Shame File Music’ latest release, Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music: 1930 – 1973, is a vivid, dynamic and virtually unheard story of Australian experimental music. Melbourne-based label head, Clinton Green, spent three years excavating, researching and compiling the release, bringing an antipodean perspective to the documentation of early electronic music.
Compilations that archive historical movements in experimental music can be difficult listening, even to listeners used to extremes of approach and technique. Artefacts does not suffer such a fate, instead, it brings to light a story so important that Green assumed it must have already been told: “The CD developed out of my own curiosity about the history of experimental music in Australia. It’s something I was interested in as a musician, and as a fan. Initially I went out there looking for something that I thought would already exist; recordings that had already been released. It just wasn’ there, and I was astounded. Artefacts just developed from there, I thought, ‘Well, if I’ve got this interest, then there must be other people out there who would be interested.’ The thing with a lot of these pieces is that they have never been available, even on vinyl; many of them were just never released. I was quite shocked, because if you believed what was out there on CDs, and you believed in what you read, experimental music in Australia started in about 1976, and there was nothing before that. I just couldn’ believe that.”
“I was initially unsure that there was even a story there to be told. When I started unearthing the music, the pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. I also wondered if there were any lines of history there, of influence throughout the Australian experimental music community from a chronological perspective. It happened really organically, the way that it has fitted together. Ideas coalesced and different streams in the story solidified. I’m quite pleased with the result; it’s not too clunky, it’s not forced. I think that it’s probably just the amount of time that was spent slowly doing it.” As a listening experience, Artefacts segues together remarkably well, exhibiting the dynamic swing usually reserved for single-artist albums recorded in more recent times.
It’s refreshing to see the question of musical lineage raised in an Australian context, and be able to find some home-grown foundations. Typically, when the question “what came before?’ is put forward, my initial reaction would be to look overseas for a precursor. In a peculiar reversal of perceived spheres of influence in experimental music, Stockhausen was one very few to recognise the groundbreaking nature of the collage work that Jack Ellitt had created during the 1930s. An excerpt from Ellitt’s “Journey #1′ opens Artefactsâ€”its breathtaking collision of cut-up sounds, including the portentous sound of a booing crowd, perfectly demonstrates the fierce exploratory overtones of the collection. “Jack Ellitt’s music has been a real startling find, he’ basically unknown to most people. Very few artists were doing anything like this in the 1930s; it’s quite a startling bit of history on an international scale. Ellitt recorded directly onto film stock, because tape was so rudimentary at that stage. Tape recorders were basically impossible to edit or do any sort of decent long length recording on. “Journey #1′ has an incredible amount of editing going on, there were a few other people who were doing a similar sound collage at that stage, but nothing as way out as this recording.
“Stockhausen was one of the few people who knew of Jack Ellitt and what he had achieved in this early period. Stockhausen knew that Ellitt was an important guy, and made contact with him. For various reasons, Ellitt just didn’ want to communicate with anyone about his music, not even Stockhausen! The full story is unclear, but it seems as if this was a facet of his personalityâ€”Ellitt did get a bad reaction in London during the 1930s to some of his ideas, he really took that to heart, becoming almost paranoid about what people would think. He continued to compose on his old Revox tape machine right up until the end of his life; I have recordings from the ’80s and ’90s, he did them just for his own private enjoyment and didn’ seek to have them published. Which is a shame, as he was obviously a real pioneer, not just in Australia, but internationally and no one knew about him while he was alive.”
That’s maybe part of the reason why experimental music in Australia has had such a torturous route to any sort of recognition or critical acclaim outside of a small number of devotees. Is it because a lot of the people involved are not ruthless self-promoters, or that they don’ play these games? “That covers a large range of practitioners in the areaâ€”they are not self-promoting types, they are just in it to make the music as an intellectual or creative process. Many musicians are very much focussed on their art, and their processes, to the exclusion of everything else. This can be quite an isolating experience, even though the experimental music community in Australia is pretty strong these days. It’s because of the inevitable lack of receptiveness in Australia to anything left of centre, as far as art and music is concernedâ€”I think it’s hard for artists to feel like what they are doing is worthwhile, there can be a lot of self-doubt. Even though you are really into what you are doing, that self-doubt pops up, in part because of a dominant culture that doesn’ value this kind of thing. That makes the self-promotion even harder. There are a lot of stories like Jack Ellitt’s on Artefacts, people who did things privately, or numerous others who went overseas to do their art and music, and received a better reception.”
Arranged chronologically, the first three tracks on Artefacts are Ellitt’, from the early 1930s, a discordant Percy Grainger drone-scape from 1951, and the Melbourne Dada Group’ “Wubbo Music’ from 1952 (featuring a young Barry Humphries interjecting random slogans, whilst pounding on a piano). The mid-1960s onwards is much better represented: it’s almost as if this release could have been entitled “Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music 1965 onwards, plus a little bit more. You could assume that this is an artefact of Green’ samplingâ€”leads followed, what was unearthed and what made it into the light of day: “That’s right, this is by no means a complete representation. With uncovering these old recordings, which are often held by family members of people who have passed on, it’s essential to make a really gentle approach, because people get worried that they’re going to get ripped off, or that their loved one is going to be misrepresented. Sometimes they don’ really understand the enormous cultural worth of these archival recordings, most of which have never been made public before.
“The thing about recording technology is important as well. In the ’60s, recording technology generally started to become a little bit more available. Prior to that, it was really rare for anyone to be able to record something. Jack Ellitt was at the BBC working in film during the 1930s, so he had access to that technology. Percy Grainger was independently wealthy; he used a machine that recorded to a 78, it made something like acetate, which could then be used for a primitive form of multi-tracking. Grainger had these special machines made by an engineer, to try and achieve his theory of free music. The piece on Artefacts is a brief recording; it’s real experimental music, literally speaking, experimenting with different machines that can achieve different musical effects before computers were being used. You could say that Grainger should have been working in the nascent computer technology scene, but he went up this other path, in some ways you could say that it was a spectacular failure. Grainger was very much an out-there sort of guy in many ways, people questioned his sanity and he was a social pariah in Australia for years, because of some of his ideas. It’s only now that a few people are revisiting what he was doing at this time with his free music machines.”
Artefacts most certainly does not demand to be listened to with a lab coat on, or anything so serious as an elitist attitude. “No, hopefully not! It’s supposed to be an enjoyable listening experience; I definitely put it together with that in mind. When I started this project, I hadn’ heard of hardly any of these guys, so it was like an education for me as well. I see Artefacts bridging the gap between being an academic study of Australian experimental music and for the listener who is simply interested in this kind of thing. I think that academic process-based music is very insular in Australia. I don’ know why actually, as it doesn’ seem to happen overseas. Maybe it’s because there’ a bigger range of institutions and people involved in Europe and the US, whereas it’s very small here. I think we also look to each other for support as well, maybe a bit too much to the exclusion of people outside. I think that there is a real divide in Australia between process-based, theory-based experimental music and the kind off radical fringes of mainstream music. Like post-punk and noisy independent stuff, there’ a real gulf there. I’ve found that quite fascinating for a number of years.
“As someone who has moved in both scenes, and knowing people on both sides, a lot of the time musicians are doing very similar things and they have never heard of each other. I was talking to Warren Burt about Ollie Olsen; I’ve read all these histories written by academics about Australian experimental music in the ’70s and ’80s, and there’ no mention of people like Ollie Olsen. So what’s going on there? Am I missing something? Warren said he actually lived around the corner from Ollie Olsen for a number of years, but he has never actually heard any of his music. I’ll have to ask Ollie if he’ ever heard Warren Burt’s music, there’ something going on there. Warren’ probably a special case, because I don’ think he’ interested in mainstream music at all, he is very much in the process. My theory is that the mainstream fringes are more interested in the results gained by using experimental means, rather than the process being king. It’s slowly changing, there’ more interaction between those two scenes. But this frustrates me, as I don’ see that there is a great gulf between them.”
Clinton inaugurated Shame File Music mainly as an outlet for his own â€œdoing weird things with guitarâ€ music, and also to release some compilations. The label’ focus moved from punk to post-punk and then into experimental music as his interests branched out into previously unexplored areas. “I’ve always been interested in how ideas develop, and how music develops and what came before. To me, the idea of Syd Clayton playing a xylophone with knitting needles for nine hours, based on rolling a dice, that’s certainly extreme to me!” The experimental music community, both in Australia and overseas, can be grateful that Clinton has painstakingly researched and dissected a previously unexcavated musical midden to bring such startling artefacts to light.
Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music: 1930 – 1973 is available from Shame File Music.