Site and Sound: NASxCON

Site and Sound: NASxCON

On December 3 the Cell Block Theatre will host Site and Sound: NASxCON, the culmination of a collaborative creative project between NAS sculpture students and improvisation students at the Con, using a dialogue of music and art to improvise original works. This remarkable exchange has sparked positive connections for the students of both schools during a year that kept people apart. NAS is proud to present the results of their combined inspiration. Sculpture lecturer Dave Horton explains how the project happened.

This unique creative collaboration between two art institutions began in July 2020, with 15 second-year sculpture students from the National Art School and 15 improvisation students from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. The Con students each created an improvised piece of music which they sent to a second-year NAS sculpture student, who improvised a sculptural work in response. Images of the sculptures were sent back to each music student, who continued to improvise around their original music. This dialogue could go between the two students as many times as they wanted until the due date for the works in October.

When the project started, NAS and the Con were not open to the public due to Covid, so the students had to communicate remotely. They got to meet in person in October, when the Con students came to NAS to play their improvised music among the artworks in the sculpture studio. A final performance will take place in the Cell Block Theatre at NAS on 3 December.

NAS Sculpture Lecturer Dave Horton, who instigated the project, talks about how it happened.

Dave: This improvisation project, which we started in July, began with a chance meeting in 2019 with Kevin Hunt, head of improv at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Kevin and I met at Eveleigh Works where he improvised music on anvils with blacksmith tools. It was amazing. Once I found out what his position was at the Con, I pitched the idea to him and he was keen.

NAS students in steel and metalwork are improvising a work in response to the piece of music they’ve been given. That means they’re not preconceiving an outcome, not designing anything or making sketches or models, they’re going straight into the material. Each decision informs the next decision until they get something that approximates that sense of the music.


So you’re showing them how to deconstruct the music?

We listen to it and I get them to make two columns: factual, so that might be high here, low there, fast, slow, lyrical, spacious, that sort of thing; and emotional, like is there a melancholic feel in the music, what are the aural facts giving us? Then they get to choose how they want to respond. Some students are quite prescriptive and really think about the timing and rhythms and the melody, all that sort of stuff; some are making a piece that infers more of the emotional content.


Do you have a connection to music?

I play a lot of music as an amateur, a hobbyist, but I did my Masters on the relationship between music and sculptural form, so I’ve got a background in how to do it.


When you introduced the idea to the students were they keen?

Very keen. I think they liked idea of collaborating with another artform. We’re so visual art-centric here but there’s a whole lot happening in other institutions which is still a form of artmaking. To engage with other practitioners in another artform is pretty refreshing.

They also like the idea that they’re exchanging the sculpture for the music, so they gift the sculpture to the music student, and they get the original piece of music in a recorded form, which is just for them. So it’s not just doing an exercise, I think they appreciate that this is for someone else.

The due date of the work is October 13. We have done the course work on it, but now their work on it is extra-curricular. It’s finding time to jump into the workshop here and complete the works between their other classes, with an ongoing dialogue with me but also with the Con students.


So the students keep responding to each other’s work?

Yes it’s a dialogue, going back and forth.


How many times?

It’s up to them, but they’re being encouraged to keep it going. So any changes in the sculpture they show the Con student who then keeps improvising their music in response. Hopefully it’s not an overbearing dialogue but takes on a natural conversational quality.

The students from the Con and NAS also have to keep journals, documenting their progress and the different incarnations the music and sculpture takes on.


How has it been compared to your expectations?

Pretty good. It’s always a mix. Some people can handle improv, some can’t, they need to have that element of control. So for the students that handle improv very well, they’ve got good results and have been able to experiment and play. Some of the students who are perhaps a bit more design oriented are not as successful.

At the moment the works are in a developmental stage, the metal surfaces are still not honed. The surface is not an arbitrary thing, you need to consider it – is it a colour, is it painted or are you going to allow the natural material to shine through? You’ve got to make those decisions.


Any students who have struggled at first then had a breakthrough?

It’s probably the case for all of them, because you’re introducing a whole art program at this point in second year that is a completely different way of working. It’s like working without a net, you can’t just be workmanlike, you have to be awake to what’s happening, and you end up with things you never expected to make. Even psychologically making that shift is difficult for any student so I think they all struggle with that but then the penny drops and they’re away.

It’s been going on for six weeks. It started with me doing a presentation at the Conservatorium about sculpture to their students, talking about the nature of space in sculpture, and the movement from figuration to abstraction. We also Zoomed it to our students back here, but their students got to understand more about sculptural context.


You’re encouraging them to have a dialogue, is there an end to it?

October 13 is the due date for the project. What we were hoping before Covid was there would be a performance in the Cell Block Theatre, with students from the Con performing their pieces, not just solo but with groups, quintets or quartets, and that’s the moment when the exchange is made. We will also try and show the visuals on screen so there’s music and image at the same time, but that’s still to be decided.


Is this a one off?

I want it to be ongoing, I think it’s enlivened this part of the course. One of the best things about the steel sculpture program is you can make a sculpture really quickly but it’s also the worst thing about it as well. It’s easy to make something that looks like a sculpture but has nothing going for it. This is a way of focussing the students to not just make something self-referential or that just looks like a sculpture.


What are music students getting out of it?

Exposure to a different form of creative expression they hadn’t considered before, understanding of sculpture as a temporal artform not just static form. One of the things I explained to them is how if you’re moving around a sculpture it’s changing, like a moving image, therefore it’s a temporal engagement, just like music.

I think this would work with a whole range of things – a physics department at a university could make an amazing contribution to a school like NAS. I think art institutions should do more of this, rather than be inward focussed. There’s a whole world out there and heaps of specialised knowledge that can be used for what we do.

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