Audiograft 2015

Audiograft 2015, Janek Schaefer's foundsoundscape installation (detail), old cassette and radio boombox

Audiograft is Oxford’s annual experimental music and sound art festival, co-organised by the Sonic Arts Research Unit at Oxford Brookes University and Oxford Contemporary Music. Over the course of two-and-a-half weeks, a number of performances and exhibitions take place across the city, with the majority of concert events packed into the opening week. While each edition of the festival has no set theme, it’s possible to identify certain strands of thought running throughout the programme, alongside a general preference for a home-made or DIY aesthetic.

One characteristic shared by many of the works performed and exhibited during the 2015 edition of the festival is a de-emphasis or downplaying of human agency in the production of sound and or as music. Janek Schaefer presented an installation version of his ‘foundsoundscape’ project, also accessible via the web, which plays three randomly-selected field recordings simultaneously from a large pool collected from various artists around the world. The random selection of recordings relieves the artist of a degree of curatorial control, and ensures that hearing the same three recordings together more than once is unlikely. Minoru Sato’s ‘Thermal Acoustics’ is a complex machine in which the sounds produced are dependent upon certain thermal processes, with the heat from electrical heaters affecting the output in unpredictable ways. Sato’s performance at the Story Museum also involved a custom-built machine that used small motors and cables to produce sound, with qualities such as timbre and timing contingent on the mechanical properties of the machine rather than the direct action of the artist.

While the above works involve the creation of machines or algorithms with a certain degree of unpredictability or even self-agency to them, other artists used factors related to the situation in which the work was presented in order to open their work up to contingency and chance. For his performance, Lucio Capece made recordings of the empty performance space in order to capture the resonant acoustic properties of the room; though I couldn’t discern an obvious connection between these properties and the sounds made during the performance, there was a degree of what, for lack of a better word, could be called ‘atmosphere’ or ‘space’ to the work that was quietly affective. Installation works by John Grieve and Mike Blow changed their sonic character as listeners moved freely around them; Grieve’s collection of organ pipes, their various sizes offering a wealth of different tones and harmonic interactions, was a particular delight.

Why would musicians and sound artists seek to de-emphasise their own agency in what we would generally consider ‘their’ work? Surely the rationale is different in each case, but it strikes me that sounds in general are always transmitters of many different thoughts and intentions, from the desire of an electron for an anode, to the thoughts a society has about itself. This is true even of music, which is why we can speak of a particular piece or recording as being ‘of its era’. The downplaying of an artist’s role in the production of music or sound art thus brings these other movements and actions to the fore, whether intended or not. If nothing else, being aware of these multiple agencies at work in the production of sounds could perhaps help us connect our perception of them to a wider world not limited or defined by purely artistic, or even human, concerns.

I saw and heard much more at Audiograft 2015 than I could cover in this brief review, and as of writing the festival is still ongoing (it closes on the 27th March). It’s great to be able to hear and see so many different challenging and inventive works of sound art and experimental music in one place: a feast for the ears and the listening mind.

Image: Janek Schaefer’s foundsoundscape (installation detail)

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