown for one day at Bellas Gallery, Brisbane in 1987. It involved installing three Amiga computers in the space, in a widely spaced triangle. Each machine was programmed with early digital music compositions created by me and Adam, and we played the sequences live in the space, changing them as we liked. This strategy of live playback is something I’ve continued to work with and develop by devising systems for multi-track playback where a library of tracks is called on at random, ensuring an ever-changing combination fo sounds. I’ve used this strategy in live performances, gallery installations and many museum exhibitions (eg sonic sketchbooks episodes 03 and 10).
The previous year I had staged a show at Union Street Gallery, an artist-run space in Pyrmont, Sydney, that featured sounds and early computer animation created by Adam. The show included a performance I made with two Super 8 projectors – one outside and one inside the gallery – beaming films I’d made by shooting Adam’s animations directly from the screen of the Amiga computer and cutting them up. The screen for the films was a veil of dry ice falling from the first floor balcony. The intention with the combination of sound and image was to create a quasi-science-fiction, confusedly dystopian/utopian atmosphere. The silver and black poster I designed for that show, using texts and image derived from issues of Scientific American, was printed by artist Jeff Gibson, one of the organisers at the gallery.
Tell me about your experience at the cusp of the digital from your perspective Gary, [tell me about an important work for you] where and when this was, and when the possibilities of digital sound became an exciting new field to explore?
The largely redundant technology of Sony’s Mini-Disc was one of the main crossovers for me. With cassette tapes there was really no way to quickly and accurately locate a given sound or track. My relatively high-end Marantz stereo cassette recorder – a much-used and valued tool – had an analogue tape counter but given the mechanical nature of winding tape it still took a long time to find anything on a cassette.
The 1992 advent of mini-disc provided for immediate accuracy and screen-displayed titling, so this was a bonus for my field recording practice. Of course, Adam and I had been exploring digital sound for a decade or more earlier than that, mainly with Amiga computers which allowed greater creative flexibility then, much earlier than either PCs or Macs. We could ‘feel’ the future we’re now living in. There were various ‘computer music’ concerts at Queensland University, and even before this, Adam’s father had a copy of Walter Carlos’s 1968 ‘Switched-on Bach’ that we’d listen to on the Wolters’ epic home sound system.
Adam bought the hybrid calculator-keyboard Casio VL-1, the first commercially available digital synthesiser, which included a sequencer and drum machine, so that became another device we used often on our improvisational recording sessions, for example at Red Comb House.
How did you select the wonderful array of sonic artists featured in the Sonic Sketchbook series? Maybe tell me about two or three artists you are working with now and what interests them?
The plan for the series was as an archive of my diverse work with sound over the past 40 years, and I wanted to bring into the mix some fo the people I’ve worked with and/or who have inspired me. I planned 20 episodes, and figured on about 8 guests. I wanted to ensure a spread across the overlapping genres of sound art, art music and field recording, and people for whom sound is an important part of their practice, not just ancillary, so this is a determining factor in who I’ve interviewed so far.
Jon McCormack (episode 04) was an early choice because we’ve known each other since the mid-1980s and I have an abiding respect for him and his work as an artist, tutor, mentor and researcher. That episode focused on an early work of his, Eden, that in many ways prefigured much of the more recent digital media works by artists such as teamLab. Jon’s work always includes music he’s composed or programmed, and he’s a fellow field recordist. We’ve spent time together in the field making recordings, and share recordings with each other for private listening.
Virginia Hilyard (episode 19) is a long-standing colleague from the early years of the Sydney Super 8 Film Group, and someone who has always had an interesting take on the use of sound in her films and installations. Over the past decade she’s become a skilled field recordist and has adventured to Iceland for workshops, and made recordings travelling across China, Mongolia, Russia and Europe. And these experiences have informed the generation of fascinating installations involving contact-mic’d melting ice, the sounds of people sleeping, train journeys and endangered species.
Jeff Doring (episode 16) is a septuagenarian artist, photographer, musician and author who lives off-grid north-west of Sydney. In the late 1960s he made a ground-breaking observational documentary film, funded by the Australian Film Commission, in New Guinea. He travelled on foot into the land of the Bedamini people and with their encouragement lived with them, filming and field recording materials that would become the film ‘Tidikawa and friends’. He had long thought the 60+ Nagra audio tapes were lost but in 2019 he was told they still existed and did he want them? I had a few of them professionally digitised and we were amazed at the pristine quality. In the episode Jeff recalls some of his experiences there, the people and their way of life, the disastrous impact of 20th-century colonialism and the profoundly complex culture of those rainforest people.
Where and how are you making this podcast series and with what tech?
The podcast series is an entirely handmade venture – I make it on two iMacs, one at home and another in my studio. I have a few digital audio recorders that I’ve used over the past 10 years – so there are hundreds of hours of digital files to contend with – and my archive of minidiscs (1992- early 2000s) and some of my remaining cassette tapes from my work in the 80s (many of them have, unfortunately, been ‘lost’ but that’s another story)…
I use the Mac software Final Cut Pro X to edit and output the podcasts – I’ve been using FCP to edit audio since it’s launch in 2011 because I like editing sound with software that’s not BPM based – and they’re uploaded to Soundcloud as a server.
Sitting down and waxing lyrical with artists and recording interviews, artist to artist, about creative practice is an insightful and rewarding process, what are some of the astonishing things that have happened [ and you have learnt, that you didn’t know] in making the podcast series so far?
That every artist I interview really requires and deserves ten episodes each in their own right. I’m not sure about ‘astonishing’ but each interview has been rewarding in different ways, both for me and the interviewee (which they’ve each expressed to me). I have respect for each of the people I’ve been able to interview, and the intention is only to make a small offering that might attract listeners to investigate someone they may not have been previously aware of. Also, I have a list of other artists and musicians I’d like to interview as the podcast progresses. It’s an open-ended project with no set number or duration.
One of the more intriguing interviews was with microtonal composer/musician duo and couple Kraig Grady and Terumi Narushima (episode 9). Their music is so idiosyncratic and rooted in a cultural history of microtonality tracing back to Kraig’s American schooling and his first nations heritage there, mixed with Terumi’s Japanese heritage and academic teaching of composition at Wollongong University. I’ve been fascinated by their work for years, have worked with them in different contexts and enjoy their sense of engagement and creative boundary riding – there’s a huge scene for their type of music in Europe and the US, but here they are working productively in Unanderra, near Wollongong.
This approach can also be a deeply reflective process what insights have you gleaned in making the series so far about your own making practices Gary?
As ever, I should do more.
Is there one work in particular you made and that featured in a museum setting that holds a personal significance for you, and if so why so?
Many of the works I’ve made for museums are significant to me, for different reasons. Quite often these projects take many months and up to a few years to be realised, so there’s significant investment of time, resources and engagement.
As you’re based in Queensland I’ll mention two projects of personal creative significance for me – Artspace Mackay, and the Museum of Brisbane. For each of these cultural projects I was commissioned to create a ‘multimedia’ installation that would be part of the opening and persist for a number of years after. Each of these projects shared a similar strategy – to create a space for ‘virtual conversation’ between different communities via video interviews and multi-speaker soundscapes.
In both instances, working with my small production team at my company CDP Media, and with local museum workers, about 20 local people were identified who wanted to be involved in the project. I researched each person, conducted the social history interviews, and asked everyone to think about evidentiary materials they could hold in their hands, to show to the audience. Often this was in the form of photography but there were also tools, ephemera, midden shells, textiles, jewelry and so on.
I edited the videos and worked with Adelaide-based software designer Ian Hamilton to create systems that would randomly display the videos, and for Mackay, also create random collages of photos I’d taken at the many locations visited for the interviews. Artspace Mackay was a single-screen projection that accompanied a long showcase display of objects, and the Museum of Brisbane was installed in a wonderful purpose-built theatrette on the ground floor of Brisbane’s Town Hall. There was triptych of HD screens in a long row and multiple speakers distributed around the space. Each installation included a separate soundscape element composed with field recordings I’d made on location.
Each project worked as a portrait of place and time, comprised of interviews with people from various life-experiences. Important social issues of race, poverty, creativity, family, natural disaster, war and the environment were aired and evidence produced in the hands of the interviewees. For the viewer, the sequence of videos always varied, creating unexpected connections between personal narratives. Each set of videos was intentionally much longer than any one viewer might stay and watch, so there was a sense of social depth and breadth to the project.
Working in the Web 2.0 environment today has so many benefits, an ability to convey hidden histories and varied making experiences for example, what are the benefits for you, and [perhaps]some of the key challenges too?
I have to admit to having become somewhat exhausted by technological supercession and I no longer make much of an attempt to keep up with it. That said, I do use digital media technologies every day and feel privileged to be alive now and have experienced the radical changes that the accelerating supercession of technologies has effected. Software like Final Cut I’m very happy to be using, rather than having to suffer the fussy analogue drudgery of celluloid filmmaking (such an unpopular position to take today :-).
And the rising number of useful iOS apps for working with sound are exciting to explore. Lately I’ve been pledging a few interesting experimental instruments on Kickstarter, have bought into Teenage Engineering’s Pocket Operator series and an inventive analogue/digital cassette device from Brisbane’s mettamaker.
Finally, the most recent sound art development for me is getting a digital band going with colleagues Michael Hill and Ross Harley – we’re called ‘Bamboo Reign’. I’m the old man of the crew – they’re not even 60 yet!
01 1986 – Screen printed poster for Peripheral Station, Gary Warner & Adam Wolter Union Street Gallery, Pyrmont, Sydney
02 1987 – installation photo, Music for Three Computers, Gary Warner & Adam Wolter Bellas Gallery, Brisbane
03 1988 – Solar Music Hot House, Joe Jones
Ars Electronica, Linz, Austria
my video documentation of this work: https://vimeo.com/7695193
sonic sketchbooks, episode 15
04 2016 – information card for soundtracker, Gary Warner
ES74 Gallery, Alexandria, Sydney, and Bundanon Single Man’s Hut, Bundanon, NSW sonic sketchbooks, episode 11
05 2017 – documentation of performance of the aleatoric ensemble at the ORT Festival of experimental music curated by Kraig Grady, Gary Warner Sydney Non-Objective Contemporary Art, Marrickville, Sydney sonic sketchbooks, episode 02
06 2019 – audio recording a drawing machine in the residency project Experimental Aleatoric System of Drawing and Sound Performativity, Gary Warner Stacks projects, Potts Point, Sydney
sonic sketchbooks, episode 07
07 sonic sketchbooks graphic
08 2021 Sonic Sketchbook Guests Gary Warner, Kraig Grady and Terumi Narushima
09 2021 Sonic Sketchbook Guest Jeff Doring
10 2021 Sonic Sketchbook Guest Jon McCormack
11 2021 Sonic Sketchbook Guest Virginia Hilyard
12 2021 Sonic Sketchbook Guest Laura Altman