Reel music

IF you’re driving around York, you might see a bloke quietly sitting in the middle of a field with a 1970s reel-to-reel tape recorder.

It’s not Mick Molloy filming an Australian version of Mission Impossible, but local musician Simon Charles, who likes to include the sounds of nature in his music.

An in-demand composer and sound artist, Charles has performed all over the world including festivals and concerts in Los Angeles, Berlin and Oslo.

Blending traditional instruments, field recordings and other-worldly noises, he creates a beautiful, minimalist and at times eerie palette of sound – imagine the soundtrack to Solaris (2002) meets Philip Glass.

His 2020 work KISS KISS KISS – sparse, fragile and unsettling – was inspired by a short film by graphic artist Tadanori Yokoo.

• A Nagra IS recorder

“I wrote it on Noongar Ballardong country in the townsite of York in Western Australia,” Charles says.

“York is situated between two small mountains, which can appear like two-dimensional surfaces in certain lights. Walking through the town on sunny days can feel like moving through ukiyo-e imagery.

“This piece is part of a broader practice that explores relationships between music and place. There are no overt connections between Tadanori Yokoo and the townsite of York. However, there are some connecting threads that may be teased out through comparison.”

One of his favourite weapons of choice to do field recordings is the Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder, a portable high-quality analog device that was popular in the 1970s.

“Although using reel-to-reel tapes is somewhat against the grain, I love the sound of the Nagra in particular because it used to be the industry standard for film and TV, so there’s a kind of uncanny nostalgia and familiarity to it,” Charles says.

• The York scenery that partly inspired KISS KISS KISS by soundscape artist Simon Charles (below).

“A few years ago, a fledgling artist in Melbourne, I would follow Pauline Oliveros’ practice of deep listening, which basically involves finding ways to become more deeply absorbed in sound and listening. For me, this involved listening to environmental sound, especially in open areas that allowed for a tuning into a sense of distance. It was a little bit like a crude sense of echolocation, attuned not only to sounds, but their resonance across a landscape.”

Charles says he is inspired by pioneering electro-acoustic artists like Luc Ferrari.

“Ferrari’s work has such an interesting compositional approach, which allows space for whimsical encounters and is meticulously structured and considered,” he says.

“I’m interested in artists that can pose questions to your listening – that can pique curiosity.”

Right now, Charles is busy getting ready for his upcoming electro-acoustic performance at the Kinds of Light concert series in Fremantle.

“For my performance, I’ll be mixing together various recorded media, played from reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes and other sources. If all goes well, I’ll also be playing harmonium live, admist recordings of harmonium, environmental and acousmatic sound (sounds for which the origin is not clear),” Charles says.

“I’m planning to do something fairly composed. I’ve done many performances as an improviser on saxophone or electronics, however this time I’m thinking about using longer stretches of audio, which are inherently fixed and are leading me to think more about how these materials can be organised in a more linear way.”

Charles will perform at Kinds of Light at PS Art Space on Pakenham Street in Fremantle on September 8 at 7.30pm. Also on the bill is young Perth-based composer Lara Pollard. Tix at


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