Mofo #4: Experiencing music tech at the festival

All things technological

BY CHRISTOPHER LEON

 

Music technology at Mona Foma
Museum of Old and New Art, Tasmania, 21 January

 

The Glass Elevator: Chimera π

As I walked into the Museum of Old and New Art’s central glass elevator and began my descent to the heart of the museum, I was pleasantly surprised to look up and see pan-pots and rotary encoders sticking out of the elevator’s ceiling. And within an instant of understanding just what it was, I began twiddling and turning the encoders, change the texture of a continuous tone that flowed throughout the tiny space – much to my delight. They seemed to be controlling an LFO, a low-pass filter, pitch, distortion amount, and a wave shaper – it was surprisingly fun and accessible.

The Overtone Ensemble

Upon reaching the museum’s main basement level, I was bathed immediately with eerie but not unpleasant sound waves, and what seemed like a blanket of textures. As I entered The Void, the underground space, I was greeted by the Overtone Ensemble’s array of carefully manufactured metal rods. Each member slowly enticed tones from the rods, and I began to feel calm and relaxed as the overtones piled up continuously. Suddenly, I found myself reflecting on my experiences playing the video game No Man’s Sky and the ethereal music and textures in which players are immersed. In a way, I felt like I wasn’t really there; I was entranced by a wave of overtones, pulsating and ringing, lingering and evolving over time. The tones began with a sharp and piercing attack before quickly dropping to a luscious drone that continued for an indistinguishable amount of time. It was certainly an exhibit you could just lay back and experience, helping you to separate yourself from the world around you and immerse yourself in a soothing place of aural indulgence.

Turing Test: Erikki Veltheim, violin 

In an erratic display of virtuosic violin performance, Veltheim conjured the image and essence of machine language, imitating the fast digital-esque bleeps and chattering of lines of code running at a blinding pace. As he progressed, his fingers climbed the neck of the violin, with each incremental change willing a new dynamic or stressed tone from the violin. The sound was loud and audible through the entire open-gallery space, and I’m surprised the violin didn’t catch alight. The audience was quite large, climbing the stairs, leaning over the edge of the second-floor mezzanine to sneak a peek at the performance. I even forgot about the smell of Wim Delvoye’s nearby installation Cloaca Professional (known affectionately by museum visitors as ‘The Poo Machine’) as the sheer amount of textures and notes merely overcame my other senses. It was not until I moved around to the mezzanine area that I noticed the sound emanating from another region of the performance area. I looked about and spotted the tech-head sculpture in the corner of the performance area. For a moment, I was confused as the sound seemed to be coming from the direction of the head. I finally spotted another speaker hidden behind the exhibit that was producing Veltheim’s music, but with added effects such as delay and distortion. Despite the spasmodic and atonal nature of his performance, I found myself enjoying the spectacle and appreciating his search for conjuring the machine within.

CellF – Guy Ben-Ary in collaboration with Nathan Thompson, Andrew Fitch, Daren Moore, Stuart Hodgetts, Mike Edel, and Douglas Bakkum

The story of CellF is a detailed and creative insight into self-portraiture. The creator and mastermind behind CellF, Guy Ben-Ary, has re-imagined what it means to create a self-portrait and the extremities to which one can go in detailing such a personal piece of work. At the centre of CellF is a black processing unit, which houses neurons – grown from cells taken via biopsy from Guy’s arm and then engineered back into stem cells, then grown into neurons. CellF (pronounced ‘self’) uses the electrical impulses from these neurons to trigger electronic circuits within the central CellF black tower. The electrical signals are then used to produce sounds randomly, manipulating waveforms and effects through a massive array of patch cables. The whole system has an information feedback loop built in, where a musician can jam with CellF and the recorded sound waves from the instrument (now in electronic form) are fed into the neurons as a source input, which then triggers more neural activity – thus producing more and more sounds. At one stage, the neurons became too cold and they started smattering the room with distorted blips of low frequency tones.

CellF is not just an interesting creative experience. It raises questions of philosophy, ethics, science, metaphysics, and sound synthesis. If you get the chance to see this exhibit, I encourage you to, because in some way, it will amaze you. Quite possibly the best exhibit on display at this festival, and certainly the most technical.

Trans Chamber Joysticks

An unexpected event, which was hooked into a storeroom tucked away behind the museums all-white library, was the Trans Chamber Joysticks exhibit. Entering a tiny chamber, there were metal grates that made walls on each side and behind them were synthesizers including two EMS VSC 3s hooked up (which was coincidentally a piece of equipment produced by a man who had appeared in The Delian Mode documentary – read on for more). From these came cables with quarter-inch jacks attached, which I could handle and connect with the metal surrounds to produce amplified and distorted signals – sounding much like feedback. It was fun in a novelty sort of way, though experiencing it for too long would perhaps have had somewhat deafening consequences.

ATLAS in Silico – 3D augmented reality experience

This is the result of an art and science collaboration that presents the first 17.4 million metagenomic sequences from the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition. The exhibit, which was in the Barrel Room under the museum’s wine bar, claimed to offer: ‘an installation blending virtual reality, spatialised audio, interactive computer graphics, and full-body interaction’. The program and the experience itself was somewhat lacking for an augmented reality experience. Four people at a time were allowed into the area, however even this number of people seemed to confuse the program as it glitched, trying to pinpoint any moving person in front of the screen. It felt unfinished and not very well implemented. The video graphic feature cycled through several minutes of glitches as people struggled to gesture and acquire the attention of the somewhere-hidden 3D tracking hardware. Finally, the video graphic feature moved on to a different screen where you could sort-of manipulate some ‘arctic’ sounds by standing in different places in front of the screen. I was left waving my arms, walking around within the exhibit space hoping for something interesting to happen – perhaps a change in the sound or 3D graphics, but I was left unentertained and disappointed. There was also no signage or readily available information in the venue to enhance the experience. It was a plain experiment that I waited 30 minutes in a stairwell to experience.

The Delian Mode – documentary short

Although this documentary short film was made in 2009, it provided an adequate feature to the synthetic vibes of the MOFO exhibitions. The documentary was an informative and revealing view of the life and works of Delia Derbyshire (known as the woman who created the Dr Who theme). I had learned previously of Delia whilst studying music technology at University of Tasmania, but was unaware of her approach to early electronic music. I was stunned at the depth of her sampling skills and her finesse with tape-cutting and her hatred for synthesizers – something I had no idea about. If you have spare time, I encourage you to search for Delia Derbyshire and to listen to her works. You will quickly see that she has been the central figure in creating the desolate atmospheres and other-worldly vibes associated with all sci-fi media. A great documentary and addition to the vibe of this year’s MOFO festival.

Overall thoughts

This year’s MOFO was enjoyable – especially from the perspective of a technology and synthesizer fanatic. However, at times I felt as though the curation of events left much to be desired. I spent the good part of an hour searching the surrounds of Mona’s main Nolan Gallery for specific exhibitions, but not even the staff could help me find the few exhibits I really wanted to see. So, in the end, I missed an exhibition I had specifically wanted to attend, which dampened the experience.


Image supplied. Credit: Mona/Rémi Chauvin, courtesy Mona, Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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