Warren Burt: “Inventing New Culture.”


Warren Burt

Tullamarine Airport, Melbourne, 1975: Warren Burt is asked to demonstrate the workings of his cassette recorder by a customs official. Inserting a tape of his own compositions, the airport is greeted with a ‘GGGGGRRR-a-a-a-a-NWH!’ Confirming that the cassette recorder was in perfect working order, Burt explains that this is his own music. The story may be apocryphal, but it perfectly illustrates the approach of an experimental music dynamo who has called Australia home for over thirty years.

I first stumbled across the work of Warren Burt in the hallowed music library of Sydney community radio station 2SER. I was burrowing around, trying to find some freebies to give away on my radio show. The cover looked intriguing, a photograph of some battered lumps of aluminium, which turned out to be tuning forks. The name of the album piqued my interest further, The Animation of Lists/And the Archytan Transpositions. What beguiling sounds could be contained within? Knowing that one should never judge a book, or indeed a record, by its cover, I was pleasantly surprised to find the music contained was as transcendent as its wordy title alluded.

The liner notes painted a brief biography of Warren. Here was a Yankee composer who had associated with John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier. His association with Serge Tcherepinn and Joel Chadabe had honed his formative interest in electronic music. An undoubtedly impressive lineage, but what really floored me was that the man had moved to Melbourne in 1975, and I had never heard of him! This information hit me like a tonne of bricks, and was furthered with the subsequent discovery that Warren had relocated to Wollongong in 2004 to take up a position at the university and complete a PhD. The conventional orthodoxy, at least in my mind, had avant-garde composers based in seemingly refined and distant locations such as the Darmstadt and possibly New England.

The Animation of Lists/And the Archytan Transpositions has a spacious beauty that is at once soothing, yet also engaging. Its gorgeous, sinuous tones and overtones envelop the listener in a sound world far removed from the humdrum and the mediocre. For such otherworldly music, it was, rather amusingly, recorded where the dining table usually sits, adjacent to the kitchen of Warren’ townhouse in suburban Wollongong. The recording sessions took place in the evenings between Christmas and New Year, Warren and his wife, fellow composer and artist Catherine Schieve, were involved: “There are three takes for each track. One of us would be playing the forks and the frame, which for each particular section, we would have to change over. Usually Catherine did the hand held things, hitting them and moving them back and forth in the air. In fact, she got a bit of RSI over the course of the 10 days of recording. These forks are fairly heavy; she developed these shooting pains up her arms for about three weeks after the recording session. I decided I wouldn’t make her a permanent tuning fork (player)-at least we wouldn’t go out and do that on a weekly basis.”

Between 1971 and ’75, Warren was a postgraduate student at the University of California San Diego studying under Kenneth Gaburo. Gaburo’ interdisciplinary approach involved what he termed “compositional linguistics’, or music-as-language and language-as-music. One of the most striking characteristics of Warren Burt’s work is its enormous scope, or as he so humorously stated during the interview: “Interdisciplinary work R US for the past 30 years”. He draws inspiration from the worlds of experimental music, video synthesis, dance, graphic arts, intellectually rigorous writing and post-modern theory, all executed with a sense of humour and a lightness of touch that is rare to encounter within the stuffy confines of academia.

Australian composer, pianist and conductor Keith Humble was part of the faculty at San Diego, and was given the task of setting up a New Music department at Latrobe University in Melbourne. Humble recruited Warren, along with fellow composer/performers Ted Grove and Jeff Pressing, to form the nucleus of the young university’ New Music department. Warren had already formed connections with Australian musicians during his time at San Diego, including Barry Cunningham, Chris Mann and Ron Nagorcka.

Warren knew Melbourne was going to be an interesting place, but didn’t realise just how interesting; “In the second half of the ’70s, Melbourne was one of the best artistic cities on the planet, one facet of this was a vibrant and supportive New Music scene. There was just this incredible sense of inventing a new culture from various local and international historical roots. Melbourne has always had a pretty aggressive new art culture going right back to the 1880s. A lot of Melbournian artists are aware of that idea, that historic continuity. It didn’t feel like they felt that they were inventing the world from scratch. Whereas, I did get that impression when I visited Sydney, that the artists there felt like they were inventing the world from scratch, what existed before 1960 didn’t exist.”

“Melbourne had great access to culture from around the world. We had bookstores such as Collected Works and well-stocked record stores like Discurio. Their selections might have not been quite equal with what was available in New York or Paris, for example, and of course, things were way more expensive in Melbourne, but you just bit the bullet and paid the money! Money is no object when it comes to art or knowledge. As Keith Humble said, what we do in Australia is share our resources. Somebody buys a really expensive book and then they lend it to a bunch of people.”

After three years at Latrobe, Warren spent part of 1979 living and working in New York when he came to a decision; “I would really rather be working and living in Melbourne. I’d rather be within that scene and helping that particular group of people, and putting my own efforts into developing that scene.” Undoubtedly generations of Australian musicians have benefited from this decision, as Warren shares his musical knowledge and enthusiasm with a largesse that has contributed to the continued evolution of the arts in Australia. I can only reiterate Andrew McLennan’s praise contained in the liner notes of Warren’s tuning fork piece. “As a node of information, Warren is often first stop for a quick or even an epic fix.” My time with Warren conducting the interview and subsequent research opened up my mind to possibilities and tangents that were previously unknown to this writer. Indeed the challenge proved to be how to shoehorn the over-abundance of information into an article!

“Melbourne was close enough to the rest of the world, in a sense, that you could always get out and go somewhere else.” Warren proved that living geographically removed from the New Music nexus of North America and Europe was not a hindrance for the passionate and involved musician.

“In 1984 I ended up at the University of Iowa, doing an extended residency. I was in LA for most of 1986, doing an Arts/Science residency, I had a big installation at the expo in Brisbane in 1988, and in ’92 I was in Switzerland doing an installation there. In 1995 I was in Minneapolis for the American Composers Forum, 1998 I was in the San Francisco Bay Area for a good part of the year. My prodigious work output had to keep going, as I had no other form of income. Basically, for many years I faithfully read the Australia Council and state arts council booklets and kept writing away to people, and networking. I’ve found that numerically, I had to do twice as many free gigs as paid gigs, but the fact that I did those free gigs meant that people knew my work, and asked me to do the paid gigs”.

“As William Burroughs says, in one of his novels, “And so the years passed!’ Catherine and I have both had health problems in the past few years, which have taken a long time to come back from. With Wollongong University, various financial plans turned to vapour, so we spent some time being both poor and sick. The trip to Canada last year to play at the Sound Symposium in Newfoundland was a real re-entry into things. We’ve both done this thing in the past, performing at the highest level at national forums; it’s just when you’re sick, you can somehow think that your not going to be there again. This year, I’ve been invited to be the keynote speaker at the Australian Computer Music conference in June, which was a nice surprise. It’s about interdisciplinary work, so in one sense I’m a logical guy to ask. In July, I’m going down to the Liquid Architecture festival in Melbourne. In August, we’ll be up in Brisbane, working with US composer Bill Duckworth, on his interactive project I-Orpheus.”

The creative milieu of Melbourne led Warren to co-found the energetic, anarchic and influential Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (CHCMC) not long after his arrival on our shores. As Andrew McLennan states in the liner notes to The Animation of Lists, “If Warren Burt had not come to Australia in 1975, we would have had to kidnap and smuggle him in illegally.” The CHCMC was the brainchild of Warren, Ron Nagorcka and John Campbell in 1976. Located in an old organ factory, the basic concept of the CHCMC was for it to function as an “alternative space’ where musicians, artists and the multifarious denizens of the Melbourne scene could perform. The pragmatic constraints of fiscal prudence were not a concern, as absolutely no money would be involved. Anyone could perform, as long as they were enthusiastic”.

Over the next seven years, Essendon Airport, Laughing Hands, Ernie Althoff, Ros Bandt and Plastic Platypus, Burt and Nagorcka’s duo, all played regularly at the CHCMC. Speaking about his duo performances with Nagorcka, Burt illustrates the anything goes nature of the CHCMC: “We would just speak into a cassette recorder, play that back while recording on a second cassette recorder, stop, rewind, play that back and record that on the first cassette recorder, just with their little internal microphone. Play that back onto the second cassette recorder, and keep swapping back and forth. Cassette recorders have plenty of distortion and noise, and it only took about five or six generations before you had shrieking noise, or the resonances of the room. Alvin Lucier’ I am sitting in a room was the first exemplar of that, done very elegantly. What we had was a cheap, bargain basement version of I am sitting in a room!”

“The end of Clifton Hill was very nice. I was overseas, Nagorcka was overseas, and Ernie Althoff, Robert Goodge and Andrew Preston were in charge. They found that a concert season came along and nobody wanted to perform. They had just gotten $1000 from Arts Victoria, the first time they had gotten any money. They said: ‘Nobody wants to perform, the place has fulfilled its purpose, we’ll shut it down and send the money back.’ In the late ’80s, the St Kilda council made the Linden Art Gallery available for Ernie, myself, Brigid Burke and Carolyn Connors to hold a monthly series of concerts. They worked really well and ran from 1986 until 1994. Once again, it was totally unfunded, but how many thousands of people saw those concerts? How many hundreds of musicians did we interact with? How many arts bureaucrats got to know our stuff? That ends up paying off in more tangible ways.”

“I made my living as a freelance composer of weirdo music from 1981 to 2001. I did all sorts of interesting and strange projects. When I left Latrobe in 1981, I got a job at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne doing distance education, writing pamphlets about music for people out in the country. We used to say that our target audience was a 64-year-old farmer’s wife who had a BA. So think country, think needing access to cultural things, but think smart.”

This is where Warren honed his discursive and entertaining writing style:  “It had to be clear, it had to be clean and friendly, like you were talking. It couldn’t be hiding behind a wall of objectivity like academic writing. And it worked, so I decided that even when I was doing academic writing, that’s the way I would write. A number of academics have, through the years, said; “You’re not writing like an academic’, and I go, “That’s right, I am opposed to that, you have just described the enemy’.”

Five years later, synchronicity, and the untimely demise of a CSIRO computer operative led Warren to the production of the tuning forks that were used to such stunning effect on The Animation of Lists.

“The Australia Council were setting up this project called Art and New Technology. I had been doing a lot of video synthesis, and the next step was obviously computer graphics. CSIRO had a big computer graphics facility in Sydney. I went to talk about the project, the previous day the CSIRO’s computer graphics guy had died at his terminal. I thought, “Well, I’ll have to do another project.’ I asked if there were any CSIRO facilities in Melbourne. There was the National Metrology Lab at Monash University. Their raison d’etre was to measure things, but they had metal shops, woodworking, and a chemistry lab, I decided to figure out a project and work with them. In 1970, a friend of mine had made a single tuning fork out of aluminium, just a little tiny guy, and I had used it in several pieces. So I thought, I’m going to make a bunch of these.”

“The manufacture of the tuning forks took about three and a half months. They weren’t cast; it was standard 25x40ml aluminium construction bar cut to an approximate length. The scientists thought they had a nice computer program to work out the frequencies I wanted. They were certain that they had it all nailed down, but I told them, “don’t you believe it, there are lots of impurities in aluminium and this is street grade aluminium!’ I wasn’t buying the really pure stuff! On a milling machine, we cut them to length, drilled out the hole in the middle and then with a bandsaw, sliced down to make the tines. After that we used the milling machine to clean them up and remove up to a ten thousandth of a millimetre at a time off the end to adjust the pitch. The forks are tuned in just intonation, which is simply a way of tuning musical intervals so that the intervals don’t beat or throb they have a purer sound. As Bill Duckworth states in his essay in The Animation of Lists, it’s as if you were listening to music and then you tune it in just intonation and it seems to come into focus. It’s just a means of getting a clearer intonation.”

Warren’s long time friendship with US composer Phil Niblock, now based in Gent, Belgium, led to the commissioning of the tuning fork pieces for Niblock’s Experimental Intermedia (XI) label. Warren was instructed to refrain from writing an electronic piece, but it certainly sounds very electronic at times;  “There is a heck of a lot of beating in my tuning fork pieces. That’s because I have two different major seconds from the fundamental, which in this case was the note G on the piano. We’ve got one major second that is large, it’s slightly bigger than a major second on the piano, and the ratio is nine over eight. The other major ratio is small, that’s the ratio ten over nine. These two major seconds are about a quarter of a semitone apart, and when you play those two together you get lots of beats. My scales are actually designed so that you can get lots of beating tones and also plenty of clear tones. This is helped by the tuning forks themselves, which after the initial attack dies away, are making pretty much a pure sine wave. That is one of the reasons the piece sounds so electronic, we are not used to acoustic instruments having a very pure sustaining tone, although lots of them did. For example, glass harmonicas and various bells, although they’re outside the mainstream of what would be conventionally be regarded as an acoustic instrument, such as guitars and pianos or even violins.”

Having been so intimately involved in the Australian music scene over the past 30 years, I was curious to know Warren’ thoughts on where electronic music in Australia was heading; “I notice that everyone these days is playing turntables, turntables as instrument, as opposed to just playing records. As someone who was playing with cassette recorders for many years, that’s very nice. It’s hard to say stylistically where it is going. Everybody loves to bash the avant-garde, it’s everybody’a favourite whipping boy. So people are making predictions that we are all going to be making electronic pop music, or we are all going to be making this or that. I don’ think so, it’s just completely fragmented and there are hundreds of streams, and no one stream is more important than the other. I think the people involved in the further fringes of art music, are wrangling with conceptual challenges in a particular way that other segments of the music community are not. It’s those particular sort of intellectual challenges that I think spill over into a lot of the other fields.”

Warren Burt 2

“The technology today is ubiquitous, cheap and available. We’ve never been in a situation of such abundance. For example, for a young musician starting out, what is the cheapest high quality sound producing instrument you can have? The computer, it’s cheaper than a guitar. A bad guitar is $40; a good guitar is going to cost you $1000. A good laptop that is suitable for music is going to set you back about $800-900. If you use open-source software, away you go! In terms of high quality musical instruments, the computer is the cheapest one of them all. If we believe that tools will affect the music that you make, then who knows where things are going to go? There is a symbiotic relationship between the engineer, the composer and the performer. At the same time, I look at a lot of new plug-ins, little synths and effects things, the amount of people who are coming up with really new ideas is very small. But to make a lot of those ideas available that society hasn’t even processed yet can only help.”

A person with limited musical training, who is just starting out with a computer and learning their way around the software, might be inclined to think; “Right, I’m going to make techno’. They find out what software the big names in techno are using and then try to emulate that sound. It takes years to become adept with the software and to find a unique voice with it, to actually start to hit your creative stride. Many musicians give up before they get to that point, maybe because they get despondent that they are not making a sound quite as chunky or polished as the people they are aping.

“Composer Elaine Barkin has a wonderful quote: “On the way to becoming, we each put others on for fit’s and that process can take years. It’s also learning about the software. For example, the British magazine, Computer Music continually annoys me, (I also continue to read it); because they say “Sound like this Pop Group!’ they actually have their market targeted to be young males who want to imitate their musical heroes. For those of us who thought that imitation was something that you left behind in high school, well, OK.”

Warren Burt certainly left school yard imitations behind quite some time ago. Having swum in the deep end of New Music for over thirty years, he has amassed a substantial back-catalogue, which is currently being archived. Stretching to 75 albums, his work spans environmental recordings, sound poetry, noise, electro-acoustic manipulations, inscrutable electronics and more. Warren Burt is a man infatuated with process, visualising the polished diamonds, where others may only see uncut stones. Or, to modify that metaphor somewhat, hearing the resonating tuning fork, where others see battered, street grade construction aluminium.


About Author

Music Obsessive / DJ / Reviewer - I've been on the path of the obsessive ear since forever! Currently based in Perth, you can check out some radio shows I host at http://www.rtrfm.com.au/presenters/Oliver%20Laing