Much as I love the sun, surf and rampant bush hinterland of Sydney, those clever boffins in Melbourne keep giving me reasons for wishing I lived in their wave-challenged southern locale. Their latest is the Found Sound Project, an ongoing series of sound art events that highlight experimental instruments designed and built by Australian artists and musicians.
These events began in January this year and are held every month in a warehouse in Carlton. So far, they've featured the glass percussion, bicycle wheel and pipe ensembles of Ros Bandt and Albert Mishriki; the prepared vibraphone, modified trumpet, heat sinks and bowed cymbals of Dale Gorfinkel and Joe Talia; the light and turntable based sound contraptions of Rod Cooper and Ross Manning; and the PVC pipe organ and reinvented gamelan of Nathan Gray, Dylan Martorell & Dave Nelson.
If you're in Melbourne and want to keep abreast of these happenings, they have a Facebook group you can join. If you're not, keep an eye on their blog which is updated with videos of the performances whenever they're posted on YouTube.
The world recently said farewell to one of the giants of 20th century electronic music, Bebe Barron. Along with her husband, Louis Barron, she will always be remembered for the soundtrack to the 1956 sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet; a score that was so far ahead of its time that their peers refused to recognise it as "music".
The Barrons' career as musical pioneers began in 1947 with a wedding gift of an early tape recorder, given to them by Louis' cousin who worked as an executive at 3M. The gift inspired them to delve into the radical new field of musique concrete (they subsequently produce the first piece of musique concrete composed in the US) and to set up one of the first recording studios in the States.
Initially, the clients at their studio were avant-garde musicians and writers like Henry Miller, Tennessee Williams and Aldous Huxley, who recorded early versions of audio books. In the early 1950's, they moved into films, producing soundtracks for notable figures like Maya Deren. Eventually, this brought them to the attention of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who had initially chosen Harry Partch to score Forbidden Planet but, after hearing a sample reel, decided to hand the whole score over to them.
As there were no commercially available electronic "instruments" at the the time, all the sounds on the score came from circuits constructed by Louis; circuits which were often designed to feedback and literally burn out in a single session, and which Bebe diligently recorded to tape, treated with delay and ring modulation effects, then assembled into compositions.
The final product was a hit with fans, but not the musicians' union who refused to recognise the Barrons as "composers", thus denying them the chance of being nominated for an Oscar. After this experience, they continued working with avant-garde luminaries like John Cage, but they never scored another Hollywood film.
Tomorrow is the start of our annual Long Weekend of Rampant National Chauvinism, so I thought I’d get into the spirit of the occasion by celebrating one of this country’s forgotten musical pioneers.
Born in 1906, Jack Ellitt showed promise as a musician early, winning a scholarship to the NSW Conservatorium of Music at the age of 16. In his early twenties, though, he was drawn away from the academy and into the dive bars of The Rocks where bohemian artists engaged in long, animated discussions about the new modernism. In this environment, he met the awkward but intense New Zealand artist, Len Lye, who became a life-long collaborator.
In the late 1920’s, Ellitt and Lye moved to England and fell in with the surrealists and abstract modernists of the Seven and Five Society. Lye began making experimental films by painting and scratching patterns directly on to film stock, and Ellitt began toying with ways of incorporating abstract sounds into film soundtracks. Sometime in the 1930’s, it lead him to work on soundtracks composed entirely of manipulated pieces of recorded sound… and to conceive of a time when they could be produced by anyone.
In 1935, he wrote: “When good recording apparatus is easily acquired, many people will record everyday sounds which give them pleasure. The next step would be to mould these sound-snaps into formal continuity.”
At the time, the first tape recorders had only just been invented; their use in the musique concrete of pioneer Pierre Schaeffer was a full decade and a half off; and the idea of sampling and sequencing as a commonplace of music-making was something that would take half a century to be fully realised…
Despite his incredible prescience, Ellitt never pursued any claims to be a groundbreaker and toiled away in obscurity; avoiding even the admiring approaches of other musical innovators like Stockhausen. He died in 2001, and sadly, most of his recordings were destroyed after his death.
The piece below, which is taken from the 2007 compilation Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music, was pressed in 1954, but it is believed that it was first recorded in the 1930’s. If this is indeed the case, then it is the earliest piece of musique concrete and marks Ellitt out as one of the most significant sound artists of the 20th Century… And he’s Australian, so Ellitt! Ellitt! Ellitt! Oi! Oi! Oi!
The album that Jack's track comes from can be purchased here.
If you have any sort of interest in avant garde music, then you owe it to yourself to check out The Avant Garde Project, a treasure trove of recordings of "20th-century classical-experimental-eloctroacoustic music"; all free and available as mp3s or lovely lossless FLAC files. In this ever-expanding archive, you'll find work by such luminaries as Morton Subotnick, John Cage, Harry Partch, Pierre Henry and Pauline Oliveros, and in a move that should keep them safe from the ire of the industry, they've restricted the repertoire to recordings that are out of print.
In addition to works by notable and less well known composers, the collection is rounded out with what the Project calls "found" avant garde music. Included under this loose rubric are an LP of haunting whale songs and an assortment of music boxes, street organs and mechanical musical instruments. (The explanation of the inclusion of the latter set of recordings is that they "arguably represent the origins of concrete music, in which the human performer is taken out of the equation".)
For the past seven year, Christopher DeLaurenti has been turning up to classical concerts in a leather vest with concealed microphones attached to a minidisc recorder. The goal of this clandestine bootlegging setup has not been to record any music that was on the programme, but rather to capture what happened during intermission. While other concert-goers were off sipping bubbly and relieving their bladders, he was there in the front row documenting the sound of milling patrons and orchestra members rehearsing their parts. In the process, he discovered an entirely "new", and previously undocumented, form of “improvised” music.
Musicians left on stage during intermission would generally use the time to practice difficult passages from the pieces to come. For the most part, they would twiddle away obliviously but occasionally they would latch on to what was being played in another section of the orchestra. This might continue for a few bars then fall apart and be replaced by cacophony followed by another spontaneous coming together around a new passage – kind of like a random sheet-music based version of one of John Zorn’s improvisational music games.
DeLaurenti’s obsessive documentation of these moments of interstitial orchestral "improvisation" has resulted in 50 hours worth of recordings which he has condensed into a single CD of “greatest hits” entitled Favourite Intermissions. The CD can be purchased from his website. Here’s a track from it called SF Variations (I think that’s short for Stravinsky’s Firebird… But I could be wrong about that. Any ideas?)
Ah, yes. This takes me back… In the mid 90’s, Harry Pussy were one of the pre-eminent purveyors of free-punk scream-n-skronk, and here is a video of them doing what they do best – letting drummer Adris Hoyos screech like a banshee till she catches breath, then launching into an apoplectic rock-out din (with more screeching from Adris)... Too free-form for ya? Well, here’s something a bit more song-based – their “classic” cover of Showroom Dummies by Kraftwerk. (video via WFMU)
For the last 25 years, the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) has been the dominant political force in the Basque regions of northern Spain. As part of their cultural policies, they have consistently promoted traditional music as an unquestioned cornerstone of Basque identity. The result has been a stultifying lack of self-criticism that has effectively sidelined those with more radical musical agendas. It’s a situation that Arto Artian is looking to change..
Formed late last year, this net label, which was featured in a recent profile of the Basque avant-music scene in The Wire, mainly focuses on experimental artists; but there are occasional forays into styles like electro and industrial. To give you a taste of their output, here are three very different acts who are featured on it:
Oier Exteberria (mp3) – from Ondamedia (Basque for “catastrophe”), a soundtrack designed to accompany a series of postcards parodying iconic Basque images. The music itself is a Otomo Yoshohide style collage of traditional Basque tunes underscored with a recording of doctors performing an autopsy. In the course of it, they remark: “It seems dead but sometimes it seems to reanimate.”
Included in the programme at the recent Mobile Music Workshop in Amsterdam was a performance by the world's first Bluetooth-enabled rock band, the Handydandy. This quintet of Austrian media artists, who formed in 2005, attach guitar straps to mobile phones, sling them around their shoulders, then "play" the the phones like electric guitars; ripping through all the traditional rockist poses as they dial up sound sources on nearby laptops. For some gigs, they even encase the mobiles in plywood cut-outs of Flying Vs so they can smash them at the end of the set. (A video of some of this plywood "guitar" smashing action can be downloaded here.) For more videos of the Handydandies in action, check out this set on YouTube, and if you want some mp3s, drop them a line - they have a limited run album coming out this month.
Oh, and if you're after a job, they're looking for a cell phone tuner (skills: roadie-experience, rodeoing with at least one of these bands: meat loaf, alice in chains, trail of dead or the nihilist spasm band) (via We Make Money Not Art)
I’ve Got A Secret was a popular US game show of the 50’s and 60’s that featured a prominent personality, who would come on and tell the host a secret. A panel would then ask questions in an effort to work out what that “secret” was. In this episode from January 1960, the guest was none other than John Cage, who whispers to the host that he will perform one of his compositions, Water Walk. When the host then hears that it will be played on “instruments” that include a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a mechanical fish, an electric mixer, five radios and a grand piano, he immediately abandons the usual format so this “magnificent demonstration” can take place. He is nonetheless concerned about the audience’s reaction, so he asks Cage if he is OK with people laughing at his performance. The great man good-naturedly replies, “Of course, I consider laughter preferable to tears."
(This priceless cultural artifact was made available by WFMU’s Station Manager Ken.)
Tonight (LA time) is the opening of the 2007 Bent Festival, an annual three day event of workshops and performances dedicated to circuit-bending, the art of making music by short-circuiting dinky old electronic audio devices like kid’s toys, guitar effects and cheap-o keyboards. The event, which started out four years ago in Manhattan, has now turned into a bit of road show. This year it will be happening in Los Angeles (April 12th – 14th) and Minneapolis (April 19th – 21st), along with New York (April 26th – 28th). If you want get a feel for what ensues at one of these festivals, check out the YouTube link at the top of this post - it's a short doco about the 2006 Bent Festival.
If (like me) you can’t make it to any of the dates on the tour, but still want to get involved in this mad scientist world of lo-fi audio experimentation, then head for the website of Reed Ghazala, the “Father of circuit-bending”. On it, you’ll find a helpful manual to get you started, and an assortment of mp3s coaxed from some of Reed’s circuit-bent creations. Thrill to the sounds of the morpheum, aleatron, and vox insecta, then go away and make one of your own.
When histories of Australian music in the late 70’s and 80’s are written, attention is generally heaped on the sweaty output of the pub rock fraternity. What gets far less exposure is the experimental music scene which was, at that time, bursting out of academia and finding its feet in a (slightly) wider community, thanks to the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne. This venue, which ran from 1976 to 1984, was committed to presenting performances of non-commercial and experimental music and mixed media to the public, free of charge. (Also, with little or no publicity beyond word of mouth and the occasional cheap photocopied flyer.)
One of the regulars at the CHCMC was the composer and sound artist Rainer Linz who, from 1982 onwards, began documenting the scene - both at the Centre and beyond - through the NMA magazine, an annual publication that lasted until 1992. Each issue of it was accompanied by a cassette of works by the featured artists, and now the music on those cassettes has been made available in its entirety online. Not only is it a valuable record of the scene, which includes pieces by such (relatively) big names as Jon Rose, Philip Brophy, Alan Lamb and Stelarc, but each issue was themed so the entire set fits together as nice little compendium of distinct, if occasionally overlapping, episodes. (Or, maybe not so little; the total size of all the zipped issues comes to almost 550 Mb.)
Because I don’t have the benefit of Kevin-Rudd-enhanced super-broadband, I haven’t downloaded the whole thing yet, but here are a few tracks from the couple of episodes that I have managed to shift on to my cranky old hard drive:
You can download the set, or purchase them in CD-R form, from this site.
(And if you're interested in a more detailed history of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, check out this essay by one of the alumni, Ernie Althoff.)