The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Experimental music : audio explorations in Australia

edited by Gail Priest
(UNSW Press; Sydney)

ll Guthrie's Materials
Will Guthrie's Materials                                                                                                 Greg Jenkins©2009

Chapter 7: Networks, playfulness and collectivity: Improv in Australia, 1972 -2007
by
Jim Denley

Improvisation – the highest game on the ladder of consciousness. (1) – Marijs Boulogne

 

This chapter discusses a global music methodology with a fast mutation rate. Improv continues to be fed by and embroiled in all forms of popular, traditional and art musics from around the globe. So embroiled, in fact, that it would be easy to say the activity doesn’t slot easily into any one category – there is a lot of methodological grey practice out there. But for the purposes of this chapter, I think it’s possible to make a distinction between ‘improv’ and other musics. If we feel confident in making this distinction then we should be able to define the activity. In 1991 I wrote:

For the improviser, the physicality of producing sound (the hardware) is not a separate activity from the thoughts, emotions and ideas in music (the software). In the act of creation, there is a constant loop between the hierarchy of factors involved in the process. My lungs, lips, fingers, voice box and their working together with the potentials of sound are dialoguing with other levels which I might call mind and perception. The thoughts and decisions are sustained and modified by my physical potentials and vice versa, but as soon as I try to define these separately I run into problems. It is a meaningless enterprise, for it is the very entanglement of levels of perception, awareness and physicality in the ‘now’, that makes improvisation, improvisation.(2)

This entanglement in the ‘now’ has all sorts or definition paradoxes that we don’t really have time for here, but that last sentence can be used as a definition of most of the music discussed in this chapter.

Since the 1990s, many musicians have been employing a rather remote physicality in activating sounds – not just through computers but also via mechanically driven percussion. This has been revealing, in that it doesn’t exclude them from this entanglement – it is their immersion in the now, with the feedback loop spliced together by the act of listening, that is critical. The willingness to share this playing/ listening with others is perhaps the most defining principle of improv. This gives it a game-like quality, and the relationships within the game give the process political dimensions.

This chapter references various recordings, and in a chapter on improvisation, that is something of a paradox. However entangled in the moment when generated, the finished products are compositions. They have been reviewed, edited, mixed, mastered, fixed, made repeatable and generally fussed over. However, in the interests of making some of this music available for listening, let’s accept the paradox.

 

Where to start: Teletopa

Teletopa are one of the earliest recorded examples of improvisation in Australia (and my central teenage epiphany).(3) In 1971 Teletopa wrote, prophetically, in a leaflet:

Improvisation, is in its purest form, unpremeditated; structured only in the moment of its occurrence in the instant of ‘now’ … Records and tape recordings become, in the case of improvisation, a score or record of past achievement. Keeping a comprehensive tape library means giving Teletopa improvisation a history. The improvisation totality is then like a living organism, with a history and past of its own.(4)

Recording was a central pillar of Teletopa’s methodology, and the use of electronics was a defining distinction between what they did and ‘classical’ music. David Ahern from the group wrote in that same leaflet, ‘The most singular division in music is that which has occurred in our time: electronics. Electronic music may be defined as anything issuing from a loudspeaker and classical music redefined as music not issuing from a loudspeaker.’ Roger Frampton of the group contributes, ‘We played two or three times a week and recorded everything including the sounds of our setting up to play since we never knew when the actual playing would begin’.(5) It’s clear that recording has been a major factor in germinating improvisation. Teletopa’s tape library became their notation, and freed them to indulge in the now.

I remember Teletopa performances at the Inhibodress Gallery in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, in the early 1970s. It was the loudest music I had experienced and the performance was staged unconventionally – the musicians sat on the floor and wandered around the space. Their double CD Tokyo 1972 (Splitrec, splitrecCD 20, 2008), released 36 years later, shows a total dedication to a ‘noise’ aesthetic. Despite Geoffrey Collins (flute), David Ahern (violin) and Roger Frampton (sax) being accomplished instrumentalists, at no point in the 100 minutes of music is there conventional instrumentalism. We hear gongs, kalimbas, cymbals and drums, thumped, bowed and scraped, contact mics amplifying rubbings and grindings, electronic bleeps and gritty tones, and occasional hints of a violin, a flute or a sax. It’s a total dedication to skronk – a type of fusion between jazz and rock – but skronk without cathartic expressionism. This is spacious music: the placement of sounds in time and space is enlightened by advanced listening despite their rush towards sonic elementalism. It’s  never manic, and always collective: there are no solos. Teletopa was a disciplined band with a clear agenda.

Ahern had studied composition with Richard Meale and Nigel Butterley at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music (later to become the Sydney Conservatorium) and a dazzling composition career beckoned. In 1968 he travelled to Darmstadt to study with Karlheinz Stockhausen and went on to attend classes with Cornelius Cardew at Morley College. He was a founding member of The Scratch Orchestra, improvised with AMM(6) and MEV (Musica Electronica Viva), and heard and met composer La Monte Young – Ahern’s avant-schooling was exemplary.

Radicalised, he returned to Sydney, and formed Teletopa in the spring of 1970. The nucleus consisted of Ahern, Peter Evans and Roger Frampton, though at various stages over the following two years membership included Linda Wilson, Philip L Ryan, Geoffrey Barnard and Geoffrey Collins. In 1972 they undertook a world tour which took them to London, Cambridge, Manila, Munich, Edinburgh and Amsterdam, and to Tokyo, where they recorded the two pieces on Tokyo 1972.

Frampton says of the name Teletopa, ‘“Tele-” meaning from all over, global, far reaching and “topa”, as in Utopia. We considered improvising to be a utopian state which, like Utopia, could never really be achieved.’ Their collective pursuit was short-lived, as Frampton continues: ‘David wanted to exercise more control, whereas Peter and I were interested in less control. During performances, Peter and I deliberately sabotaged David’s attempts to steer the music in a certain direction. Eventually these differences came to a head and Peter and I decided to leave the group.’(7) Teletopa’s collectivity, clarity of aesthetic, use of technology and internationalism should have been a model of how improvisation could develop. Sadly, their work went unheard – until now.

 


Growing up

Growing up in the Australian suburbia of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, would-be musicians had LPs from which they gleaned inherently parochial, non-interactive lessons with vinyl mentors. Musician Dave Brown says, ‘my LP collection had a major influence on my whole musical development … I existed in an almost anti-social aural world. A total immersion!’(8) There wasn’t much other exploration to be had, especially in learning institutions. In my case, it wasn’t until I met Louis Burdett (drums) and Jon Rose (violin) in the early 1980s that I encountered peers committed to improvisation. Dave Brown explains his introduction:

I was playing in a trio with Jamie Fielding and through him I was invited to a couple of workshop type performances at the VCA … The first of these involved the Schlippenbach Trio and the second, duos and solos by [Peter] Brötzmann and Peter Kowald(9) … I’d had very little exposure to European improv, and certainly not in the flesh. It was a real awakening, I had no inkling of this world, it very directly changed me.(10)

Melbourne did have the benefit of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre series, which provided a forum for the exploratory from 1976 to 1983, and La Trobe University’s music department, which maintained a tradition of experimentation up until 1999. Musician and composer Anthony Pateras attended La Trobe but says he was not exposed to Melbourne’s improvisatory history until his sometime-collaborator Robin Fox started working in the archives. (Bloody good argument for archiving!) Some individuals, like bassist David Tolley, have also kept traditions alive in Melbourne through playing and teaching; improvisation nights such as The Make It Up Club still provide Melbourne, interstate and international artists with a platform for experimentation.

Jon Rose is the best known Australian working with improvisation. Together we toured in The Relative Band, which in 1983 included Greg Goodman (piano) and Henry Kaiser (guitar) from the US. In 1984 we worked with Europeans Luc Houtcamp (sax), Roger Turner (percussion) and Maggie Nichols (voice), and in 1985 Eugene Chadbourne (guitar) and David Moss (voice and percussion) from the US. There is an LP of the 1985 group, Relative Band 85 (Hot Records, Hot-LP 1017). We had an internationalist agenda for improvised music (or improvised music had it for us), but at that stage there was no cohesive national agenda.

So I was surprised, in 1984, to meet Ross Bolleter (piano) from Perth, and Greg Kingston (guitar) from Tasmania and find that there were other Australian musicians who were passionate and committed to improv.

At the end of the 1980s, Australia’s most successful improvisation group The Necks (with, at the time of writing, (14) highly acclaimed CDs), emerged from the Sydney jazz scene, and austraLYSIS, coming from score-based culture, began creating hybrid notions of improvisation,
jazz, composition and live computer processing. This was, however, a type of activity that was very thin on the ground.

In the early 1990s a new generation of players emerged. Two of these, Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi, who came to prominence with the post-punk band Phlegm, would go on to be influential figures artistically, and organisationally. Their What is Music? festival was interested in the local, the national and the international, and generated a community of players and supporters.

Significantly, this was the time when internet technologies started to make networking cheaper and more accessible, and many of the artists discussed in this chapter self-produce their own events, festivals, recordings, gigs and performance series.

Today, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have strong improve communities, linked through gigs, festivals, CD releases and much internet chat. There is critical mass. Admittedly, most of this activity is semi-professional (and, some have argued, self-exploitative). Why is there this surge in improvisatory practice? What has it produced – and what will it produce? Let’s look at a few examples that represent a cross-section of activity.

 

Coloured glasses: John Rodgers

A Rose is a Rose (CD, Extreme, XLTD-007, 1997) documents the work of a small community of Brisbane artists coalescing around violinist John Rodgers. Like David Ahern, Rodgers was a classical music prodigy, but abandoned this path, disillusioned with the ‘enormously uncreative activity’. He met and played with Ken Edie in the group Artisans Workshop, and he says it ‘made me interested in playing the violin again – there was a reason to practice’.

Unlike Teletopa, Rodgers and Edie embraced the well-tempered system; in fact, Rodgers and Edie were both fans of American composer Elliott Carter. They improvised a virtuosic polyphony in an attempt to replicate aspects of the sort of music they loved – Bach, Carnatic music(11) and Carter.

Their duos are impressive – muscular mid-twentieth-century classical violin meets free-jazz drumming – and in this fusion they are unique. Rodgers says, ‘It happened because Ken and I are obsessives – if we do this well enough people will dig it’.(12) But this scene has stayed small, isolated and uninterested in travel either within Australia or internationally, and it has been largely ignored.

Rodgers’ performance at the 2002 NOW now festival demonstrated another side to his art. As he explains, ‘I was in a conceptual phase then. I was having trouble seeing the point. I had no interest in playing anything in particular … we wanted to take the piss out of the arts … the notion that art would change the world, we didn’t buy.’13 The performance at the festival resembled a Fluxus event.(14) Postcards were distributed to the audience, who then read these over the PA. Rodgers was said to be in Kabul, and spoof calls were made from Kabul to a mobile phone, the war against the Taliban being on at that time. It was imaginative and nihilistic, but if there had been more support, and more contact with a nationwide and international community, one wonders if the freshness of A Rose is a Rose might have lingered.

There are scenes now in Brisbane actively engaged in a local, national and international dialogue. Lawrence English (laptop), with his ROOM40 label and relentless production of concerts including the Fabrique series, is central to this, as was the work of Scott Sinclair (guitar and electronics, now in Europe) and Joe Musgrove (electronics), with their Half/theory website and their AV group Botborg. There was also the Small Black Box series set up by Andrew Kettle and continued by Sinclair and Greg Jenkins (2001–05). At the time of writing Joel Stern (electronics), Daiji Igarashi (electronics), Yusuke Akai (guitar) and a collective of Brisbanites run the engagingly energetic Audiopollen series, producing another safe house for the experimental. There seems no chance that Brisbane will be isolated again.

 

Desertification: Ross Bolleter

Perth musician Ross Bolleter says, ‘In a vague way I’ve found it inspiring to be separated from the rest of Australia by such vast and awe-inspiring deserts’.(15) His major project for a number of decades nowhas been to find and play ruined pianos in the Australian environment. (In his small kitchen you squeeze past four of the hulks to get to the sink.) In mid-2007 he was featured on ABC-TV’s The Collectors, presented as an obsessive dumping pianos onto an outback farm to play their rotting keys.(16)

Secret Sandhills and Satellites (CD, Warps/Emanem, Warps 05/ Emanem 4128, 2005) has him playing one near Alice Springs, creating one of Australia’s great keyboard pieces (Chris Abrahams’ Thrown (CD, ROOM40, RM409, 2005) is another). It starts with an explosion of bass string rumbles followed by delicate broken-key tinkering. You can’t believe that the string bass atmospheres are not electronic music, and in a sense they are – this recording seriously zooms in. A flock of parrots enters and from then on it’s as much about the birds as the piano. Towards the end an Indigenous conversation can be heard passing by and off roars a car – this is also a field recording.(17)

Bolleter’s committed assault on the ‘ruined piano’ has found a way of extracting the European tradition and translating it to an Australian context – the resonances are in a post-colonial dreaming. However geographic isolation doesn’t necessarily equate to intellectual isolation,
as Perth is home to Tura New Music, one of the best new music organisations in the country. Through its activities like Club Zho and The Totally Huge New Music Festival, Tura has supported Bolleter and kept him in touch with the like-minded. As he puts it, ‘the vastness and emptiness of West Australia probably influences pieces like SecretSandhills’,(18) but the environment also enters in a more active sense – thepiano has been prepared by the desert.

 

Machinations: Machine for Making Sense

In 1989, poet/vocalist Amanda Stewart, compositional linguist (or stand-up philosopher) Chris Mann, medieval string player Stevie Wishart, tape manipulator Rik Rue and myself formed Machine for Making Sense. The group was an anomaly in improv both in Australia and overseas in that it used text; apart from the work of Lucas Abela and Carolyn Connors, the voice hardly appears in Australian improv. Peter McCallum, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1992, described the performance style of Machine for Making Sense:

The group’s performances explore sound as a means of communication at various levels of coding: ‘free’ unassociated sounds, quasi-environmental taped noises, musical improvisation with varying degrees of organisation, vocal utterances, words, poetic imagery, and the subtle interplay of literary style, tone and gesture.(19)

Writing about ‘Fester’, a multi-room performance at ABC’s Ultimo Building in 1995, musicologist Richard Toop pointed out that the nature of the performance allowed the audience to listen ‘as much or as little as one liked’:

[T]he Machine’s core quintet were joined by guest artists; Tony Buck (drums and electronics), Carolyn Connors (voice) and Greg Kingston. On the one hand, this gave the core members an additional basis for responding to the ‘unknown’ (not that there was any staleness when the ‘old team’ was in action); on the other, it ensured a certain critical mass that made it possible for two performances to be underway at most times …
[
T]he 15-min opening trio, with electron flautist Denley and amplified vocalists Stewart and Wishart arranged at three levels of the Atrium stairwell, had an explosive yet expressive clarity … the sheer
engagement of the musicians in the discovery of the unknown was itself utterly engaging.(20)

This performance was documented on the CD Consciousness (Splitrec, splitrecCD 7, 1995). Chris Mann moved to New York in 1996 but the group continued producing performances, broadcasts, installations and CDs in Australia, and overseas as a quartet, until 2005.

 

Extinkt ion: Jamie Fielding

In 1991, Jamie Fielding recorded, edited and mixed Extinkt (CD, Dr Jim’s, Dr Jim (13)). This is raw music, much of it live (it sounds like a cassette recording), with industrial grooves, simple basslines, shredded samples, drum machines, half-shouted vocals, noise guitar (by Michael Sheridan), and an elemental use of sliding trombones which was then reworked in the studio with additional electronic treatments and synthesiser parts. Bar the synthesisers, all instruments are played elementally and overall the sound is dark. On tracks like ‘Prigogine’s Hangover’ all the elements come together to create powerful music.

I had met Jamie seven years earlier; he was then a talented acolyte of American pianist and pioneer of free jazz Cecil Taylor. Over a few years, Fielding rejected jazz, the piano, and even his own highly developed DX7 synthesiser technique in favour of raw sonic urges. This stripping of technique and cultural baggage was purging, but it left him personally way out on a limb. Fielding never saw the record produced – he couldn’t get anyone to put it out. He might have been rewarded in our time, but there was no What is Music?, NOW now, impermanent.audio, Electrofringe, Audiopollen, Liquid Architecture or ROOM40 around to help. Although the reason he took his own life in 1993 is unclear, one can only wonder how this talented individual might have fared in a more supportive culture.

 

Hills Hoist: Greg Kingston

Hobart is one of the less obvious centres in the world for improv, but Greg Kingston’s interest in the guitar and improvising led him to follow the familiar path of many musicians exploring the geographies of the phonograph. Seeing Jon Rose play in 1980, he was inspired to pursue a career of obscurity and occasional gigs. ‘I needed to go and listen, meet and play with other players’,(21) he remembers, and so in 1985 he relocated with his family to the UK, playing with Derek Bailey, who was ‘too much of a mentor’, releasing Original Gravity (CD, Incus, Incus 003, 1988) with UK artists Tony Bevan (sax) and Matt Lewis (percussion) on Bailey’s own label. Despite many successes, Kingston couldn’t sustain the family, moving back to Tasmania in the early 1990s. Since then he has made occasional mainland forays and was a stalwart of What is Music? throughout the 1990s.

Hills Hoist (CD, Antboy, antboy02), a duo with percussionist Will Guthrie recorded at The Make It Up Club in Melbourne in July 2002, documents his hard-edged, solid-body guitar playing of recent years. This is gestural music – Kingston has a physicality that is wonderfully unique. Phraseology is short, often violent, although the overall feel of the music is whimsical. Toys and the use of a radio bring about moments of irony and lightness. Interestingly, Guthrie’s releases after this move away from this approach. His Building Blocks (CD, Antboy, antboy04, 2003) has none of this short phrasing; instead, long blocks of sound are layered, and mechanical gesture replaces corporeal gesture. Greg Kingston remains an isolated figure. For months at a time he has no activity in music, and it is criminal that his career hasn’t been better documented with releases. He admits ‘staying with it is difficult’.(22) Perhaps because of this isolation he has produced music unhindered by the vicissitudes of fashion.

 

What is music? Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi

I have talked about the effect of Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi’s What is Music? festival, but even more important is their music. The variety and ambition of their work together, and individually, has been influential and impressive.

On The Alter Rebbe’s Nigun (CD, Tzadik, 7131, 1999), Avenaim and Ambarchi play a rich palette of instruments but at the heart of everything is their accomplished free/noise guitar and drums. The opening track ‘Asiyah – Action’ starts with an eighteenth-century melody by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe), ‘intoned’ ominously on vibraphone and guitar. After three minutes it dives into a high-energy, free-jazz guitar and drum improv, imbued with melody, which at six minutes extends further into wilder, noise-based explosions before returning to a mystical melody. This is an ambitious fusion of ‘noise’ with Jewish religious composition, the likes of which had never before been heard.

Insulation (CD, Touch, T33.16, 1999) has Ambarchi on solo guitar. Gone are the heroics of his earlier style, and a covert instrumentalism is employed with much use of loops, Oval-like grooves,(23) delays, electronic manipulations and layers. There is no obvious sonic resemblance to a guitar here.

Sonic Systems Laboratory (CD, Splitrec, splitrecCD 18, 2008) sees Robbie Avenaim in a vibraphone duo with Dale Gorfinkel. Starting with bowed metal and a sine-tone quality, gradually more tones are employed, then surreptitiously replaced by mechanistic bumps and scrapes as their vibe motors, and other mechanical and electrical devices, play the underbelly of the instruments. Imperceptibly this grunge is replaced by chattering tones and then, at 26 minutes, a mid-range metallic chord rings, sometimes supported by a sub-tone, until at 32 minutes a mechanical device is switched off and the sound ceases. All this evolves in one sweep with no internal phraseology – the phrase is 32 minutes long. Avenaim and Gorfinkel don’t take gesture out of the equation, but redefine what it could mean to ‘play’ the vibraphone.

 

Justice: Lucas Abela

Lucas Abela (aka Justice Yeldham) began his musical experiments in the early 1990s working at a community radio station where, in 1994, his on-air experimentations were heard by Ambarchi and Avenaim. They invited him to participate in their What is Music? festival and Abela has been performing as a musician ever since, touring extensively overseas, including Europe, the US, Japan and China.

His instrument of choice since 2003 has been a contact microphone attached to a pane of glass. As described in Chapter 3, Abela sings with his mouth pressed against the glass, creating vibrations that are magnified through the use of pedals. The pressure and teeth against the glass ultimately causes it to shatter, but Abela plays on, barefoot in shards of glass, face squashed against the remaining blood-smeared pane.

Despite being classified as ‘noise’, Abela sees himself as an improvising musician in the free-jazz tradition. In a recent performance there were subtle layers of spatialised sound, unexpected stops and shifting dynamics. Although the voice is mediated by the glass and electronic manipulations, this is a vocal performance – an extended and complex scream. The fakir-like act gives a corporeal immediacy that most twentyfirst- century Western music avoids. While the CD version Cicatrix (CD, Sweatlung, Sweatlung 07, 2007) may not do justice to all performative aspects of the act, it certainly still stands up as music.

 

Twitching: the Melbourne scene

In recent years there has been a flurry of recordings from a group of Melbourne artists who share an aesthetic. Gauticle (CD, Synaethesia, SYN019, 2006) features Anthony Pateras (prepared piano), Sean Baxter (percussion) and Dave Brown (prepared guitar) in a series of concerts in Vienna and London in 2004. This is highly active and reactive music. The phrasing they employ shows an implicit awareness of many musical forms, but they go on to create something new. As Brown says, ‘I often feel a sort of reflexive revulsion every time I allow myself to make a musical gesture that alludes to anything expected conventionally from my instruments’.(24)

The music seems to run on from the sort of playing that is documented in the composed piece ‘Twitch’ on Anthony Pateras’ CD Mutant Theatre (Tzadik, 7095, 2004) where the slapstick interactions are clever but showy. The sound is reminiscent of the whipbird, one of the most characteristic sounds of the Australian bush – the male makes the drawn out whip-crack sound, and the female usually follows quickly with a sharp ‘choo-choo’. In both ‘Twitch’ and Gauticle, phrases are cut into and finished by others. But with Gauticle and Coagulate (CD, Synaesthesia, SYN007, 2003), featuring Pateras and Robin Fox (computer), improvised interactions create a rich intentional polyphony. Fox multiplies Pateras’ stream of samples in a display of electronic wizardry – velocity and complexity supply the effect – but there is also room for a long frozen moment at the end of Coagulate. Pateras and Fox are also the organisers of the Melbourne International Biennale of Exploratory Music (MIBEM) which began in 2008.

‘Twitch’ also features Natasha Anderson, who produces moments of surprise on the recording, and who has continued to amaze with her contrabass recorder and electronics. The liner notes for her CD Spore (Cajid, 008CD, 2006) use the terms ‘whiplash phraseology’ and ‘super-fast electroacoustics’. She puts the microscope on articulation, zooming in on her breath-amplifying meta-instrument, but once again, the rhythms are unpredictable as speed is interspersed with long blocks of sub-tones or high tones.

There is another way of shaping space-time in Melbourne at the moment. On ILAND (CD, Cajid, 007CD, 2007), Anthea Caddy on cello and Thembi Soddell on sampler create disturbing and exhilarating atmospheres, which unlike Gorfinkel and Avenaim’s long sweep, are always heading somewhere else.ILAND is a treacherous landscape of vast plains with sudden, unseen crevices and gorges that leave the listener suspended in mid-air like a cartoon character as the ground is whipped away. After long sections of the imperceptible, a texture or gesture emerges. The cello stands apart sonically from the sampler but not psychically – the two of them travel through this dreamworld hand in hand.

 

The NOW now and The Splinter Orchestra

In January 2002, turntablist Martin Ng and I were asked to perform at a festival of improvised music in Sydney. I’d just returned from overseas and had no knowledge of this nascent scene, but at the NOW,now, organised by bassist Clayton Thomas and harpist Clare Cooper, Icame upon a powerful event full of youthful positivity and surprisinglbig audiences. From 2002 through to the present, this community has continued to produce bi-monthly concerts in Sydney, and the NOW now festivals are showing increasing sophistication and opening up to reflect the interests of a vital community.

In the wake of the first NOW now in 2002, Clayton Thomas formed The Splinter Orchestra. The group comprised a mix of established local experimentalists and younger players. By the time of the second NOW now festival, the group had developed an improvisation language of its own, based around the use of loose processes, some of the most successful devised by Adam Sussman. The Splinter Orchestra (CD, Splitrec, splitrecCD 17, 2007), recorded in late 2006, has a group of 26 artists improvising cohesively with a shared aesthetic, with sometimes loose compositional tools devised by Gerard Crewdson (trombone). The group’s reductionist tendencies give way to an intense monumentalism where for long periods all the musicians play at once with no featured instruments – this is collectivity on a massive scale.

Other releases have sprouted from NOW now activities, including Clayton Thomas and Robin Fox’s Substation (CD, ROOM40, RM412, 2005). This shows Thomas’ mental and technical agility. His swift movements on bass, through a vast range of preparations and attacks, are a fitting complement to the multiplying Fox. The bass is in a sonic mirror room and reflections stretch into infinity.

Germ (CD, Splitrec, splitrecCD 19, 2008) features the duo of Clare Cooper (guzheng) and Chris Abrahams (DX7 synthesiser). The double CD has 198 tracks – 99 per disc, which is the maximum number allowed. Some of these are four seconds long, others vary in length, but the longest is 3:43. It is a testimony to their skill and imagination that these delightful miniatures remain engaging from beginning to end. The juxtaposition of sci-fi FM synthesis and ancient Chinese zither is inspired.

Adam Sussman and Matt Earle, as Stasis Duo, showed a different sensibility and a deep understanding of international trends in their Hammer and Tongs (CD, impermanent.recordings, 001, 2002). Their Document 04 release with Will Guthrie (CD, Document, document 04, 2003) captures the delicate balance of Sussman’s acoustic guitar, the bleeps and clicks from Earle’s empty sampler and the pared-back mechanical gestures Guthrie employs, creating a music that is spacious, calm and unpretentious. All of these CDs show that the Sydney scene is bursting with ideas, proactivity, skill and intergenerational exchange.

 

Playing together

Australians have embraced improvisation in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and there is a healthy feedback loop between the activity itself and larger public outcomes. Record labels, radio broadcasts and even a few learning institutions have become involved – networks have been created where there had previously been little organised activity. Today, audiences for new music that are large or young are said to be rare, but What is Music?, Articulating Space, Electrofringe, Unsound, impermanent.audio, Liquid Architecture, Totally Huge, the NOW now and ROOM40 events disprove this. There is an interdependence between public outcomes and the development of communities of players. It needed to be a grassroots movement, and it has been.

At the early What is Music? festivals, alternative ways of conceptualizing the world bubbled up out of playing with sound. Ben Byrne, a laptop-based artist and curator/producer, gave his liner notes for The Splinter Orchestra the title ‘Playing together’, and, as simple as that sounds, it’s a vision of collectivity and playfulness that has defined the remarkable CDs and activities covered in this chapter. In the age of rampant individualism this vision is optimistic, and not just for the future of music.

 

Notes
1 Marijs Boulogne (2004) Publicity email for a concert of the author’s in Liege.
2 Jim Denley (1992) ‘Improvisation: The entanglement of awareness and physicality’, Sounds
Australian, no. 32, p. 29.
3 See John Whiteoak (1999) Playing Ad Lib: Improvisatory Music in Australia 1836–1970, Currency Press, Sydney; and Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music: 1930–1973 (CD, Shame File Music, SHAM050, 2007).
4 Teletopa (n.d.) Teletopa leaflet, informal publication.
5 Roger Frampton (1992) ‘Teletopa, AZ Music, Free Kata and free improvised music in Australia: An autobiographical perspective’, Sounds Australian, no. 32, pp. 22–3.
6 Keith Rowe has kept secret what AMM stands for.
7 Frampton (1992), ‘Teletopa’.
8 Dave Brown (2007) Email correspondence with the author, 5 August.
9 Peter Brötzmann (b. 1941) is a German musician specialising in saxophone and clarinet.
Peter Kowald (1944–2002) is best known for his work on double bass and contrabass.
10 Brown (2007), email.
11 Carnatic music is one of the key Indian classical music forms.
12 John Rodgers (2007) Interview with the author, 21 July.
13 Rodgers (2007), interview.
14 Fluxus was an international network of artists working across artforms and disciplines which started in the 1960s. The work frequently consisted of live events and performances.
15 Ross Bolleter (2007) Interview with the author, 5 August.
16 The Collectors (2007), television program, ABC, episode 25, 27 July.
17 Secret Sandhills and Satellites is dedicated to Timmy Payungka Tjapangati (c. 1940–2000), and inspired by his painting Secret Sandhills (1972). Timmy Tjapangati painted in the first wave of Papunya artists, and was a founding member of the Papunya Tula Artists company.
18 Bolleter (2007), interview.
19 Peter McCallum (1992) ‘Brilliant integration of diverse talents’, Sydney Morning Herald,
4 May 1992.
20 Richard Toop (1995) ‘No disgrace, no honour’, The Sydney Review, September.
21 Greg Kingston (2007) Interview with the author, 20 July.
22 Kingston (2007), interview.
23 Oval was a German electronic group originally made up of Markus Popp, Sebastian Oschatz and Frank Metzger – now headed by Popp alone – that was one of a group of artists pioneering the use of digital glitches and errors as sonic material.
24 Brown (2007), email.

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