Panos Couros: A designer of life’s soundtrack

Panos Couros is one of Australia’s foremost sound artists and composers, SHU LOW takes him on to find out what sound he makes.

“What will I do for the rest of the year?” Loud gushing sound of Kastalian Spring water follows as if in ritualistic cleansing. Then the ethereal voice of Pythia answers, “Prepare for improvement or change, it is a time to improve your present state. Success will be achieved with what you plan, experience success; it will clear the way for the new…” A mystical song sung by seven women’s voices emits with dreamlike resonance from each of seven two-metre high ceramic urns surrounding a smaller urn on raised platform. From here, the voice of Pythia speaks, in Panos Couros’ 2005 interactive sound installation Omphalos.

It wasn’t a struggle, reflects Couros, I think it was an achievement that I could move from such a singular vision of experimentalism to the thing I despised the most, which was pure commercialism…

Born in Adelaide in 1960 and now based in Sydney, Couros whose parents came to Australia from Greece in the late 1950s says that Omphalos took four to five years. This included traveling to Delphi to study the work and record the sound of the Kastalian Spring. Couros is an artist, sound designer, composer and arts producer. He has been teaching Sound Construction at the College of Fine Arts (COFA) since 2003.

Earnestly relating the origin of electronic music to a class of digital media students, Couros played on iTunes Karlheinz Stockhausen’s famous Gesang der Jϋnglinge (Song of the Youths) composed in 1955-56 that beautifully harmonises sung tones with electronically generated tones. Playing also snippets of his own compositions, the enthusiasm of Couros, the artist-educator, is at once contagious, inspiring the student to create her own compositions, opening up the fascinating world of “sound art”.

Couros has always had a music and arts background; his parents made him learn the piano when he was young, which he did “reluctantly”. He started playing the guitar, and played in a band while at university.

In 1983 he took a half-year course in audio engineering with the South Australian School of Audio Engineering, which opened his eyes to the possibilities of sound: “… sound was more than just playing music; you can go into a studio and make the studio the instrument. And since then the studio has been my instrument, rather than the guitar or the keyboard. Because I don’t just play music, I put the music together, like we do in sound class.” Passionate about the arts, Couros has worked as a video artist and has exhibited video works. But sound has always been his form. “My ideal interest”, says Couros thoughtfully, “is a complete sort of multimedia live performance environment. But the thing that I do within that is the sound.”

Describing his work, Couros says, “…sometimes I’m a sound designer for a theatre project…on the other hand I get a fair amount of commercial, corporate work…to put on a promotional event or a ball or an awards night…sometimes it involves composing sound to an intro video…sometimes it involves composing complete new music…in the true art world a lot of people would say – well, that’s not really art, because it is commercial. Personally I take it using all of my creative skills to produce that…”

Much as Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt’s famous sounds give life to blockbusters like Pixar’s Wall-E, Star Wars and Indiana Jones series, true artistry is not confined to non-commercial arenas.

The fine artistry in Couros work is evident in his varied projects; beside sound installations like Omphalos, his work include theatre sound design for Angels in America Part 1, Singing the Lonely Heart and Relics (directed by Alex Galeazzi); dance scores Helmet and Thwack (choreographed by Garry Stewart); as well as CDROM sound designs for Proeternatural (by Michele Barker) and Dream Kitchen (by Leon Cmielewski and Josephine Starrs).

What are the differences between his earlier and recent works? “My earlier works were really experimental… I came up with lots of sound that was very difficult to listen to… I picked an idea, and experiment with it, and I didn’t care whether people like it or not…” Describing the difference, Couros says, “… now I have a project, I have to work towards achieving that. Not only do I have to please myself, I have to please an audience, and often, someone who has commissioned and paid me to do it. So coming from that really wild experimental background, it’s been quite a journey for me to get to that commercial point…”

Does the commercial aspects get in the way of the artist’s creative expression – a struggle of the opposites? “It wasn’t a struggle”, reflects Couros, “I think it was an achievement that I could move from such a singular vision of experimentalism to the thing I despised the most, which was pure commercialism… in my own work, I do the same that I’ve always done. When I do a piece for our class, I’ll do it again. I’ll just start with an idea and I’ll do something experimental…”

Providing a glimpse into Couros’ experimental work is his interesting ambient piece Against the Flame, created “from a recording of my gas heater, interrupted by a text message from my phone and embellished with the sound of false teeth dropping into water”. One can never quite guess what actually goes into producing a sound piece, music or sound effect and the inspiration that creates it. In an interview archived on FilmSound.org, Ben Burtt says that his Star Wars “lightsaber” tone is created from the “wonderful humming sound” of projector motor combined with a microphone picking up a transmission from behind a TV set, a sound he stumbled upon by accident. A most inspiring work can be created from the most ordinary everyday sound. That’s the beauty of sound art!

Of his work as Program Manager at Casula Powerhouse, Couros says the main part of Casula’s program is cultural diversity, “…allowing people from a non-Anglo background to come in and have a place to practice… to create a real sense of cultural diversity in the arts in Australia, not just Sydney.” In 2009 Casula’s whole program is “under the one question – What is Asia?” There will be two exhibitions about Vietnam – Vietnam Voices is about the aftermath of the war, and Nam Bang! is about the residual effects of chemical warfare during the Vietnam War.

“We are commissioning a wide range of artists – some are Vietnam veterans, others are Vietnamese, to make comments on that whole experience”, he says. Mentoring young curators to take on “that whole cultural diversity aspect” is another area that Casula is looking into. “We want to move away from just concentrating on your ethnicity to actually being in a space where you understand that multiple aspect of cultural diversity and then you can start being a curator from that point”.

As Couros speaks of his work in the arts, be it at Casula Powerhouse, in community arts or as film festival director, one can sense his enthusiasm and dedication. And when it comes to his work in sound, there is this spark of passion that one could almost see. The fine artistry in his work and his ebullient enthusiasm towards sound will continue to inspire others to chart their own journey through the fascinating world of sound.

Check out Panos Couros’ work at http://panx.podomatic.com/ and his more experimental pieces at http://panx.podomatic.com/

Shu Low  is a Master of Digital Media student at UNSW’s College of Fine Arts (COFA).