The inventive Australian experimental producer Ross Manning recently dropped “Reflex In Waves”, which is more a co-production between Lawrence English’s imprint Room40 and Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, related to Manning’s first survey exhibition, titled Dissonant Rhythms. Before Ross starts an already-announced tour to bring this exhibition to many places throughout Australia (in ten venues between 2018 and 2020), we had a chat about it.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Ross! Can you introduce yourself in your own words to our readers?
Ross Manning: I’m a visual and sound artist living and working in Brisbane, Australia. I work across live performance, instrument building, recorded music and visual art.
Chain D.L.K.: How did you develop a passion for sound machines and artifacts?
Ross Manning: I’ve always been obsessed with sound and music and really have always been interested in how its made from a young age. I made my first instruments and recordings when I was about 10, so it’s something that I’ve always been thinking about.
Chain D.L.K.: Do you remember your very first installation?
Ross Manning: Well, yes. It was about 10 years ago, in Melbourne, for the next wave festival; the group show was titled “lost garden found”… It was the first time I tried to move the sounds I used in live settings into the gallery. It turned out to be a duo of sound works that interacted with each other sonically, like a two-part composition. One used light-sensitive electronics activated with playback from a CRT TV, and the other had a pulley system that turns small plastic records found in pull-string kids toys with short loops of Donald Duck and Goofy, interlocking cartoon jabber. These little records were fun to find and collect, and I still have them.
Chain D.L.K.: Are there any sound machines you have preferred to enhance over the years?
Ross Manning: The directions can be endless. I always have new things I want to try, but I hold onto an idea of the type of sound I need for a piece or to complement an instrument/sound that I’m already working with. The intention is to make organized pieces.
I’ve been mainly using a physical waveform as a percussion activator for some years now and have developed new instruments (for want of a better word, maybe sound objects would be better) for this way of making music and performing. I should explain a little about how this system works. I use a spinning rope attached at either end to motors that I can control the speed of. As the motors turn the centrifugal forces within, the rope creates a waveform shape. Centrifugal force. I then place various tuned percussion instruments of my own design in its path. The waveform interacts with the different objects, tapping out rhythms. The parameters of the system are only a few: the speed of motors (changing the harmonics of the waveform), space/distance from the waveform to the instrument (how often and intensely it strikes), and the length of the string. The material the string is made from, just as with traditional percussion mallets, can be hardwired for a sharp attack or a softer string that has a more muted attack. Instruments usually are made up of soundboards with metal tines protruding, but there are many other materials I use (glass, ceramic, timer, bamboo, plastic etc.). I set up 4 or 6 of these percussion ‘stations’ and perform them like sections of an orchestra. These clusters of notes form what I think of as a block of movement. These blocks are then placed in groupings. I group them according to their timbral qualities and pitches.
Chain D.L.K.: Reflex in Waves is a sort of celebratory release…can you tell us something about what it’s going to celebrate or summarise?
Ross Manning: This LP was a 2017 co-release with the Institute of Modern Art and Room40. It’s to accompany the catalog from a survey exhibition held last year at the IMA gallery. The exhibition was an overview of the last 10 years of my art practice, with a commission for a new sound piece. the LP is a kind of document of the studio sounds I was making leading up to the show. I say it’s a document more than an album, as it was done quite quickly and is more of a portal into the studio space at that time. I tend to view my releases as a library of sound more than discreet albums. The recording is problematic, as it tends to be a finalist statement of form, and I find the work I do is always moving and no one work can really sum it up.
In this mode of thinking, since the “Reflex in Waves” LP came out, I have a tape titled “both sides of the cocoon with chemical imbalance” and another self-released LP that I’ve just gotten back from the press called “frequency metal.” I hope to just keep on releasing as much as I can; if anyone wants copies of the above-mentioned records, please contact me!
Chain D.L.K.: Its sound is very different from “Interlacing,” featuring the reliable mark of Room 40… how did you draw the sound of “Interlacing”?
Ross Manning: Interlacing was an earlier way that I experimented with recorded sounds played back from many devices. Tape, mini disk, cdr, dictorphone, reel to reel, etc., all of which had a variety of similar sound types. I mixed this playback live and the results are kind of a ‘performative mix down.’ There are some tracks that use light from LEDs amplified using custom electronics, but I’m not really working this way anymore.
Chain D.L.K.: Some people keep on thinking that some releases are just random and that there’s no real work behind them…could you dispel this opinion by saying something about preparatory work behind your installations or albums?
Ross Manning: I can understand this. I’m not really interested in complete indeterminacy. I spend a lot of time finding and tuning the sounds that I require to complete an idea for a composition. There is an element of chance regarding how the system activates a selection of notes, but it’s mostly controlled. The energies within the spinning waveform physically react to the objects in its path. This playing of the selected notes is really the only part of the system that is autonomous. So everything is very much controlled and purposeful, although the system that activates them operates with its own kind of logic.
Chain D.L.K.: The sound of the opening track, “Three Tuned Sets in Crystal,” is similar to the one of that strange machine you used in a live set that someone posted on YouTube that you held in Annerley in Queensland…is it an update of that machine? Can you explain the machinery behind this track and that live show?
Ross Manning: Yes, that’s right, the same system, but the instruments are different. This track is a recording of the 3x spinning waveforms as seen here, but the sounds that come from it are the spring steel bars from chime clocks that I have modified and re-tuned. The frequencies of each 1 of 3 are very close together, and it forms a kind of auditory bleeding. These spinning ropes here are much shorter in length than usual as I try and get a regular rhythm coming from standing waves, more perfect waves, that pulse back and forth, striking across a 3-6 note section of the chimes. Proximity (distances from object to string) are key factors in the motifs generated, and I move these around by hand to change the interactions.
Chain D.L.K.: Some stuff in Reflex in Waves resembled something by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki… Could you trace a possible chain of “sibling” or similarities of your sound by quoting some more or less known composers?
Ross Manning: I very much like Penderecki, and works like Fluorescences and De Natura Sonoris 1 are really great… I do enjoy 20th-century composition a lot, and this makes up a large part of my record collection.
Chain D.L.K.: How would you label your sound? Generically avant-garde?
Ross Manning: I’m not sure and wouldn’t like to comment, but I do think new music has an obligation to be interesting, progressive and of an individual voice.
Chain D.L.K.: Some listeners think that a valid support of some kinds of music, where odd instruments get used (including some contemporary free jazz and improv), could be better appreciated by watching them instead of listening through a cd…do you agree with them? Do you think that the visual part of this kind of music might be extensively adopted in the near future by labels or producers?
Ross Manning: If you hear a piano being played, the listener has at least some small knowledge of what’s happening between the player and the instrument, and therefore the skill levels involved. This isn’t the same, say, with say electronic music; the player may be highly talented, but due to the audience having little experience (mostly), this skill is lost. I don’t think you necessarily need to see the performance to understand the qualities of sound, as music is abstract, although it allows a deeper appreciation. I think all music is better seen live anyway; as I mentioned before, recording is problematic. But in saying that, I can be quite happy with not knowing the sound origin of the music I listen to.
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
Ross Manning: Working on new material for a release this year that I’m very happy with, still with these kinds of instruments. We’ll see how it goes.
visit Ross Manning on the web at: www.rossmanning.com