Philip Samartzis

Interview by Dan Warburton
Paris, May 17th 2007

What have you been up to since you arrived here in Europe, apart from gigging with Jean-Luc Guionnet and Eric La Casa?

I've been working on a new series of recordings with Michael Vorfeld, which I started shortly after I arrived here in March [2007]. I went to Berlin for a week to do three recording sessions and a performance, which was pretty intense. One of the sessions was a trio with Reinhold Friedl, and the other two were with Michael; one for electronics and the stringed instruments he performs on, the other for electronics and light bulbs, which he also works with as a light artist. I've been working on the duet with strings, because I don't have access to loudspeakers at the moment. The light bulb stuff is just too abrasive for headphone listening. Generally speaking it's all about 3K onwards, so it's all mid to bright kind of sounds. I'll have to wait until I get back to Australia and my sound system to work on that.

Do you prefer to do most of your editing with loudspeakers?

I normally mix with speakers, but work with headphones for critical listening, to check the fades, listen for imperfections in the mix, bits of noises, digital spikes and the kind of stuff you don't always pick up when you listen through loudspeakers. Composing purely with headphones is a bit weird though, because the sound is right against your ear all the time, and it's hard to create a sense of depth and panorama when the sound is so close to you.

Do you do a lot of fiddling with the mix? I always find it hard to spot the joins in your pieces.

Oh, it's all highly constructed and carefully choreographed (smiles) – even if I try to create a seamless web of sound. The compositional process is a highly artificial one, based on a set of questions and responses. There's nothing really natural about it. With the Venetian piece, Unheard Spaces [Microphonics, 2006], I chose not to do a lot of processing. I went for something that appeared to be natural, but in fact was as constructed as anything else.

That reminds me of what Luc Ferrari told me about his Presque Rien N°1..

Well, that's a big point of reference for me, of course, and something I've listened to for quite some time and found really inspiring. I think Ferrari was the leader in that kind of technique and philosophy. I never met him unfortunately, and I've never heard his music in performance. I only know it through the recordings, but there's a great sensuality and eroticism to it that I very much admire and appreciate. Maybe because it's something I don't have myself.

Tell us a little about your teaching work.

The Sound course is one of nine disciplines offered by RMIT [Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology] – we also have Media Arts, and Painting, Sculpture, Photography, Ceramics.. In theory it's a cross-disciplinary course, so that my students can expand their studies and include other disciplines. I have a student body probably comprising about 50% who are coming on Sound folios – some people have a kind of Sound Art / Installation background, others who are more "musical" play instruments in bands, that kind of stuff – while the other 50% come from other disciplines, mainly Photography and the Media Arts. We don't teach instrumental technique, or anything like that. Obviously we employ musical concepts, and discuss music, but in our presentation of Sound, music is part of something much bigger. We teach our students a whole range of things as well as stand-alone composition: working in installations, working with sound spatialization, sound design for film, dance, video, etc. We do a lot of listening in class, to particular genres or movements stemming from the twentieth century avant-garde: Fluxus, noise, minimalism, whatever. Our library also has an extensive body of recordings that students can access as well, which I've been building up over the past few years.

Instrumental music too, or just electronic music?

No, there's instrumental music too. Twentieth century avant-garde, and a little jazz and improv, but it's not my real background as such. We listen to particular genres with regard to the kind of technology I'm demonstrating. For instance, I might be focusing on the synthesizer, so in combination with demonstrations of synthesis, and how it operates, both analog and digital, I'll probably devise a listening program of key electronic music works. Students are learning about Stockhausen, or Pierre Henry, or Mego (and hearing that music for the first time, many of them) and then learning how the music is produced. Generally every couple of weeks they're also required to produce a composition of some description. We're not prescriptive about what they do, it's more to demonstrate to us that they know how to work with the tools and techniques.

And what do their pieces sound like? What's the flavour of the month? Merzbow, Fennesz..?

It's not as specific as that. Everyone has their own interests. Some might apply their knowledge to a film soundtrack or a sound design, some might use it in the context of a band they're in, others might do a tape piece. The context is quite varied.

How many hours' teaching do you do a week?

I try to pack a five-day week into three days, which gives me time to do my own thing. And that's for six or seven months of the year, not twelve months. So when I'm teaching I'm working three 12 to 14 hour days, to get everything done, meetings, admin, and so forth. I was offered the full time lecturing position in 1996, but I was already a part-time lecturer and technician. I'm a graduate of the course myself; I did the BA back in the mid 80s, and then became a tech, and starting teaching and tutoring until an opportunity presented itself. Opportunities present themselves; it's not something you can necessarily plan for. While I was at the university I was also working in a record shop, and doing sound design for films, a whole range of stuff. I wasn't sure whether lecturing was the right thing for me at the time; I didn't have a lot of knowledge in the field when I started in terms of my own personal practice. A lot of my international activities and the publications I've been involved with have come since my appointment, in the last ten years. Prior to that, I was like every other struggling artist, trying to find my own style.

When do you think you found it?

I spent four years doing a Masters in Film Sound Design, thinking at the time that composing for film or television was something that interested me. But I found the industrial model of filmmaking to be problematic; you're actually answering to a lot of people, and because of the budget, the economics of cinema and so forth, it's hard to do something unique, original, interesting or provocative. Everything's so homogenized, to try to attract the broadest audience possible, and that compromises what you can do. After four years struggling to work within the system, mainly on short films, I found the arrogance and the egos of directors to be a real problem. I found I'd stopped enjoying the process. It became work, and pretty distasteful work at times too. I thought, why am I doing this? I've lost the passion.

What did you have to do for the Masters degree?

In Australia back then there was a new model of postgraduate study, which was practice-based research. Instead of writing a thesis you actually produced a body of work. So I did a bunch of sound designs for films, and then contextualised and documented them, by way of exegesis to explain the significance of what I'd learnt from looking at the history of sound in film, at who'd done what.

So what are your favourite soundtracks?

Those favourite lists are always problematic for me, but Morricone's The Thing [Carpenter, 1982] is a particular favourite, for that blend of electronics with orchestral embellishment. It's a fantastic film, of course, amazing sound.. There's also Toru Takemitsu's score for Kwaidan [Kobayashi, 1964], for its amazing use of concrete material, wood breaking and cracking, that kind of stuff, mixed with traditional Japanese instruments such as the Biwa. It's an incredibly strong experience. One thing I found influential was French cinema, and though it's hard to pick one Godard film in particular, I think his use of sound in films like Hail Mary or Passion was a huge influence on the way I compose and shape sound. In some Godard films you have two streams of information, visual and audio; sometimes they support each other, and sometimes they collapse entirely, for no real reason in terms of logic. It draws your attention to the structural parameters of filmmaking. As a student, if you'd asked me what a particular Godard film was about I wouldn't have been able to tell you, but I found them fascinating as formal, temporal experiences.

What you refer to as "sound design" includes not only music, then.

No, exactly. David Lynch is probably a good example of that blurring of the difference between sound and music. Eraserhead uses noise as a predominant sound element, to function as music. And a lot of his works in the last ten years, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive have great sonic moments. The first 15 to 20 minutes of Lost Highway are fantastic. He does his own sound design too, since Alan Splet passed away, and he has a really great ear, especially for low frequencies. [David] Cronenberg's Crash is another good example of sound design, particularly the use of voiceover and redubbing. A lot of the performances are kind of somnambulistic – everyone appears to be in a daze. Cronenberg positioned the microphone very close to the actors' mouths during overdubbing, which gives the softly spoken dialogue a very claustrophobic feel. It's the kind of subtle sound design people often don't notice; something's going on, but you can't quite figure out what. There's a fantastic score, too, of course, by Howard Shore, with harps, prepared pianos, six electric guitars. It's really metallic, which works texturally with the idea of the celebration of the car crash.

Can you enjoy music as just music, or does it always have some kind of association with something else?

Because I've been involved in education for so long, either as a student or as a teacher, I suppose there's always some kind of historical context I'm aware of, so when I hear a piece of music I tend to appreciate it for its sonic qualities whilst trying to locate it within a broader musical context. Going back to your question about favourite soundtracks, I'd say that something I try and instill in my students is not to be too hasty in judging something. Obviously personal taste comes into play eventually, the fact whether you like it or not, but I've probably learnt more from things I personally haven't liked than those I have liked, because more often than not there's always a voice in my head saying "I could do that better!" "This work is problematic, but I understand why I don't like it." When you hear a fantastic piece of music, it's often so overwhelming that you think, "I couldn't even come close to anything like that.." So listening to things you may not like is an important exercise in understanding their formal qualities, and the compositional choices that are being made. And then, broadly speaking, trying to place it somewhere, not so much categorise or pigeonhole, but more like, what does it remind me of, what history does it belong to, what's its relevance today? I ask that question a lot more these days than I did in the past, because there seems to be a fair amount of recycling going on, in terms of technology. It's been going on for some time now, with Acid and Techno rediscovering analog synthesis, people rediscovering Revoxes, and so forth, and I'm just wondering whether they're offering anything new through this rediscovery.

When you started off with Andrew Curtis in Gum, what equipment were you using?

Gum was purely economic, in fact, because I couldn't play anything. I didn't want to play anything. I was trying to figure out ways of generating sound without reverting to conventional instrumentation. So the turntable was a ubiquitous and cheap piece of equipment that was available anywhere. At that time, in the mid 80s, in any thrift shop or junk shop you could pick up a good, functioning record player for a couple of dollars. So Andrew and I started building up a collection of record players and records, and figuring out our own ways of how we could manipulate them. Like sand them, break them, or bake them in the oven.

Did you have any direct models? Was Christian Marclay an influence, for example?

I think we started working with turntables a bit after he did, but we weren't aware of what he was doing at the time. We were really working in isolation. In Australia we didn't get those records coming through, and obviously people like Marclay weren't touring in Australia at the time. We did have references, but they weren't turntablists (turntablism as a form didn't exist as such then); we were aware of Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, for example, but we were white adolescent Australians. We weren't going to start doing a hiphop thing; it wasn't our music. We didn't have access to Technics 1200 turntables, either; they were really expensive. We went the Philip Jeck kind of way, the junk shop kind of thing. I think we were inspired by people like :zoviet*france:, and some of the Industrial and post-Industrial bands. SPK were based in Australia at that time, so they were obviously a big influence, along with Throbbing Gristle. Melbourne had some great record shops, where you could get most things. My introduction to experimental music came more from Industrial, punk and post-punk than from musique concrete, which I didn't discover until much later.

Gum performed live with some of Industrial groups of the time; how were you received?

It was a mixed bag. Some of the most hostile reactions were in rock clubs, supporting fairly well-known bands, like The Reels, who'd had several number one hits in Australia. We did a support with them and were jeered the entire time. Audiences were very divided back then; there were different camps, or tribes or teams. I mean, you couldn't be into disco and punk at the same time – today nobody would bat an eyelid! When we played night clubs and discotheques it went down OK. The music was rhythmic – the locked groove, and stuff – so people were able to move to it. But we didn't play live a lot over the four years we were together.

Why did Gum split up?

We didn't split up, we just stopped. We lost momentum a bit in terms of what we wanted to do. These days people seem to be very happy being in a particular zone of enquiry or research, but back in the 80s you did one album and then everybody wanted the next new thing. You were constantly forced into reconsidering what you were doing. Punk and new wave bands were in a state of constant metamorphosis and transformation, and we weren't any different. We started with records and then began to employ studio techniques to expand our vocabulary, and eventually we reached a point where we didn't know where else to go. Andrew had very limited musical experience, I couldn't play anything, and we didn't want to go on releasing records of turntable experiments forever. We also got caught up in an area that we didn't want to be part of, the kind of dark Industrial scene that incorporated Nazi imagery, murder, death camps, that kind of stuff. We were getting a lot of fan mail from those kind of people, and there came a point where we sat down and said, how much of this are we going to tolerate? Andrew, being Jewish as well, was very sensitive to that. We felt our music was reaching an audience we didn't really want to reach. So we didn't break up as much as take a pause, and we never managed to find a theme or a style that brought us back together again.

Andrew stopped making music altogether, what did you do next?

I started doing sound design for film. I didn't release anything on disc between 1990 and Residue [Dorobo, 1998]. I did do some techno things under different names, because it was fun. I had all the equipment, the old synthesizers and the analogue stuff people had been selling off because they wanted the new digital tools such as DX7s and so forth. I came across all these fantastic modular synthesizers in second hand music shops, things I'd studied but never worked with, and with the rise of Acid and stuff, I thought, I'll start dabbling. I released a couple of records, some collaborations with other people. It wasn't really a serious thing. Techno wasn't exactly something you could stake a career in; audiences weren't at all critical (laughs), and there was that anonymity about it. Techno was never about a person or a band.

Do you still listen to techno today?

I don't. I was interested in it at the time because it was so new, and it was so anti-rock. At the time I hated rock.


Because it was in a cul-de-sac. It still is. You had all your different movements from the 50s onwards, and after punk and post-punk it was very hard to see a way forward. Techno came along and for the first time shook rock's dominance of popular culture. A lot of people abandoned rock, and lot of clubs closed down. Bands couldn't find anywhere to play. I loved it! You'd go to a dance party and there were like 40,000 people going crazy to a DJ and then you'd go to a pub and there'd be ten guys standing round listening to a Joy Division wannabe.. quite a contrast! (laughs) There was that gender thing too, which was great. A lot of girls liked electronic music, whereas rock was still very much a guys' thing, particularly in Australia. So there was a whole social dimension to techno that I really appreciated.

Backtrack a bit, and tell us what you used to listen to as a kid. Any childhood musical epiphanies you can remember?

Nobody in my family was remotely interested in music, we're all Macedonian farmers (laughs), but I listened to my brother's records, and, well, like I said earlier, it was about discovering things I didn't like. I didn't like The Beatles, for example. I didn't like them at all. The sound, the harmonies. I think a lot of it was social too, when I saw how hysterical other people were about them, saying how fantastic they were. I just didn't buy it. I couldn't stand Elvis Presley either. I suppose I should feel guilty in a way, because obviously I know their music is important, and it's affected many people in positive ways, but I've always seen them as something to kick against. Anyway, my brother had all the Beatles albums. He also had a copy of [Lou Reed's] Metal Machine Music, and I liked that. The album cover, the sound..

Metal Machine Music, a childhood epiphany?! What was your brother doing with that in his collection? Did he like it?

No, he didn't! (laughs) But I was about 12 years old at the time and I loved it! Kraftwerk, too. Autobahn was a big hit on commercial radio. You'd turn on your radio and you'd have Slade and so forth and then Kraftwerk would come on and you'd say, wow this is new, I don't recognise these sounds. Metal Machine Music and Autobahn both really affected the way I heard sound.

What other Krautrock stuff filtered through to you? Neu!, Can?

I never liked Can, to be honest. A lot of my friends did, but I preferred Neu! And Faust – but that came later. It took a while for me to find their stuff. By the time I was 13 or 14 the whole punk thing kicked in, and though I still wasn't interested in playing music the whole energy of punk became apparent very quickly. And the Industrial scene too. So I discovered bands like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire.

No classical or contemporary music at all.

No, I discovered that when I went back to university. I'd left school early and travelled for a year. I'd seen a few bands live, like Neubaten, Test Dept. and Boyd Rice. Seeing them perform got me interested in studying, going back to university and learning about music in more detail. I wanted to know the history behind it, why it was important. So it was when I went to university that I discovered Cage, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and early musique concrete. I didn't discover that until about 1986, and hearing it really affected my appreciation of the Industrial stuff. I realised a lot of it was pretty lame compared to what Pierre Henry was doing in 1950, or Stockhausen was doing in pieces like Kontakte, Telemusik, or Gesang der Jünglinge.

Given your interest in sound spatialisation, Xenakis must have been quite a discovery too.

Yes, I discovered Xenakis about the same time I discovered the GRM stuff. It's a shame, because I've never heard his music live. I feel like one of those pre-War Australian landscape painters who learned painting through books, because they never had access to real paintings! Mode's just released a Surround version of La Légende d'Eer with all the old documentation from the Pompidou Centre, and that's one I play for my students quite a bit. It's so powerful. Students are great to test ideas on, and there are some artists they really respond to. Xenakis is perenially popular; he has that punky kind of rough edge to him that students respond to and love. He's remained relevant for a long time while a lot of others have disappeared. I was talking to Daniel Teruggi about that, because he's mixed a lot of Xenakis's music for CD, and he said it was because Xenakis was essentially deaf; he was deaf in one ear, and his hearing with the other was pretty poor, so a lot of the frequencies he was working with were things he couldn't hear! That’s why he cranked up the 5K zone, so that he could hear better, but as a result everything became so harsh, brittle and noisy. And it became part of the aesthetic; when you think Xenakis, you think rough around the edges. Parmegiani's hearing was also affected by his time as a submariner. It's interesting how some of these great composers had to really struggle to hear their own compositions, and they were somehow guessing at their outcomes.
I should add I also have a great interest in non-Western musics: being Australian, you're aware that most serious discussions of new music are dominated by people in America or Western Europe, but what about the Japanese, or the Argentinians? There are all these other people working away in studios we've never heard of who've contributed to the story of experimental music. Most discussions these days seem to go back to Cage, but I'm more interested in things from that past 15 years or so that Cage had no influence over at all. Sure, you can trace ideas back to him, Feldman or Tudor, but let's move the discussion forward a bit.

When did you start working with field recordings?

Around the same time I became disillusioned with film sound design, I think, around 1995. I made the choice that I wouldn't compose for money anymore. I would compose for myself. And in order to do that I had to rediscover what had excited me in the first place, which was the people we were talking about: Ferrari, Parmegiani, Mimaroglu, Pierre Henry. So I applied to do a residency at the CICV, Pierre Schaeffer research institute in Herimoncourt in Eastern France. I loved musique concrete, I'd never been to France and I wanted to know more about it and meet the people who did it, and have a better insight into the culture. I contacted the CICV and found out it was a video art institute, but I said, give me a microphone and a DAT recorder and I'll come there and construct a piece, in situ. And they liked the idea. They had a little studio, to produce the soundtracks for the videos they were doing, and I worked there for ten days, went out in the field and recorded around the village. They provided me with a Tascam TCD10 DAT recorder, which was the standard 90s DAT recorder, and one of the Sony mics that came with it. Can't remember which one, but it sounded crisp and clean, not a lot of bottom end, but it was OK. Everything was alien to me – you speak French so you're all right, but for me it was like being on Mars! But that was the whole idea: go to a place where I didn't speak the language and be self-empowered. Learn to deal with it. The studio had ProTools, all in French, and there was nobody there who could help me with it. I stayed there for two weeks, feeling very isolated and anxious. I didn't want to go back to Australia with a piece of crap! I ended up with a 20-minute piece called Herimoncourt, named after the place. All basically field recordings. Since then I've been to Japan, trying to put myself in a similar kind of situation. The difference is I know more about computer systems, software and ProTools than I did when I went to France.

You've never tried your hand at Max / MSP?

I'm very disappointed with Max / MSP, and a lot of the music produced with it. It sounds like a process. It's like listening to an endless guitar solo. Many people just use the platform on its own. In combination with a variety of other things it can be interesting, but the sounds it produces are simply not all that interesting. And it's so unmusical in terms of an interface; it's not at all spontaneous or intuitive. Of course you've got MIDI controllers and this and that, but the programming is not about composing or shaping sound, it's actually software engineering. Max / MSP is easy to spot, because most people who use it are simply lazy. A lot of what they do is self-indulgent and wanky. I've sat through too many boring laptop performances and have lost my tolerance of it.

How do you approach live performance yourself?

That's always a big question for me. What can I do live that's both interesting to an audience and interesting to me? The reason I started performing was the isolation I felt in the studio, not being able to connect with an audience in any way, in terms of reading them, seeing whether the music was expressing anything to them, whether it was interesting, valid or engaging. Performing was about taking ideas out of the studio and throwing them at the audience and seeing how they reacted.

What do you do then, prepare a piece in advance and just hit the play button, like Asmus Tietchens?

No, I need to have a range of choices. There are different kinds of performances; there's the really big, acousmonium sound system presentation, which requires preparation in terms of a structure, a form you can follow, and then there's the "pub rock" performance where the conditions are terrible. It's a social environment, not one for critical listening, so you try and be a little more spontaneous and less precious about what you do. In those instances I work with analog equipment, David Tudor style. Most of my signal generation comes from analog synthesizers, anyway. I very rarely work live with laptops. Here in Europe I've been using laptop, for the simple reason I couldn't bring all my stuff over from Australia.

(with Jean-Luc Guionnet)

Tell us about the albums with Rasmus B. Lunding, Fluorescent [Dr. Jim's, 2002] and Touch Parking [Synaesthesia, 2004].

Those have been hard ones to sell, I can tell you (laughs). I was in Denmark, pursuing that idea of going to a place and composing in situ again. But it wasn't the same experience as in France – they all speak English there! Rasmus was working in one of the studios next to mine, and we had lunch together every day, and I discovered he had a punk background. He'd played guitar in a punk band, which interested me, because I love punk. We gradually developed a friendship and began thinking how we could combine our mutual interests. What Rasmus brings to my composing is that spontaneous, energetic craziness, which I can't do. He uses Max / MSP, but in conjunction with a thousand and one other things. My austere, carefully-developed range of sounds kind of butt up against his manic playing. I think it creates an interesting hybrid, it has a kind of punky energy to it.

Any plans to work together again at some stage?

Not at the moment. Both the CD and the picture disc got mixed reviews – not that you should base your career on people's reviews, but –

Certainly not mine, anyway..

– no-one quite got what we were trying to do there, trying to break down the preciousness of electronica / electronic music. It didn't fit in with the Mego crowd, or the GRM crowd, or the field recording crowd.

You do seem to have found something of a niche for yourself in the EAI crowd, though. You've released things with Günter Müller and Sachiko M..

Yeah, the albums with Günter came out of a trip he made to Australia in 2002, with funding from Pro Helvetia to tour and record with local artists. I organised the concerts he did with Voice Crack. I don't normally curate and end up performing with the artists myself – I like to keep those roles separate, if I can – but Günter wanted to play with me and Oren [Ambarchi] in Melbourne, so we ended up doing a live trio recording. I'd never played with Oren before. Günter liked it a lot, and wanted to release it, and so it came out on CD [Strange Love, for4ears, 2003]. I don't normally work in that way, to be honest – but Günter, and to a lesser extent, Oren, are both improvisers, and for improvisers the performance becomes the recording. Whereas for me performance is one thing and recording's another.

But Müller does a lot of fiddling around in post-production, doesn't he? It's not as if he's releasing things raw, warts and all..

Yeah, this had a little bit of that, but I think it could have been done better. The Müller / Voice Crack album [Wireless Within, for4ears, 2005] was recorded in the studio. They did one session with Oren in Sydney and another with me in Melbourne, and they turned out to be the last recordings Voice Crack did, in fact. As soon as they left Australia they broke up! That session for me was much better; they left the recordings with me to do what I wanted with. As I was completing the PhD at the time, I let them sit for a while (I think their session with Oren came out a couple of years before the one with me!), and with time, I was able to get some objectivity. I spent a lot of time working with the sounds, and getting rid of them too. That's the thing with improvisers: they like to make sound, and often they make it for the sake of making it. I often think, is that really necessary? What's it doing? Is it really interesting? Haven't I heard it somewhere before? Working on that album was a process of reduction; I got rid of about 50% of what everyone was doing, and created a lot more space. I enjoyed doing it, and I think they liked the result.

Talking of reductionism, tell us about the Japanese connection, and the album with Sachiko M [Artefact, Dorobo, 2002].

I got a scholarship to go to Japan to compose Soft and Loud [Microphonics, 2004], and spent three months there gathering location sounds. I knew no-one in Japan at the time personally, but KK Null had toured Australia before and I'd recorded some of his sessions, so I was encouraged to contact him. And all of a sudden he had four shows lined up for me, and one of them was at Penguin House with Sachiko. I knew some of her work from CD, but I'd never seen her play. We didn't record that show, but I remember we seemed to blend pretty well, her sinewaves and my field recordings and electronics. Then later, when I was in France working at IRCAM, she came through on tour, and we recorded four pieces together in my apartment, which I took away and worked on. It was hard doing that through headphones too, with those sinewaves! The original recording was just the starting point; I did a lot of reshaping and overdubbing, and I noticed when I finished mastering it that it was exactly a year to the day since we started the project. Anyway, she came to Australia a couple of years later and Oren was trying to set up a concert for the two of us, because the CD was out by then, but she wouldn't play with me! (laughs) She's on a totally different career path from me, anyway. I prefer to work with people who I can develop some kind of friendship with, in any case.

Let's talk about your local friends, then: David Brown and Sean Baxter, for example.

They're both fixtures of the Melbourne circuit. I got to know Dave when he started doing an MA with us at RMIT in about 1996 or so. I knew his rock stuff before, I'd seen him play live with Dumb and the Ugly, but I'd never really spoken to him. He's a very nice fellow, with a great knowledge of Australian music and history, and his MA research was fantastic. He brought improvisation into the studio and really used the place as another instrument, as a tool of improvisation. For four years he was doing crazy stuff. He was very dedicated and focused. He's one of the reasons I started playing more live. Yes, I've done several albums together with Dave and Sean. I'm very happy with Glacial Erratic [Dr Jim's, 2003], which was one of the first things we did. It was a studio project, a kind of homage to Toru Takemitsu. It might not be obvious, I think, but some of the ideas for that CD were inspired by Kwaidan. I've done a lot of production work for Dave too, mixing and mastering, and we've toured the States together. These days he's so busy with different projects, like Bucketrider, and the trio with Sean and Anthony Pateras, and so on. I sometimes wonder what I can do with him that he hasn't already done (smiles).

I get the impression sitting here that everyone in Australian new music knows everybody else.

It's all about networking. Lawrence [English] is very good at that. He's an important figure on the scene, and seems to have access to funding to bring artists to Australia from Europe and the States. His Room 40 label has put out a lot of stuff, too. He's a good networker. So's Oren. His What Is Music? festival was very important; for ten years it was like a kind of once a year freak show, bringing all these folks to town like Keiji Haino, Merzbow and Pan Sonic. People like Clayton Thomas, Clare Cooper and Jim Denley are important, encouraging and nurturing younger artists, and Anthony Pateras is good at bringing people together too. He comes from a conservatory background – he calls himself a "dots" composer – so he's got all these contemporary musos involved. For a while the scene was particularly dynamic, especially on the East Coast. But it's changed a lot in the last six or seven years. It ebbs and flows. I think we're in an ebb at the moment, because a lot of key people have left. Clayton and Clare have moved to Berlin.

You mentioned IRCAM a minute ago - what were you doing there?

The piece that ended up on the Venetian CD, Unheard Spaces, was realised at IRCAM, though it wasn't credited as such, at their request. I recorded most of the sounds in Venice as quad, four-channel sound and the CD itself was a stereo mixdown from the Dolby Surround mix. It ends up as a different work in stereo, mixed in a totally different way. Instead of being totally immersed in Venice, it's like you're looking at it through a window. Working in stereo is like watching Raging Bull on a computer monitor compared to the screen at the Grand Rex.
It's funny, when I started the PhD in spatialisation, I thought, this technology's really going to change the way people hear music, buy music, experience music! But in fact we've gone the other way; people have bought iPods instead and the sound quality's got worse and worse. It's changed my entire take on it all; now I use the sound installation as the platform and environment to present new work, where I can control the conditions, whereas before I used to think about putting them out on DVD so people could buy them and listen to them on their home cinema Surround Sound systems. But it hasn't happened. The uptake of DVD films is larger, but no-one's buying music on DVD. No-one's interested in Surround; they don't see the point. I mean, Elton John in Surround Sound? Big deal! The audience is so small, you just can't justify the cost of producing 500 Surround Sound DVDs and selling ten of them.
So now I like to concentrate on installation work. I presented Unheard Spaces in Mestre just outside Venice, in eight-channel surround sound in a public square. Did you know there are only about 60,000 Venetians left who actually live in Venice itself these days? Most people just can't afford to live there anymore, and most of the city's owned by foreigners. So the people who used to live in Venice, who grew up there, now live in Mestre, which is ten kilometres away. And when I played them the sounds of Venice, they could identify everything! "That's the church of so and so, that's the Piazza whatsitsname," and so on. They all felt a bit sad, because they realised they could no longer afford to live there. It was quite touching.

Go to: Philip Samartzis and Michael Vorfeld's work will be featured in HEAT: ART AND CLIMATE CHANGE at the RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanson Street, Melbourne 3000 from September 12th to October 18th. See also other interviews of related interest with Michel Chion and Luc Ferrari .