Lucas Abela is a pioneer of the Australian experimental subgenre, and has been a driving force in its scene for decades. He founded experimental music label Dual Plover in 1996 and today continues to create incredible interactive sound and light installations around the world – although he is probably still best known for the grisly work he does with mic-ed up sheets of glass that he plays with his mouth.
Abela is gearing up to bring his latest installation to Sydney Festival next year, this time turning a series of pinball games into interactive noise machines. He explains that the idea came from a previous installation he created a few years ago. “The idea evolved from the Vinyl Rally, which was initially an instrument idea that got out of control and became an installation,” he explains. “That work centres around two old video driving game consoles which are rigged up to control remote control cars so you can remotely control them on a racing track made from vinyl records.”
Abela says he was particularly inspired by how the arcade style format of Vinyl Rally made audiences comfortable interacting with the installation. “Already being familiar with the tools they could get straight into it and play, no instruction necessary,” he says. “I then thought I should continue using arcade formats to take advantage of this but, wanting to steer away from screen culture, my mind turned to pinball – and an image of Pinball Pianola appeared.”
Each of the pinball machines has been constructed differently, with Abela deciding to explore how different aspects of existing musical instruments could be incorporated into the machines. “I didn’t just want to make straight-up pinball games, and thought straight away I should mess with the format’s conventions,” he says. “I started off by making Pinball Pianola, which has 20 flippers presented as a wide smile controlled by a piano keyboard, so you have to explore the keyboard and find the right keys to volley the ball between the flippers and the exposed piano strings.
“This meant making an extremely wide pinball body – something unlike anything the pinball industry ever devised. After that, I made the in-the-round multiplayer machine Balls for Cthulhu, which has a pentagram shaped cabinet formed by ten guitars, played by five people, one at the end of each point. Meanwhile, Flip-off is more a cross between pinball and foosball, and is also a Toecutter remix machine, as each pop-bumper and slingshot in the game also triggers samples of his tracks.”
My installations are mainly driven by my philosophy that noise music is far more fun to make than watch.
The participatory element of his installations is key when it comes to deciding how to create and execute each new design. “My installations are mainly driven by my philosophy that noise music is far more fun to make than watch, so I use them as a tactic to lure people into inadvertently performing noise music,” says Abela. “I create situations for them to play with audio effects that are so fun they forget that at the same time they are doing what they thought they could do themselves, when they first went to a noise concert and accidentally stumbled onto the idea that anyone can do that.”
Outside of his many incredible installations, Abela continues to pioneer what noise musicians can do onstage, in the process creating some truly unique sounds. After all, as anyone who has witnessed the man taking his mouth to a shard of glass can attest, there are few as boundary-pushing as Abela.
But although what Abela does with glass might seem outlandish and strange, for him it was pretty much a natural progression; par for the course for someone who experimented as much as he did in his early career. “Throughout the ’90s I experimented with a lot of ideas for sound creation, instrument building being a large part of the noise music culture.
I see the glass as a magnified stylus that I vibrate with my mouth instead of a groove.
“Most of what I was doing revolved around the turntable, which is where I started with the typical bedroom experiments teenagers do, cutting up records and drilling holes in them for fun. Anyway, my needles evolved into knives and my decks into industrial motors and so on, until finally I stripped the instrument down to the bare essential element of the styli. Which is how I see the glass: to me it’s a magnified stylus that I vibrate with my mouth instead of a groove.”
Recently Abela and American experimental outfit Death Grips revealed they have been working on a collaboration together. Abela explains that he had known Zach Hill previously, but is cagey on when we could expect to hear the finished result. “I did a set with Zach in 2010 when he was in town with the Boredoms so earlier this year, seeing I was passing through his home town of Sacramento, I dropped him a line asking if there was any possibilities of getting a show there. There wasn’t, but instead he said I should come by the studio and record some stuff for Death Grips.
“Now this is a little embarrassing but at the time I had no idea who Death Grips were,” he continues. “So as I set out from Oakland I decided to take a listen to some Youtube clips and was amazed not only by how good it was, but that people were viewing the clips in the millions. They were popular! The session ended up being great: they had a PA set up, so it was more like doing a private gig than a recording session.”
Try Lucas Abela’s archaic pinball creations for yourself at next year’s Sydney Festival; his award-winning Temple of Din will be exhibited from Friday January 5 to Sunday January 28.