Sound and music pioneers Julian Day and Luke Jaaniste reveal the sonic secrets of spaces and the art of human behaviour.

Ethereal, crystalline tones ring out over a grassy park before being quickly consumed by the thrum of suburban traffic. Buses rumble past, trees rustle, and snatches of conversation ripple through the air. Another pure tone expands outwards with a shimmer, only to be enveloped by the surrounding space. People stop to listen, their attention drawn away, if only for a moment, from their mobile phones and hectic, urban schedules. Without knowing it they have become the audience to an immersive sound performance-installation by new music duo, Super Critical Mass.

Julian Day and Luke Jaaniste formed Super Critical Mass as a response to the traditional symphony orchestra. “We met while studying at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music,” Day explains. “As composition students, the ‘holy grail’ was the orchestra – a large body of people uniting to create a big sound. Orchestras, however, tend to be very hierarchical, immobile and open to only the very few.” This inspired Day and Jaaniste to create a dynamic, flexible and “democratic framework for immersive sound performance.” Put simply, this unique approach invites the listener to join in the creation of a site-specific event. Participants, who do not need to be trained musicians, become intrinsic elements and instigators of the piece, sometimes using the most meagre of resources, such as bells or even coins.

(Photo: Troy Baird)

Traditionally the divide between stage and seating, so often used as the setting for classical music, creates a form of barrier between performers and audience. Super Critical Mass does the exact opposite by taking the sound directly to the people, and immersing an unsuspecting audience in a sonic exploration. “We’ve been working on ways of activating public spaces through stylised, minimal and simple task-based performance,” says Jaaniste. “It was never just about the actions themselves. It’s about changing the way we see, hear, feel and understand our occupation of public spaces.”

Super Critical Mass’ work is always bespoke, tailored to fit a specific place such as Sydney’s Hyde Park where they recently directed GAMES AND ACTIONS (for a quiet city). “It has very particular characteristics such as the traffic noise, the open grassy areas and the busy footpaths,” Day continues. “It’s also made up of ‘space’ in a more general way, the area within which we as people move, interact and live.” Jaaniste adds that ‘space’ is “the arena we are within, not just the location at which we happen to arrive.”

Minimalists began to explore the idea of absorbing the inherent sounds and characteristics of a specific location into their music during the 1960s. Serialists and situationist artists expanded on this by creating environments where a group of people are compelled to complete a task, guided by easy-to-remember instructions. In this scenario the very act of doing creates the artwork; a study in human behaviour.

One of the bell sets that form part of Open Plans.

The “democracy” that is central to Super Critical Mass’ installations comes from subverting another common aspect of classical music: the conductor. “There is no boss,” says Jaaniste. “We all co-operate together to create these sonic-spatial-social fields.” By reducing the complexity of information in the artwork, the focus shifts. The Super Critical Mass sound installations distort the expectations of the audience, who no longer just passively observe. They’re actually able to experience the relationship between sound and space and actively control its direction.

It’s by blurring this line between audience and performer that Day and Jaaniste make this experimental form of sound-art accessible. Essentially, Super Critical Mass is music without a rigid frame or imposed vantage point. People walking through a performance space will find themselves surrounded by others strolling past, perhaps with a bell in hand. By inviting strangers to form an ‘open-access orchestra’, a temporary community is created, with a unique, non-verbal means of connecting. “I find it really gratifying when people meet as total strangers at the start of the workshops and through the process come to be friends,” Day comments. “Sound is such an intimate phenomenon – it emanates from our bodies, whether vocally or through our actions in the environment, and is received by others internally through their ears. So, wandering through a room and communicating with strangers using the most abstract of sounds can be very bonding.”

It’s a process that also offers the opportunity to think big. Since beginning Super Critical Mass in 2007, Day and Janniste have initiated mass-interactive installations across the world, including a collection of eighty flautists in Sydney, a band of brass players in Birmingham, and 1500 participants using only pieces of paper in a darkened auditorium.

“Field sports like soccer are very strict in terms of their rules, yet generate exciting and very creative results. Millions of sports fans around the world can’t be wrong!”

Now they return to where it all began: Brisbane, for the 8th Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT) at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA).

Super Critical Mass will present Open Plans – a suite including videos, sculpture, performance and notated scores. The heart of the project is in the form of a sculptural grid in the River Lounge (level three at GOMA), made from 200 of Melbourne’s Federation Bells. “We’ve also filmed eight videos throughout the two buildings that you’ll find in various locations – ramps, corridors, galleries – or view as a set in the River Lounge,” Day shares. Coloured diagrams and scores will also slowly take over the River Lounge’s windows as the exhibition progresses, outlining the ideas and instructions for participants.

But where does this generously inclusive process begin? As it turns out it‘s a practice that reveals itself in the very act of creating. “We don’t come to a group of people, to a location, nor to a sound source, and impose onto it ideas we thought up elsewhere”, explains Jaaniste. “Our first action is to explore in real time, in-situ and in conversations, to test and discover the possibilities.” Instructions for the performances are developed through an interactive and participatory workshop process that adapts to the particular idiosyncrasies of the environment and the people who populate it. The ‘rules’ are simple: start playing when you see or hear someone else stop; play your sound while moving to the edge of the space; change performance gestures when another person joins in. “Board games like chess or field sports like soccer are very strict in terms of their rules, yet generate exciting and very creative results” Day observes.  “Millions of sports fans around the world can’t be wrong!” Making the seemingly remote connection to the structured yet chaotic activity found in sports and games, Super Critical Mass use simple rules to create similarly exciting and unpredictable results.

(Photo: Sharka Bosakova)

As part of Super Critical Mass’ residency at GOMA, Day and Jaaniste will run workshops, including some for specific demographics, such as younger or older participants whose personal experiences and physical attributes should produce striking differences using the same resources. In addition to the ongoing installations, two large-scale, mass-participation performances on the exhibition’s closing weekend in April 2016 will mirror the epic installations they’ve mounted elsewhere in the world. “The more people join us in the creative development, the more their interaction and responses filter into our research and creative choices,” says Jaaniste. “We reduce the barriers to participation, and create an active community of shared process.”   

Day and Jaaniste will be talking about their project with curator Kyla McFarlane at the GOMA River Lounge on Sunday 22 November at 11.30am. At 3pm you can hear The Federation Handbells in action on the Maiwar Green outside GOMA.  

If you want to join Super Critical Mass for their workshops and performances as part of APT, visit the GOMA website. Part of the 2015/16 Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art.