‘This comes directly from my knowledge of Australian history’: Amby Downs on decolonisation through ambient noise
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11.09.2023

‘This comes directly from my knowledge of Australian history’: Amby Downs on decolonisation through ambient noise

WORDS BY JOSHUA JENNINGS

There are manifold things to say about Amby Downs.

It’s an outback Queensland pastoral station believed to predate the 1860s. For interdisciplinary artist Tahlia Palmer, it’s also the pseudonym she releases ambient/drone/noise soundscapes under.

“My musical pseudonym comes from one of the pastoral stations my Murri ancestors worked on, most likely in servitude,” says Palmer.

Keep up with the latest music news, features, festivals, interviews and reviews here.

“I chose that particular station because I was told that many of their records burnt in a fire. I wanted my musical name to function as a reminder of my family’s post-colonial relationship to that area — a reminder of how many Aboriginal people were forced to live under the pressures of European settler society.”

Palmer, a decolonial artist of Yuwaalaraay/Koamu and European descent, who lives in Narrm/Melbourne, makes place-based recordings that function as a mechanism to process trauma and undo colonisation of mind, spirit, and body.

Amby Downs is a marriage of field recordings, distorted sounds and cavernous reverberation pools that are illustrative of history, identity and connection to Country.

 

According to Palmer, her process of making sound works as Amby Downs is dependent on a system of controlled chaos.

Ordinarily, she stitches together manipulated field recordings and samples that capture specific situations, environments and connections. She also stretches things further by layering in loops of different timings, chopping sounds up, and moving audio around until she intuits that the feeling she has achieved is the right one.

“I want the listener to get lost in the atmosphere,” she says. “The pieces do not tell stories in a linear musical narrative. They tell a thousand things and non-things at the same time – multidimensional ways.”

Recently, Palmer released the highly meditative longform recording Looming change/Building fabric.

The track, a collaboration with Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter and producer Steve Gunn (commissioned by Art Gallery of NSW in 2022), was the pair’s response to a painting by American minimalist and conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

LeWitt’s enormous wall drawing, Loopy Doopy (red and purple) 2000, is installed in the Kaldor Hall on the ground level of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ South Building, and reveals the influence Australian central desert painters had on his practice.

“I was completely absorbed in fine-tuning the sounds I was making that spoke to my own relationship with the concept we were working with – especially regarding how LeWitt was influenced by First Nations painters such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye,” says Palmer.

“Steve took control of weaving our sounds together as a composition, and from what he described to me, he absolutely worked in a meditative state while creating it, which was a deeply respectful nod to what he learned and experienced when he worked under Sol LeWitt as an assistant.”

Amby Downs came to life after Palmer recorded soundtracks to accompany a series of short films.

Since then, she has expanded her oeuvre of ambient noise projects widely, focusing heavily on expressing anti-colonial frustrations and encouraging decolonial thought and being.

“I don’t really mind what order people find out about my intention vs listening, but I’d prefer it if they had at least some understanding before delving deeper into my work after the first time — if their attention is held for long enough,” she says.

“I feel it is important that listeners understand that this comes directly from my knowledge of Australian history; my family experience is just one of many varied encounters with the variety of ways colonial violence has played out on this continent, and I use it as an example from which people can learn about this reality.”

Palmer is performing at the Substation on Saturday September 23, alongside Minnesota powwow artist Joe Rainey. Rainey, a member of the Red Lake Ojibwe Indigenous peoples of Minnesota, is heading to Australia for the first time on the back of global acclaim for unique compositions that feature a mix of powwow field recordings, samples, and Rainey’s kinetic powwow voice.

With the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum imminent, the show is taking place at an eventful moment in Australia’s public discourse.

“It’s definitely an interesting time to be an anti-colonial artist, when so much discourse rests on how grateful we should be to be ‘recognised’ in the colonial constitution,” Palmer says.

“I don’t think it is right for it to be happening at all, because there was no true consensus from the entire Aboriginal population of this continent about whether or not we actually want this advisory body, but it will be the non-Aboriginal population who decides the outcome of the referendum regardless of what we want…

“I could go on forever about this issue…. Given the current political climate, I guess my upcoming gigs and film presentations could be interpreted as unofficial propaganda for the Blak Sovereign Movement because of the conversations I hope to stimulate.”

Amby Downs and Joe Rainey perform at the Substation on Saturday September 23. Tickets here.