The music of Melbourne sound artist and academic Phillip Samartzis is incredibly difficult to categorise. Possibly because it’s not necessarily music at all – at least the way we’ve been taught to understand it. He is best known for crafting incredibly dynamic and expressive environmental sound pieces garnered through field recordings that are then juxtaposed, manipulated and altered, though his oeuvre also extends into experimental improvised new music ensembles, turntable manipulations, and even a cameo on Melbourne’ favourite avant garde punk ensemble Bucketrider’ last record. So perhaps you can understand the dilemma. Words like austere, playful, adventurous, fragile, violent, rigorous, expressive, and singular do seem appropriate, yet they all seem to be antonyms, cancelling each other out, which whilst not necessarily assisting in illumination, do convey a certain sense of complexity in his work. One word stands out however. Despite a gap of about twenty odd years there’ actually a link between his initial attempts at turntable manipulation in Gum back in the late eighties to his strangely ill-fitting Unheard Spaces on his own Microphonics label last year, where with typical unconventional relish he splits the album with an improvised new music ensemble and the kind of subtle expressive field recordings from Venice that he is better known for. In fact the word hangs over these works and everything that he has done in between. He refuses to make concessions pursuing a vision that can at times be confronting, even isolating, yet more often than not incredibly rewarding. Yet it’s something that is almost innate, that has been with him from an early age. That word? Uncompromising.
“I can’t help but resist dominant modes of culture,” he offers with a small chuckle. We are meeting in his office in the City campus of RMIT in Melbourne, a place where he began as a student and wound up head of the sound department. At the beginning of each year he takes the new students on an introductory journey through some of the most groundbreaking music of the 20th century, everything from hip hop, through funk, industrial music, Krautrock and noise, however he saves a special mention for his passion for musique concrete. “Ever since childhood I’ve always resisted the easy path in terms of “you should like this’, he continues. “In my case it’s always the Beatles. And I really dislike the Beatles and I really dislike Elvis. It’s kind of irrational as well. They’re only a drop in the ocean compared to all the other musics that have happened in the world, and not just in Australia, the UK or USA, but (also) Albania and Brazil and who knows where else. You can talk about sonic experience but they kind’ve created a sense of resistance in me in terms of “you guys can all listen to the same thing but I’m really interested in other things and other experiences’. That stance was developed very early on and I was always interested in finding out about different kinds of artists and different kinds of music.”
In fact Samartzis remembers always having a taste for the obscure, despite the fact that growing up in Preston afforded little opportunity to pursue any left of centre musical pursuits. “I was always drawn to abrasive sounds,” he offers, “so I was never interested in music or musical sounds, so I wasn’t interested in learning musical instruments in the normal sense of the word. I was very much interested in distortion and noise, mainly through certain music.”
“I guess some obvious ones back then would have been heavy rock, heavy metal music like Black Sabbath. But Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music has always been an important landmark record for me because of its exploration of feedback, distortion and noise. It kind of opened my ears, because here’s a double album by a fairly well known artist that didn’t have the conventional forms that you’d normally associate with music, regardless of the genre. It had no melody, it had rhythm of course, but it was a complicated rhythm, and it had harmony as well if you like with all the various feedback elements collecting to create this incredibly uplifting visceral noise. So it had those elements of course, but in a very abstract lateral sense of the word.”
“I found it exciting,” he continues, “I found it mysterious as well. You’re talking about someone who was 12 years old. I don’t normally like to go back to my childhood, but it has informed and shaped the way that I think about music and sound in a sense.”
And though he was interested in the visceral cacophony of noise inherent in Reed’ work, the attraction went much deeper, tuning in for the first time to the daring disdain for traditional structures and perhaps more importantly the timbre of the sound. Whilst around the same time Kraftwerk’s unexpected pop hit was blasting from transistor radios everywhere, prompting a greater interest in electronics, from here it was only a hop, skip and a jump through punk, post-punk, industrial, noise music, and most importantly a bunch of strange but dedicated boundary pushing Frenchmen.
Musique concrete was developed in the late forties by Frenchman Pierre Schaeffer who utilized developments in technology, most notably the tape recorder and the microphone to facilitate a new form of music. Through these tools sounds could now be removed from their original source, recontextualised and manipulated to create new meanings and complex new compositions.
“I was attracted to musique concrete because of the way it transformed the everyday into the hyperreal or into more expressionistic sorts of outcomes,” Samartzis reveals. “I remember hearing pieces by Francois Bayle, in particular, Tremblement de terre tres doux. “Very soft vibration’ is the English translation. It’s essentially metal balls that he was manipulating and I could hear that they were metal balls, but the process of transformation and metamorphosis really attracted my ear and that led me to other musique concrete composers. Pierre Henry in particular was a source of fascination for a while and eventually Bernard Parmegiani as well. All of them were significant in terms of taking everyday sounds whether they were bird calls, door squeaks, fire, pink pong balls or whatever and doing remarkable things through tape manipulation or filtering or electronic processes. So that drew my ear in terms of a relationship between technology and the environment and the kind of music that can be created from there.”
“It was all fairly scattered at the time,” he continues, “I didn’t really know the history of musique concrete. I knew that these French guys were doing these amazing things and had been doing amazing things over a period of time. I came upon musique concrete in the mid 80’s and it had been around well over thirty years then. And that led me to think about the environment as a source of material. At the time I discovered musique concrete I had just started working with records and record players because I didn’t really have access to sophisticated studio technology. So I was looking for other ways of producing sound.”
These experiments formed the basis for Gum, a duo with Andrew Curtis that delved into locked grooves, woozy atmospheric and mechanical drones well before the likes of Philip Jeck or Thomas Brinkman flicked the needle onto the vinyl. In 2004 their entire output from 1987 – 1990 was compiled and released on 23Five, offering a sonic reinforcement of Samartzis’ words. This is not dance music or DJ culture, rather this is two young guys experimenting and exploring the possibilities of their limited tools and having a ball with titles like Testicle Stretch, Arm Fuck or Involuntary Orgasms During The Cleaning of Automobiles. Some seventeen years on these pieces still hold up incredibly well, so much so that his 2006 turntable duo with Brisbane sound artist Lawrence English, One Plus One (Room40) could almost sit alongside it as a more mature discerning cousin.
Aside from his brief dalliance last year, Samartzis left the turntable behind and entranced by musique concrete, started working with field recordings.
“I was always reminded of the excitement that I had when I first heard musique concrete,” he reveals. “So it was always in the back of my mind that there was something there that I could draw upon and felt very comfortable with and I like the idea of tradition and history, of becoming part of a trajectory of a musical style.”
His five subsequent solo releases, the final two on his own Microphonics label, are explorations of this tradition, employing meticulously gathered field recordings and all manner of structural manipulations, treatments, devices and juxtapositions. 2004′ Soft and Loud was comprised of field recordings gathered in Japan between 1999 and 2001, where he employed a cinematic approach of gathering multiple recordings of the same object from various distances and trajectories. Here he was focussing on various relationships of sound within everyday Japanese life. For 2006′ Unheard Spaces he gathered field recordings in Venice to highlight some of its specific sonic characteristics in an attempt to redefine yet still capture the essence of such a distinctive yet overexposed city. In a typically baffling Samartzis move, the other half of the album is comprised of a series of unrelated improvised ensemble pieces first performed at the What Is Music Festival, featuring the likes of regular collaborators Dave Brown (Candlesnuffer) and Sean Baxter (Bucketrider) as well as former students Anthea Caddy and Thembi Soddell, highlighting Samartzis’ more recent integration into Melbourne’ increasingly vibrant experimental music culture.
Yet he hasn’t always been as firmly embraced by this world.
“In the mid 90′, as soon as people found out that I was a lecturer in a university it divided them,” he reveals. “Some people would have nothing to do with me, because they saw me as an academic and what I produce as academic music, but there was another part of the audience, the academy in fact, the highbrow audience who didn’t think I belonged with them either, didn’t think I was rigorous enough, or enough of an academic to belong with them. For a time in fact between “95 -“99, I couldn’t find anywhere I belonged. I was split down the middle there.”
“I think that’s changed because of my collaborations with various respectable musicians,” he laughs. “You just mention that you’ve played with KK Null and Keiji Haino and all of a sudden you’ve got some street credibility. It doesn’t mean your music is any different, but people think “oh yeah he’s an academic but he does some wild stuff.”
In fact Samartzis seems particularly drawn to collaborations these days, having worked with the likes of Sachiko M, Gunter Muller, Voice Crack, Rasmus Lunding, and Kozo Inada, the latter with whom he released a limited 3 inch disc on Room40 last year. He also records and performs as part of an improvisational trio with Sean Baxter and Dave Brown called Western Grey (Dr Jim’s) and regularly collaborates with Phillip Brophy as PH2 (Soundpunch), as well as a number of visual artists. Yet it’s not solely field recordings in many of these projects. In the last ten years he has become increasingly attracted to analogue synthesis and the purity of sine tones.
“I found a strong link when I was researcher in residence at IRCAM about six years ago,” he offers. “I spent time in their anechoic chamber just to test the Cage notion of this idea of silence, you know, you hear about Cage’s experiences of hearing his own nervous system and blood circulating. That’s what I heard as well. You feel the pressure. It’s unnatural of course, so you’re feeling a lot of pressure and all of a sudden you’re aware of the high frequencies. It could be tinnitus. I don’t know what it is, but I was hearing a lot of high frequencies and tones when I was in there, which was very much like analogue synthesis. So after thinking about it a lot I thought it seems like the body is generating something analogous to synthesis, which is then natural, so it’s as natural as bird calls or something like that.”
“So my rationalisation is that the combination of electronics and field recordings has a kind of organic relationship. I don’t feel like they don’t belong together, they feel very much part of the same fabric that I am interested in. So I continue working with the two, sometimes I favour one over the other and more recently I guess I’ve been working with instrumentalists, with acoustic instrumentation as well to extend the colours and add a different layer of sophistication and complexity to what I’m doing.”
Whilst Samartzis kindly provides liner notes on his solo releases, often offering initial artistic intentions, his approaches and at times even his influences for the project, the nature and complexity of his work can at times make interpretation difficult. Samartzis is clear though that he is not an entertainer, that each piece or performance is based on some kind of question he poses himself, whether that be thematic or even in terms of the process he follows to achieve his means.
“I find process interesting and I love conceptual works. In terms of listening to a composer’s intentions and the way they work with materials and process, I find a lot of their sounds beautiful of course, field recordings and electronic sounds, and so forth. I find them stimulating and interesting in various ways, however with musique concrete it has a fascination with process and technology, as well as the environment. So it is perceptual as well. It really honed my perception of how things can be transformed and reinvented and extended. What I’ve discovered through that is that although I do like process and it’s something that I apply to many of my works, I also like naturalism as well and I often work between the two states, taking well-recorded natural environments and incorporating them into my pieces.”
“I like to have a layer of ambiguity to it so that the sounds that I’m using aren’t clearly signifying anything, placed in such a way within the composition to potentially suggest a different location or different environment or serve a different function. And it’s that kind of playfulness that I’ve worked with the last ten years or so. It always goes back to musique concrete though. That’s where I go to be inspired, those recordings from the fifties and sixties listening to how those guys recorded, manipulated, arranged, mixed and finalised their compositions.”