Journey Within

Ross Bolleter
Ross Bolleter                                                          Susan Murphy©2008

The music history of this country is written with a cringing agenda and read in a state of amnesia. Let’s take a history of a definable music, let’s take electronic music for example. What are the guiding issues for such a history? There are two reasons: If it’s any good, it can’t have originated here; and, no one really likes it anyway. Now let’s re-write that.

One might start it in 1872. The Telegr aph line is finished linking Adelaide to Darwin and Australia to the rest of the world and with it the first transmission of electronic signals in the southern hemisphere, The Aborigines through whose land it passed, heard these and they heard something else new. They called it the Singing Line due to the Aeolian effect of the wind on the single line cable. What a great inter-media event – you got electronic music and the invention of environmental art, about 90 years before the word was coined.

The first transmission of vocal and instrumental music from Melbourne Town Hall to South Melbourne Council Chambers via telephone occurs six years later.

In 1893, Percy Grainger conceives of his free music – a music of gliding tones which would not be realised before his experiments of the 1950s and the inventions of such analogue synthesizers as the Moog and the VCS3 in the 1960s.

Classical and ragtime audiences hear violinist and inventor, Henri Kubelik on the vaudeville stages in Melbourne and Sydney in 1914. “As he played the fiddle,” according to one account, “his ‘Kublophone” transmitted electronic signals mysteriously around the auditorium.”

Experimenting with Radio station 5AA, Mr. J. W. Hambly-Clark cut his own Edison type cylinders in 1992 as he played violin solos and broadcast these by placing a telephone carbon microphone down the throat of the long phonograph horn speaker.

Jack Ellit invents a Musique Concrete style of collage using cinematic film stock in 1932 – this went on in the cultural isolation of Australia 20 years before the French got hold of the idea.

The July 21, 1947 edition of The Music Maker Magazines reported that “Glenn Marks is very busy with his projected ‘electronic Orchestra’ with which he hopes to startle the Sydney multitudes shortly. The idea is that the actual instruments of cellos, violins and piano emit no sound, but electronic devices pick up the vibrations, convey them to a central mixing control panel, where they are coordinated and blended before passing on through the amplifier, thence to multiple speakers”

Australia’s first solid body Electric Violin is built by Lynn Johanson in 1948 for his brother Eric, who designed the electronics and pick-up. It uses a standard magnetic phonograph cartridge that has the steel needle in contact with the underneath of the bridge creating a direct vibration pick-up rather than any soundbox and microphone.

One of my favorite stories is about Eric in a radio studio, waiting to perform solo. Another band was performing and Eric was just playing around with their tune thinking no one else could hear him as his violin made very little noise unamplified. However, he was plugged into the radio station's system and the guy on the mixing board saw a sound input and turned it up. He liked what he heard and turned it up more, making it a dominant sound on the performance of the other band. Well, the station phones rang hot about how much they liked that violin with the band - the band were furious that their playing was overshadowed by another performer that they never knew had been playing over the top of them!

Is that post-modernism or what?

The School of the Air was officially opened at the Flying Doctor Base on June 8th, 1951. What has that got to do with electronic music I hear some ask? Shortwave radio produces all the sounds associated with analogue electronic music – white noise, ring modulation, phasing, delays. You name it, it’s got it. So hundreds of outback kids grew up listening to electronic music on a daily basis. They may not have particularly appreciated the fact that their radio sets went brrrrzzzzaaaawwiiiaaaagegegegegege but as Arnold Schoenberg pointed out: “Neue Musik beim angfang ist niemals so schoen” – new music is never very nice at the beginning, inferring that if it is, it’s probably not new.

A Silliac computer, under the guidance of John Bennett head of physics, plays music at The World Conference of Automatic Machines, at the University of Sydney in 1953. When the computer played the University Anthem as a Death March, the critic from The Age reported that it “sounded like a refrigerator defrosting - but in tune.” I like the sound of that! According to John Whiteoak, that was the beginning of computer music performance possibly anywhere.

This has all happened in Australia and we are not even up to the official beginning of electronic music, which many commentators put at 1958 with the premiere of “Poème Electronique” at The Brussels World Fair. Somehow in the USA, the Silliac type of computer technology ended up as the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer at Princeton University in 1958, utilized by such luminaries as Milton Babbitt. In Australia, we had to wait until 1999 for that machine to splutter into life again to be heard. I’ll let you figure why that should be.

Audio wave forms and magnets are used by Stan Ostaja- Kotkowski and Malcolm Kay to control the world’s first home made video synthesizer in 1964. That is imagery being controlled live by electronic sound. (Thanks to Stephen Jones for that piece of information.)

In 1972, dancer Philippa Cullen, engineer Philip Connor, and composer Greg Schiemer produced electronic music whereby the movements of the dancer on stage played a synthesizer controlled by homemade Theremin technology. If you think about it, sonic sensation is only possible through movement.

The world’s smallest 100 watt amplifier and multi-speaker system was made by Don Mori in Sydney in 1977. Each unit was custom made for the customer. Disaster struck when the down pipe that Don used for the casing was changed from imperial to metric requiring the whole circuit board to be rebuilt. Buying a Mori amp had certain difficulties. If you put your amp in for repairs, there was always a good chance, that on your return to pick it up, you would find that it had been sold to some other customer in the queue. Don’s reply would be ‘Never mind I’ll make you another one’ or ‘Look mate, I’m not a bloody corporation’.

The world’s first sampler is produced in Sydney in 1979 by Peter Vogel and Kim Ryrie, but at $50,000 a unit it is soon displaced by cheaper copies, leading to commercial death by 1986. It’s about the only digital invention whereby Australia is known throughout the music industry. Rock stars still hoard them; it’s among the grand obsolete objects that you find left hanging about in the corridors at the ABC – aging homeless technology.

These items that I’ve listed are all precursors to the digital age of music and have led to such things as MIDI controlled instruments, interactive systems, MAX & JITTER, and the ubiquitous iPod. Australians you might say moved from being innovators to consumers.

If you were growing up on Industrial noise and Disco in the 1980s, you would write your electronic music history to include bands like SPK, Severed Heads, Makers of The Dead Travel Fast, and their arty equivalents in Melbourne…all dreaming of becoming famous pop stars no doubt.

If you were a student or academic in the 1980s, you might write about how La Trobe University music department became a centre for experimentation in electronic music…and about how it got closed down by a philistine management.

I’m sure that do-it-yourself couple Joanne Cannon and Stuart Favilla who have developed their own hybrid instruments, including a laser light harp and the giant digital Serpent, without much help from anybody, could write a story of frustration and neglect.

Another history of electronic music might include the innovations of Percy Grainger, Tristram Cary, Keith Humble, and Don Banks – but then you would be adhering to the more official line.

My point is that you can and should research and write your own history – if it has content, it will ring true. It might also provide the materials with which to challenge the future. Throughout the 1980s Rainer Linz self-financed and published a regular NMA music journal, articles and books – all of which presented an alternative paradigm for the development of an identifiable local music. The many issues of self-reliance dealt within those pages demonstrated a desire and passion for experimentation in the face of official mediocrity. Decades on, they make an interesting read of the future.

Attempts by Australian composers to incorporate a sense of place and ‘Aboriginality’ into European music have always been awkward affairs. In 1834 John Lhotsky arranged an Aboriginal woman’s song from the Monaro Plains of NSW for voice and piano. Isaac Nathan attempted the same kind of thing in 1849. Forcing non-tempered music into equal tempered scales was bad enough, but the simplistic harmonisation of indigenous music demonstrated imperial ignorance at its worst. Unfortunately the situation didn’t really change for the better. The forcing of Aboriginal song and instruments into the western straight jacket has continued from Clive Douglas, through John Antill, to Peter Sculthorpe. ‘Jindyworobakism’ started out in the 1950s as a literary notion determined to make an Australian tinged style of writing. It became used to describe the above composers and others who dabbled in Aboriginality to flavour their orchestral cooking.

In 1923 however, music critic Henry Tate pointed us in a useful direction when he postulated that “(t)he Australian composer, searching for native peculiarities to build a national music upon, must soon give attention to the very essential matter of striking and characteristic...bird calls, they supply us with an unfailing reservoir of varied and charming rhythms… when we have ears to hear them, we shall reproduce with effect the internal pulsations of our Australian music.”

Except for a short piece by Nigel Butterley no one seems to have taken much notice, amazingly not even after Messiaen’s visit in 1988. In addition to the dormant Homo Sapiens, Australia has several species with extraordinary musical abilities that should be standard knowledge and repertoire. This is Music that does not exist anywhere else on the planet. An Inter-species musical understanding, if not a praxis, is still possible – we haven’t quite killed them all off yet. But with GM crops about to be introduced into NSW and Victoria – we better get a move on.

To quote Robert Fisk: “The duty of an artist is to place imagination on a higher level than history.”

So how do we line up with that notion?

Maybe we should look to musicians rather than composers to take tradition to a new level or at least radically altered context.

Instrumentalists have already done this. What is Aboriginal Australia’s greatest contribution to new (let’s use that horrible word) art music world wide? I would argue – the technique of circular breathing and voice additives to create multiphonics. The brass and woodwind virtuosos that have sprung up since the 1960s would be diminished indeed without these sonic wonders firmly planted in their chops: Evan Parker, saxophone; Jim Denley, flute; Leigh Hobba, clarinet; Heinz Holliger, oboe; Vinko Globokar, trombone; Melvyn Poore, tuba; Conrad Bauer, trombone; Axel Dorner, trumpet. The list must be in its thousands by now.

Yothu Yindi may have come closest to generating a new form or genre, mixing trad Yolgnu songs of the Gum-atj and Rirra-tjingu clans with (balanda) whitefella rock music, but the re-mix of their hit record “Treaty” was formulaic dance music complete with excruciating multi-kulti video. I don’t think it represents a new form – and by now where niche marketing demands a new style name with just about every released album – it probably doesn’t matter. Mandawuy Yunupingu’s resulting initiative however – The Gama Festival – is something to be truly proud of and is the kind of on going vital, cultural event where music at least is considered valuable.

In many ways the story of the piano in Australia has come full circle. The first fleet piano of George Wogan has never been found and was probably eaten by white ants within a few years of it being dumped at Sydney Cove. What happened to countless other keyboard instruments can be found in a few private museums such as Albert Fox’s The Musical Village near Melbourne; and Margaret McDonald’s collection of between 400 and 500 keyboards at Nowra, New South Wales. It is also suggested by the work of Perth piano player Ross Bolleter. Ross has become a specialist in performing on ‘the ruined piano’. These are instruments that are prepared by the actions of an extreme climate and/or human neglect. So the continent of Australia has had its say about the piano, the climate has simply destroyed the vast majority that were ever sent here. In recent years Ross has started a piano sanctuary at Wambyn Olive Farm WA, where these bastions of western culture can live out their remaining years crumbling to the tune of gravity and the odd cyclone coming in off the Indian Ocean. Bolleter’s use of history to make new and poignant music is exemplary.

Other music has arrived in the ‘now’ through equally compelling circumstances. Drum and Fife music was probably the most utilised Gebrauchsmusik played by the British military on arrival at Sydney Cove and it was used to punctuate speeches, toasts to the King, orders, floggings and hangings. To say the music inhabited the physical would be an understatement, bloody and corporal would be a better description. A few years ago as part of the Australia Ad Lib survey for the ABC, I came across Chris Nightingale alias “the whistler” playing dance music on his tin whistle and various percussion instruments attached to his legs at Central Station. Chris plays whistle while running for up to four hours at a time on the spot. This is exhilarating music, not to say exhausting, the flute sound is full of overblown harmonics… one notes the Drum & Bass influence on his rhythmic patterns. This is what he said about his demon whistle and percussion act. "The running on the spot and the jumping up and down causes those extra little harmonics to pop out unexpected like, purging my body, purging my mind – I still smoke rollies though"

Here is a model of how an Australian artist might live their life today.

Her name is Roseina Boston, she is a Gum-bayun-girr elder from the Nambucca Valley. Her Aboriginal name is Wanangaa which means "stop" because she was so hyper active – she still is.

Born under a lantana bush on Stewart Island in the Nambucca Valley in 1935, her grandfather's brother Uncle George Possum Davis was well-known for his Burnt Bridge Gumleaf Band in the 1930s, by the age of eight she had aquired an excellent gumleaf technique. When you meet Roseina, within minutes you are aware of a polymath, as she recounts the travels she has undertaken to find the correct location of her dreamings; shows you the paintings with which she has documented these totemistic experiences, all interrupted by bursts of gumleaf playing – a rich sound with extrovert vibrato reminiscent of the soprano saxophone of Sidney Bechet. Her repertoire includes bird song mimicry – and the most extraordinary rendition of a Kookaburra that these ears have ever heard.

And since mimicry is fundamental to indigenous, avian and whitefella culture, why not own up and stop pretending that composers trained up to act like little Mozarts are somehow going to avoid this. And let’s not call it post-modernism, the art of quotation and mimicry has been around since the beginnings of music itself. Mimicry is a transforming technique, it doesn’t just lead to tribute bands, without it we wouldn’t even have the western canon…I digress, back to Roseina.

That’s all very well, she’s Aboriginal, got innate abilities, what are the whitefellas going to do? Is there a white equivalent? Well yes, who do you know that makes up songs, invents musical instruments, can tell a yarn, and can paint? I’ll tell you a bit more, he was a swimming champion in Western Australia, and early work included telling dirty jokes in strip clubs in Canada. His name – Rolf Harris. The ultimate royalist cringer, you might say. I would agree and go further to say that the saccharin outpourings of Rolf Harris – a man with so much natural ability – is proof of the non-existence of God. But you can find many other celebs of natural ability in the field of music who manage to lower our expectations too. Imagine if they didn’t. Traditional societies are loaded with examples where the leaders had to carry the entire cultural knowledge system through song, dance, story telling and visual manifestations. You didn’t get the gig unless you could sing, tell stories and dance the best. Imagine a prime minister or president who can sing – only Hugo Chavez of Venezuela comes to mind. Unfortunately, we’ve just had 11 years of a leader who despised just about all culture, the arts, and education too. Rudd at least can dance a bit. Keating may not have cringed in front of the queen but he certainly cringed in front of European opera - he ended up being turned into a musical – great witty lines; shall we say the music was ordinary.

But these are our leaders, forget them, how could we make the practice of music ubiquitous. And I said music not muzak; music as a first hand experience, something actually played new by people each and every time.

Let’s look in another direction.

> more Journey Within...

> back to contents