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Ones to watch
featuring Zak Argabrite

In this series ‘Ones to watch,’ we catch up with an up and coming composers to talk about their latest work, what drives them and to find a bit more about them. Nina Lesperance from SOUNZ caught up with Zak Argabrite to learn about his mahi.

Tell us about yourself and the music you write. (Instruments you play, special interests,how long you’ve been studying, what you hope to achieve with your work, influences,musical pet peeves, etc.)

I am a composer and sound artist based in Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington. I grew up playing jazz, funk, blues, experimental, and classical music while also persuing an interest in visual arts. I’m currently working on a PhD at NZSM, focused on using recycled technology for performances and installations, that also respond to the lifecycles of that technology. I’m interested in the origins of natural materials used to make technology, their journey through the manufacturing and consumer stages, and where they’re likely to end up. Even ‘new’ technology already has a long history because it is assembled from extracted land from many different places. Today, most new technology is no longer made to be repairable if it breaks. There are toxic chemicals that are difficult to recycle and end up back in the land as e-waste in landfills. I hope that my work will inspire a deeper understanding of technology as something that lives, breathes, and has an ongoing relationship to our land, water, and air.

Tell us about your work in this year’s NZSM Composers’ Competition.

My piece 5 Episodes is about the lifecycles of electronics but also actually uses discarded audiovisual technologies as instruments by extracting new sounds from them, recognising their potential for new life.

This piece is a solo work that I composed and performed. I have a collection of discarded electronics on stage with me including old security cameras, old radios, some old video editing equipment used by TV broadcasting schools in the 1990s, and a Casio keyboard that I play faced down with the back panel taken off so that the internal circuits are facing up. I also use stock footage based on the lifecycles of electronics, including mining, manufacturing, and waste processing, that I am remixing and projecting live. Because I’m working with such a wide range of devices while also creating most of the sounds and visuals in real-time, it’s a busy piece for me as a performer. Another element of the piece is my own version of what others have called ‘circuit-bending’. I use metal wires to electrically connect parts on a bare circuit board that weren’t originally designed to be connected. I do this with the opened musical keyboard I mentioned earlier to find new or altered sounds and rhythms in the keyboard. I use this in the intro and outro of the piece to alter a sound that is built into the keyboard, labelled “forest”. Unaltered, this includes synthesised bird calls and water sounds. However, when I alter the circuit in certain places, those sounds transform. At the end of the piece, I take all but one of the wires I’ve added off the circuit. The water sounds of the opening come back, but this time the sound is distorted, as if it has been polluted.

How do you go about creating a new piece? Could you describe your process?

My process changes with each new work. I’ve written for acoustic instruments, orchestra, big band, created installations, web art, and custom instruments. Each of these require a different approach, and letting my process be flexible allows me to grow as an artist and as a person. I only take on projects that I can put my whole genuine self into, and that always stays the same. As part of that, at the beginning of projects I do a lot of journaling and drawing in my sketchbook for each piece. This helps me get into the rhythm of externalising my creativity and form an idea of where my creative voice is at in that moment.

For 5 Episodes I started with the idea of a piece broken into five sections (hence the title). Each section would connect to a different stage in the lifecycles of electronics: extraction, assembly, distribution, disassembly, and waste. I sketched an audio track for each of these sections as a way of finding a ‘sound’ for each stage, and did the same for the video elements. In between edits, I showed it as a pre-recorded online performance at Ars Electronica in September. I then created a live performance version of the piece. The creative process for this piece involved a lot of ‘recycling’ of creative material from each version, in addition to all the literal recycling of electronics involved.

What aspects of your piece are you particularly proud of?

This is the first work I have made that reflects all elements of my PhD research. I am proud of myself as a performer in this piece, given that I have taken several years off performing to focus on composing. During lockdown, I realised how precious live performance is, and this is my first solo performance since then. This work is also the culmination of many things I have been working towards for a long time. My interest in old electronics for music-making goes back to when I was around 13. I used to spend weekends searching for old toy keyboards in thrift stores, opening them up to find extra sounds by exploring their circuit boards. I was hearing synthesised sounds on records, and this was a cheaper way for me to explore these sounds than buying a synthesiser. Through my later experiences as an improviser and composer, I have come to realise that I’m interested in forming close relationships with the instruments or physical things involved in my art making, and not as things I just ‘use’ or ‘control’. For me, whether it’s a cello or a discarded circuit board, I’m collaborating with it — like another person — not controlling it. It’s not about figuring out what it can or can’t do. Like a person, I’m trying to get to know it, who it is, where it comes from and where it might be likely to go in the future. The music or art comes from nourishing that relationship. I’m proud of this piece because it feels like another step towards that goal and that process is something that helps me understand myself better: who I am, where my roots extend to, where I might be going.

What projects do you have coming up?

A webart piece I co-created earlier this year with composer/digital artist Becky Brown is showing at Piksel Festival in Bergen, Norway this month. I’m excited to have the opportunity to perform 5 Episodes again later this month in an expanded form at play_station space, one of my favourite local galleries. Then I’ll be working on an installation for next year’s Performance Arcade in February. This will be in collaboration with Rushi Vyas who is an amazing poet, artist and friend. I’ve also been building some special radios/sculptures/props for an upcoming theatrical work by composer Celeste Oram that will be performed around Europe by Ensemble Adaptor. Of course my biggest upcoming project will be to finish my PhD over the next year and half!


To hear Zak's work, head to his website below