Jim Denley and Nick Ashwood interview Amanda Stewart. Recorded 24/03/2019, Hobart.
Vernacular, Machine for Making Sense, Stasis Duo and Text v Noise.
JD: You’ve talked about abstraction of the voice, but back in the day there was quite a lot of interest in Australian vernacular — especially from Chris Mann.
AS: Yeah [laughs]
JD: Through all Chris’s work there’s this deep interest in extended vocals through vernacular
AS: and Phil Minton is another absolute inspiration in that area, although in a very different way.
JD: So the sounds involved in ‘Aw what-are-ya?’ or ‘yeah-no’, are interesting sounds that come out of this wellspring of human culture. I can remember doing extended vocals without instruments based on Aussie vernacular, and when i heard Chris doing a complex, more forensic and much more interesting take on that, it was kinda embarrassing — ‘aw shit someone’s already doing this in a way more developed way’.
AS: Well, if i think of Machine For Making Sense, having Chris there with his incredible virtuosity and what you were doing with your vocals (which had a different approach), it meant that there was this richness — i didn’t think that what you were doing was less rich than Chris, just really different extrapolations of voice and language. I know what you mean, but you have the ability to listen into Chris’s work and hear the incredible musical logic in it — a lot of people don’t properly appreciate that.
NA: So you very much developed the noisier stuff and the text together ?
AS: I think my writing and my work in music are really quite separate activities. So yes, i was still writing my poetry and various other texts for literary and other contexts at the same time that i was developing the noisier vocal stuff, but i wasn’t bringing any writing into that music. Although, thinking about it — funnily enough, my vocal noise stuff can sort of be seen as relevant to poetry, conceptually… in the way that it resituates the human subject and its ontology… anyway… Machine for Making Sense was a wild group. It was focused on issues around language and music and it was very freeing up — you could go to extremes. We were challenging all sorts of ideas, of aesthetics and politeness — trying to come to another place – although we were very concerned about ethics too. I would do some outrageous vocals (i hear some of the stuff now and think, oh my God!). But i was very careful too — keeping it all coming from language so that it had a clear, conceptual rationale.
I’m a very cautious person, like with the stereo mics i never use processing, it’s this very clean, clear structure. I did experiment with different approaches to processing early on but then decided that i was more interested in the clarity of the amplified, stereo voice as a concept. Occasionally i’ve worked with electronic and digital processes in collaborative contexts with amazing people who do that really well like Natasha Anderson and Robin Fox. Even now i sometimes find my rigidity around the stereo set-up can be too limiting because it’s very inflexible and i feel it can be an imposition on the people i work with –
NA: i don’t feel that, i think you’re the most adaptable vocalist i’ve ever heard — like playing with Stasis Duo to playing with this (180º) to hearing what you’ve done with Machine
AS: well that’s so generous Nick, but, for example, us playing this weekend has meant that you’ve done the most incredible amount of work to facilitate my stereo vocals whereas if i’d just been working acoustically…
NA: i mean that’s just your instrument though
AS: you both like to play acoustically in the environment but in order to play with me, you’ve compromised great aspects of your own practice
NA: i don’t think so — it’s just different. You’re so adaptable to any group, like playing with Stasis Duo [pause] there’s no text, it’s like you’re another synthesiser
AS: Thanks, Nick. It took a long time for me to feel that i was a fully fledged vocalist, about 10-15 years, because i felt i needed to do a lot of work first. I was respectful of the people i worked with — they had the most incredible skills, and i was very aware of the years of work and virtuosity that had gone into their music, so for a long time i saw myself largely working from a linguistic basis in relation to my musical explorations so that at least i had a clear, conceptual offering to a group. I’m not just gratuitously in there, it’s like i’ve-got-a-reason-to-do-what-i-do-and-i’m-doing-it. Over those years, i developed a whole range of strategies, some which i sometimes still use — various concepts, preparations, parallel texts — they’re quite specific so hard to talk about in a general way — but i was also interested in complicating the idea of improvisation, and even the notion of music, itself — trying to resituate its potential and move outside so-called expressionist, decorative or programmatic tendencies — both in solo works and in groups. i guess i was just influenced by various developments that occurred in C20 music, art and writing. I also liked working ‘from the moment’, so to speak, whatever that means…
JD: Looking at your history there’s feedback and feedforward — you influence certain things in the musicians around you then they influence you — between Chris and you, between you and me, between Rik and us all.
[Kookaburra laughing — all laugh]
Rik did this incredible thing in Machine For Making Sense — he globalised the vernacular
JD: so Chris, Amanda and me might be there with our aussie accents but suddenly he’d bring in this silly vocal sound which is East Asian or mid American
AS: [fast fake language] yosecanifla
JD: even just a hint — it suddenly wasn’t just about the Australian vernacular (which might look a bit parochial).
AS: No, it was about vernacular generally. Yeah. i loved how Machine was able to engage with all sorts of ideas from other disciplines — linguistics, philosophy, science, cybernetics — and it sort of tried to strike at the roots of distinction, itself, in a way — distinctions between language and music, speech and text, improvisation and composition, and various philosophies of sound… and it was such a ‘lived’ group. We spent so much time together on the road all those years and we were always reading and talking and debating endlessly and that would shape some of the ideas that found their way into into our gigs… collective process was so important to us — we were five soloists with very individual practices and really different histories that would come together in a shared space. Machine seemed to be as much about talking, thinking and being together as playing together! It was pretty exhausting at times (laughs). I don’t know if i’d have the energy to do that now — it was so intense.
JD: But by the time you’d got to play with Matt and Adam in Stasis Duo you’d developed this vocal palette as a noise artist which could co-exist with two of the most incredible musicians on the planet at doing blippy, minimal, glitchy electronica. And this voice was situated within that, and it didn’t seem odd in the midst of disembodied electrons racing around circuits, you would have a voice. That seems incredible — that there wouldn’t be disparity between Stasis Duo and Amanda Stewart
AS: ha ha
NA: you can’t tell whose doing what.
JD: I don’t know what that stuff is? An ambiguous space between the body and electronics? To have developed the noise stuff to that level from initially starting with, as you say, you’re a poet, seems like an incredible journey.
AS: That’s the beautiful thing about working with other musicians, you learn so much from other people. I certainly remember a time when there was a lot of noise-based material coming in and the work i was doing just didn’t work with that. I could hear that immediately. So i started to try and develop new techniques and once again the microphones facilitated that, because you could get right in with these tiny sounds that would sound electronic — so thank you noise artists, thank you Stasis Duo.
NA: You can really hear that though because it’s almost not pitched based. Almost [pause] like effects.
AS: it’s a bit glitchy — yeah it was the glitch time [laughs] when it was glitchian.
I really wasn’t into the cultural positioning, ‘oh the vocalist’ — coming in and doing their little melodic line that dominates or separates from the other instruments — i just wanted to be part of it — and it was really good fun to just be an instrument. And with the noise stuff i thought ‘how can i make a voice which doesn’t sound like a voice — what does that do’? Coz there’s this thing in linguistics and psychoanalysis that, as soon as a human being hears a voice it’s got this essential pull on you — it immediately pulls you into the social, into language or the history of vocal tradition, positioning you as a subject. So how can you alter that role and function of the voice and the vocalist so that it’s liberated into a different type of cultural plasticity. That’s sorta what i meant before when i said that my noise stuff could be seen as having a conceptual relevance to poetry as well — it’s like the end of poetry, the end of the voice… i’ve made a couple of solo noise pieces in this vein — and it’s important that there’s no sound processing being used on the voice (that’s been widely explored and has totally different implications) — it’s just a raw, human voice being amplified — but it’s a voice that has been stripped of all signification, and all signification of the human — it’s a voice which is no voice, a subject which is no subject… or what sort of a subject is that?… anyway, it’s a weird thing and it’s got various implications… funnily enough, i’ve heard babies make a few of the sounds i’ve used in creating that noise voice… anyway, enough of all that! I think that after years of being very prudent about how far i went into a non-linguistic sphere, i found it really exciting not referencing language at all. I did a quartet a year or so ago with Peter Farrar, Andrew Fedorovitch and Goh Lee Kwang, it was just total abstraction and noise — i used a very limited vocal palette — i really enjoyed that.
JD: In some of your work it’s almost like you’ve embraced the declamatory, amplified voice,
AS: you mean when i’m doing text?
JD: I mean your performance seems to often reference a range of idioms around the declamatory voice.
AS: Oh that’s interesting… i guess i did that in Machine quite a bit…
JD: There’s that track ‘Obtuse’ on our new 180º record with the 3 of us where you’re not in performance mode
NA: something had fallen like a bit of paper or something had gone off — it may have maybe been your phone, and then you were scrunching through your paper
JD: it’s very revealing because it shows that there’s this other thing which is normal, everyday speech and then you go into a very stratified set of idioms that you use in performance. Are you aware of all those levels of idiom?
AS: Yeah – and it’s funny coz a lot of the time if i do decide to incorporate some textual thing, even if i’ve abstracted it, for me there’s a meaning going on. But with the more abstract sounds, i just see them as being textural, structural and abstract. It changes all the time, so yeah, there are lots of different modes. But most of the time it’s a fast strategic thing about how one relates to what other people are doing… i like the fact that i can still bring text in because it completely changes the game plan.
But it’s very dangerous to introduce language into music [pause] …it’s highly culturally framed and connoted. Introducing language has the potential to obliterate the richness of a musical field and completely sublimate it. It introduces a mode or logic of listening and thinking that can dominate other ways of perceiving. i can feel my brain going into totally different modes when i’m performing.
JD: But i would imagine too, we’d have to talk about the audience and how they listen. Peter Blamey has often tried to talk about experimental sound art not so much in terms of the content but about how people receive it, and so many audiences know you as a wordsmith and poet. So people at a performance or listening to a recording already know that you sit on this cusp or this liminal space
AS: i can bring it in if i want to
JD: and they know there’s the potential to. So it’s this latent space. If you go and see Carolyn Connors or Kusum Normoyle you probably don’t have the same latency about the possibility of language, because you know that most of the time they’re not going to go there. So there’s already that knowledge or expectation that you have this great interest in words, that you’re a poet first and foremost, so the noise elements always sits on um [pause]
AS: possibility? — yeah i think you could be right there
JD: i’m just trying to think how people| i mean you might have all your theories about what you’re doing personally
[Together] AS: yes, exactly — it may have no bearing on anything — ha —yeah
JD: how people actually receive it is incredibly interesting.