Tristan Louth-Robins’ interests include sound art, composition and acoustic ecology. This audible work explores relationships with the surrounding environment, particularly the ongoing project, the Fleurieu & Kangaroo Island Sound Map.
His new record reflects “a consolidation of two years worth of activities, experiments, ruminations and encounters with sound and the wider environment. Mote Music is an album of impressions. The compositions are deeply personal reflections that the listener is invited to bring their own unique interpretation to.”
Cyclic Defrost contributor Jason Richardson was keen to explore the landscapes with Louth–Robins and learn about his creative practice.
Jason Richardson: Do you have any memories of when you first became interested in sound?
Tristan Louth-Robins: I’ve certainly got vivid memories from my childhood of listening to the ocean and being fascinated by it. Especially as heard from a distance and out of sight. I grew up in a small coastal community on the Fleurieu Peninsula and one of my earliest memories (well, memories of sound) is of listening to the distant ocean from the darkness of my bed. The house we lived in at the time was about a ten-minute walk to the beach, so on a given night – when the conditions were right – the muffled thump of the waves crashing could be heard clearly. I remember at this time – I would have been maybe 4 or 5 – I was thinking of this sound as a physical entity of sorts and imagining its passage from its arrival on the shoreline, across the dunes, up the roads and finding its way to my ears. As a sound with a kind of presence, but also as this physical manifestation like a cloud or dark ooze moving through the night. I guess this was very much in the way that kids enjoy creeping themselves out with mysterious, intangible things.
Another memory of sound from very early on that I have is from our living room in the same house. My dad had his guitars mounted to the walls and I remember being really interested in the way that a voice or something else with an attack and pitch would cause the strings or the body of a given guitar to resonate sympathetically. Of course, I didn’t know this was resonance. I just thought it was very weird and amazing.
Jason Richardson: Are there any formative experiences that have pushed you further down that path?
Tristan Louth-Robins: There was a lot of music played in the house when I was growing up. All sorts of stuff, but being a child of the 80s, digital synthesisers were very present and there are two records that had a big impression on me: Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual and Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms. This is obviously my colouring of memory, but I’m certain my dad played each of these records every weekend for all of 1986 and a bit of 1987. I absolutely loved the sound of the synthesisers – especially the arpeggiated, crystalline sounds on Lauper’s album and that ridiculous intro to Straits’ “Money For Nothing” with Sting’s singing, its histrionic drum solo that builds to a climax of the long portamento synth note that sweeps up and up and up. I had no idea how those sounds were made, but as far as an interest in music technology went, the hooks were already in. To further prove this was the mid-80s, we had just got a Commodore 64. I remember it came with this flimsy plastic keyboard that you could fasten over the typing keyboard, load a cassette with a music program and play melodies on the keyboard. There was also this C64 music book we had that had code in it for very basic digital synthesis using the C64’s SID chip. It was in this book I saw pictures of square waves, sawtooths and so forth. I loved the soundtracks to a lot of C64 games from this period too.
Moving on several years later to when I started learning guitar in high school, I played around with my dad’s Boss delay pedal a lot, often just creating guitar and no-input feedback signals, recording this to a tape deck and overdubbing more feedback.
Jason Richardson: Is it skipping too far ahead to ask about the development of your Fleurieu and Kangaroo Island Sound Map project? I’d guess that acoustic ecology, was that an emerging field at the time that project started?
Tristan Louth-Robins: By the time the sound map started in 2010–11 I think that acoustic ecology was gaining considerable popularity, certainly amongst researchers, scientists, as well as musicians and artists. I think the emergence of cheap, affordable sound recording technologies (such as digital hand-held recorders) and the 2.0 iteration of the internet (audio/video streaming, Google Maps) really gave acoustic ecology as a practice much wider exposure and accessibility. I remember around this time there were artists like Lawrence English who had launched his Site Listening project, which documented sites around Brisbane and other districts. The way he set that site up – with an interactive map, indicative images and detailed field notes – made a big impression on me at the time. That and the work of sound recordist, Chris Watson, who by that point had released amazing albums on the Touch label and – aside from these incredible field recordings – had a remarkable knack for explaining what he was doing in an non-elitist and accessible way. Both Lawrence and Chris’ work represented a joint nudge for me to try and do something like that.
Jason Richardson: Has it revealed new aspects of your landscapes?
Tristan Louth-Robins: Absolutely. Through facilitating the sound map over nearly ten years it’s certainly made me a much better listener. I guess when you commit to recording and subsequently listening back to things like waves crashing, myriad birdsong and the many gradients of wind and ‘silence’, you’re ultimately going to learn to identify the attributes that make a given landscape or environment unique. Even if the soundscape is fairly generic every place has its own special properties. I think that’s been a critical consideration with the sound map, since listening attentively before hitting record really does distinguish a recording-for-the-sake-of-a-recording and something that is genuinely evocative and special. It’s another thing I picked up from Chris Watson when he was talking about his approaches to field recording, where he said (to paraphrase) that he spends more time listening to environments than recording them.
Jason Richardson: Has that project influenced your production techniques?
Tristan Louth-Robins: That’s an interesting question. I think that if the sound map has influenced something from a production standpoint that I can be pretty certain of, it’s that it has inclined me to be more considerate of the sounds that I employ in compositions – whether it’s using actual field recordings, conventional instruments or music technology. To put it into the historical context of when the sound map started: up until that point, I’d been using field recordings in my compositions, but I regarded them more as a malleable material, with a recording’s original semblance being more or less obliterated into a gaussian blur of sound or something like that. When I started making field recordings for the sound map and presenting these as transparently as possible, away from the sound map, I found that the way I employed sound in my compositions became a lot more thoughtful and economical. I think that this is one of the reasons why I employ a lot of unprocessed field recordings in my work now. Through attentive listening, I can appreciate the attributes of what make those sounds special which are already present. So, in that scenario, manipulating those sounds isn’t necessary.
Jason Richardson: I’m wondering whether Fleurieu and Kangaroo Island appear on Mote Music?
Tristan Louth-Robins: Some of the material on the album is derived from field recordings made on the Fleurieu or are from performances made in-situ, with some aspects of the surrounding environment filtering into the mix. I think of Mote Music as an album of impressions of places, but I’m hesitant to suggest too much about where exactly material was drawn from, or to affix a composition to a particular place, since I’d like the listener to associate their own interpretation to the pieces. That’s one of the reasons I’ve left the track titles with a degree of ambiguity to them – i.e. “Galaxias”, “Why Blue”, “Sky Country”, etc.
Jason Richardson: Would it be fair to describe it as an ambient album, or do you use a different term?
Tristan Louth-Robins: I suppose it is an ambient album, if I think about it along the lines on Brian Eno’s guiding principle for ambient music to be ‘as ignorable as it is interesting’. Eno is – inescapably – a strong influence on my work. But nowadays I think it’s more the philosophical aspects of his ambient work, as opposed to the actual music, that come through my own work. In the past year, I’ve also found myself listening to an enormous amount of Japanese ambient/environmental music (Kankyo Ongaku) from the 1980’s, which in a lot of respects, represents an aesthetic and philosophical progression of Eno’s earlier work. However, a larger, enduring source of inspiration is the small music of Rolf Julius, Miki Yui’s small sounds and Steve Roden’s lowercase music. Both Julius and Yui tend to preference amelodic and textural aspects of sound, often blurring the distinction between natural and synthetic sound sources and creating compositions that evoke natural states and suggest associations with spaces, objects and phenomena. They are also intended to be listened to at a quiet volume level too, so as to coexist with the listener’s surroundings. So, Mote Music falls between the poles of ambient, Kankyo Ongaku, small music, small sounds and lowercase. I guess that’s why I called the album Mote Music. It’s a tag that I can apply to my own work, but it’s also music that floats around and occasionally settles on and around its influences!
Jason Richardson: Are there any other influences you’d like to acknowledge?
Tristan Louth-Robins: Away from music, I’ve found the writing of Olivia Laing (To The River), Rebecca Giggs (Fathoms) and Sophie Cunningham (City of Trees) to be hugely inspiring over the past couple of years and certain aspects have no doubt soaked into how Mote Music has come together. Laing’s definition of apophenia – to perceive patterns in the everyday – found its way into the album liner notes, informed the title of one of the tracks and pretty much became a guiding principle for the whole album! As writers, Laing, Giggs and Cunningham possess great skill for framing the poetics of experience, largely through the channels of science, histories and travelogue. Especially from the vantage of apprehending a world that is rapidly changing in terms of culture, technology and the environment. So there’s that, but these writers have also got this knack for describing sounds in the most wonderful ways. It would be a bit unfair to single out one writer, but Rebecca Giggs’ Fathoms is astonishing in its descriptions of sounds. The book itself (which is about whales) is already next-level in terms of popular science writing, but I really feel like that it’s broken new ground in terms of how we regard sound, its signification and how it is intrinsically connected to everything in the world. It’s left a huge impression on me this year.
Jason Richardson: I am curious about the title too, as I’ve only just googled what ‘mote’ means. Does it relate to the album?
Tristan Louth-Robins: I’ve always loved the word ‘mote’ and it seemed like an appropriate descriptor for the kind of music I was making and how I thought it might be best listened to: floating around discretely and commingling with someone’s immediate environment and suggesting its own personal meaning to the listener. And much like what I said earlier about the influences that have fed into my practice, I’ve kind of adopted ‘mote music’ as a way of defining my music, much in the spirit of Rolf Julius’ small music and alike.
Mote Music is out on the 4th of December 2020. You can find it here.