What's New?
The PoD Roundtable
moderated by Bill Shoemaker

What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.

The panelists for this roundtable include:

Tony Buck Tony Buck: Raised in Sydney, where he attended the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music and made his start playing jazz with both Australians and Americans like Clifford Jordan and Ernie Watts, the percussionist has spent years in Japan (where he led Peril, with Otomo Yoshihide), Amsterdam (where he had a residency at STEIM, the electronic music studio) and Berlin. He is most well-known for his work with The Necks, which Eugene Chadbourne has described as “something of a pain in the neck to those who dislike minimalism.” In-depth information about Buck can be accessed at: www.thenecks.com.

Jim Denley Jim Denley: After studies at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, Denley began to work primarily in improvised music after meeting violinist Jon Rose in the early 1980s. A lengthy residency in London beginning in the mid ‘80s leading to his forming Embers with Chris Burn, John Butcher and Marcio Mattos; his subsequent regular travels to Europe led to his forming Lines with Mattos, Martin Blume, Axel Dörner, and Philipp Wachsmann in the mid ‘90s. For the past decade, Denley has documented his work on his Splitrec label. His most recent CD, Through Fire, Crevice + The Hidden Valley is reviewed in this issue’s Moment’s Notice. Consult www.splitrec.com for more information.

Anthony Pateras Anthony Pateras: Pursuing music in what he calls “pre-meditated and intuitive creative contexts,” the Melbourne-based Pateras composes notated music as well as improvises on prepared pianos and electronics in a number of settings, including the Anthony Pateras/Sean Baxter/David Brown trio, a duo with Robin Fox, and the electro-acoustic sextet, Twitch. His notated music has received performances from prestigious orchestras and ensembles in Australasia, Europe and North America; his recent works commissions by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra feature Pateras as a soloist on amplified prepared piano. His solo prepared piano album, Chasm, has just been issued on Sirr. For more information, visit www.anthonypateras.com.

Clayton Thomas Clayton Thomas: A founder of Sydney’s NOW now festival of improvised music and leader of The Splinter Orchestra, a 30 piece electro-acoustic ensemble, bassist Clayton Thomas studied with Henry Grimes, Peter Kowald and Wilbur Morris. He has performed internationally with, among others: Tony Buck, Marilyn Crispell, Jim Denley, Axel Dörner, Hamid Drake, Makigami Koichi, Jon Rose, Alexander Von Schlippenbach and Sonny Simmons.

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Bill Shoemaker: Granted, using nationality in any way to identify artistic movements is problematic; but, given its size, its distance from Europe and North America, and the vigorous self-reliance that Australians are generally portrayed as having in abundance through mass media to the rest of the world, it would follow that Australian improvised music, its polemics and its political history would be somewhat different than the European endeavor to clear the shadow of American cultural hegemony and the American project to create a viable counterculture. From your respective vantages, what have been forces driving improvised music to its current state and status in Australia and how has your work been informed and propelled by these ongoing processes?

Jim Denley: I don't want to play up the nationalist issue because I think wherever you live in the world you have deep internationalist influences and commitments, and also cogent local influences, priorities, histories and commitments. It's almost what our job description is in this 21st Century. Make a music that reflects our current reality, you live in local communities and also an international one -- in fact I'd say that improvised music is possibly the music methodology that has been and will be best placed to deal with this. Ultimately we have to show it is not a dichotomy or a dilemma.

While it would be true to say there was much that influenced me growing up in Wollongong in the Illawarra, Australia, that would have influenced John butcher or Xavier Charles, it's also true to say that there were then, and are now, differences. We could hear on disk anything we wanted to get our hands on, but we could rarely see those things live, and the live acts that I was deeply influenced by, the northern hemisphere has no knowledge of. For example, as a teenager, Teletopa, a noise / impro group formed by David Ahern (after his experience working with Scratch and Cardew in England) was in retrospect, my most important influence. It was just as radical and exploratory as other similar groups of the era operating in the UK or Roma. I heard a tape of this group last week, (for the first time in about 35 years) and like other great Aussie groups (the Necks) it has particular flavors that I recognize as being from this place. How you articulate those flavors is interesting and difficult.

But I think there are other potent influences in how you conceive of music that are harder to define. The land, the sea, the air, the birds, the animals, - the sounds of Australia - are different to the sounds of other continents. Australian religion believed that the spirit of a place entered you at conception. I can't avoid the power of the places that inhabit me.

If then we strive to make a life of honest and intelligent musical play and toil, that spirit will become manifest, whether we like it, strive for it, or not.

There is also another factor - we are aware of our provincial status in the world, politically and culturally. We are bombarded with media that has a strong northern hemisphere centric view of the world, and we react with and against that. Some of us want to play like Jap noise, some like Euro free, sometimes we are for LBJ and some are against Bush's war. Some of us want to create a new accent, to differentiate us from youse.

Clayton Thomas: In the six years that I have made improvised music my life, my wife Clare Cooper and I started the NOW now, organized close to 500 concerts of experimental music in Sydney and eventually came to realize that Australia has an improvising history and identity - but that came later. If anything, the independent, self reliance and counter cultural identity that Free Jazz / Improvised musics present and inspire resonates with something deep in the Australian experience. The isolation specifically, and of course, the proximity that every improviser in the country has to Jim Denley shouldn't be discounted.

When I found the music, I couldn't go and see it live anywhere; certainly it was a long way off my radar. The ethos of the music forced the action, and fortunately we were isolated enough to believe it might work.

I think we are lucky not to share the baggage that either the North American scene or its European counterparts have - the butting heads between identities and visions and the protection of cultural rights and the attachment to ideas. We are free to follow our ears and ideas alone.

Tony Buck: I feel that Jim’s comments are pretty succinct and on the mark and can’t think of too much to add really … however….

I often feel very strong influences from the places I find myself, almost to the point of feeling like my very approach to making music is different depending on where I am. I have felt this happen to such a degree in my playing that I have come to believe there must be a kind of “geographical resonance” that can deeply affect what one is compelled to do. It only goes to follow then that the influence of this ‘sense of place’ is even more profound in the place where one lives and develops as a musician. I guess being in Australia can’t help but exert quite an influence on one’s vocabulary and language. I do feel this is a totally subconscious thing however, and is probably best left as such.

Having said that, and as Jim so eloquently stated, there are so many other things that can influence and inform ones music and the music of a community.

Desire to react against other models or conform to them in this ‘global’ age is a big one, no matter where you are from.

Contrary to what Clayton has said, however, in the last few years on my trips back to Australia I have found, at different times, the specter of European, American or Japanese models hanging over the music of some improvisers in Australia to such an degree that I feel their major concern might be to emulate or fit into these modes or approaches above all else. Perhaps this is a reflection of the ‘zeitgeist’ or simply a following of trends and fashions, (the former being perhaps seen in a more positive light in relation to art than the later..), but it might equally reflect the often talked about sense of cultural inferiority some in Australia see in relation to Europe or America in particular. I consider these still quite real aspects of Australian culture and quite the repository of long held ‘baggage’ of ‘cultural cringe’ in the Australian mentality.

So, while it might be true that there is some improvised music coming out of the country that seems to draw on a sense of place and specific national influences that subconsciously seep into much of the music; I see equally the massive influence of international styles, movements and trends and an apparently huge desire to fit in and not to be seen as out of step with what is ‘happening’ ‘overseas’.

I don’t see this desire to fit in as a greater problem than it is anywhere else, and any overly self-conscious attempt to create a music in reaction to this isn’t, in my mind, any more or less valid, but, there are still only a few musician I am aware of in the contemporary scene that seem truly concerned and comfortable with being aware of the world around them while developing an individual, personal voice, regardless. This desire to fit in with the rest of the world then, I would say, is as much a very real driving force in improvised music in Australia, as is the influence of the place itself.

I don’t want to seem down on Australian improvisers, and I think there are some amazing musicians in the country, but I don’t quite hear a specific national character emerging from the music quite so much as I hear about it.

Anthony Pateras: Perhaps one of the factors fuelling improvised music to its current state in Australia is a widespread reaction to the negative aspects of living and working here as a free musician.

Firstly, I’d have to question your definition of Australia as self-reliant. Is Australia actually portrayed as self-reliant to the rest of the world? In my touring experience the world knows nothing about Australia apart from the obvious clichés about kangaroos and Ayres rock. When I went to LA last year all people talked about was how Steve Irwin had just died.

It’s a strange place in that the island mentality had led us to be very much reliant on the outside for guidance with economics, politics and culture. We’re in Iraq, our economic policy is based on the worst aspects of UK and US governments, most rock bands dream to “make it” in America, and many classical music institutions see the ultimate goal as achieving recognition in Europe, playing European music. Insecurity is rife across the board.

Mass media here is the collective dregs of other continents richer than us. The institution’s idea of high culture is still European classical music, opera, and film. Popular music played by commercial radio is, for the most part, disgustingly derivative, mostly from American and British culture. When it swings in the other direction, to overtly “Australian” (whatever that is), the level of self-conscious backslapping reaches perverse proportions. Our versions of the American film and music awards (AFIs and ARIAs respectively) are more embarrassing than their northern hemisphere predecessors – because they are so obviously trying to bestow a level of global importance on the work which happens here which it doesn’t have but desperately wants.

The few glimmers of creative hope which do achieve a level of artistic interest in the popular sphere generally dumb down or sell out because we don’t have the population or public infrastructure to support unique artistic practice, such as in Holland or France. Additionally, the US system of private foundations or donors is not practiced broadly, although it does exist in some pockets here and there – albeit reserved strictly for high art – George Lewis and John Zorn, both experimental composers AND improvisers (gee what’s next?!) wouldn’t receive a genius grants in Australia, for example, whereas someone who is composedly enough would, if you get my drift – none of these dirty improv types. The divides are sill strong in the institution’s eyes, although not necessarily with many of the artists.

A cynic would say Australia seems to be on the whole, ashamed of its own artists, unless they make it elsewhere first, in which case they are embraced wholeheartedly. If it isn’t ashamed, it treats them shamefully – we have no fee structure for creative musicians or composers that anyone in their right mind could rely on to make a living. The arts budget is amusing at best, although we have seen in many cases (big festivals, visual arts biennales), that good funding doesn’t necessarily mean good art. However, it is very depressing when one can play a festival to 200 people here and then get paid a lot better in a European club playing to 10. Something about the practice is fundamentally undervalued, and musicians are treated accordingly.

Anyway – on the positive side, this makes for a great national experimental arts community. People keep going, and make great stuff.

Regardless of all of the above, we have an extraordinary history of sonic experimentation in this country which is a story widely untold. Improvisation, composition, and electro-acoustic music has somehow survived and flourished. Look at Jack Elliott, Percy Grainger, Keith Humble, David Ahern, Clifton Hill Community Arts Centre, Ross Ballotter, Machine For Making Sense, right up to the insurgence of practice which came with the What is Music festival, and then the Now now, which we are still enjoying today. Even more encouraging is the amount of younger artists, both male and female, which seem to be appearing ...

Within the aforementioned political and bureaucratic gloominess, musically at the moment there are people in Australia making some of the most unique and powerful free/underground/experimental/whatever music in the world, How did this happen? I love the fact we are so far away – perhaps that makes our work more rigorous – we don’t get to travel as much due to the cost so we have no choice but burrow away in our studios. There are musicians all over the country, whom I consider some of the finest improvisers and experimenters working today – easily on equal footing with anyone from the traditional centers of free music in the US and Europe. And hardly anyone outside, let alone within, Australia knows about them. I strongly recommend anyone reading this to check out if you haven’t already: Robin Fox, Sean Baxter, Candlesnuffer, Carolyn Connors, Chris Abrahams, Will Guthrie, Anthea Caddy, Thembi Soddell, Natasha Anderson, Vanessa Tomlinson, Greg Kingston, John Rodgers, Erkki Veltheim, Dale Gorfinkel, James Wilsinson, Ross Boletter, all of the other people contributing to this discussion, the list goes on…I would strongly hesitate to identify an Australian sound. It’s indefinable, the only common factor being that everyone does their own thing – there’s never been a movement per se…from my perspective there have been times where the influence from Japan has been strong during the peak times of the noise and onkyo movements, but within the free music scene nowadays everyone’s generally holds their own. There does seem to be a general increase in confidence amongst ourselves, although of course I can’t speak for everyone. We don’t pander to overseas trends - although many musicians have an intimate knowledge of music and music history, and thus are influenced by their knowledge – the most insane record geeks I know come from Melbourne and Sydney. This is the flip side of always being on an island looking out – we’re hungry for more than we have so we obsessively buy and research music. This of course helps when you are trying to write music which hasn’t been done before...

In terms of my work, I discovered improvised music with Machine for Making Sense coming to play at my university in 1997. The most important thing about this gig for me was to know that this music was happening in Australia, NOW. Before that, I was completely unaware…I mean, sure I’d heard stuff from other places, but the concert led me to research and explore the lineage of this stuff in our country. From that, I was generally more influenced by Australian practitioners – Robin Fox had a job at LaTrobe for a while archiving experimental music from about 1974 onwards – he played me a lot of the stuff he found – early tape/electronic works, improvisations, compositions. I started going to the make it up club, which was founded by Will Guthrie – this was my weekly fix of everything – I went religiously from about 2000-2001. I started buying records again (I’d stopped for years) – I was happy about music again. So I would say I have been most directly influenced by local produce, so to speak, although I have tried my best to discover and keep discovering old and new things from around the world.

However it strikes me that at the moment the improvised music world is more international than it has ever been, and its internationalism is what is making it stronger. I’m definitely feeling the influence of great gigs I’ve seen overseas as well as in OZ in the last 12 months just as equally, and tour enough to get re-charged often…so eventually, maybe it doesn’t matter where you live at all, and this discussion becomes irrelevant. You either make a unique contribution, or you don’t! No matter where you live! It’s entirely up to the musician.

Shoemaker: To an extent, each of you has dealt with what the American literary critic Harold Bloom called "the anxiety of influence." He argues that new poems mainly originate in old poems, and that the poet must clear imaginative space for herself or himself through a misreading of the strong poets of the past. Here's a jazz example of what Bloom means by misreading: When George Russell heard Charlie Parker play in the 1940s, he heard Parker's use of the flatted fifth as a sharp fourth. It is that misreading of the bebop lexicon that paved the way for Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept. Is there a central misreading in your respective work that has allowed you to find your own voice?

Pateras: My main misreading, I guess, is that way back when I believed that improvisation had to come from a jazz background. Often when playing around people talk about jazz players or records or whatever, and I have to admit most of the time I’m under-informed in this realm. It's not that I hate the music, I’ve just never played it – it's never been part of my musical upbringing. I was mostly into classical music and metal when growing up, for better or worse) Many people assume that because you play improvisation, your history and playing is related to that lineage. In a way, that’s allowed my approach to be a little different, because I don’t have that weight on my shoulders. I don’t necessarily know what that weight is, but I know in some cases players feel they have to connect with that language in some way when improvising, they can’t just address sound on its own terms.

My improvisational technique is derived from composition and electro-acoustic music. A while back I made the decision to pursue this as a reaction to common conceptions of improv and spontaneous composition. A lot of the time listening to composers improvise is tragic – the main reason for this is because they don’t buy records or go to gigs! They don’t know enough about sound and its possibilities to improvise. “New music” is one of the most stale ghettos of all, and most of the time doesn’t do anyone any favors – composers or performers. I try and surpass that – there are few composers who successfully did/do both convincingly – Fred Rzewski, Cornelius Cardew, Pauline Oliveros, Keith Humble, Misha Mengelberg, Olivier Messaien, to name a few - to truly embrace composition and performance on the same level, with a toe in that world.

You talk about that distinction (composer and performer) to most players and of course its ridiculous, the classical music establishment delineation of roles is a joke in improv, and so it should be. That helps me through shitty ensemble rehearsals when you ask someone to do an extended technique they don’t understand – orchestral players can make a big deal out of such a small issue – but you know within yourself that these people haven’t even begun to understand the capabilities of sound, the valuable contribution to timbral research and performer communication that improvisation has given the world of music in the last 50 years. They obviously haven’t misread the strong poets of the past enough – they’re still at chapter one scratching their heads and reciting the first sentence ad nauseam!

Denley: The question assumes that in some way I understand how my work came to be, and that isn't the case. But...

I did study Russell's theory for a while with the bassist and composer Bruce Cale. He lived in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, (but the bell birds there had a more enduring effect on me that the sharp 4s).

A Chris Mann line comes to mind, "The reason the Twentieth Century was in favor of music is that music molests children." There are many and varied readings of that statement, but I feel that it resonates with me because I was taken by music - it overwhelmed me.

When I was still not even a teenager I lived next door to an English family who were all totally mad about jazz, and Keith, the youngest son was a saxophonist. He introduced me to the Delmark AACM recordings, to Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, late Coltrane and Braxton. (When I was 12 I called my black pussycat Roscoe Mitchell). At a certain stage he thought I should listen to some earlier stuff, Charlie Parker and his flat 5s – Mingus, for example, but I found that to be way too conservative. (The question I ask myself is, was the music on those disks influential or was it the kindness and interest this young man showed towards me? (It's not possible to separate those two things... Even now when I hear the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it is stamped with this idyllic childhood relationship.)

Through the phonograph, we were able to DJ our own lineage. Varese, Hendrix, Berio, Dolphy, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Steppenwolf, Tibetan monks, Messiaen, Noh, Braxton, Ali Akbar Khan, Janis Joplin, Cage, Ram Narayan, Takemitsu, Gagaku, Gamelan, Boucourechliev, Bailey, Evan Parker, Mimaroglu, Henry, etc etc These separate traditions devoured me without much context (I gleaned that Braxton smoked a pipe, but I never knew Takemitsu was short) – and in a sense this was a misreading. But an inevitable result of the technology - and what I thought was suburban Aussie emptiness.

Buck: The only thing I feel I can say about this is that I feel there is no way to
tell if I have misread the music I have been drawn to, whether in sound, context or meaning. Of course, as a white, middle class Australian, I am aware that there are many aspects some musics I have been influenced by, (the American Jazz tradition, for one example, but probably the music of anyone else as well, whether they come from Serbia, Africa, London or Vietnam) that have no relevance to me, or that I have no way to come towards it in certain ways, or even know. I guess that in some ways I am drawn to basic aesthetic concerns over the specific social contexts that I am aware of but had no way to really understand.

I have, however, always been attracted to many different ways of playing music and have been aware of the different attitudes and what I assume to be different concepts and aims in these various approaches to music making. I guess from a standpoint of my own vocabulary as a percussionist, I have always aimed to have as much to draw on as I can (from a musical vocabulary point of view) and have always enjoyed incorporating and mixing approaches into different contexts.

So much of music, either playing or listening is such a subjective thing that I think there is never really one, correct way to read or interpret anything. So in this sense, it is always about misinterpretation... (Any interpretation is valid)

I know that in most of my music making activities, I like to make contributions that, while hopefully not vague, are quite open to interpretation, abstract, suggesting aural illusion and hopefully setting up a myriad of possible actions and reactions, interpretation and misinterpretation, allowing the music to spin off into surprising directions.

Thomas: Difficult question without the hindsight of death. Though, to try, I do think of a few basic flaws of perception, over doing someone's advice or believing 'the free jazz politic' might in some ways account for certain paths I've taken, but I don't know that anything I'm doing at the moment comes from misunderstandings I'm able to objectively account for. So, unless I turn my back on trust and faith in the future and decide that what I now believe in was a giant lie, I'm OK at the moment.

With that in mind, what I take from Harold Bloom within my own musical example is that he is talking about ideas that resonate within the individual in the act of making art in the shadow of those we follow - I do believe William Parker's bass floats, and that my strings are too high because of it.

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