John Ferguson

John Ferguson
(Photo: Andrew Brown)

My musical background orbits the electric guitar, but the pedals and multi-effects that are its lifeblood drove me to electronic sound creation and manipulation. Inspired by instability and focusing on tactile interaction my current work embraces handmade electronics, open source software, mobile computing, and lively approaches to music technology. The electric guitar is still involved occasionally, but often balanced in the air and attached to an accelerometer. I studied with Bennett Hogg, Matthew Sansom, Sally-Jane Norman, and Will Edmondes at Newcastle University (UK) and am currently based in Brisbane Australia as Head of Music Technology at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University.

Why do you make music?

I’m attracted to the unpredictability of live encounters with technology and the ambiguous but tactile nature of electronic and digital instruments. The medium of sound has always had more of an impact on me than the visual and witnessing a musician elicit sound from their instrument is the closest thing to magic that I have yet perceived; this makes me want to music. Additionally, the collaborative nature of music provides a constantly changing catalyst for new ideas and experiences.

What music do you make?

Post-digital/electronic music, the ‘what’ is defined by the character of the instruments that I make, the situations that I compose, and the performance scenarios that I find myself in. I use the term ‘post-digital’ to foreground my approach to physicality and to represent a break with any assumption that ‘digital’ might mean dematerialization and disconnection from the physical. I also find the term ‘feral pop’ useful to describe my groove-orientated yet fractured music that combines sounds made using raw electronic components with the compressed and layered-slickness of much pop production. This draws from Bennett Hogg’s (2008) concept of ‘post-vernacular composition’, which is something he defines as ‘developing a practice beyond the confines of the vernacular expectations of that practice’ and ‘making something new with a set of old skills’.

How do you make music?

I make improvised music through lively interaction with systems, situations, and humans. Much of this happens in front of an audience, but various stages of refinement occur during preparation and as part of the documentation process. Overall, I make music quickly and as regularly as possible, usually with a ton of technology. The music often seems most interesting when the system/technology is relatively new to me; this is something I can only perceive after the event by editing (and sometimes recomposing) a recording.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

Although I find value in terms such as ‘sonic art’ and ‘noise music’ I do not feel the need to situate my work outside of music. This is due in part to a concern that abandoning a term with such extensive historical connotation and associating with something other may undervalue current contemporary practice, especially when considered from a point of historical distance. Specific descriptors are useful but I feel that broadening the umbrella term is vital, so my agenda revolves around diversifying definitions of musical activity and what perceivers might accept as music.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

My early years playing electric guitar in rock bands that had strong improvisatory elements means that separating my music-making into composer and performer ‘hats’ has never felt necessary. I usually describe myself as a musician or as a post-digital/electronic musician, depending on whether the extra detail seems useful.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

1) Working in a university the cultural context for my work is undoubtedly one of privilege. Although I aim to work within and contribute to communities beyond academia, much of my work does exist in an institutionalised context. Genuinely exciting experimental art and music can in my experience be found almost anywhere, and art/music institutions have a role in supporting this. However, some contemporary practice remains an awkward proposition for many supposedly forward looking institutions, which means that the cultural context is often one that involves (re)negotiating the relationship between freedom and tradition, this brings some tensions, but many opportunities. 2) Music from the other arts: I am excited by the evocative motion of Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculptures, the environmentally attuned work of artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Cath Keay, and by the media fetishisation of Christian Marclay. These artists make me contemplate the relationship between material/context and wonder at the seemingly interactive nature of simple automated systems, they also inspire me to consider time, duration, and longevity, which has informed my instrument building practice and my approach to site-specificity. See http://www.transmogrifier.net/

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

Curiosity, adaptability, and a willingness to experiment.

How would you approach the notation and analysis of digital music?

T

o represent digital music I consider digital audio a most useful form of notation, though the visual component of a digital movie may reveal more about music created or performed in real-time. In terms of what I use in preparation for a performance this can range from a graphic score or lead sheet, to a poem, or a few notes that indicate rough timing of important structural events, but most commonly there is no notation or score as such. From my perspective analysis means to ‘consider in isolation’, and usually I don’t find abstraction and examination without context to be useful. It could be said that my approach to exploring the tacit knowledge in a musical work and the practices that created it (digital or otherwise) is based on active immersion in and exploration of a field of activities, often leading to the creation and interpretation of a new artistic work. In truth this means that my initial explorations of various techniques and technologies have often been based on what later turns out to be misconception, but oversights or misappropriations offer great starting points for creative work! [I firmly believe that music is so much more than the sound that it makes and thus remain suspicious of much analysis that seems to me to focus on what music sounds like rather than what it is, what it means, or the techniques that created it].

To what extent do genre concerns influence the way you work?

To a very limited extent.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

It’s gloriously unstable and open to constant re-negotiation.