An Aural Map Of Australia

Aural Maps is an ongoing repository for the countless stories and conversations I’ve had with inspiring people around the globe who are excavating a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us through sound.

When I first began making a documentary about Nels Cline in 2002, I had no way of knowing I was beginning a project that would involve spending seven years in more than ten countries pursuing a chainsaw orchestra, a singing dog, a man who screams into (and chews on) amplified glass, a woman making music with DOT Matrix printers, a chamber orchestra of bicycle-powered instruments, drummers making music with roadkill in Tasmania, a woman trying to make the world’s great bridges sing in unison, a man translating the weather patterns and geophysical phenomena of Alaska into music in real time, a man who traveled to Angolan villages which had been cut off from the rest of the world by land mines to discover the music children made there with homemade instruments constructed from tank parts and bullet shell casings, a woman making music from the “real-time” chemical activities of plants via electrodes (and blowing up trains using the same method), and countless others. In the end, I wound up with a film, The Reach Of Resonance, which is not about Nels Cline at all, but does contrast the creative paths of four artists (John Luther Adams, Bob Ostertag, Miya Masaoka, and Jon Rose) who, like Nels, are not only expanding the possibilities of what music is and can be, but revealing where our sensitivities to the people and circumstances around us may be lacking.

Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor making fence music in the Strezlecki Desert, Australia

Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor making fence music in the Strezlecki Desert, Australia

In 2009, I spent several months traveling around the world with Jon Rose, who was being chased down by militaries with tear gas and stun grenades after deciding that his musical instrument of choice would be the world’s great barbed wire fences in the midst of conflict zones (played with a violin bow). While “going bush” for five years to evoke music from 25,000 miles of fences in Australia, Jon discovered hundreds of groundbreaking musicians separated by fences across the continent , from aborigine choirs in the central red deserts, to a man in the remote west who performs on pianos decomposing from the Australian climate in his outdoor “Ruined Piano Sanctuary,” whom Jon united onstage as a giant orchestra at the end of his travels. An Aural Map Of Australia is a short film I made on Jon’s work with these musicians, which includes footage of several of them. Below is also an excerpt from Where Aural Maps Collide, an article I was commissioned to write for Cadence Magazine (2012) on my experiences with Jon, following in his footsteps to track down this constellation of pioneering underground musicians across Australia.

When Jon Rose set out with a violin bow to make music from the longest stringed instruments on Earth, he discovered that they are fences in Australia.  The dingo fence  alone is approximately twice the length of the Great Wall of China.  Before that, Australia’s Rabbit Proof Fence was arguably the longest thing of any kind ever made.  When considering the gargantuan labor and loss of  life required to build such enormous musical instruments, it is a fantastic irony that their engineers had no idea they were constructing them all the way across the only continent whose entire landscape had already been transposed into a musical score.  The original custodians of the land believed that nothing existed unless it had a song which could be sung.  By knowing the song of every rock, tree and lump of dirt, Aborigines not only possessed a sonic map which allowed them to navigate their way through the unforgiving landscape, but also to experience the spiritual significance of every topographical detail in their path as musical notes scattered by their totemic ancestors.  “In theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score,” Bruce Chatwin once wrote.  “There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung. One should perhaps visualize the Songlines as a spaghetti of Iliads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that, in which every ‘episode’ was readable in terms of geology…a featureless stretch of gravel was the musical equivalent of Beethoven’s Opus III.”

Each individual inherited some fragment of the landscape in its musical form, and by adding up the individuals and the music they were entrusted with, you’d have a sonic map of the continent.  This was needed not only to navigate through it, but to preserve it:  for them, nothing existed unless it was sung into existence, and to stop singing would cause it to disappear.  Knowing the music incorrectly could result in the death penalty.  It would not only unravel creation, it could cause one to stray off the Dreaming Tracks of their ancestors.

So in the Australian outback, Rose found himself at the intersection of two very different musics, arising from two cultures projecting their own dreams upon the vast landscape when they gazed upon it.  Fences and Songlines were each unique sonic articulations of ownership, giving voice to how these cultures related to their surroundings: one defined by a physical material that divides and the other by a cross-cultural transmission that connects.  “The outback fence, that iconic divider and protector, is a metaphor for the duality with which the human mind analyzes and copes with situations,” Jon once said, “All human beings have this in common.  There’s the unknown and stepping into it or stepping away from it.  The difference in culture is that European man decided to make it a physical barrier…At the same time, fences also mark…the notion of belonging to lands and cultures and political systems…fence construction has inadvertently given us a means of expressing musically, with a direct physical connection, the whole range of intense emotion tied up with the ownership of the land.”

All of this puts quite a spin on the observations of French economist Jacques Attali:  “Music, as a mirror of society…is more than an object of study: it is a way of perceiving the world.  A tool of understanding…Music, the organization of noise…reflects the manufacture of society; it constitutes the audible waveband of the vibrations and signs that make up a society.  An instrument of understanding, it prompts us to decipher a sound form of knowledge.”

Perhaps in the sonic map Jon Rose has made of Australia’s fences, we have a clue, a picture, of why music affects all of us so deeply.  Perhaps our personal distinctions between music and noise reflects (and affects) our internal map of the borders we cultivate within ourselves and then project back upon the world we experience.  Perhaps music is not just a movement of air that triggers emotional reactions in us, but a magnifying glass which makes us stand in relation to our notions of “self” and “other,” value and worthlessness, transcendence and the mundane, and re-evaluate them.  Perhaps music compels us to rethink the maps our lives make out of the complex phenomena of the world around us.

By setting out to make a sonic map of the fences that divide Australia, Rose wound up with an additional map, of the people who live on both sides of these fences.  Jon compiled the musicians he met from both sides of Australia’s fences into a giant chamber orchestra at the 2005 Melbourne Festival.  They performed together on the same stage as if to suggest precisely what fences cannot contain.  Jon has argued that the history of modern Australia can be seen as running parallel to the history of its fences.  But his aural map of the country reminds us that this does not have to remain its legacy.  Creative music is the sound of our struggles against the limitations of our bodies, our technology, our language, and our geography.  It is the imprint we leave on our social confines.  It can transport us to a height where we look down and see how impotent such fences really are.  At that altitude, those on all sides of fences may experience music as a celebration that we “own” nothing, but share much.

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