Polyphonic Social: your voice in my head (and mine in yours)
Polyphonics have much artistic and social potential: to make difference audible, to ‘sound’ disobedience, choreograph dissonance, and explore the harmonies possible when we bring voices together (and apart) in a shared space.

SAT 13 May - SUN 14 May 2017
Abbotsford Convent
1 St Heliers St, Abbotsford, Melbourne
Wheelchair Accessible and AUSLAN Interpreted

Lin Chi-Wei, Tape Music, Abbotsford Convent 2017, Photo by Keelan O'Hehir

Polyphonic Social is an annual Liquid Architecture project with the proposition that artists think about polyphony in a vastly expanded way.

13 May 2017, 7:30PM – 10PM
The Good Shepherd Chapel at Abbotsford Convent
$15 / $12

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Áine O’Dwyer (Ireland), Melbourne Georgian Choir (Georgia; Melbourne), Erkki Veltheim, Rohan Drape and Alex Garsden (Melbourne)

Presented in association with Inland Concert Series

14 May 2017, 10AM – 7PM
Abbotsford Convent, various spaces


Uncle Bill Nicholson (Wurundjeri Elder); Lin Chi-Wei (Taiwan); Dr Joseph Jordania (Georgia; Melbourne); Hi-God People (Melbourne); Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations featuring Bruce Mowson, Aviva Endean, Danae Valenza and Fayen d’Evie (Melbourne); Rosie Isaac (Melbourne)

We Are We, Uttering Together

Polyphony is a state in which we hear many different voices, in their full texture, simultaneously. (Poly/many + phonos/voices). Musically, it is different to harmony, which is a system for organising pitch relationships. Polyphony in music refers to a texture containing many independent melodies or voices within a given framework as practised throughout the world. Polyphony needn’t, but can still “have harmony”.

Figure 1. Useful because it is so unuseful

Socially, polyphony refers to the dynamics of collective voicing. When many sounds come together as one, we say they are in unison. The problem with unison is that it means ‘one sound’, which we know can never truly exist – it’s more a guideline, an aspiration, a reference point, a melody to follow, than it is an actual state to achieve.

- We are as close as can be, we are totally in harmony, on song, as one (point)

- We will remain irreducibly separated, because we will always be, in the first and last instance, separate voices (counterpoint).

It is in the trying for togetherness, in reaching out for each other, that we must acknowledge the discontinuity between us, because that void is also the space of difference where frictions and dissonances resound.

Your Head in My Voice

There is no dissonant sound per se. Joseph Jordania reminds us that dissonance is a quality of an interval that shouldn’t be there – because “in the moral economy of sounds, dissonance signifies evil (Devil).” (Which is why classical pieces end on a proverbial high note – good-God must be heard to triumph). Joseph hears polyphony ethically and evolutionarily, as a tactic mobilising dissonances for the voice under siege. When a pack howls, it’s polyphonic. In deviant harmony, the vocalic body multiplies the pack’s sounding: more populous, more many, more difficult to attack. Threatening violence against the stranger, polyphonic dissonance, in the wild, correlates with survival.

For Bakhtin, our utterances are always polyphonic (many-voiced) and heteroglot (other-languaged). When we speak, our voice is not solely our own but rather is inflected with the accumulated weight and tone and colour and expectations of our history, our social position, our sum of experiences, our place in the world now and where we dream to be. We are always speaking other languages, in many voices, all at once – this, perversely, is what constitutes us as individuals. As individuals, we are loaded with polyphonic vocabularies: “(e)ach word tastes of the context and contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.” I can embody your utterance even while saying it in my voice. As in quotation, or mimicry, or ventriloquism, you don’t actually have to be present for this to be dialogue.

Polyphony is my utterance that consumes yours; it is your voice in my head (and mine in yours).

Bad Communality

If polyphony is the many voices in the one voice, it is also the voice in disguises. A plural-singular can be many and one; it is both. (Everybody solos, nobody solos). When we raise our voices together, the voice-body we conceive is a noisy soul. The question concerns the ethic of listening amidst collective voicing, since the promise of communion comes bundled with the prospect of individual dissolution into the greater group-body.

So we are all singing from the same songsheet – Think about crowds, choirs; think about speaking in tongues. Aren’t they all the state of being possessed by the voice of another – a voice that speaks through you – if somewhat unintelligibly – from a power that’s beyond you? Aren’t they all, to some degree, requisitions?

Aren’t they humans, instrumentalised?

Steven Connor says the collective voice of the choir is essentially fantastic:

There is in fact no vox populi that is capable of sounding upon the ear, however irresistibly it may seem to claim the condition of voice and clamour for hearing in the urgent yet hallucinatory voice-body of chorality. Chorality is the means whereby we allow ourselves the collective hallucination of collectivity. The point of trying to understand the power we allow ourselves to exercise over ourselves in the fantasies of chorality is to be able to refuse and as necessary rescind its demands.

The throat thickens, the sign solidifies and our ears rush with blood, so we don’t notice or maybe don’t care about the modulations of the meaning, because we are uttering together.


Mikhail Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
Steven Connor, Choralities

The Voices

Áine O’Dwyer makes multi-layered works that celebrate chance choreographies, acoustic phenomena, acts of listening and the search for alternative scorings through instruments, drawings, space, time, memory and the body. In recent years she has developed a unique specialisation for improvisation with pipe organs, culminating in the albums Locusts and Gegenschein which follow her acclaimed Music for Church Cleaners. O’Dwyer’s works beg questions of historicism and the social proximities of the everyday, exploring sacred, found and forgotten spaces, and the animism of instruments:

“As to the church organ itself, it seemed almost like a sample machine, like it could tap into sounds from different eras.”

Continuing the practice of turning historic sites themselves into instruments, Áine will perform on the pipe organ at the Good Shepherd Chapel as the special guest of our Saturday evening concert.

Melbourne Georgian Choir (MGC) will also perform, led by celebrated Georgian-Australian ethnomusicologists Dr Nino Tsitsishvili and Dr Joseph Jordania. The choir features 20 vocalists singing together in the rich Georgian polyphonic tradition which dates back to at least the 4th century CE. In challenging works from its repertoire, the choir will demonstrate the outré scales and clashing dissonances characteristic of Georgian polyphony.

LA: The Georgian polyphonic tradition is ancient but sometimes sounds like music from a distant future. Can you explain what you mean by ‘polyphony of times’?

JD: “‘Polyphony of times’ is a very complex and multilayered phenomenon connected to the history of human musicality itself. The earliest music was most likely polyphonic, and full of dissonances (this is the central element of my model, which I demonstrate using examples of dissonant and polyphonic music from many isolated regions of the world). Complex dissonant and polyphonic music was realised in a European classical context only in the 20th century, and sounds in some ways like “music of the future”. Georgian music predates this by thousands of years, and it retains its archaic features; yet full of dissonances, it sounds as futuristic as any music.”

Opening our Saturday concert in the Good Shepherd Chapel, Erkki Veltheim, Rohan Drape and Alex Garsden (of Inland Concert Series) will present a new fifteen-minute antiphonal work for instruments and computers of fragments of sonic things created independently.

LA: How do antiphony and polyphony play out in your work? What do the terms mean to you?

EV, RD, AG: “‘Three guesses — a coincidence, a connection outside, a connection inside.’ (Robert Sheff, A Letter From Home About Sound And Consciousness, 1978).

I guess the terms only partly apply, as is perhaps often the case with these kinds of terms.

Three of the parts that apply are:

- there are multiple voices
- these are separated in the space
- they proceed in some sense independently of each other and are without hierarchy

Perhaps the work is antiphonal in its arrangement in space, and polyphonic in the disposition of its parts.

“… the exquisitely beautiful voice, the inner voice, which I heard off and on for eleven months.” (P. K. Dick, letter to Julian Jaynes, 1977)

One difficulty with the terms is that they already contain within them the idea that the voices, in themselves, inhere and cohere, and that their motions are immediately comprehensible.

Here this is only partly the case. The title hints at the difficulty.

Sheff’s letter, written to himself, outlines a “weird theory about a history of consciousness” that in many senses resembles Jaynes’ ideas about the “two-chambered” mind.

In both, people of earlier times received messages from voices within which there was a clarity and forcefulness that has since receded.

Dick thinks it unlikely that the messages have ceased just because we can no longer hear the voices that spoke them, rather that the situation has simply become more subtle – an “invisible manipulation of our acts through engramming and disinhibition.

There are characteristic difficulties in writing about music…

other: self referent, closed, invariant, coherent, stable and present: multiply referent (quaquaversal), open (within the convention field), variant, not coherent (not-contained through direct field limited invariance), unstable (a multiple source arrangement is available through the social field groupings of the performance convention)” (Jerry Hunt, System of Haramand Plane and Ground, 1991)

Another difficulty is perhaps the idea that “polyphony” suggests a certain type of seriousness of purpose, a particular intricacy of construction.

Schoenberg talking of the “comprehensibility of the tones”, and of Coherence, Counterpoint & etc.

Or Ocora’s titles for ethnographic recordings from Zaïre and Ethiopie (Polyphonies et Techniques, & etc.).

Or the ambivalence implicit in the derivation of the term heterophony.

And so on.”

10AM: On Sunday morning child (and parent-) friendly polyvocalities ensue (Mother’s Day) with actions for ears led by artist Jody Kingston and friends. More info available here

2PM: Wurundjeri Elder Uncle Bill Nicholson will Welcome us to his Country and walk and talk about exploring the Yarra landscape by ear to hear multiple voices of land and country.

“The Birrarung, the Yarra River that flows just out of town, is a very special river to all of us, extremely special to the Wurundjeri. The Birrarung, as we call it – the misty river – it’s our symbol of our connection, physical and spiritual, to this land.”

320PM: Rosie Isaac will deliver a new site-responsive piece entitled There will be a lot of repetition here, that operates at the intersection of text and performance, reading and speaking, standing up and lying down. She likes to explore the ambiguous situations opened up by words that have multiple meanings and, therefore, suggest multiple hearings (which she thinks of as unspoken polyphony).

LA: Can you talk to us about the idea of unspoken polyphony – situations and spaces opened by, say, lies and untruths (where both the truth and lie remain in play, polyvocally); or words that might hold multiple meanings and, therefore, suggest multiple hearings?

Rosie Isaac: “Part of this work stems from an interest in very everyday, banal lying. Lying that is for the most part inconsequential, made up excuses for missed deadlines etc. I’m wondering how these sort of lies overlap with more fundamental lies. Things we tell ourselves in order to continue as subjects, families, nations etc.

What is happening when you silently formulate a lie inside your brain, concoct a plausible narrative to stand in for the truth? If you’re the only one who knows that the lie is a lie then perhaps there is a polyphony resonating inside your skull. The first time you speak the falsehood it can feel a little clunky, but slowly repetition changes the sound, it becomes comfortable, easy, the dissonance recedes. If your interlocutor has a hunch that the lie is a lie (they suspect the truth and know the lie) then maybe this doubling is resonating between you – back and forth. It can be hard to distinguish between notes, true and false, it’s a very muddy sound.

It’s not often that I make up more than one lie for a single situation. Usually sticking to the story in order that it most closely resemble the shape of the truth, can plug that gap.

Lying down, as in reclining, can be read multiple ways. Reclining as a position of power, freedom, the pose of emperor or queen. Reclining as a position of vulnerability, slumber, rest, convalescence, submission. Maybe reclining as relaxing, letting go, dying. Or reclining as being watched, looked upon, drawn. It’s a strange place to speak from, gravity acts against lungs and contortions make forming words a real struggle. It’s so far away from the upright, so distant from the proclamation, the formal address, from the official story. At first it’s comfortable to recline, a relief, then the ground and bones begin to make sharp contact, and you remember you’re lolling around on the floor.”

350PM: Marking his Australian debut is Lin Chi-Wei, a legend of Taiwanese sonic art, whose practice incorporates folklore culture, noise, ritual, and audience participation. Chi-Wei will initiate an iteration of his participatory sound work, Tape Music, in which audience members pass a paper score (sometimes 200m long) around a circle, singing as they go, generating a ‘human tape machine’.

LA: We have observed a certain tension weaving through your work Tape Music. This piece represents an ongoing attempt by you to explore how a group of humans may be assembled into a ‘machine of sound’, but it does this, critically, through a polyphonic process that is constitutively social, tactile and communal (i.e. kind of ultimately and irreducibly human)? How do tensions between the machinic and human play out in your work?

“Well, I think these are exactly the essential questions the Tape Music raises.

Between 2004 to 2013, Tape Music has only been played by audiences. There have been around 100 sessions and more than 2000 people have participated. People from primary schools, temples, churches, factories, local governments, neighborhoods, folk music groups, empowerment groups, training groups, and also visitors and audiences of museums, music festivals, bars and venues. As you can see, there are individual participants (such as in the museum) and people from different communities in different occasions.

For me the interesting thing is to see how these temporal gatherings turn into an aural community in a very short time! As a rule of the game I normally give no explanation nor instruction to the audience. I just pass the ribbon with embroidered words made of meaningless phonetics (without pitches) to the audiences and see what is going to happen. As you can imagine, people must react to it firstly by direct instinct (not every audience likes to do the performance by themselves), then by seeing how the others react to it, and trying (or refusing to try) to find a role in the playing.

To give an example: In 2007 in a Tape Music session in a local community in Stockholm, most of the (elder) people had naturally found their own place in the harmonic series, while a younger girl made annoying cat noises all the time (which was not part of the notation). In the artist talk after the performance, the participants were delighted when I told them they made probably the most “harmonic” performance I had ever experienced. They started a long talk after my comments concerning the ideas of the Swedish term lagom (which means ‘just the right amount’). The idea may also relate to the Viking practice of equal food divisions as well as modern Swedish democracy! For me personally, I think the meowing girl was doing her job perfectly.

There are also contradictory cases: In a Japanese electronic factory of Shenzhen, China, a folk music group (supported by the factory owner, whose members are also labourers in the enterprise) were invited to participate in the session in their repetition room. Throughout, no-one emitted a word, they just silently transferred the ribbon without making any noise for 15 minutes. The fact is that they were paid to work as musicians-labourers, and if there is no instruction given, they just won’t work ….. It is essential to see how the community organises and also how they don’t organise….In Hong Kong I found another radical version of Tape Music for no-one ever to hear or dare to do!

If we consider society as a machine, Tape Music could probably work as a kind of sonore diagram of the inner circuits.”

Lin Chi-Wei, Tape Music, Wan-sho Temple ChangChun, 2008 (Photo by Gong-Bin)

420PM: Ethnomusicologist and evolutionary musicologist – i.e. maverick thinker Dr. Joseph Jordania – will present A Natural History of Dissonances a demonstrative lecture on the evolutionary roots of human polyphonic singing and the transformative powers of chorality; from preparing soldiers for the battle to helping Alzheimer’s sufferers to regain memories. Among the questions he may address: Why do polyphonic traditions from the most isolated regions of the world sound like a music from the future?

Joseph Jordania: “Polyphony, as a social phenomenon, invites people to be involved in community, but unlike in-unison singing, where no one can deviate from the principal melody, polyphony gives participants the possibility to have their own voices, their improvisations, be incorporated in united sound.”

5PM: Surprise. Cellular Automata Music

530PM: Bruce Mowson, Aviva Endean, Danae Valenza, and Fayen d’Evie will pay homage to the great American experimental composer and philosopher Pauline Oliveros, by revisiting her Sonic Meditations (1971), a suite of playful and imaginative works that function more as thought experiments than music. Oliveros gave inspiration to a generation of artists through her sublime compositions and improvisations and, importantly, her philosophical approach to sound and ‘deep’ listening. These meditation works are playful and imaginative, functioning more as thought experiments than music, undertaking a vastly expanded listening, extending to the sensation of the motion of the planet in which the physical motion of the interlocking patterns of our planet, system, galaxy and universe are in some way detectable, at the extremities of physical perception.

LA: Tell us about the process of collective and individual meditation and reflection; about listening with the soles of your feet – can you tell us about the social and personal resonances this project has manifested for you?

“Fayen: We have talked back and forth about the planning of listening; the more that listening has been restructured as a management exercise, the more I am compelled to pause, to walk outside and LISTEN.  What draws me to listening is sensory poetics. I have been working from blindness lately, and my movement and attentiveness enquiries have brought me to collaborate alongside artists and writers and actors with varied connections to blindness and Deafness and Deaf-blindness. I have been meditating on the polyphonics of perception and wayfinding; how listening together invokes intersubjective translations and negotiations; how listening may be experienced as kinaesthetic rhythms and pauses and dissonances, whether through the palms of the hands (as in dactylology) or the echoes of a clicking tongue.  When we meet together, to re-encounter Pauline Oliveros’ meditations, I will be consciously practicing stretching my listening beyond the peripheries of my own embodiment, listening to what I cannot hear rationally, to the invisible vibrations of our collective polyphony.”

Bruce Mowson: “Pauline Oliveros was a guest of Liquid Architecture in 2007 and led one of her ‘Deep Listening’ workshops. I participated in this and experienced the most extraordinary sensation of becoming the world via listening. With her passing last year, I revisited this experience, in particular the 1971 suite that she developed within the ♀ ensemble, the Sonic Meditations. The participatory element of the work struck me as relevant to contemporary practice, and I thought it worthwhile to facilitate their revisiting.

Since December I’ve researched Oliveros’ oeuvre and found my intuitive impressions validated – her ideas and the insights of her critics remain radical and relevant to discourses around music, listening, feminism and participation. Jennifer Rycenga’s essay The Uncovering of Ontology in Music, lists these features of the Meditations as being shared between music and an immanentist feminism: “non-dualism, non-hierarchic structure, acknowledging the importance of material reality, listening and giving attention to the voices of women, dialogic nature, and respect for the agency and limitations of others.”

In the introduction to the Meditations, Oliveros writes (of herself) ‘She has abandoned composition/performance practice as it is usually established today for Sonic Explorations which include everyone who wants to participate. She attempts to erase the subject/object or performer/audience relationship by returning to ancient forms which preclude spectators.’ The communality of experience inferred by the Meditations seems in 2017 like returning to some ancient form from a distant land.”

630PM: Hi God People ‘performances’ consist of strange relations played out in dynamics of ritualised hyper-awareness and self-disregard. On Sunday, HGP will perform a new work, Running Bathing Singing With The Hi God People, which they say will involve “bathing each other while dressed in sleepwear, wetting the sleepwear in the process”. The group agree “it might be better to do this outside” but as you can see from their plans they intend to use various convent spaces.

LA: What is the difference between cacophony, polyphony, and liberation through collective nonsense to you? (Not a trick question)

HGP: Ghostly sources have reported that the silence perpetuated within some quarters had repressed the music, though some were known to be more operatic than others. This influences our score in waves of nympholeptic bursts as such:

Ah ah ah! Ah ah ah! and so on…
tou em tel, tou em tel, tou em TELLLLLLLL…! and so on.
Lead me to the river, lead me to the walls, tou em tel.
Now speaks the bather with the bells.

Curators: Liquid Architecture and Emily Siddons

Liquid Architecture: Joel Stern, Danni Zuvela, Anabelle Lacroix, Georgia Hutchison, Jessica Row, Mino Peric, Jody Kingston

Production Team: Lauren Squire, Jason Heller, Keelan O’Hehir

Liquid Architecture is an Australian organisation for artists working with sound.

Polyphonic Social is an annual Liquid Architecture program in partnership with Abbotsford Convent supported by the City of Yarra through the Creative Yarra grants program.

The organisers and artists acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the first owners of this country, and we recognise that sovereignty was never ceded. We pay our respects to their Elders, past, present and emerging.


RealTime Arts, ‘Polyphonic Social: sacred & other resonances’ – Elyssia Bugg

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