“Identity key to sound system”, The Australian, 6-7 Nov, 1993.

Sound design
by Ross Harley

When was the last time you listened to a good piece of architecture, or heard an interesting bit of design? Not for a while I bet. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably too busy looking to listen.

Of course the sound of an object or a space defines it every bit as much as its texture, colour or feel. And yet we persist in building theatres, cafes, domestic appliances and furniture without fully considering their acoustic properties. At least that’s the way it all too often appears.

But when it comes down to it, many of us are more attuned to the subtle differences of sound than we are to other properties designed into personalised objects and public spaces. After all, who doesn’t have a friend who swears they can judge the quality of one particular product over another by the click of its door or the intensity of its mechanical hum?

A group of artists, performers and sound designers are gathering in Melbourne from 17-27 November to bring some of these ideas to public attention. Focussing on the importance of sound in our everyday lives, “Earwitness: Excursions in Sound” is being staged across a number of well-known historical sites and public art galleries. The program of over twenty works from Australia and abroad (curated by Sonia Leber for Melbourne’s Contemporary Music Events Company) is a timely reminder of how significant the manipulation of sound has been in the construction of our everyday experiences.

Leber has organised a number of performances to be held in sites such as the Old Melbourne Gaol, The Gasworks, and the Old Melbourne Observatory. Like many places built during the nineteenth century to perform specialised functions, these buildings have a peculiar atmosphere that seems divorced from the present. But put in the hands of contemporary artists and sound designers, these buildings are transformed into spaces appropriate to the sounds of our time.

The “new” cell block of the Old Melbourne Gaol was built in 1859. It is an excellent example of the influence the prison reform movement had on the design of places of detention in Australia. The surviving block is like a sonic equivalent of the Panopticon (which allowed gaolers to observe all prisoners from a single vantage point). In this case, silence was architecturally enforced to keep disorderly inmates in line. No talking was tolerated during meal times, and coir matting was laid in the floor to soften the sound of footsteps. The only noises acoustically amplified back to prisoners in their separate cells were the jangling of keys, the slams of doors and fastening of bolts in the dark of night.

I need hardly add that reform was not main achievement of this early “correctional” facility. One hundred and four people (including Ned Kelly) were executed during the time that the prison operated. The bluestone building was designed to extinguish all sounds of life, to incarcerate the wayward within a strictly regulated space.

Artist Simon Crosbie’s sound performance entitled “The Architecture of Silence” is scheduled to take place at the gaol on 19 November. One hundred and four people (the same number as were executed there) will create “mass sounds” using their voices and the acoustic surfaces of metal stairs, doors and cells, to conjure the lost refrains and ghosts of the building’s past. According to Leber, this kind of work is a fitting “model for the exploration of a site’s history through the use of sound”.

Similarly, sound artist Chris Mann (together with Carolyn Connors, Jeannie Marsh and Rik Rue) has devised a simultaneous performance for three vocalists situated in separate buildings at the Old Melbourne Observatory: the two telescope houses and the old Weights and Measures building. Creating a triangle of performers (inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s infamous geodesic dome design), Mann intends to create a new model for the flow of acoustic information in space.

Sydney-based artist Joyce Hinterding uses satellite transmissions of turbulence and weather patterns in her work entitled “Cloud”. She has designed her own high voltage electrostatic speakers to construct what she describes as “acoustic architecture”. Installed at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, the work encourages the listener to explore a dynamic aural terrain.. The exact sounds they hear are precisely determined by where they stand in the space.

Others, like Iain Mott, Marc Raszewski and Tim Barrass, have created their own sound generating machines. Their quirky “Squeezebox” is a playable device that “determines the shape of the sounds, effectively squeezing and stretching sound and image” according to the interaction of the audience. The public are invited to play their machine at the Ether Ohnetitel Gallery in Fitzroy.

If the organisers of “Earwitness” have their way, this won’t be the last we hear from these creative designers of acoustic space.