Very rarely on a website for a music education program would you find a range of classes as diverse, exciting and out-of-the-box as those that Sound School have on offer. At Sound School, a free electronic music school that aims to educate artists existing in the margins of society, students can learn to ‘turn plants into musical instruments, turn light waves into sound waves, make music from code (and) make a synthesiser think it’s Mariah Carey’. Sound School’s workshops are facilitated by local electronic musicians, eager to share their knowledge around synthesis, audio production and engineering and Ableton with a cohort of students ranging from complete beginners to seasoned musicians looking to expand their electronic music practice. We chatted with the school’s founder, Bridget Chappell, to find out what exactly makes Sound School so unique and important in the landscape of electronic music education.
Why is Sound School so important? What kind of gap are you filling in music education?
Music is everyone’s right. Things that make electronic music exclusionary also make it boring as hell. So you could say Sound School is taking on the white tech bro industrial complex. Melbourne is full of incredibly talented electronic artists, many of whom have to fight hard both to be heard for the music they’re making and not just as a diversity box tick, and to be heard at all. At Sound School artists can step into the role of mentor and share the knowledge they had to work pretty hard to get with the next generations of people making electronic music on the margins – women and girls, people of colour, queer people, people with disabilities. As a participant, you wanna see yourself in the people you’re learning from, and you want them to explain things to you in a more empathetic and radical way than old mate sound engineering dude guy who snorts at you for not understanding what a balanced cable is. It’s really hard to learn in an environment where you’re already looked down on, so of course you can’t ask questions or make accidents happen, which is how we figure stuff out! This is why we seem to be resonating with so many people – because way too many people have these kinds of experiences. People’s feedback is incredibly heart-warming and totally urges me to keep going when I’m 6 spreadsheets deep and have forgotten there’s a workshop at the end of this admin tunnel – hearing that Sound School has been a healing experience, and has changed their relationship with electronic music or even music at all, is amazing.
Who is Sound School for?
It’s for anyone who would like to go behind the decks, on stage, into a gear shop – or even watch a YouTube tutorial on electronic music – but might be made to feel like maybe they shouldn’t be there.
What kind of skills can be learnt at Sound School? What kind of gear do you work with?
We cover both a lot of electronic music 101 kind of stuff, and more experimental practices you don’t really find in mainstream programs. Some workshops are all ages, some are youth-specific (based on the venue – we’re lucky to work with some really nice youth centres like Phoenix in Footscray, Fitzroy Clubhouse, and Signal). This year we ran long format courses on DJing, synthesisers and hardware, sound engineering and Ableton at Footscray Community Arts Centre. But you can also learn how to do field recording, make your own synth, circuit bending, sampling, DIY MIDI controllers, how to make noise music, no-input mixes, abstract turntablism, how to make gabber and breakcore – all kinds of stuff. We run heaps of one-off workshops on top of the continuous courses. We have a big emphasis on experimentation and horizontal learning – every participant learning and teaching together, with the facilitator there to guide everyone through and suggest ideas. There are a lot of pretty amazing moments during workshops. Electronic music is already so unorthodox, in that most people are relatively self-taught and so use the tools completely differently – so it’s pretty special getting to watch that unfold in the classes. In synth classes I like showing people how to get the KORG MS-20’s external signal processor to make the synth sing along to Mariah Carey. Everyone grabs the aux cord and makes this weird 70’s technology sing along to their phone, it’s very cute.
Gear-wise we try to use a lot of stuff that people might have easier access to – how to get the most out of cheaper, accessible equipment. Of course it’s really nice bringing a Juno into a synth workshop so everyone can try it out but it’s also cool learning how to make a MicroKORG sound like a Juno. With software like Ableton we talk about different avenues to accessing licences, and also teach with free software like Reaper and Audacity – both very underrated programs (laughs).
Who are some of the most exciting up-and-coming artists you have met through Sound School?
Eden Swan (https://www.facebook.com/iamedenswan/) came through our synth program at Footscray Arts and is an amazing producer and performer. Many of the folks I was lucky enough to teach/learn with in that program have shown themselves to be real geniuses on hardware electronics! Our showcase at the end of last year featured two synth grads Elham and Sarita who formed the group Khoharanas (a mashup of the words for “sisters” in Farsi and Spanish) and made the best hardware electronics set I’ve seen in ages. DJ Girlfriend, who came through our DJ program last year, has been getting rave reviews. When she plays a darker tech set she goes by DJ Ex-Girlfriend (laughs).
Sound School is also really nice in that a lot of folks who are maybe more established in one area of electronic music come to learn about another discipline – Cloudy KU (https://www.facebook.com/cloudykuofficial/), who is a cool DJ both here and in Taiwan came through our sound engineering program, which she said has been good for helping her navigate male sound techs at gigs who can easily make you feel patronised or challenged as an artist. She is a star student (laughs) – she comes to everything early and helps us set up!
Do you think that electronic music in particular appeals to people existing in societal margins? Why is there so much power in electronic music as a political platform?
I saw a good hat recently that said “Make Techno Black Again”. So much electronic music history is rooted in people living under oppression, and their work speaks to their resourcefulness and innovation.
What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start making electronic music but had no idea where to start?
If you can borrow a synth from someone, I think it’s really nice to just sit in bed with it. Not playing in front of anyone – workshops are great, but of course it’s way more relaxing to just take it home and hang out with it. If you come to Sound School and wanna borrow something, just ask! We lend gear out all the time.
We’re working towards opening a gear library this year so it’s more streamlined. But I really encourage people to take stuff home. If you can get a demo version of Ableton on your computer, that’s a good place to start too. Or a Zoom recorder – start by recording the world around you and see how it makes you listen to things differently.
How can people get involved with or support Sound School?
If you have an idea for a workshop hit us up! A lot of what we do behind the scenes is sitting in dark rooms with only the light of Google Drive on our faces and it can get kind of boring so if you are a freak who likes admin we’d love to hear from you. Also freaks with cars that like driving gear around – a lot of the gear we use in workshops is borrowed from mates and half my life is driving around picking it up. If you have gear to lend we’d love that too. Even better, gear to donate! If you’re involved in a wheelchair accessible space that could host us for an event let us know. We had a complete legend who did work experience with us this year, so if you’re a high school student and would like to do that with Sound School that’d be great too.
What’s next for Sound School in 2019?
The gear library is a big goal; we’re hoping to open it mid-year. We’ve got a year-long, weekly workshop series at Phoenix Youth Hub running during school terms, kicking off at the start of February. We’ll have monthly workshops at Yarra Libraries and Signal – and no doubt many other venues. Check the calendar on our website to see what’s coming up – there’s a mailing list on there too.
Follow Sound School