audiograft: An Interview with Stephen Cornford

Oxford’s annual experimental music festival, audiograft, returns this year from March 11th-March 27th. With performances ranging from those involving newly constructed instruments, to an exploration of the sonic function of bells, this year’s festival promises an enormous variety of musical offerings. I spoke to festival co-curator Stephen Cornford about sound art and its explorations in this year’s programme.

When and why did audiograft start?

audiograft started in 2011, so this is our fifth year. It grew out of what used to be called Sonic Art Oxford, which was an annual event run on the campus of Oxford Brookes University. The idea of the festival was to take the interests and practices of the staff and students that make up the Sonic Art Research Unit, work that is rarely seen and heard in Oxford, and bring it to the public through collaboration with the great range of cultural venues that the city has.

audiograft runs for an unprecedented seventeen days this year, from March 11th to March 27th. What was the reasoning behind this extension?

Well, the core of the festival is still in the first week, between March 11th and 14th. That is when the majority of the events are, and when we expect the bulk of our audience. In fact, the after-party is even scheduled for the 14th.

But ever since we started programming exhibitions as part of the festival, it made sense for them to remain open for longer than a single week, so the installations will run until March 22nd. There are then also two extra concerts in this year’s festival, one on the 22nd, and one on the 27th, as we couldn’t squeeze all the ideas into our normal format of four gigs on consecutive nights. These extra concerts have been organised by members of SARU and are supported by the festival, but they could equally have been independent gigs.

Could you outline any current projects that you are undergoing as Research Fellow at the Sonic Art Research Unit (SARU) at Oxford Brookes University?

BMy own research is focused on using audio-visual media devices as productive rather than reproductive machines, finding ways for film projectors or record players to produce their own sound or image rather than playing back something which I have made. At the moment I’m doing a lot of work with CD players, which I am interested in because they are probably the last physical audio format. I am currently working on a film which is made by exposing 16mm film to the laser in a discman, turning it from an audio-reading apparatus into a visual writing machine.

Who decides upon which artists are exhibited at audiograft, and how is this decision made?

The festival is jointly curated by Paul Whitty and myself as well as Paul Dibley (Senior Lecturer in Electroacoustic Music) and Jo Ross (Director of Oxford Contemporary Music). The curatorial decisions reflect our own research interests, so, for example, Paul Whitty has invited contemporary British composers to write new pieces for an ensemble that he is part of. Similarly, I have invited artists who have developed uniquely individual approaches to the technology they perform with, so Maria Chavez, who will perform on Saturday 14th for example, has been quietly but very radically re-writing the rules of turntablism, and Andy Guhl, who is playing on Wednesday 11th, has re-purposed an optical scanner into an audio-visual feedback instrument. 

Many of the artists and artworks exhibited at this year’s audiograft are complementary. Was it a conscious decision to show works that share common thematic elements or concepts?

As a general rule we have avoided thematic constrictions in the past, because I feel that they tend to lead to either too much of the same thing or to a pretence of unity amongst disparity. The complementary nature of Arno [Fabre] and Mario [De Vega]’s work at the OVADA show this year was deliberate, but we didn’t know about it when we initially approached them to work in the festival. It was during the discussion that these two works for bells were mentioned, and we thought it was a great opportunity to show them together. 

One of the central aims of audiograft is to bring sound art and experimental music to a wider audience. How do you hope to engage with members of the public that might not have previous exposure to these media?

We have always tried to show this sort of work in the most public and accessible way possible, without an overt sense that you need to understand its context or aims in order to enjoy it or participate in it. Experimental music and sound art can sometimes seem exclusive simply because they are such niche practices, but as long as you don’t approach them with preconceptions of what is and isn’t music, just with open ears, then there is no reason why anyone can’t enjoy them. It’s worth noting that young children have often been some of our most enthusiastic audience members, because they don’t seem to distinguish between noise and music; it’s all just sound to them. Generally, we have found audiences to be very open to cultural forms that they might not at first recognise.

The artworks on display are highly diverse, from video art to interactive sound sculptures. How important do you think it is to represent sound art’s different stylistic approaches, and different media?

Sound Art isn’t a singular thing. It isn’t a movement in that modernist sense. It is a field of practice made up by a very disparate set of artists and musicians, who, often for very different reasons, have decided that sound is the primary element of the work they are making. From the outset we never wanted to endorse one approach over another. The cultural world is divisive and likes to put things in increasingly small boxes, but doing so just alienates artists from one another and from their audiences, so we have actively tried to work against that.

Arno Fabre 'Cloche'
Arno Fabre ‘Cloche’

For much sound art, from installations to performances, the relationship between sound production and the acoustic characteristics of the space is essential. How does this influence festival organisation, from venues used to which works are shown in which locations?

We try to get hold of the best possible spaces for the work, though sometimes it doesn’t work out. We have been very lucky to be able to use the Holywell Music Room every year, which is a fantastic space for acoustic performances. It has an acoustic that doesn’t change the sounds produced in it, in the way that, say, a cathedral does, but still makes them heard equally throughout the space. But most of the artists we work with are very adaptable and prepared to work in a great variety of spaces. For example, this year we tried to get the crypt of Oxford Castle for Minoru Sato, whose piece Thermal Acoustics would have worked brilliantly in there, but they weren’t willing to have it running during guided tours, so it will now be shown in the less grand site of the OVADA warehouse. But the thing with acoustics is that sometimes even the most boring-looking space can sound amazing.

Are there any sound artists or musicians that you would be especially keen to have at audiograft in years to come?

I would like to invite Christof Migone and Otomo Yoshihide at some point in the future, but both would be dependent on having the budget to do so.

What does the future lay in store for audiograft? Do you hope that the festival will grow larger still in 2016?

To be honest, I don’t think the festival should grow at all. I think its current size is about right. Everything in this world is currently geared towards perpetual growth, which is foolish and unrealistic in my opinion. In terms of the festival, I hope that persistence and consistency are enough to keep it relevant and interesting to us as organisers, and to its local and national audiences.

J. Wadsworth

audiograft runs from the 11th-27th March; more details can be found on their website.

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