history by the history-makers

stephen adams: book review, experimental music


My first conscious meetings with experimental music were through a high school music camp tutor and through the older brother of a school friend. The tutor introduced me to the post-war classical experiments of total serialism, graphic scores and chance processes; the friend’s brother to the world of Severed Heads and other Australian and international manifestations of the experimental electronica that emerged in the wake of Punk. These two broad strands of activity are the primary antecedents that the editor of Experimental Music, Gail Priest, identifies for today’s Australian experimental music culture.

It’s been a long wait for a book-length attempt to document and interpret these developments in Australia and I approached Experimental Music with both excitement and anxiety. I was excited because at last an important part of the music scene of my own era and place was being represented in book form, but anxious that the book would not be up to the task—that I would find myself taking issue with the writers on everything from the book’s title to its many claims and omissions.

In attempting to meet this challenge, Gail Priest and her publishers have provided an introduction and framework for what amounts to a series of essay memoirs by a representative group of artist-commentators, each presenting and reflecting on the genre, scene or facet of the experimental music kaleidoscope they know best.

The opening quote from Jon Rose sets the book’s tone. “You can and should research and write your own history…” This is history written by the history-makers, an idiosyncratic assemblage of artists whose primary strength as commentators is the immediacy of their experience and the freshness of their memories of the cultural scenes, practices and people they write about.

A snapshot of Experimental Music’s kaleidoscopic treatment of the experimental scene is gleaned by turning to the index and dipping into the different facets of particular artists featured across several chapters. The commonalities point to the slippery and constantly evolving nature of experimental ‘genres.’ They also highlight the importance of a relatively small number of artists in catalysing the scene-making activities of the many. Indeed, the convergence of the book’s narratives around these figures (such as Lucas Abela, David Ahern, Ross Bolleter, Philip Brophy/tsk tsk tsk, Warren Burt, David Chesworth, Jim Denley, Tom Elllard/Severed Heads, Robin Fox, Ron Nagorcka, Jon Rose and Rik Rue) seems to suggest an implicit Australian experimental canon. The absence of women from this quick survey reflects the apparent rarity of influential cross-genre female protagonists, women being best represented in improv and radiophony. Does much ‘experimental’ culture have a relatively macho, or ‘boys-with-toys’ character?

Launching in from a brief sketch by Priest of the main uses of the term ‘experimental music’ and its neighbours ‘sound art’ and ‘exploratory music’ the book’s 10 chapters provide 10 slices or ‘scene-based’ views of recent experimental music in Australia. Each of the chapters is marked by the language, feel and cultural priorities of the writers and their ‘scenes’—a jumble of heterogenous voices set within the framework provided by Priest. She bookends the collection with a brief focus on the ways in which contemporary sound culture is increasingly engaging the visual.

Priest and Julian Knowles in his opening chapter define experimental music primarily in terms of what it is not, a culture marked by its spirit of opposition. The glue that binds this unruly assemblage of divergent music-makers together is the will to push or transgress boundaries, whether between music and noise, the extreme loud and soft edges of hearing, the boundaries of intention and chance, of copyright, of the nature of instruments whether found, newly created, modified or reinvented, of music with other artforms, or of the social and physical contexts of music-making.

Knowles’ introduction delivers an overview of some key festivals and concert series that have supported and promoted the DIY end of experimental music over the past two decades. He provides a sense of the background and ecology of current scenes, emphasising both the fecundity of artists, events and practices and their fragility, subject to intermittent funding and the rapid ebb and flow of venues and series, all riding on the largely unpaid energies of their artists/curators.

His sketches of What Is Music?, Liquid Architecture, the NOW now Festival and other manifestations of the contemporary listening-oriented music scene begin to flesh out sub-cultural affiliations to free jazz and improvisation, to the electronic music and multimedia work of the academy and to the more anarchic energies of noise and other more punkish music-making.

As with the other contributors in this book, Knowles’ conception of experimental music-making perpetuates the late modernist amnesia concerning the extraordinary local Indigenous and colonial musical experimenters of the previous 200 years, as described in Jon Rose’s 2007 Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address. Again, this amnesia is partly built into the publisher’s brief for this book and its UNSW Press Australian Music series companions to tell the story of the past 30 years of music in this country. This is a time frame that makes more sense in Australian classical music where there are already a handful of books dealing with earlier periods. The short focus unfortunately reduces any sense that there is a local or national heritage to be drawn on, making experimental music culture seem to be an international phenomenon to which Australians have more recently responded and occasionally contribute.

In “The Lost Decade”, Ian Andrews and John Blades flesh out the first phase of DIY activities in a scene marked by hand-made cassette releases, low-tech looping, ephemeral labels, fanzines, and constantly permutating bands and collaborations creating an apparently bewildering array of small-scale, grass-roots activity all taking place in opposition to the established music industry. This evokes the time of my early adulthood, full of familiar and half-known names that provoke a flush of nostalgia and recognition while providing a larger context for a scene that I experienced on a purely local level.

The next three chapters follow three different paths from the experimental ‘scenesters’ of the post-punk ‘lost decade’ to the contemporary network of independent listening-oriented festivals and concert series described by Knowles. Cat Hope tells the story of the rise of ‘noise’ from a band-based challenge to mainstream definitions of musical sound to a genre, and now an increasingly important aspect of experimental music across the spectrum. Shannon O’Neill looks at appropriation-based music—the sampling, mash-ups and tributes that have pushed the boundaries of copyright. He makes the interesting observation that experimental music in Australia as a whole has recently shifted towards a more ‘materialist’ focus, eschewing quotation and absurd juxtaposition for a mostly straight-faced focus on the materiality of the instruments and the physicality of sound production and its by-products. Priest and Sebastian Chan’s brief sketch of the coexistence of popular and unpopular electronic music in the rave and party worlds of the 90s fills in one more background to the ‘listening-oriented’ music culture partly created by these artists as they detached themselves from the dance scene at the start of the new century.

By this time the lists of artists and projects, known, unknown and half-familiar, cry out for more detailed description of actual practices, provided to some extent by Bo Daley’s case study of the Sydney electronic music collective Clan Analogue. The account fleshes out the mechanics of scene-making with its attendant behaviours, aesthetics and ethics, within a typically post-Punk collectivist environment that characterised many of the DIY experimenters covered in the previous chapters.

Alistair Riddell takes the reader away from scene-making and into the world of the university electronic studios of La Trobe, Melbourne University, the NSW Conservatorium and Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium in the 1970s, characterised by the interplay between scientific and artistic mind-sets. It’s a starker version of the interplay between instrument and idea that characterises all creative music making. A similar interplay is found in the independent instrument-building activities of Sean Bridgeman’s chapter, ranging from software, through circuit-bending and the building and radical modification of acoustic instruments. Riddell ends his chapter with a plea for the continued university development of the programmer-musician in the face of a scene increasingly dominated by individual laptop artists operating in the main as end-users of third-party software rather than creative developers of new software to express highly individual artistic intentions.

Jim Denley’s chapter on ‘improv’ returns to scene-making but continues Riddell’s larger sweep of time and geography with a definition and brief sketch of the development of improv in Australia from 1972 to the present followed by a series of portraits of key artists, neatly distilling the contributions and stylistic approaches of each. The What is Music? festivals of the 1990s, founded by improvisers Robbie Avenaim and Oren Ambarchi, are seen as key in taking improv from the underground of a handful of practitioners into a visible scene with a surprisingly large and youthful following. Part of the secret of the large numbers is that improv has developed a participatory ethos in which many players move easily between the roles of audience and performer.

In “Written In Air”, Virginia Madsen introduces readers to the world of radiophonic arts, a strand of experimental sound culture emerging out of the radio sound studios of France, Germany, Italy and the UK. This tradition thrived within the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over two decades, most famously in the long-running program The Listening Room, providing experimental opportunities and resources to diverse artists interested in hybrid interplays of environmental recordings, words, instrumental music, sound effects, electronics and any and all of the arts of sound. Her hymn of praise to peripatetic ex-pat Australian Kaye Mortley’s radiophonic oeuvre had me wanting to hear more and wishing for spaces today where this work might more readily continue to be heard. Gail Priest’s accompanying CD selection of examples barely skims the surface of the many scenes and artists in this book, but does provide a number of tantalising glimpses, including an extract from Mortley’s Exilio from 1999.

Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia fills a cultural gap, documenting local audio culture and providing a useful taxonomy of the main modes of practice in Australia frequently understood as ‘experimental music.’ A contentious aspect of the book will be the very Sydney-centric roster of contributors. Some of these do better than others in elaborating a national perspective, but the provocation is there to counter the shortcomings with more books and articles, offering alternative readings and the coverage of artists and local scenes not represented here.

And the publication of such a book has a valuable legitimising effect, building wider awareness of the experimental scene’s traditions and key antecedents and therefore of its place in the broader culture. There is of course some ironic tension in the legitimising of experimental music culture given that culture’s commitment to opposing and dismantling orthodoxies. At what point does an experimental musical form/scene/process/aesthetic/…cease to be ‘experimental’ and become part of received culture? Nevertheless it’s healthy for any culture to foster historical awareness among its participants if only to guard against the uncritical acceptance of new ‘experimental’ orthodoxies.

Gail Priest, editor, Experimental Music: audio explorations in Australia, UNSW Press, 2009, ISBN 978 1 921410 07 9. The UNSW Press Australian Music series was supported by the Music Board of the Australia Council.

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 48

© Stephen Adams; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

8 October 2009