Essays (book reviews)

Ecstatic Sound
by Robert Lloyd
(Australia, 2022)


This is a book in search of a sound. Not a single sound, but an ideal sound: a vibration, an emotion, a special configuration in time and space. The origins of this sound, and the intuitions of it, come from many places: buried in early childhood (music heard, books read, something seen on TV), but also constantly fed and reformulated by encounters along the road of life. The tinkling bells on the necks of animals in a field can offer epiphany, in this regard, as much as a grand live performance of an ambitious, multimedia work in a concert hall. The anonymous busker on a street corner might offer the same spark of illumination and pleasure as a great rock band or orchestra at the peak of their careers. An arresting phrase spoken by a friend or a stranger, an unexpected word of appreciation or encouragement from a star like Arvo Pärt: any of it can set the wheels turning.


Robert Lloyd is a celebrated composer and performer of music. One might have encountered his work in many sites: on disc, live solo performances, multimedia pieces involving dance and projections, online (he has a generously large YouTube channel), or (if one is old enough) from the band scene of the 1960s in Melbourne. He is based in Australia, but has travelled far and wide. Ecstatic Sound is a montage or mosaic of vivid experiences that lead to a provisional conclusion (provisional, for the journey is never over) on its final pages.


The overall concept of this book is to show that everything I did led me to choose to become a creative poet composer. From then on, I was completely focussed on creating my own work in my own way.


So we are presented with the stages of this journey. But their order is not given to us chronologically. This is the book’s most delightful surprise: it does not dutifully trudge through early life, family background, education, first gigs, and so on – a flatly teleological structure that deadens so many autobiographical memoirs. A reader can even be a bit pleasantly confused (as I was), now and again, in trying to fit (in one’s mind) the various facts and experiences recounted into a more conventional ‘developmental timeline’: what instrument did he learn to play first? How did he pass from the rock/pop/jazz scene into avant-garde experimentation? When did the fully assumed “creative poet composer” phase exactly begin?


Lloyd’s prose, and the way he organises it, wants to seduce us into another way of thinking about such questions – and it richly succeeds in this mission. The life he evokes is one of constant movement, sensation, inspiration; chance possibilities open up, surprising invitations are issued, diverse paths are explored without any necessary immediate outcome. All of that “adds up” by swirling around beyond the strictly linear guide-rails of historical time, being installed in one place, or following hierarchical programs of institutional training. Influence comes from everywhere, and is stored for use right now or much later; we never know which seed will bear the ripest, richest fruit.


So we pass, in the blink of a montage-eye, from Australian city centres to parts of Europe, India, Bali or the USA; some projects come to fruition in a finite period of time, while others linger, not quite accomplished, as future possibilities. The sights, textures, smells and sounds of the most exotic places are vividly rendered in Lloyd’s word-pictures (oddly, Melbourne and Sydney come off rather bland and featureless by comparison!). Meanwhile, as a constant but salutary undercurrent throughout, we are gently reminded of certain material realities facing any artist: work, money, budgets, grants, deadlines, limits, accidents, maintenance of instruments. No matter what version of paradise Lloyd sometimes finds himself in, there comes a “time for movin’ on”.


Robert Lloyd cuts a fine figure, in these pages, as a sort of avant-garde troubadour, a restlessly experimental singer-songwriter ready to drop down a hat on a street corner or jam on any old stage, but also keen to grasp, translate and concretise the vibration of higher, cosmic spheres. One piece of advice that he reiterates is loud and clear: hold on tight to your vision and interpretation as much as you possibly can; don’t bow to compromise, or the expectations and demands of others. Find and forge your own hopefully long, winding road. Time will repay you.


There is something undeniably abstract in books about music – especially when they restrict themselves to words on a page rather than branching into some multimedia package of image and sound. In fact, multimedia, in the richest sense, is a goal Lloyd often evokes in these pages, as he describes visual accompaniments to live musical performance, or the process of editing a video (he has scored work by critic-artist John Conomos, including the video Aura [2004] and a radio piece on Robert Bresson, Cinema of Solitude [2001]). But this purely literary abstraction is an important part of Ecstatic Sound, and one key to its magic.


Lloyd describes just enough of his practice and his dream – rhythmic constructions, the harmonic vibrations of instruments and halls, ensembles of diverse instruments – that each reader is able to hear whatever she or he imagines. There is something spiritual about this ideal sound that he asks us to inhabit, each in our own way. In this regard, Lloyd’s creative memoir deserves to be read alongside Warren Ellis’ Nina Simone’s Gum: A Memoir of Things Lost and Found (Faber & Faber, 2021).


Something that struck me in this Self-Portrait of an Artist is its subterranean theme of aloneness. Lloyd consistently portrays himself in an intense state of solitude, picking up the vibes and working things out within his own thoughts, memories and impressions – even when he is travelling in the company of others. At one point, he even explicitly comments on having ‘nobody to talk to’ about the turbulent inner process of change he undergoes in relation to conceptualising sound and music. There are cherished friends and colleagues who dip in and out of the story, but the sole artist-as-creator is front and centre at all times. A curious result of this tendency is that aspects of Lloyd’s personal, intimate, family life tend to get occluded, or take at best a minor, secondary role. Names of two children (one of them is accorded a brief testimony about his Dad) and perhaps four wives/partners zip by in tactful, allusive mentions. Yet, near the end of the book, Lloyd asserts – perhaps in unconscious compensation – that:


My life wasn’t divorced from my creative work. Sitting for days at the desk with guitar in hand can be very frustrating, looking for the right chord, sound or phrase. Not to mention how fulfilling one’s relationships are! 


Not to mention: a psychoanalyst could have a field day with that turn of phrase!


Ultimately, however, Ecstatic Sound is a book that knows its own purpose and direction: it is not an exhaustive autobiography, but the selective account of a life hitched to the star of making, creating, performing and imagining music. The ecstasy conjured in its title is both liberating and ascetic: it demands as much as it gives. No matter which type of sound you are personally into (or against), Robert Lloyd generously offers us a deep, soulful impression of what a musical life entails.


© Adrian Martin January 2022

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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