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In Extremis

Reach For The Lasers: An Interview With Robin Fox
Rory Gibb , September 5th, 2012 01:45

Australian musician and audiovisual artist Robin Fox locks human nervous systems to the rhythms of the machine. Ahead of his laser show at Cafe Oto on September 16th, he speaks to Rory Gibb about scoring for dance and cracking technology

The venue, a wood paneled auditorium in Krakow's museum of Japanese art, is pitch black, the air thick with dry ice that clogs in the throat. Abruptly a green laser apparatus springs to life, enclosing the crowd in a tunnel whose edges eddy and swirl with volatile ectoplasm. The music that cuts the air is brittle, shrill and unsettling - the crackles and glitches of household machinery gone haywire blend into the grumbling whirrs of some infernal dishwasher, before cutting abruptly to a continuous low-frequency sine wave drone. The laser bank dances to the music, each successive shift in sound triggering contortions, rapid flicks back and forth, elaborate and graceful parabolic arcs. The audience are pinned in place, their auditory and optic nerves firing rapid, synchronised impulse salvoes, their central nervous systems locked to the rhythms of Robin Fox's machine.

Fox's was one of the most remarkable performances at last year's Unsound Festival. A lecture explaining his academic, musical and visual work was followed by one of his increasingly renowned laser shows. The creeping sensation, during his performances, that light and sound are operating as one is no illusion: over the past decade, Fox's working practice has been to send the same sound signal to banks of visual apparatus as to the loudspeaker, creating an exact visual representation of the sound itself. The results are remarkable: on his oscilloscope works - collected on the Backscatter DVD - different sonic textures produce radically different visual correlates. Circles and squares appear as regular shapes, before shifts in sound cause them to violently distort outward into jagged clouds and seas of rippling teeth.

Having studied music on a course at Melbourne's La Trobe university, "where anyone with any musical background - or with no musical backgound - could go and study music", and going on to do a PhD in electroacoustic music, Fox eventually stumbled across these effects by accident while he was working on a piece with an oscilloscope as a prop. With the 'try this and see what happens' mentality that he says has informed most of his work, he plugged the sound output into the back of the oscilloscope. What emerged was mostly a mess, but at one point, there was an abrupt and startling correlation where the two appeared to perfectly converge.

"It was that split second of symbiosis between the sound and the image that just really captured my full attention," he says. "My mother was synaesthetic so I've always had this fascination for cross pollination but it's always been very latent, in the background, until I saw this thing and thought 'Fuck, that's it'. I felt like I felt it, this thing that my mother had talked about a lot. I felt like I'd experienced it, in a fleeting way."

Later, he translated the same methodology across to a full bank of lasers, with the aim to create a wholly immersive space that would literally swallow the audience whole - so that, as he describes it, "they're essentially standing inside an electrical signal." He's about to come to London for a laser performance at Cafe Oto on September 16th - something which, even if you're no fan of jarring electronic noise, is something worth experiencing.

Robin Fox Laser Show from Robin Fox on Vimeo.

His work covers too many disciplines to delve into too much detail, but in addition to these musical performances, he has worked on creating music for cochlear implants, audiovisual art using televisions, and recently a giant theremin for a public art installation in Melbourne (more details about his work are available here).

He also composes soundtracks for dance performances, by acclaimed Australian contemporary dance company Chunky Move and more. Kranky are about to release Fox's score for a Chunky Move piece, Connected, written eighteen months ago in collaboration with his friend, avant-guitarist Oren Ambarchi. It's an unexpectedly beautiful piece of music, where the harsher digital textures of Fox's software programming interlace seamlessly with Ambarchi's strummed and plucked guitar motifs.

In addition, Mortal Engine, the first dance piece Fox ever worked on (alongside Ben Frost), is set to have its UK premiere at the Ether Festival in London's Southbank Centre on October 20th. "All the dancers were sort of tracked by an infra-red tracking system, and so they're sort of linked to the sound and the light in various ways," says Fox of Mortal Engine. "The laser show features in that piece, and I designed with a German software engineer a way of tracking the dancers' bodies and locking onto them, wrapping them up in the laser light in a way. It was quite a beautiful piece to work on.

"What I love about working with dance, from a sound point of view," he continues, "is that I have a lot of friends who work in theatre or film, and it just seems to me a really frustrating place to be for someone who's interested in sound or compositional music in any sense, because it always tends to be subjugated to theatrical elements or narrative or emotive things. Whereas when you're working particularly with abstract contemporary dance, you're working with a choreographer and the sound and the movement are fundamentally linked - not always literally, but definitely conceptually. It means that you can work really at the same level with the choreographer, and your sound is 50% of the experience for the audience, that's partly what it's all about. So from a soundmaker's point of view, I think contemporary dance is an awesome format to work in."

Does it feel quite intuitive, transferring your approach into that kind of format?

RF: I think it does. It's interesting when you work in noise or experimental music or whatever you want to call it, there's a level of abstraction that removes it from the linguistic paradigms of music. Anyone can talk about music. Everyone has figured it out for themselves, everybody knows what they like, and so many people are quick to tell you what is music and what isn't music, what is allowed and what isn't allowed - everyone's quite absolute about it. And when you work outside those linguistic musical paradigms it's often difficult to convince anyone that there's any sense to what you're doing. That abstraction can often alienate people.

I think I felt that way about contemporary dance when I first saw it, I thought 'Here's a language that's really abstract and strange and alienating for me, I don't get it' - so I felt like a lot of people must feel when they hear noise for the first time. So I found that interesting. But it also means that [when] working with choreographers, you can connect with them aesthetically on that level. The ones I'm working with are not expecting you to write music as such, I don't really know what to expect from them, and often their processes are quite exploratory, very experimental - they work with movement in very similar ways to the ways I work with sound. So they'll start with a kernel, an idea, and then they'll just generate things around that idea, or spin that idea out in various ways, in various permutations.

And that's what I'll do with sound. I might have recorded a particular sound - my washing machine went berserk the other day, and I recorded that, and I thought 'That's brilliant, that's going to form the basis of something'. Those things are the kernels that then get folded into whatever you're working on. And I think choreographers - or the ones that I've worked with, I shouldn't generalise - seem to have that sensibility as well. I find it a great area to work in.

The kinetic sculpture that forms the heart of Connected seems to have strong visual links to the work you've done - it's all shifting lines, shifting patterns.

RF: Yeah. When I started working with audiovisual connections between sound and image, I was working with oscilloscopes, where you're basically making sound waves and putting them in and out of phase, and looking at the relationship between sound and geometry, if you like, and movement. When I started working with the laser and started to try and make that 2D filmic work 3D, a big part of that was just that - taking sine waves and mixing them together.

So when I saw Reuben's [Margolin, kinetic sculptor] work, it was just beautiful to see him doing almost exactly the same thing but with this Dickensian technology, these sort of pulleys and strings. He just had two sine waves competing with one another, and those sine waves form the basis of that undulation and the motion. So when I was making the soundtrack for a section of that piece, they just matched the undulation of the sculpture with [my] sine wave, and just pulsed the lighting rig with that as well, and just locked into this very simple harmonic motion. It's beautiful.

We did it in a very subtle way - I wanted to be more forthright about it - but the director was more interested in subtlety, which in the end was good, because you almost don't know it's happening, you don't know there's the link between the sound and the light and the sculpture, but it's there, and you only notice it if you take that relationship away.

How do the dancers interact with it?

RF: They wear these harnesses, and there were hooks built into their costume, so the strings that controlled the sculpture - I think there were hundreds of strings initially and they fed through a loom which reduced it to about 12 - would be linked at their joints, so they could move and cause the sculpture to undulate as well. So it would become independent of its sine wave oscillations and they would manipulate it through their choreography. If they're moving in very fluid ways, the sculpture would move in very fluid ways, but they could also create very different shapes. It was quite beautiful to see that human interaction with it. That was something the sculptor had never done before, he'd always made these autonomous kinetic sculptures, so he was blown away when he saw humans connected to it. God knows what he'll make next.

In the same vein, I imagine it must have been really interesting when you first started working with dance to see humans creatively responding to the sounds that you were producing, in that physical way, as opposed to having a group of people in a room that you're playing sound at.

RF: Yeah. I've had a lot of experiences recently where I haven't been doing things to people as much as I have in the past. With the laser show and with the noise performances, you almost feel like you're assaulting people, you're kind of attacking them with information. I've been doing that for a long time, but when you make music for dance it's a little bit different because there's something about that visual focus. Something about the whole experience means you can get away with things in a dance score that you probably wouldn't get away with at a gig.

Do you find the psychological effects of what you're doing interesting, in terms of how your laser shows or noise affects a crowd in a room? When I saw your performance at Unsound last year I was blown away by how physically and psychologically affecting it is - seeing these synchronised music and visual things, but not in a kind of 'here's a human interpretation of these sounds' way, there's something quite crisp about it. Have you seen strong reactions to these kinds of experiences?

RF: Yeah, definitely. I've been amazed actually, it's been the most popular thing by far that I've ever done, and that's great. What I like about the reaction is that - even though lasers are quite old technology now - as soon as you turn a laser on there's a gasp in the room. There's something about that focused light that makes people happy. And then the idea with the laser show is to envelop them in sound and light image information at the same time, so they're seeing an electrical signal, and they're hearing an electrical signal, and they're essentially standing inside an electrical signal. That's an experience you're not going to have in your day-to-day trundle to work.

So what I still love about the laser show is that it still generates a sense of wonder, in a strange way, which is almost the same feeling I had when I first plugged sound into an oscilloscope and I saw that correlation between the sound and the image. It was shit for a while, and then it worked, but there was a couple of seconds that I really loved - and that moment was just like a pop in my brain, it was 'Oh my god, that's beautiful! I'm just going to do that for the next 10 years.'

I'm hoping that's what happens when people see that connection. And the reason the connection seems crisp is that it's just so simple. There's no intervening processing or anything, it's just an electrical signal controlling speaker cones, an electrical signal controlling galvo motors - it's the same electrical signal. The idea is that the synapses in your brain are electrical signals, so you're firing all of these things simultaneously - you're firing the auditory and the visual cortex simultaneously - those little bits of electricity are the same and it's like a massage in your brain, it's like 'Oh, my god'. Something about that works. Well, that's what I'm hoping happens.

Just to go back to dance for a minute more - I wanted to ask about working with Oren Ambarchi for the Connected soundtrack. Could you tell me a bit about it?

RF: The stuff that was really interesting to me was the stuff we made together. One of them was a temp track that the choreographer had been using - this is what happens from time to time, they get really locked into a particular rhythmic impulsion, and they just go 'Fuck, we need a track that's this pulse - that's not negotiable'. So we went into the studio and I took that pulse and turned it into quite a strange sine wave pattern, of just beeps basically, just as a metronomic thing - but a metronomic thing that had this kind of strange melodic contour. Oren took that and just went to town with it, and we ended up with a fantastic piece of music that I think is one of my favourites on the Kranky release. It was the kind of piece that neither of us would have made on our own - a classic case of synthesis, you know.

In terms of your composition for the audiovisual material - oscilloscopes, laser banks, so on - do the visuals you're attempting to achieve inform the sounds you're actually make it? Is it the other way round? Or is it a back-and-forth between the two?

RF: Well it's interesting, because it's become a back and forth between the two, but initially I was always just making sound. With [programmable sound software] Max MSP, I was always looking at the result of a sound as an image. But that becomes very reciprocal, so I would make a sound and look at the image. In the end, it became a kind of compromise.

When the image is really crystalline, or pure, or amazing, often the sound is quite weird. Particularly when I made the Backscatter DVD, there's something about working with the oscilloscope - forcing the digital system to do things it wasn't supposed to do was the way to get the best image results.

So it really became this thing where distortions were often the most interesting things. Pushing the digital system way beyond its capacity to reproduce sound means that the system folds in on itself, and those foldover frequencies were often visually more interesting than the actual frequencies. I just tended to want to push the sound generating facilities that I had, and then watch the results. It was always this thing of 'I'm making sound, let's see what it looks like' - so even though there's this reciprocal thing that happens compositionally, the fundamental physical system is always sound feeding into the visual apparatus.

Is there an element of personal aesthetic choice in terms of the sounds you use? I found myself wondering whether you could create the same sort of visual effects with different sounds.

RF: Because the two things are intrinsically linked, you wouldn't be able to create those effects with other sounds. Because they are the sounds, those effects. But you could create something similar with different sounds. So definitely there's an aesthetic there, for sure.

But it's also an aesthetic that's been shaped a little bit by the hardware as well. What I found moving from the oscilloscope to the laser was that the laser was even more limited, in the frequency range that I could send it, just because of the physical system that was at play. I found myself working a lot more with low frequency combinations like that phasing section, and then all the higher transients have to happen quite quickly - they have to happen in bursts, it has to be quite frenetic, because if you hold any of those high states for any length of time the motors will just pop. The galvos that are in there are amazing machines, and they hit 30,000 points a second. But if you have a high frequency oscillator, so it's having to step backwards and forwards at a massively quick rate, it'll just shit itself.

Have you managed to blow up banks of lasers in the process of discovering this?

RF: No [laughs], because they're so expensive, I'm very careful. I actually have filters before the output that make sure I don't send it frequencies that will make it explode, and I know which effects I can hold for certain amounts of time. To be honest I've been using this laser projector for a while now, and - touch wood - every time I switch it on to do a show, I say a little prayer for the galvos [laughs].

I'm sure you put it through its paces.

RF: Yeah. I hope so. I'm still working on making a full colour version, using red, green and blue lasers. I'm really interested in the idea of doing things with white lasers, because they'd be so beautiful. But it's a bloody expensive pastime, so I'm trying to raise the funds for that.

I presume you've probably tried lots of other different machinery as well, to see what happens when you send signals through?

RF: I've done a lot of work with TVs. TVs are great machines. I'm sort of in love with the CRT tube, the cathode ray televisions, they're basically oscilloscopes. I recently made a piece that's in the gallery of modern art in Brisbane now, and it's a theremin style instrument - a camera tracking system and three big towers of CRT TVs, and you wander around and play them like audiovisual instruments.

Could you get similarly interesting effects if you were to pass the signal through a modern digital TV? Do you get better effects if you pass it through an old oscilloscope or an old cathode ray TV, rather than a digital ones?

RF: Digital screens work so differently to analogue ones. What you lose with a digital screen is the warmth of the image. There's something about the depth of colour from an analogue screen, and you don't really notice it in your everyday life until you sit a little LCD right next to a CRT and actually run a process on it, and you're like 'Oh my god, there's something about that analogue screen.'

It's not that it's better, it's just different. People often have real nostalgia for analogue stuff. I'm not particularly of that school, but that said I prefer to work with an analogue CRT screen over a digital one. When you're working with a CRT television as an oscilloscope it's not about the resolution, it's about the mechanical way that it works. With any digital screen you've got red, green and blue pixels, and you've got a bitrate of depth within each pixel. So you're never really firing a photon at a phosphor, which is what's happening inside a CRT - you're firing a light beam onto a phosphorous screen which has a chemical trace to it, so there's something that holds the light on the screen.

I saw an interesting talk on creating software glitches at Transmediale this year, where the speaker was discussing how he felt it was important to crack through the surface of how you're 'supposed' to use a piece of technology, to exploit its loopholes, in order to get different results. Is that something you're interested in? Do you think there's almost a subversive aspect to using technology that's been laid out for a certain purpose, but actually trying to make it do something different?

RF: Yeah, I think it is subversive on some levels. But also, maybe less aggressively, it comes from just a curiosity. I think when I started sort of 'breaking', for want of a better term, the things I was using [in order] to make the oscilloscope do what it was doing, there was sort of a necessity about it.

And I had the same thing with the synchronator, which is a device that was developed by some Dutch artists - it's a thing that turns audio signal into RGB video signal. I got that piece of equipment and really had to work with it, so I was sending that to CRT televisions, and you really had to work hard, to push it until it fell over. There is something about doing that to a piece of equipment - about doing it until it just flips out in some really interesting way. There is something to be said for that. And I've just finished a sound design on iPhones, and using them in all kinds of ways they weren't meant to be used, and that can also be really frustrating as well.

I've got this really love/hate relationship with technology, because it promises so much but in reality it's just a bit shit most of the time. It just delivers so much less than you think it should, given the amount of time we've had to develop better ways of doing things.

I guess that whole thing about pushing things and breaking things, and using them in subversive ways, is just an offshoot of having a bit of an experimental mentality - so you take a thing, and you think 'What can I make this do? What happens if I do X, Y or Z with this thing, even though that's not what it's for?' It comes more from a place of curiosity, rather than 'I'm going to break this thing'.

With Max MSP you can really do that - the first thing I did with [it] was that I followed instructions and built a ring modulator, a really simple patch, and I heard the sound. Then I thought 'What would happen if I had a thousand ring modulators?' So you just do it - you copy & paste, copy & paste, copy & paste, until your computer crashes.

I had another friend who had a hilarious approach to things, and he said the best music he'd ever made was when he sent Lord Of The Rings on DVD to his soundcard, or something - just got the whole data file and sent it to his soundcard. I guess that's the mentality - 'what would happen if I did the following?' That's the basis for almost everything I do, actually.