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Gail Priest

National Artist in Residence, November 2022

Gail is a Sydney/Katoomba-based artist with a multi-faceted practice in which sound is the key material of communication and investigation. Her work spans solo electro-acoustic composition for performance and recordings, soundtracks for dance, theatre and video, and gallery installations.

How did you first get involved with synths and electronic sound?

I’ve been making electronic sounds since the late 90s when I was introduced to the possibilities of computer composition through the humble tool of Sound Edit 16. I was just a little too old to have studied computers at school and came to them via a “Desktop Publishing Course” that I did when the government told me that being an actor was not a viable profession. I discovered I Iiked computers, and as I was a bit of a singer-songwriter, I started to use them to make sounds and compositions that I hadn’t been able to make as a limited musician. But I was, and mainly still am, an “in the box” laptop creator.

However, after a few years, I did begin to seek different ways to play live and started small experiments with a home-soldered optical theremin. This was a gateway drug into exploring how I might interact in a more fluid way with noise and signal. Around this time, Robin and Byron were setting up MESS, and after chatting with them, I was very keen to explore the modular world further. My first experience of touching a real modular was the Buchla Easel at MESS, and it was transformative. Since then, I’ve purchased two little semi-modulars, and while I’m still a proud laptopper I now enthusiastically integrate the chaos of free-flowing signals into my sets and compositions.

How would you describe the sounds you make today?

At the core of my practice is an ongoing battle between sounds that signify and sounds that are purely abstract. I like to get figurative sounds — mainly voice and field recordings — and stretch and manipulate them, trying to break them but they still hold always some sense of their sense in them. I also like to find voices and figures in purely abstract machinic sounds.

Where do you find inspiration, what motivates you?

Firstly I would say I find inspiration in the sounds themselves. I often don’t know what it is I am setting out to explore. I generate some sounds, or have a few samples that are intriguing, and as I manipulate them they start to dictate the ways the piece should take shape. I then tend to turn to words to continue the investigation. This includes doing my own writing in response to the sounds, or finding the texts of others that seems to work with the sounds. These found text sources can range from the science fiction of William Gibson, to old scientific journals to Rainer Maria Rilke. Thinking through these sounds as texts, helps me work out what the piece is doing and how I should develop it further. Because of the relationship I have between sounds and texts, the titles of my pieces are vitally important, and they change as the pieces develop. But without a title the piece goes nowhere.

What’s been one of the most rewarding or satisfying moments of your journey so far?

I think when I have a series of projects that all have different types of outcomes. For example, when I was in Melbourne for my residency at M.E.S.S. I also composed the sound for a dance work, oversaw the remount of sound for a theatre project, performed gigs, reviewed a music concert, and had two glorious weeks playing on the M.E.S.S machines. The feeling that I am able to work across art forms to create a varied and sometimes sustainable career is very satisfying. This is the ideal, of course, and not always how it rolls.

And the most challenging?

Given the multiple ways I engage with sound, I actually find it really hard to make the time and space to actually sit down and compose sound for the pleasure of making music rather than for a pending project. That was why the time at M.E.S.S was amazing and challenging. Everyday every possibility was open to me, and there were no distractions, so I had to face my own procrastination, my own limitations and my own dread of making horrible noises!

Do you have a current ‘go to’ set up at MESS? Any favourite machines or combos that you’re currently digging?

I tried quite a few things in my two weeks, but I kept coming back to the Mad Chiller combination of modules. I felt like I was kind of cheating as there were so many amazing vintage things to play with, and I did try out some of these. I liked the Transaudio quite a bit. But the sound palette that I could develop with the combination of Mutable Instruments in the Mad Chiller combo suited my more pretty-gritty aesthetic. And I am a bit of a slow learner on these things, so I really needed to not be too hyperactive and sit with one system to try and get some sense of control (ha). I also enjoyed my stint on Deckard’s Dream, but that really seemed like cheating – it was pretty easy – but very satisfying – to conjure up a crazily epic soundtrack to a yet-to-be-made space opera!

Are there any machines in the MESS collection you’ve had your eye on but haven’t tried yet?

I kept on looking at the Serge Paperface, and Buchla but didn’t quite have the fortitude at the time to tackle them.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice when you first started what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to ask people for advice. When I started out in the 90s I didn’t know many other people doing this kind of thing and my development was quite slow. Once I started to find a community of people and not be so afraid to ask questions (for fear of revealing how little I knew), I definitely advanced technically and aesthetically. But I still have the bad habit of struggling along in the dark and not asking for help. Luckily the people at M.E.S.S. are amazing I felt more inclined to ask for guidance.

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