: various

Shame File Music SHAM050

As anyone who has ever attempted to investigate the history of any experimental art practice in Australia knows, documentation is thin on the ground. When it comes to music and other sound arts practices there is a yawning gulf between anecdote and artefact: works are more often heard about than heard. With this compilation, Melbourne musician and experimental music aficionado Clinton Green has assembled 14 tracks in an attempt to address exactly this problem. Making no claims to be comprehensive (let alone exhaustive), Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music documents examples of Australian artistic participation in that sustained attempt by 20th century music makers around the world to break the stranglehold that conventional musical practice had on sound and tonality within western music.

To some degree these recordings serve as examples of how local artists (although not necessarily locally-based) responded to the myriad influences at play in those eras: jazz, electronic and computer-based composition, Cagean experimentalism, improvisation, minimalism, expediency, amateurism and the restructuring of composer/performer relationships. However, this is not to suggest these influences washed up on Australian ears as some kind of cargo cult, merely that it might be more than reasonable to suggest—citing the evidence presented on this disc—that Australian composers were engaged in similar discussions and interrogations as their overseas contemporaries, while of course simultaneously exploring their own idiosyncratic aesthetic turf.

The majority of pieces are from the period 1965-73, but perhaps the most astounding piece is also the earliest. Journey #1, a proto-musique concete work from 1930 by the hitherto unfamiliar Jack Ellit, is a remarkable assemblage of bird sounds, foghorns, bells, train sounds and material transformations. Ellit left Australia for London, where he worked extensively on soundtracks for New Zealand filmmaker Len Lye in the early 1930s. It is a vivid precursor to much cut-up, sampling and DSP-based [digital signal processing Ed.] music of the last 30 years. Percy Grainger’s eerie mutli-timbral glissando drift produced by his legendary Free Music also has its conceptual genesis in the 1930s, although the recording here comes from later attempts in 1951.

Featured longside Arthur Cantrill’s vocal loop and violin improvisation soundtrack for the 1969 film Eikon, the tape drones and swelling organ of experimental rockers Tully from 1970, and the quaint drawing room anarchy of the Melbourne Dada Group (from 1952 with a young Barry Humphries) are works by some more prominent composers largely drawn from the Melbourne 60s scene. Of particular interest is Barry McKimm’s 1967 Monotony for 8 trumpets in its exploration of harmonic stasis and phasing melody. Green’s extensive liner notes cite the influence of American experimental pioneer John Cage on a number of these artists, the most obvious auditory example being the large swathes of silence (complete with coughing) featured in Sid Clayton’s Yehudi from 1968.

Just like many new music practitioners throughout the 20th century who were raised on a diet of equal parts Cage, Coleman, and Coltrane, the free improv group NIAGGRA bears the scars of jazz, to which many of its members would later return. And yet their work here from 1973 portrays its own particular sense of group action and interplay. So too does the jazz-inflected experimental composition from 1965 by Robert Rooney, which hails from a time when the intrusion of the sounds and techniques of jazz in composed music was still a bone of contention.

Many of these works are decidedly ‘of their time’ (not to damn them with faint praise), but some transcend this categorisation. Certainly the first half of Keith Humble’s computer-generated piece, And Tomorrow from 1972, sounds distinctly contemporary. Green pays tribute to Humble and his important role as an independent advocate for new music and through his involvement in the La Trobe University Music Department. The disc closes with an excerpt of swirling, multimedia theatre in the form of Ron Nagorcka’s Apathetic Anomaly 2 from 1973. This piece for radios, record players and televisions prefigured Nagorcka’s later adoption of the cassette tape as a performance instrument, and is a wild, chaotic and most importantly fun finish to this much needed compilation.

Peter Blamey

24 October 2007