VARIABLE RESISTANCE: 10 Hours of Sound from Australia
23F/SFM 902, Compact Disc
published in 2002
$12.98, plus shipping

Variable Resistance— a co-presentation between 23five Incorporated and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art—originally celebrated this Australian renaissance with a 10 hour ‘listening event’ in September of 2002. From those ten hours, curator Philip Samartzis distilled the best tracks to be featured on this CD compendium. Variable Resistance is a title that encapsulates the tone and extent of the work on hand, referencing not only the electronic gizmo (the variable resistor) as key to many of the featured homespun constructions filtered through state of the art DSP filters, but also as an applicable non-definition of those artists who "offer variable resistance in how they are defined and the positions they occupy in a broader cultural context, fragmented, and dispersed among remote cities and divided by enormous physical and psychological space."

Within this disc, the Australian aesthetic finds itself reflecting a number of ideas previously mined throughout the history of electronic music from Mego’s fascination with the streaming micro-textures of digital fragmentation to Metamkine’s conceptual riddles within their Cinema Pour L’oreille series to the brazen noise-junk collages from Merzbow and Otomo Yoshihide. Yet, Variable Resistance resolves its uniqueness by smashing these references with brutish noise and demonstrative force applied to the stereotypically delicate sensibilities of electro-acoustic composition. For instance, Samartzis’ collages of environmental, plundered, and digitized sound meld into psychologically abrasive narrative scalded by toxic agents; Pimmon transforms agitated chunks of granular synthesis into cybersonic lullabies; and David Brown’s jarringly angular duet between a prepared guitar and a squeaking door stands as a steroid injected homage to Pierre Henry’s musique concrete classic Variations Pour Une Porte Et Un Soupir. Along with Samartzis, Brown, and Pimmon, Variable Resistance also features exclusive compositions from Oren Ambarchi, Robbie Avenaim, Philip Samartzis, Xonk, Thembi Soddell, Darrin Verhagen, and Delire.


This compilation, released to accompany an SFMOMA exhibit, collects eleven tracks from Australian experimental musicians. There's an excellent sense of unity, as most of the compositions are aesthetically similar, at least superficially, in their emphasis on sparse, laptop-driven presentations. Some rely on organic instruments and others on homebuilt electronics, but all of them find creative sounds and work really well, making this album quite consistent. Worth mentioning are the extremely lucid liner notes by Philip Samartzis and Csaba Toth, which provide a reductionist breakdown of improvised and noise music; it sheds some light on the undercurrents, although nothing on the compilation fits clearly into their categories. Jim Knox provides the most noise, in the form of three short pieces which range from an eerie metallic drone to a harsh, radio-influenced noise collage. Most tracks on this disc have some incredible sounds and techniques. Delire's track is a flowing medley of intermittent sci-fi sounds occasionally riding on an electro rhythm that keeps falling apart; then things get a bit nostalgic as he incorporates some obfuscated videogame-type tones into the mix, along with some crunchy phased static.

My favorite piece is David Brown's "Were Holes Mended?", a duet of prepared guitar and squeaking door. The guitar cliches are in effect: the high gain power chords, the pick slides, and the Derek Bailey imitations; but it flows seamlessly, as the creaking door morphs into strange horn-like tones and the processed guitar provides a dazzling array of counterpoint sounds (in what could be all the Powerbook cliches). Robbie Avenaim's "Impulse Control Disorder" also takes the DSP improv route, mixing high tones, beeps and FM bells, and the whistle of steam with the clatter of thin, trash-can percussion. It has a great sense of progression. Philip Samartzis' piece, "Soft And Loud," is an exercise in interruption; a train approaches and then some fractured music starts, only to suddenly disappear leaving only the wind. This general idea is repeated several times, using environmental, mechanical, and digital sounds to represent these two extremes. I really like the "soft" parts of the track; there are some beautiful field recordings and gentle buzzing drones, but it's only fitting that these moments of peace are transitory. Variable Resistance has introduced me to some innovative new artists, and like its relative Ju-Jikan, is definitely a worthwhile collection. - Steve Smith


From 7-17 September, 2002, the San Francisco MoMA had a listening room presentation with this title. Following a concert on the first night a rotating series of one hour programs (7 available each day) provided visitors with an introduction to a wide range of Australian sound artists, combined under various themes (microphonics, flutter + flux, soundhackers, improvised composition, and more) curated by Philip Samartzis. The booklet lists the 86 pieces and the artists, and I must admit to not having heard (of) many of them – it would be nice to have a similar festival here! Anyway, 23five have put out an accompanying cd with new pieces from the show (plus one which wasn't) and a booklet with Samartzis' notes on the themes and an essay by Csaba Toth on noise around the Pacific, but which is also a more generally interesting discussion of the genre.

Not all themes are represented on the cd – Residue wins hands down followed by Microwaves, collisions + noise – and I guess a ten cd box set was out of the question (probably never actually a question) so we have this sampling. Oren Ambarchi's 'Staticedit' is from the 'suspended time + expanding space' section and does just that – a choppy bloop melody has popping clicks and a deep underpulse for a couple of minutes, after which the melody drops and the pulse continues with the crackle and other soft sounds joining occasionally – things like subtle tones, an accordion sound, possibly piano, wistful descents – some of them take a brief foreground but the are mainly distant echoes, before a high tone sets in and spirals to a little more active end: time has indeed been stretched. "Impulse control disorder" (Robbie Avenaim) sees a high feedbacky tone and various percussions (bells, drums, tapping) seemingly random though there are some riffs and sequences.

A hyperactive Philip Samartzis piece ('Soft and loud') is appropriately named as it shifts between gentler tonal parts and trains or trams rushing through, together with some cut/chopped electroacoustic effects, periods of stasis and snatches of music. David Brown also moves around a lot in 'Were holes mended?' with various sequences – clattery percussion, big guitar chords, slow bow scraping, and straight improv guitar – sequentially with some electronica between and periods where the layers overlap. After a while you begin to realise that all the sounds are probably guitar based and then messed around (this is from the digital-Musique Concrete section). After these four long pieces (over 40 minutes) Jim Knox (xonk) has a sequence of 3 short pieces: 'Never mind the ruddocks', 'F*ck to mandatory detention' and 'Prophylactic liquidation of our pig government' whose titles indicate a response to our refugee issue. The first is a surprisingly delicate tonal ambience with some echoey ringing, then bursts of harsh industrial noise, bursting through silence, and finally another ambience, hollow metallic with suggestions that it is voice based. Two from the Residue section: 'Violation' (Thembi Soddell) is some soft shimmering hiss with high hammondy-tones joined by teletype percussion, through which a whooshing rumble builds to crash in waves to the end. Then Darrin Verhagen offer 'P2' a lovely concoction of clicks that swim around, rumbles, scraping wind, mysterious and emergent tones sliding to a more static period, that resonates and entices. The only non-installation track is Pimmon's 'Steps. Gaps. (Flicker)' that opens with chimey tones with a rumbling ringing metallic stasis behind them, joined by a whoosh and pulsing breaks and then fades down to a conclusion, bells through the final part. And then Delire with 'FXCR_2_i2' from the Soundhackers section, and it is a rapid fire electroacoustic assault of blurty squirty noises.

Variable resistance really says it all – depending on the listener and the mood the acceptance/resistance to these pieces will change (Delire or Samartzis don't go well with feeling tense!) As an indication of part of what's happening in Australia it is a useful document, but more importantly it works very nicely as a compilation of complex confronting and satisfying soundworks.

The Wire

The majority of CD compilations should be banned for multiple crimes including scattershot logic and redundancy. There are exceptions, however. The curated sound art exhibition document (an aural catalogue, if you will) may be one of them, since the package carries not just the music and ancillary information, but also a slice of zeitgeist, a taste of curatorial fashion placed conveniently on the timeline for future reference. In recent years, SFMOMA, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has acknowlegded sound in a number of contemporary media exhibitions. Ju-Jikan: Ten Hours of Sound from Japan and Variable Resistance: Ten Hours of Sound from Australia cull selections from listening room programs at the museum in September 2001. The curators were Atau Tanaka, Ryoji Ikeda, and Shunchiro Okada for Japan and Philip Samartzis for Australi. What I suspect they were required to do was to impose some structure on their choices, which is where both projects become documents of interest and controversy in themselves. Personally I would rather have my eyes bathed in flaming lighter fuel than to see the diversity and complexity of current music making reduced to collection of crazy categories. Is there not enought tribal subdivision and targeted marketing in the world without turning music history into an equivalent of sthe storage and tidiness fetish?

A quick perusal of the map illustrating Ju-Jikan's chronology and categorization of Japanese sonic arts is enough to provoke serious questions: can Takemitsu be simply described as an NHK Studio composer? Is it really correct to describe Joji Yuasa and Yuji Takahashi as academic? Is Ryoji Ikeda just laptop? Is improvised music a broad enough category to describe Hoahio and Otomo Yoshihide? Is Yurihito Watanabe post-pop by any stretch of the imagination? How can Akio Suzuki be omitted from the sound art category? And if we must have genres, what about jazz, free jazz, film and TV soundtracks, performance art, conceptual art, anime music, rock, psychedelia, minimalism, soundscape recording, neo-traditional (Miki Minoru deserves a place somewhere, surely)? This approach creates nothing but trouble. Nevermind: Atau Tanaka and Philip Samartzis make an intelligent job of coping with their respective frameworks without falling into the despondent slough of hype®theory. Some fascinating interconnection emerge, particularly on the Japanese discs, though I find the Australian disc a more satisfying listening experience. Perhaps this is inevitable. The history of Japanese sound art and experimental music is labyrinthine, poorly documented and difficult to encapsulate through the single viewpoint that an audio CD allows. Where the listening room for Japan covered developments from 1956 to the present, the CDs contract the timeline to a 12 year period between 1991 and 2002. All of the tracks (Pain Jerk, Nerve Net Noise, Otomo, Merzbow, Astro, Tetsuo Furudate, Kazuo Uehara, Masahiro Miwa, Hanatarash, Kozo Inada, etc. plus the curators) are interesting enough in their own right, though one minute of Masonna is enough for me, thank you very much. Everything leans toward the electronic, though some pieces -- Tamami Tono's "Dinergy 2," Yasunao Tone's "Trio for a Flute Player," Yuji Takahashi's "Tori Mo Tsukai Ka II," and Ichiro Nodaira's "Neuf Écarts Vers Le Défi" -- either transform acoustic sources electronically or juxtapose them with electronics. Underlying both compilaions is the theoretics of noise which causes me to wonder: is noise music a category error? Tanaka sees noise as being somehow natural to Japanese aesthetics and unnatural to "the West." "The very fact that noise can be considered musical material is tied to the Japanese relationship to sound and nature," he writes in his sleevenotes. "While the West tends to appropriate elements of nature (citing birdsong as an inspiration to create melodies unrelated to birds,) the Japanese instinct observes nature in situ (the sound of cicadas define the sense of the environment of the summer season)." Well, sort of, though these fails to explain why noise, as a musical element, or end in itself, has flourished in so much global music of all kinds during the past 100 years (and earlier) and perhaps underestimates a Japanese tendency to shape nature into a highly refined simulacra. What is closer to nature: a Japanese dry garden of rocks and raked sand or an English rose garden?

I'm convinced more by Csaba Toth's Jacques Attali extrapolations in his contribution to the Australian CD notes, though Toth suggests that the sonic undergrounds of the United States and countries of the Pacific Rim are "especially vibrant." Again, this sounds like the project brief speaking. Frankly, it's hard to think of anywhere that doesn't have some sort of vibrant sonic underground these days. These border crossings that everybody talks about have flattened the idea of national avant gardes. Local scenes (OK, communities, if we must) are far more important to cultural emergence than economic geographies such as the Pacific Rim or the European Union. Toth also writes: "I define noise performance as aesthetic production that challenges social and cultural institutions, collapses genre boundaries, and has broad implications." I suppose that depende on what you mean by noise (sigh), though it's nice to see elsewhere in his essay that there's life yet in the old dogs of Lacanian theory and jouissance. On the other hand, if jouissance "opens up the subject to change," why are so many noise performances and records (category noise, that is) so unchanging, so similar in their procedures and effects? Like I said, the curated sound art exhibition document gives you added value: plenty of ideas about the state of the art, and other deep stuff, plus music. I particularly like Oren Ambarchi's "Stactedit," a fine illustration of the way in which Ambarchi maintains clarity and engagement throughout the full trajectory of his process playing. There's a lot of impressive music here (Pimmon, David Brown, Jim Knox, Robbie Avenaim, Thembi Sodell, Darrin Verhagen, Délire, and Philip Samartzis), though I'd half agree with the latter's curatorial conclusions. "Whether there's a quintessential Australian character articulated within the fabric of these works is difficult to say," he writes, "but somehow it is hard to imagine them coming from anywhere else." Yes, to the first part of that sentence, and a mighty question mark hovers over the second. -- David Toop