Interview – Stephen Adams – Australia


What sound from your childhood made the most impression on you?

Perhaps the birds in our neighbourhood. When I first lived away from Australia for a couple of years in my 20s I found myself missing both the amount of birdsong we have in Australia, and some specific birdsongs – the music of the family of Australian magpies, currawongs and butcher birds in particular. Also the dawn and dusk chorus of birds in an enormous eucalyptus tree in a garden nearby.

Can you talk a little about sound art? How did you get started in it?

Sound experiences have been powerful for me throughout my life. The birdsongs I  mentioned already. The radio. The way voices interact with the acoustics of different buildings and environments. And resonate our bodies. The soulfulness of the Doppler-shift effect as cars pass by on a nearby road in the depths of the night. I think sound has always had an almost tactile presence for me. And then voice is such a big part of how I interact with the world and mediate difficult feelings.

For a long time I didn’t know about ‘sound art’ as a concept. I came to sound art through a few different avenues. It was like the space just waiting for me in which separate fascinations would join up. There was recording – initially recording songs and primitive solo electronic music combining layers of synthesisers, drum machine and voice. Then there were the kinds of layered textures and multiple acoustic spaces I would try to evoke as a score-based composer – especially in my scores for voices. And there were the more exploratory group improvisations of bands I formed as a teenager and young adult. At a certain point, as digital technologies made the resources to record and manipulate sound cheaply available, I was a able to work more freely and directly with a wide range of sounds and sound sources. And 15 years ago I began to work in radio as a music producer, and so sound art became my day job as well as my vocation. I retain an attachment to the textures and limitations of older technologies such as radios and synthesisers – not to mention my favourite instrument of all, the voice. Well, maybe the voice AND the microphone, my other favourite instrument. All these are still capable of expressive power, but also sentimentally laden.

What is your approach to creating sound-based work? Do you have a personal ‘composition’ manifesto or things within your creative process which are of essential importance to you?

The ephemeral is important to me – things you have to experience and can’t hold onto. Digital technologies promise to capture all of this. But it’s a false promise. There remains much to the live performance situation, and to all kinds of sonic environments, that can only be experienced directly in the moment of a particular time and place. And there remains a special kind of enchantment to a group of people entering a room and filling it with sound using nothing but their voices. As of course, the birds do every day of the year in forests, on rooftops, by the sea…

Maybe for this reason, performance remains central to my work. While I love shaping sound in digital space on headphones to create a sound file, it’s bringing these files into interaction with other sound sources and the contingencies of the live audience, acoustic space, and moment to moment decision-making in that environment, that brings sound alive in all its elemental physicality and ephemerality. And it’s sociality. Performance engages us simultaneously on many levels. We’re immersed in the sound space, the physicality, the listening, responding to each other and our environment through action and interpretation, embedded within time and social and acoustic space, the immediate, visceral and ephemeral (the opposite of the ‘godlike’ composer). For all these reasons I look for opportunities to improvise or develop works/performances with other artists. And audiences.


Another theme – text-texture-text – the constant shifting back and forth between immersion in experience (a borderless sensory ‘aesthetic’ textural space) and interpretation – turning this borderless expérience into ‘text’ – contained shapes of meaning-making. His brings into focus the question of what is inside and outside ‘the work’. I am interested in making work that unsettles this distinction. This can be by blurring the start or finish points of a fixed performance piece so that listeners hear the beginning (for example) in the same way that they are listening to the sound environment of the venue before it starts. And at the end, may go on listening to the environment as if it is a piece (an intentional work) for a while after I stop making anything. Another way is through using chance elements – what happens to be on the radio that day – the sounds of everyday objects, perhaps even ones I’ve never made sounds with before. Incorporating sounds in the environment into the piece, either actively (sampling or otherwise adopting them) or by leaving space for them to be heard and felt as ‘music’ – I.e. intentional aesthetic sound.

Most important to you as a sound artist?  Is it the hope for certain reaction in the listener?  Or is it to accurately create a certain environment?

If there is going to be a listener – an audience – that is, if I am making sound for anyone but myself, then the audience experience is important. I am more interested in the experience of making and receiving sound than in the specific recreation of a soundworld. Specifically in the experience of listening – how sound art can reawaken and expand our sonic awareness, our aliveness and sense of connection to our environment, to other people and creatures.

How did you discover Belgrade and decided to come?

I knew a little already about Belgrade from a Serbian friend and radio colleague. I’d also been impressed by some of the sound works I’d heard by Serbian composers and sound artists recorded at Belgrade Radio’s Studio 6. I and my partner (in life and art) were keen to visit our friend in Belgrade some day. And when we saw that there was an artist residency program in Belgrade, this seemed like an ideal way to devote focused time to our art in a new and unfamiliar environment and at the same time to reconnect with a friend.

Did you find your inspiration? What are you working on?

Right now, as often happens to me, being absent from home has sharpened my sense of what is at stake at home. By now I think many Serbs will be aware of the devastating bushfires that are sweeping many parts of Australia. These fires are impacting on areas I know well, including places where I have spent a lot of time listening to and recording the birdsongs and other environmental sounds. I am working with some of these recordings in performance in a new way seeking some kind off expression of or response to what I fear may be lost. These reflections and explorations have had a first public manifestation in a performance last Sunday (12 January) at Belgrade’s intimate Spectrum East experimental sound venue.

At the same time I have been inspired by some of the great musicians and sou d artists I’ve met, heard and had the privilege of playing with over the past couple of weeks. The artists I worked with at Spectrum East collaboration, and the other artists I heard perform and met in events at another Belgrade venue, DIM. I think these relationships will continue in one way or another, whether here, in Australia, or elsewhere.

As good what the city as a city has given me, I think my experiences will take time to digest. I am in any case an artist who needs to digest things for a while before making something that feels authentic in response. That is a response beyond the immediate response of the improviser!

Your message to artists coming to Belgrade

Belgrade is a culturally complex place. It’s also a gritty place, with many rough edges as a result of its turbulent recent history and economic struggles. (There are aspects of its rougher edges that remind me of other cities back in the 1980s when more cities in the west were falling into post-industrial urban decay.) These contexts can be challenging, but also freeing. There is less of that impulse to tidy everything up and make a nice, bright product. More of an invitation to explore. To chance something.

And then the people I have met have all been impressively open, welcoming, curious, both relaxed and active. I think it’s a good place to meet new people and make real connections artistically and personally.

The location of the studio was perfect for me. Incredibly close to several experiemntal sound venues, Radio Belgrade, fresh food markets, and lots of good places to eat out or have coffee or a drink. And many of the sights of Belgrade are within 20-30 minutes walk. Th ugh you need a bit more time thnan that to walk to the excellent contemporary art museum. Not to be missed!

What things do you hope to do in 2020 to push the boundaries of your art and sound art in general? Are there any sound art installations or future projects that you would like to see built?

My sound art is mostly either virtual (digital) or ephemeral (live performance). So building is not so much of a thing. Though I am keen to do a better job of documenting my work online. But my number one ambition for 2020 iOS to create and seek out more opportunities to perform with other artists. And this residency has been a great beginning to that.

And finally, how could we make sound improve our lives?

As an individual, I find working with sound restorative and transformative. Something about immersing yourself in experiences that are at once so direct, so ‘concrete’ – resonating your body and seeming almost to come from inside you – and at the same time so abstract, so immaterial, so effervescent.

Listening more deeply is something that increases our sense of connection to our own experience, and to the people and the world around us. In a world increasingly fragmented by the speed of change and flows of information, sound art is a space in which we can rediscover and deepen our connection to life.

Sound-making is part of this. And when we make or experience sound with a group of people, it’s an incredible space for building our sense of community and empathy with others.

Sound art as a ‘product’ is also something we can use to help us in our daily lives. Sound  environments that help us to relax, to focus and concentrate, to feel more outgoing or more ready for sleep.

At the same time sound is magical. It is the art that most easily escapes becoming a product, instead awakening us to the elemental, the ephemeral and continuously alive and changing nature of existence.