An interview with Simon Kong

Originally published in Writing Around Sound #3

The 3rd Resistance was Christchurch-based DJ, sonic artist, and rave veteran Simon Kong’s electroacoustic installation project, which operated within the context of the the outdoor rave scene of New Zealand’s South Island. The project sought to subvert the normative functioning of the rave environment and to explore the expanded soundscape of the rave. Writing Around Sound talked to Simon about this project, as well as his involvement with the experimental music scene in New Zealand and his sonic arts installation practice.

How did the 3rd Resistance begin?

In the first instance, the 3rd Resistance was a response to operating in a ‘subversive’ environment that had started to form norms. I had participated in the rave scene for a long time, DJing, sound system engineering, organising events, being a volunteer, and then after a while I realised these are all very traditional methods for being involved in a scene. When I first got involved in rave, no one asked permission, there were no allocated roles, and people just did stuff! As it became more defined I started to get really bored at parties. I had been involved in raves since the early 1990s, putting on big festivals and smaller raves, and over time they were starting to get really formulaic.

Initially it was a really free-form environment, and you could just set stuff up how you wanted. One of the things we were doing at the time was experimenting with sound system design: surround sound, sound systems with four stacks or more, speaker placement in circles, squares, or ovals, that kind of thing. But then I started getting into arguments with people who would say to me: “this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, it should be all at the front”. This is only four or five years into it, and they’d already forgotten that rave culture was about abandoning the conventions of rock and roll culture; the band on stages, speakers at the front, everyone facing towards the band.

These are all the things I thought we left behind: there was no alcohol, there was no timeline, set times weren’t clearly defined, you often didn't know which DJ was playing as they might be obscured from sight. But then five years later suddenly, it was like we need a light on the DJ, the DJ needs to be raised, the speakers need to be at the front, set times on the hour, certain types of music at certain times of the day. It just became more programmed, more structured, and more defined.

So it was as a response to these emerging norms in rave culture that 3rd Resistance emerged?

Before the 3rd Resistance was the 3rd Space. It had got to a point where people wouldn't let me DJ, because I played weird stuff like jungle at 33rpm when it should have been 45rpm, or deep house at two in the morning, when everyone wanted peak time.

We used to have ambient spaces or chill-out zones at most of the raves as the alternative space to the main stage. So I used to play those a bit, playing Tangerine Dream, jazz, spoken word and other things, though increasingly people weren’t booking me.

Not being involved formally on the organisational side anymore, and increasingly not being offered DJ slots, I just thought: I know these environments inside out; I know how they are constructed and how they operate. The first time I did the 3rd Space, I didn't ask anyone, I just turned up, waited until it was dark and plugged into the generator and set up my space. This first setup was really simple, it was just a little tent, with a couple of speakers and a multi-disc CD player on random, and we just let it play. It was a mix of field recordings, spoken word, electroacoustic music, and ambient.

There was the main zone and the ambient zone and the 3rd Space was halfway in between, which was actually dictated by the length of my extension cord. There is this effect produced as the soundscapes from the main zone and ambient zone intersect, and I was adding another layer in on top. The beauty of raves for me was once you got outside of the main area, you got all these really interesting complex soundscapes.

For me, from years of going to parties, those sonic events became more interesting to me than standing in front of the speaker, because DJs are often just really monotonous, and once you listen to a lot of dance music it becomes very predictable, once you understand the themes and the motifs.

Because I worked in that environment, I was spending Thursday to Sunday between clubs and raves for every weekend for at least ten years. Over time what started to happen for me sonically was that it became less about that moment, and more about this extended spatio-temporal soundscape. I spent a lot of time standing outside sound systems, and I would just tune out, so it wasn’t about the jungle DJ playing that track at that time, but rather the sound of an hour and a half of jungle as one kind of arc, and as you get farther away, you start to hear the broad pulses on the sound systems. Or you start to hear the deficiencies of the sound systems, like bass bins that distort at 83 hertz (Hz), or the compressor. A lot of the time I would lie in my tent and you would hear the compressor going on and off as the DJs drop the bass, and that would be the most noticeable sound. Sure there were different melodies, rhythms, etc., being played but it’s like a truck break when you live by a road; you hear all the traffic but when the truck break kicks in, you really notice it.

I became more interested in this outer space, and I guess no one was explicitly exploring it, but at the same time I think everyone was subconsciously aware of it. Once you start adding a third sound, you’re making that space apparent. So a whole lot of things started to come together once I started to put sound into that space. And I started looking at theories and concepts and techniques that people had explored that related to this space.

So you were trying to highlight or emphasise something that was already there, but latent?

It’s subliminal; people don't notice it, because it is not the focus — as people think the DJ and the PA are the focal point. But what actually constitutes the event as a whole is this much broader space. So I was interested in trying to pull people out of the dance floor and into this other space.

How did the 3rd Resistance function on a technical level?

It was really simple. On a basic level, it is just a microphone, an amplifier and a speaker. It’s just feedback. You’re taking the sound of whatever is happening and augmenting it, amplifying it, and playing it back in the environment in which it originated. It’s like a sonic mirror. But from there you keep changing it up: more microphones, speakers, delays, and reverbs, or another type of audio input.

You were often taking line-outs from the different zones?

Essentially we would just try and introduce as many random sound sources as possible and make the environment as sonically alive as possible. If you think of the DJ as one sound source, and he or she are in control of all that energy, as soon as you introduce one microphone, then the audience in front of that sound system become an input and part of the main event.

It strikes me that you were using these electroacoustic techniques and technologies to invert the foreground and the background, or dilate the focus of that environment?

The whole delay and reverb thing is to stretch the space-time of the event as well. It is a classic acoustic effect I suppose; echo, the voice being played back. Echo and delay in a deep evolutionary sense reproduce the experience of being in caves.

So suddenly the environment was live. And when you add this to a multi-zone rave, with really loud sound sources and feedback loops within it, you get this psychoacoustic effect, because your hearing is attenuated to these high sound pressure levels. So if you yell out to your friend, and you hear this echo, you’re like: “did I actually hear that, is that an echo, or the music or ...?”

It seemed the 3rd Resistance attempted to disrupt this normative level of functioning and offer the audience different ways of engaging with the effect.

Yeah, I mean there is a dark and noisy, disruptive side to it, but you also get these moments, that are very melodic or harmonic, where suddenly everything starts to tune in. When you've got multiple sound systems you’ve got this very proud soundscape at a low level, and get rising harmonic tones; it’s like the sun rising, and everything sort of lifts off. There are some very interesting sonic effects going on: you get this scale thing happening and lots of small sound sources coming together that can make this really huge soundscape.

You’re often amplifying small sounds massively and using quite large sound systems?

Later on we were using 10 kiloWatts (kW) of sub, to do sine waves. You are talking about parties where there is 30-40kW of PA pumping out dance music, so I can put 10kW of 30Hz into it, and it just disappears, it vanishes, until suddenly something drops out. This is where I love the scale, you would be in front of this PA, and all of a sudden the DJ would drop out and there’s 10kW of a 30Hz sine wave coming at you from 90 degrees and 200 metres away. That for me was trying to get people to engage in sound systems and get into how dimensional they were; how much sound energy was going on, the spatial aspect of that energy.

I suppose there is something almost architectural to the sound system, in that it effectively produces space.

Yeah, for years I’ve experimented with sound system design. To me there is a political statement between stereo - two stacks at the front - and four stacks in a cube, or six stacks in an oval. To me it is a political statement, in that they actually form very different physical spaces. It is a structural architectural statement in itself, irrespective of the content that’s being played through it. The physical resonant environment is fundamentally different than simply stereo at the front.

In the context of experimental music in New Zealand, it strikes me that the significance of electronic dance music is rarely mentioned; with genres such as rock and jazz emphasised as the primary aesthetic and musicological influences on experimental music. At the same time, New Zealand has always had strong electronic dance music scenes, and there seems to have been some crossover — especially in the South Island — with experimental music at large. What are your thoughts on this as an artist who operates in both territories?

I grew up in electronic music and never really played in bands. I’m not really into noisy guitars; I find them quite grating. My lineage is with electronic music, and New Zealand has a really strong tradition of electronic music, which is distinct and unique on a global level and which at its core is very strong. My personal interest in experimental music came out of chill-out rooms and ambient music.

When I started to get interested in experimental music, I didn’t even know there was an established scene for it in New Zealand. I thought I’d put on a night, but then I came across the Borderline Ballroom, and instead of doing my own night, I ended up getting involved and helping with that, providing sound gear and becoming a tech for the scene. I was always blown away at the lack of contemporary technology. I just saw one too many guitars and tape players.

The New Zealand experimental music scene has a strong lo-fi aesthetic, which ties itself to ‘indie rock’ forms in an expanded sense and begets an almost anti-technological approach. For example, the use of laptops is still somewhat looked down upon, while these are almost ubiquitous in experimental scenes in Europe and the US.

Historically, it seems it was people coming off the edges of the rock scenes doing that stuff. While the electronic music scenes in New Zealand are really strong, they really quickly become quite generic, so there isn’t much avant-garde electronic music produced in New Zealand and only now, 20 years later, there is a new generation experimenting along those lines a bit more.

Because I came out of a technologically oriented scene, one of the big things that I noticed coming into the experimental music scene and which I would really love to see more of — is scale (bigger sound systems) and bass (lower frequencies). For example, I started putting subs in at these gigs, and initially people were like: “what do we need these for?” and eventually we had some visiting artists utilising them more. Prior to that because of that lo-fi ethos, it was just a tool that they never considered, and guitar amps and rock PAs just don't go low. But once people see the power of bass, and how interesting having a full frequency range at your disposal is, they start to become interested in exploring it.

Your formal installation works The Beach and All Watched Over by Machines Loving Bass (Audacious Festival of Sonic Arts, Christchurch 2014 and 2015) both employ these techniques of scale and bass and draw on the dance music sound system culture aesthetically and architecturally.

Definitely. And both were playing to this idea of sounds that we hear every day that we don't really notice. The beach simply recontextualised field recordings of a beach into the heart of the city: you don’t really realise how loud a beach is when you’re at the beach. Both work within the noise of the city and in each case you’ve got 10kW of white noise (The Beach), 14kW of bass (All Watched..), and with all the noise present in the urban soundscape you can easily not even notice them.

Apart from those few people that heard it and became infuriated by it!

Yeah, it was quite an aggressive gesture. The idea there is to try to get people to engage with the sound environments they inhabit. The sound of a bus is around 6kW of low frequency, but we never really notice it or question it. The port in Lyttelton can produce massive amounts of low frequency.

Some of those ships’ engines …

Yeah, in a giant floating speaker box. Trains make massive amounts of noise. The layers intersecting in the urban soundscape, I find that all really interesting. And this is the logic of the 3rd Space: we can expand this, we can explore this.