Loading the Silence: Australian Sound Art in the Post-Digital Age

Reviewed by , March 1st, 2014

While several books have been written which seek to summarise music-making practices in this country, none have focused on non-instrumental art music like this rigorous study by Linda Kouvaras.

Roger Covell’s landmark book of 1967, Australia’s Music — Themes for a New Society, was an important first step. Now nearly fifty years old, it was a book of its time, both in the subject matter and markedly bearing the voice and weighted preferences of its author, with a primary focus on score-based ‘Western’ art music.

This model has been followed in a number of individual composer biographies and books about groups of composers, including a 2009 work by Gordon Kerry, New Classical Music: Composing Australia, graced with the benediction of Covell as the successor to the Covell book.

Linda Ionna Kouvaras

Linda Ionna Kouvaras

Missing from these studies has been a discussion of non-instrumental music — sound art — which has largely developed since the second world war, made possible by new technologies such as tape recording, electronic sound generation and (later) computer processing. While principally discussing Australian practice, Kouvaras carefully contextualises the discussion with attention to precursor artists, artistic movements, and philosophies. Throughout the twentieth century, Australians were eagerly engaged in the creation of sound art, with Australian innovation dating back to Percy Grainger’s experiments in ‘free music’ from the 1930s while living in the USA. Other important precursors include the Italian Futurists, the tape collages of Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage’s emancipation of ambient sounds, R Murray Schafer’s notions of Acoustic Ecology and of a World Soundscape, the post-war modernist desire to make a violent and complete break with the past, and the postmodernist appropriation of cultural artefacts, obsessions with technology in the creative process, and the rejection of ‘grand narratives’.

Despite the 1960s being a period of immense experimentation, Kouvaras describes the conflict between ‘Uptown’ score-and-instrument-based composition and ‘Downtown’ music incorporating the gamut of sound resources and genres. Sound art is the music of ‘the gaps’ often placed in antithesis to ‘score-based high-modernist music of the mid-twentieth century that reached a high point of its own in integral serialist works [and thus] dictated a tabula rasa, annihilating — rather than building from — the past. But much post-1970s musical endeavour with an experimental telos has displayed a postmodern need to fill Cage’s “silence”, to actually load it. This book is a select investigation of such developments in Australia.’ (author’s italics).

Nevertheless, Kouvaras discusses the how sound art offers a forum of inclusivity and diversity, and highlights the engagement of otherwise less-represented sectors of the community. She particularly points to the presence of women’s voice in the making of sound art.

The book includes a huge bibliography, an important resource of itself, and combines oeuvre summaries as well as more focused analyses of individual works. There are currently ‘hundreds of sound artists in Australia’ most of whom have until now not been represented in the various compendia of Australian music. The field is vibrant and growing. As such, Kouvaras has created a reference of vital importance, a book of international significance that is likely to be considered a seminal work in the study of sound art.

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