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Music and Sound Art – the 2009 NFSA Kahn Lecture

In late 2009 author Douglas Kahn gave a number of lectures in Australia. I attended the one he gave at the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) in Canberra on Tuesday 17 November entitled THE ELECTRO-MAGNETIC EXPANDED CINEMA.

I couldn’t find a direct link to a promo, so here is how the NFSA promoted it:

Douglas Khan is Director of Technocultural Studies at University of California at Davis and an international authority on the history and context of sound in the 20th century. A guest of the Australia Network of Art and Technology and Art Monthly Australia (for whom he has guest-edited their new issue), Khan will talk about “The Electro-Magnetic Expanded Cinema” and his new book, which examines the artistic and cultural interactions between acoustics and electromagnetism. The evening will be moderated by Mitchell Whitelaw.

A friend and colleague from Melbourne asked “How was Doug’s talk?” I had such a mixed reaction that I wrote the following informal notes, partly to help me understand some of the issues immediately apparent. It has been slightly edited to make it more appropriate for a wider audience.

Here goes…

He has a number of different lectures apparently. We got the one on Watson and ionospheric discharges.

  • (1) He is clearly a writer of books, maybe primarily?
  • (2) Too few audio examples.
  • (3) Terrible communicator – I received this as FB from others less well-versed in the material. I’m pretty tolerant myself, but, to be petty, the constant slightly amplified jangling of coins in the pocket was not conducive to active listening.
  • (4) Some interesting ideas – mainly of historical connections.

(Here endeth the short version.)

  • (5) He appeared to set up a (false?) dialectic between music, technology and nature then proceeded to argue why ionospheric discharges was music so the dialectic was false. QED.
  • (6) Might have been interesting if there was a coherent argument but I failed to see it. Lots of data, but connections seemed shallow and mostly obvious.
  • (7) No real emphasis on listening. I asked at the post-Q&A whether he had considered approaching the topic from an active (Cagean) listener perspective and if so, why he had decided to take the (albeit incredibly simple, accidental) technology angle. I couldn’t understand his answer. Some afterwards told me he didn’t (answer it).

(Here endeth the medium version.)

  • (8) There is a double-bind with acquisition/adoption of this field by the visual arts. Similar problem exhibited in w. multimedia and something I was actively trying to counterbalance at ACAT:
    • +ve: In the absence of music institutions actively promoting the field (and a 1000 shames on them for not so doing), at least it is being acknowledged at some institutional level, especially in light of the devastation wreaked on it by the university (music) sector in Australian in the 4th 1/4 of the 20C.
    • -ve: There was too much focus on the physical _objects_ and not enough on the (qualities etc) of the sound. So sound gets to play to second fiddle yet again.
    • -ve: Is the act of listening so unimportant? – perhaps because the visarts crowd do not have a history of listening until now (pop- afterall, is mostly about other things) and so do not have anything to compare it with. (eg. active, whilst playing, concert rituals etc).
  • (9) I thought he should (show some evidence of having read Ros Bandt’s book. Carefully and while sitting on his ego. For example, and as Bruce Cale pointed out to him in the QA, he made no mention of Lamb’s work etc despite it being right “on-topic”. Apparently Joyce Hinterding is the interesting one in Aust. Don’t get me wrong, I love her work, but what assumptions are being made here? Thank Ganesha that Carla Teixeria @ NFSA is removing some obstacles in this regard. Let’s hopes she is supported and encouraged by the community whose work she seeks to document. Ditto Sarah Last. A thousand petals would bloom if they had some sound mentoring, in both senses of the word.
  • (10) I kept thinking “Why am I sitting listening to this when Ros Bandt would have done it so much better?” I guess it’s not his fault that Australians are frightened of the soundness of their own voice, so this is not a critique of him. As a culture we seem still so insecure we want to hear others tell us what is interesting in the world. So it is no surprise, given the opportunity, for other to tell us that their culture is what is important. So we are defined in our own minds by them. And their image of us is projected onto us and we respond as puppets on strings. No wonder many of our artists still need to leave Australia in order to work, and the homegrown flowerings are often weedy. Don’t get me wrong-I love those weeds, but you have to ruminate a lot of them to sustain life, and expend a lot of energy scrounging for them. He said afterwards that he was looking for a job so he’ll probably walk into something.
  • (11) Level of intellectual engagement: Shallow. Even the opening slide, which was of a series of concentric arcs emanating from a microphone onto a zebra, was shallowly visual – no understanding of the difference in kind between the reaction-diffusion process that causes the (unarc-like) patterning on a zebra and those illustrating sound dispersion. A vague connection if everything is reduced to a 2D image pattern and you don’t think about it. ‘Nuff said. See (8).

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