Autonomous machines

Two months after my initial conversation with Amanda Stewart, which I described in one of my first commentary posts, I returned to her house to continue talking: this time, to ask specifically about her work in the collective Machine for Making Sense, who were active from 1989 to 2005. Machine were Amanda Stewart, Chris Mann, Rik Rue, Jim Denley and Stevie Wishart. They simultaneously and dissonantly worked with improvised and composed music, sound, text and performance. Their recorded output includes five CDs (you can preview tracks from the CD Dissect the Body here). They toured internationally and impressed significantly on local formations. The interview below is specifically interested in Stewart's experience as a member of the collective; her answers do not attempt to represent the collective, or to speak on its behalf. The text has been transcribed and edited from a longer recording (which features beautiful early-summer birdsong of Sydney, as well as the blissful snores of Stewart's mother's dog, Suzie, who was happily adream for our nattering!)

Play "D", from On Second Thoughts (1994)

Astrid Lorange: To begin, maybe you could give a brief introduction to the collective?

Amanda Stewart: We all actually came together in 1989 after a trip to Ars Electronica in Linz, where we’d worked independently. Jim Denley, who plays winds in Machine for Making Sense, and I organised this really ramshackle little tour of Hungary and England, and on that tour we had to think, ‘well, we’ve got to do a performance, what are we going to do?’ So we did our solo stuff, which is what we were doing anyway, but then we decided to try out some duo and trio stuff. And as we were on the road, we started to talk, and in a way, Machine for Making Sense was very much about talking, ‘cause that’s really what got us going, because we started to discuss ideas about music and science and language and we just had these long, volatile and exciting discussions about conceptual issues to do with these areas, and it created this desire to work together. So when we came back to Australia, Jim applied for money and we formed Machine for Making Sense. And Chris [Mann] was in Melbourne, and Jim and Stevie and Rik and I were in Sydney. Basically, the group is Jim Denley on wind instruments, Stevie Wishart on violin and hurdy gurdy, Rik Rue doing digital and analogue tape manipulations and Chris and I doing voice and text. And that was the beginning of a long journey that took us on a path for sixteen years. We never would have guessed that!

We were interested in composition and social ethos, the body and what it does to words, and theories to do with contemporary philosophies of science and music. We were trying to strike at the root of distinction itself, in order to discover new distinctions.

When Machine toured America, we had connections with some fabulous composers and writers who were so generous and warm and we've established long friendships with them. Chris and I both knew John Cage and Bob Ashley, Annea Lockwood, Phill Niblock, Richard Titelbaum, Kenneth Gaburo, Jackson Mac Low and Anne Tardos. Some of these people are no longer with us, which is really sad. I remember our tours in America so fondly, because people were so responsive to what our project was and that generation of people who are in their 70s and 80s and 90s now I just found absolutely mind-boggling. They'd come through this incredibly rich period of culture. I felt so fortunate to have engaged with that. And although I wouldn't say that we were directly influenced by any of those people, of course, indirectly they're part of the substructure of our being as well: the wonderful tradition of American composition and writing.

AL: One of the things that strikes me the most about Machine, particularly because I’m such a freak for words, is how you and Chris, in different ways, compose, assemble, pillage, cut-up, collage text. Some of it seems to be taken directly from philosophical, linguistics or psychoanlaytical texts?

AS: No, it’s not, it’s all original writing!

AL: Some of the language has such a particular, propositional force to it that I imagined it was appropriated from turn-of-the-century analytic philosophy!

AS: Well, that’s Chris. Chris is amazing, you know, he has this incredible ability to distil texts from other areas. He mixes vernacular, Australian vernacular, and all sorts of grammatical forms that come out of Australian speech structures, with very intense critical readings he’s done of a whole range of different philosophers. He was quite influenced by, or interested in, Wittgenstein, a lot of the time we were working together. But he’s also quite critical, [and he would] take the ideas further, and criticise some of them. His texts are incredibly dense and powerful. And the way he delivers them is at this very high speed, and that produced a very interesting effect, questioning how the brain can actually assimilate, or not assimilate, very rapidly spoken speech. The texts are moving through these multi-layers, as you say, of different propositional ideas. He’s incorporating a lot of different influences in terms of his distillation of twentieth-century philosophy and linguistics, and then mixing it with Australian vernacular. He’s one of my favourite writers, and he’s someone that I wish actually got a lot more recognition in Australia.

AL: He’s quite incredible. I spent a long time this week going through the extensive texts that he has on his website. I’ve heard him when he and you performed at Serial Space in Chippendale, I guess it must have been about two years ago? And when he performs solo, he does exactly what you describe him doing in Machine, which is this incredibly speedy — at varying times bordering on incomprehensible — delivery.

AS: And it becomes quite interesting too: at what point does speech permutate into something else? People can listen to his phonetic virtuosity as music. It basically is speech, but because it’s speeded up so much, and there’s so many dense concepts compressed into this vernacular, it sort of strikes at the basis of our listening systems, and questions how speech and text are produced and received in the body.

AL: And that compliments your own writing, and the texts that you contribute to Machine. I know we’ve talked in the past about your influences at that time, which we might describe as a kind of Kristevan-Lacanian nexus, focusing on an embodied, psychoanalytic approach to process, I guess…

AS: …And semiotics. I mean, I guess it’s a bit of cliché, really!

AL: Well, it was the late-80s and early-90s! One thing that I notice about your text is that ‘consciousness’ is a trope that recurs, and I’m very interested in that. It’s also the name of an extended track on, and the name of, one of Machine’s albums. Was there a collective interest, or investment in, ideas about consciousness, particularly as they might relate to composition?

AS: I guess so, but in a particularly irreverent way. One of the things Machine was interesting for, was that in a way what we were trying to do was strike at the basis of a whole range of distinctions and cultural assumptions, and we were quite anarchic and quite brash a lot of the time. There was a particular sort of philosophy behind it, in a way. We were very into the notion of being a collective, and the fact that we were five soloists with very individual practices and really different histories that would come together in a shared space and basically run parallel. It was a very volatile and powerful collective because the discussion of ideas would go on and on and on and on, we probably spent more time speaking about ideas than we did actually producing work, it was terribly important. And any decisions were made collectively. We were all so different, so it was a great (and exhausting at times) process. It was like a conversation between us all. We didn’t call Machine for Making Sense a band; we were interested in being a collective, a process, a project. We wanted to move away from the idea of being a band or being a text/sound band or a sound poetry group: no, we’re a collective, we’re throwing all those distinctions out, we’re Machine for Making Sense. We are five human beings in a collective, running parallel, we’re like an organic machine, and part of our project is composing.

AL: I love that you were dealing with ideas about consciousness by being irreverent, and focusing on process and dialogue. I guess that’s what makes the conceptual aspect of Machine so constructive. I want to point out to the readers that in Consciousness, the album, in the liner notes, there’s a great sentence that says: “Consciousness, in its live form, was a multi-staged work over four hours that no one person could have seen or heard in its entirety.” Which I absolutely love! I love that as a declaration. ‘Consciousness’ and ‘Collective’ as the two long tracks on this CD seems like a bit of an up yours to some of the more typical interpretations of psychoanalysis.

AS: I guess a lot of the time we were very critical of a lot of ideas that were circulating, so we’re really throwing the ball around with that, and being a bit ironic about the notion of consciousness. Should that notion be replaced by a totally different paradigm? It’s an idea that’s been around a lot in various forms, particularly since the nineteenth-century. Each of our projects was different, and involved different compositional strategies, but often what we’d do is start off with a premise or a proposition, and then individually gather and research material that pertained to that proposition. Frequently, it was a highly critical relation to the proposition, or to some of the antecedents that were in that proposition.

AL: Why do you think, in Sydney particularly, the kind of thing that Machine was doing had more of an impact on new media and sound art and other kinds of audio composition, rather than on poetry? This is a cultural question: I’m not asking why Machine’s influence didn’t penetrate more traditional or conservative poetries. But it seems to me that the radical ideas about composition, process, improvisation, and relationships to critical and philosophical theory have been quite successfully taken up by a lot of fantastic sound collectives in Sydney in the last twenty years, but not so much in poetry.

AS: I noticed a trajectory with sound art stuff, and I haven’t thought enough about how that pertains to the demographics and structures of different poetry worlds. But I know that in the sound area, Australia had very sophisticated community, educational, multicultural radio network set-up, largely through Whitlam’s funding and initiation in the late 70s. So suddenly, people like me, who were 18-19, had access to the radio. I was at the University of Technology, studying Communications, and we put up a proposal to have a sound art degree. And then Martin [Harrison] came in and taught that, he was the first person after we actually got it up and running. And then a whole lot of theoretical journals and courses began to happen around philosophy of sound, and that developed through the 80s and became quite a rich thing. Quite a lot of Americans and Europeans came to Australia to study sound studies; Gregory Whitehead and Doug Kahn came over. There was also great new media stuff happening in Australia, quite advanced for the 70s and 80s. There was quite a lot of cross-over, and distinction, between those different groups. At that time, in improvised music, there weren’t a huge number of left-field groups, but I notice there’s a really rich and very diverse sound scene with improvised music, and stuff mixing with new media work. A number of these people are influenced by philosophy and language as well as music history. 

In that period, there was also a very progressive radio program, 'The Listening Room' that Andrew McLennan was responsible for initiating at the ABC. It went for 20 years and had a great budget and used to bring sound artists and all sorts of writers -- Paul Carter and a range of poets, composers -- would come in, and they'd be commissioned to produce works for 'The Listening Room' and get paid quite well and have access to fabulous technology and technicians. The Listening Room was another really important support for ideas to do with sound and bringing poets, musicians, visual artists, dancers into the world of radio and sound. There were a lot of really exciting things going on during that period, and unfortunately subsequently The Listening Room has been closed down and lot of that stuff's gone. However, there's this groundswell of exciting new developments with gigs and publications that young people are producing. So it's all going on, just in a different form.

AL: It makes so much sense. I often think that I access most of my compositional experiences through the sound art scene, sometimes more so than the poetry scene, which seems like an anomaly, but actually it’s not, as you explain it. Because my own critical interests cross over with the context you describe, perhaps more than with a literary tradition (particularly one that’s nationalised). Leading on from this, can you talk about how you perceive being a poet in this particular context? Your poetry deals so much with the spoken word and the written word as two distinct but related forms. Can you talk about being a poet of two distinct language-forms in this sound art moment? Especially where your work with Machine is concerned? 

AS: As you say a lot of my work is done just for the page, and for me the written and the oral use quite different grammatical structures. They’re integrally related, but they’re also independent, in terms of a whole range of different registers and semantic constructions that they utilise. In the context of Machine, one thing I loved was that we'd discuss ideas. Most of our projects — most of our CDs, performances, radio works — would have a conceit. Then we'd go off and think about it and prepare materials. I had this great process with Chris, that I miss so much, where we would just have conversations on the phone. They'd often be quite oblique little conversations where we'd — from our own perspectives — be discussing things that were in our mind which vaguely yes-or-no related to the current Machine research. Just through a totally organic discourse, conversation, these ideas would — through osmosis — go into [our] whole mode of being for creating that work. We worked in very different ways. Chris would actually produce a score, a written text, that was fixed on the page, but what he would do is radically alter the way that text was delivered, depending on what the group was doing in its improvisations (when we were doing improvised work). This was one of the things that confounded the distinction between improvisation and composition, and that was one of the distinctions we were interested in looking at. Also, the distinction in Chris's work, between the text and the speech. On the one hand, they're very closely related, his words are very well-scored. But when you hear that unique voice, going at high speed, as an oral phenomenon it lifts off into something else. I found in the context of improvising musicians that I couldn't do my poetry, because the poems had a set structure and rhythm. They were immovable; they were these little objects that had their own existence. So I developed a process of making what I called 'impro-texts', where I would compile a huge amount of one-liners, lines, and sometimes just ideas on pieces of paper. Then while we were in the space, preparing and sound-checking for the performance, I would also write. So part of my idea was how I could improvise text, but I didn't like the idea of just doing it off the top of my head, 'cause I thought it would be hopeless. So I'd try and develop fields of concepts, and also have some ideas and lines that were structured. And then, I'd just have this huge body of text with me, and when we started off, most of the performances were real-time composition. So the clock would start — often we'd use stopwatches — and people would be making sounds, and I'd suddenly hear Chris come up with a line from something and I'd go 'Oh, quick, I've got a line that'll go with that!' Or I'd have it in my head, so we could do duelling texts, and I loved the duelling texts thing because once again it created this multi-layered complexity which is so different from a single text. 

AL: I had falsely assumed that that dialogical relationship between you and Chris had been very particularly put together. But this on-the-go duel is great — and it's one of the joys of listening and not quite knowing what's going on but certainly feeling the energy of that event. My friend Tom Lee — and I think this is his equation, I may be paraphrasing — says that composition is writing plus time, where writing would be a very broad category of construction. I love that idea because it incorporates what we might ordinarily call improvisation but there's something else that's more about the construction and less about the effects of indeterminacy. That tension that you describe between composition and improvisation seems so apt.

AS: Of course our brains are full of composed tonalities, sentences, licks, the whole lot. The distinction is spurious anyway in any real-time composition. What I love so much about the performance with Chris was that over the years, one piece might be about this, another piece might be about that, so we'd enter into this dialogue, and it was just so organic. We wouldn't know what was going to come out of it until we actually stood there, and the clock went off and we were away. It had nothing to do with planning a performance, or going, 'you say this, I say that'. It was just musings about science or neurology or linguistics or whatever the main conceit of our performance was going to be. And then, to just see this spontaneous collision of our two texts coming out — it was just so exciting, and so mentally engaging. And also, what happened with Machine was that you had this multi-layered listening field. So even as a performer, you couldn't take it all in. Stevie Wishart would suddenly be doing something that made a medieval reference, Jim'd suddenly do something which was using one of his combination instruments. He did a lot of work at one point analysing speech pitches and rhythms, which was really difficult to do, it's all microtones and very complex rhythms. Speech is such a complex phenomenon as a sound event. Rik Rue, meanwhile, had a huge library of sounds and things that he'd created. So he'd be bringing stuff out of the bag, and you'd be going, 'what's that?' So your mind might suddenly go, 'oh, medieval, I'll reference that with my text. Oh, Chris has just talked about meaning as a pissy little concept, OK, I've got a line for that'. And so it was just like kids in the playpen! It was such a rich, multi-layered world, and you could never get on top of it all, because everyone was doing their own thing, and listening, but also working within their own discipline.

AL: What you describe is a constant battle against false binaries and boring divisions. And you get that in the name of the collective, it's a bit of a paradox and a bit of a joke, but it's also very serious when we consider that machines can also mean, as you say, organic assemblages and dialogues and things that have independent parts. I also love the digital/analogue reference. In Machine, Rik in particular is literally working with digital and analogue sounds, but there are aspects of Machine’s aesthetics as a collective and your own compositional technique which seem, if not literally digital then conceptually digital. But also analogue: there's a lot of space in the recordings, and Jim has a particular knack for producing spatial, tonal, wet, sounds. What does digitality mean for a group like Machine? Particularly at a time when digitality was a nascent concept for composition?

AS: We did use digital systems within what we did, and we were very interested in using a mixture of old technologies like the hurdy gurdy, microphone, mixing desk. Jim and I used to use two microphones, so that would split what we were doing, which created a stereo sculptural effect so that you didn't have the unified voice. Also [we used] old systems like different configurations of PA: quadrophonic, multi-speaker, stereo. Plus old technologies like language! And new technologies like digital editing. On the whole, conceptually, there was quite a bit of naive computer fetishism going on at that time. In a way, I think the name and the project is a bit of a response to that. Is the technology actually so important? Let's mix all these different ideas of so-called technology, of which speech and language is perhaps the most profound (and in a sense the computer itself is just an adjunct of the language impulse). So we wanted to throw all that around as well. We used to perform in all sorts of festivals because of the strange nature of what we did. We'd be in jazz festivals, new media, poetry... Some of the new media ones we went to, at that time in the late-80s, early-90s, there was a lot of excitement about new computer-based art and music. I can remember on occasion we had some quite full-on arguments about computer fetishism. We didn't really use digital media that much, it was just part of all the other stuff that we did. We were interested in being multi-platform, in terms of mixing all these different uses of technology together. Which is pretty normal, now, these days. 

AL: I want to ask you about a specific live event. Can you talk about what came to be the 'Consciousness' track on the album, Consciousness? 

AS: That was one of my favourite gigs. One thing we often did was try and look at the nature of a performance: how a room was a configured, how to change the notion of experiencing a live performance. At the Australian Broadcasting [ABC], for our ‘Consciousness’ performance, we had three spaces going at the same time. It was actually five spaces, because we had two recording studios and the control rooms, and then we set up speakers in the large atrium area of the ABC and we had performances there. So it was a free event, which I also really liked, and the audience had a map of what duos and solos and quintets and other configurations were happening in these different spaces. And they were happening simultaneously. So the audience had to make a decision about where they went and whether they sat in the studio with the musicians, listening to it live, or whether they were in the control room, listening to the technicians mix it. Basically, there was no way you could experience the entire performance, you had to make a decision. We invited three guests to join us on that occasion: Tony Buck, Greg Kingston and Carolyn Connors. We were all rushing from studio to studio, space to space. You'd finish in one room and then say 'OK, I'm due in this room in two minutes,' and you'd go racing with your text to the next room. And then the audience was moving rooms too, and in the atrium it was a very reverberant space, so different sorts of works occurred there. What we also did was get Richard Toop and Peter McCallum, who were music critics, to give live critical reviews. You could go to another spot and they'd be there giving reviews of all the pieces that had just happened. So it was really fun.

Play "As X 3" from Consciousness (1999)

Another work we did, 'Sonic Hieroglyphs', was to open the Studio, which was a new venue at the Opera House (now it's been there for about twelve years). That was a really fun event because we had these different sorts of spaces, once again. As you came down the broadwalk to the Opera House, we had this distillation of what was going on inside, broadcast onto the outside of the Opera House. Then, as you went in, we had a large collective visual work, which was about two metres by eight metres. We had eight speakers hidden in the ceiling, and each of us had a stereo pair. Then we had a perspex mixing desk in front of the visual score where the audience could come in and mix the tape piece that we'd made, and [they could] either hear all of us together, or hear us solo, or duo, or trio. They could choose what they wanted. Then, when you went into the performance space, we were in there in a surround-situation with the audience and we played for two hours. We also had these very compressed, distilled scores which were projected onto the sails of the Opera House. So that was a really fun work, except it was so much work we all nearly collapsed afterwards.

AL: I'm interested in the politics of Machine. It was a really interesting time in Australia, and for those reading who might not know recent Australian political and cultural history, it was a time marked by the slightly progressive and increasingly globally-aware policies of the Keating and Hawke Labor governments, leading into the absolute take-up of retrograde and parochial, openly racist, conservative policies of the Howard government. So that shift sets a context for what you guys were doing, particularly as people engaged philosophically as experimentalists. But I am interested in politics because the politics of, or the political affiliations of, art, tend to be simplified such that people think that a particular work or movement might 'contain', or properly represent, some sort of political position. Charles Bernstein defines poetry at one point in an interview as "the continuation of politics by other means," a definition which avoids those problematic simplifications. Can you comment on what was going on, politically, in terms of Machine?

AS: Certainly in the context of Machine, I felt that the social organisation of our group, which was very much about ethos, above anything else, and the fact that we didn't see ourselves as a band trying to 'make it' (make what?) and that we saw ourselves as a collective meant that the ethics of our collective was fundamental. If something unethical happened, there'd be huge debates that went on for ages. Chris and I do make various abstracted references to different things that could be called political, so it's definitely there as an under-current, but it's certainly more on a structural level as well, through our working process, the conceits that we looked at (which often looked at the politics of sense). We looked at the antecedents of certain ideas, and it's interesting sometimes if you look at the historical contexts that certain ideas come out of, it's very political, but that doesn't mean you have to be directly political in dealing with those. It's just about having a concept of where certain language, certain types of language, certain concepts, come from, and whether you choose to engage with them or not.

AL: And in fact, 'making sense' is something which is of course inherently political, because certain things get naturalised as being more 'sensical' than others which is the whole thrust of politics. I think that that explains how you and Chris deal with those kinds of processes that in some circumstances radicalise language and in other circumstances naturalise and enforce language in certain ways.

AS: I can't really speak for Chris on that level, but he's extraordinary at being able to address a huge breadth of historical, political, philosophical antecedents and assumptions, and how they relate to particular linguistic constructions. But it is all happening at a reasonably abstract level, I guess. Ethos is a word I'd use more than politics in relation to Machine. It was terribly important to us that the way we worked created an ethos, and that we were constantly debating and renewing ethos. 

We asked: where does music come from, what does it mean, where does language come from, and how? A lot of the time in the group we were looking at distinctions between text and speech, speech and music, improvisation and composition. And people would say, 'Oh, you're a poetry group!' 'Oh, you're a new music group' 'Oh, you're a sound poetry sextet' 'Oh, it's opera' 'Oh, it's music theatre' 'Oh, it's jazz' And I guess on one hand it was quite irritating, and part of our thing was responding 'No, we're not that, we're a collective, we're a project, we're five individuals that have decided to come together', but on the other hand that showed that we were hard classify, because people couldn't work out what the hell we were, and half the time neither could we! Which was what was exciting about it; it was constantly evolving.

AL: It's occurring to me now that the emphasis on collective rather than any identifying generic and marketable term for you guys is very much a defiant act concerning labour. Maybe I've been reading too much about trade unions in Australia lately, but it seems like you guys were really emphasising collective organisation of constructive labour. You weren't trying to find a way to market yourselves and become a sellable thing.

AS: I think that was one reason we were very careful about the internet. We did actually have a website for a while, but one of our concerns about that was that it just started to turn into advertising, for our CDs. We did a huge amount of touring, so we were living on the road together which was extremely intense. So it was very much a lived group, as well. It wasn't just a gig, or a work thing, it was really about human relationships, living together, working together, thinking together. If we were doing something which was more about science, or something, we'd all be reading science books and discussing ideas on the road. The fact that we were living it in every aspect of our eating, sleeping, snoring, lives, it was very real. I feel very privileged to have been involved with Chris and Jim and Stevie and Rik.

It's all about how you treat each other, what structures you internalise, what structures you choose you engage with, and that is political, because it's what you choose and how you choose to be with other people. Unfortunately, everyone got so fragmented -- Chris is in New York, Stevie's in Europe, and then Jim, Rik and I were moving all over the place. And it got too difficult to continue, because you need funding. We did a huge amount of touring in Europe but it's a huge amount of administration and organisation, and to tour five people, is very expensive and you've got to get a good programme of gigs up. So I think eventually in the sixteen years we probably said most of what we had to say! We're all good friends and we still yap on, so the main project is still going, just without any products.