Robbie Avenaim interview by Carla Teixeira


The What is Music? festival has returned for 2008 with a national road trip taking in five cities. Cyclic Defrost‘s Carla Teixeira spoke with festival co-director Robbie Avenaim.

Robbie Avenaim

Where does the festival kick off and where will it close?

It kicks off in Sydney on April 12 at Carriageworks, and we’re doing a tag night, which is an avant-pop-rock-punk night at the Hopetoun on the 13th, and then we go to Melbourne on the 14th the next night and do the Toff in Town, and then on the 19th we’ve got a special gig in Melbourne and then the 20th is the closing in Brisbane. So it’s a five-day national event.

I see Robin Fox is co-curating this years festival. Can you articulate what it is that What Is Music? does differently to what the other festivals are doing?

What Is Music? likes to present things a bit more radically, so we will dabble in more extreme music, and in the way that we present it. Sean Baxter might disagree with me and say, look the Make it Up Club put on extreme music as well and Now Now might say we put on extreme stuff as well, but I think they all have an aesthetic that’s a little bit different. When I go to these events, there’ definitely an aesthetic that’s a little bit different. The idea in the beginning was we were trying to break down barriers, so I think we’re specialists at breaking down barriers musically. We present every genre that’s out there, but it’s extreme forms of the genre and then everything in between that as well. These are new music shows, experimental music shows, it doesn’ have to be like a McDonald’s event where you have an act after a next act after a next act and they run for six days straight, you know, and then it goes to the next city and does the same thing. I like to think that What Is Music? is going to give audiences something unique and very different to learn from, so I feel responsible to try and come up with interesting concepts.

This year, I’m trying to present more installation-based stuff. I’ve been getting into installations and performance installations for a long time. I don’ think any of the festivals present installations properly. So we’ve got some really big things coming up.

See that little octane machine that Miles (Doorsen) is using (points to web page), it’s got a microphone that comes out to here and you talk into it. It’s an interactive device for the audience. In between sets, they can talk into it. And it processes your voice so that it sounds really fucking demented. This is another side to music. I think festival organisers need to go around the country and source that kind of work. So What Is Music? has gone out of it’s way to find these artists and get them out of the woodwork, even if they haven’ been performing for decades but they do something really very interesting.

Tell us about Miles Doorsen’ project Fuerwasser?

Miles’s project is like a five by five mere swimming pool with two and a half thousand litres of water. He’ going to fill it up in the foyer of Carriageworks and shoot a fifteen foot high fountain thorough the middle of it and then pump high pressured gas and light it. He controls the flame going through the water, which gives it this sonic pitch that goes through it. It’s like mixing fire and water together. He’ a builder, mechanic and engineer.

Nick Wishart worked on the interface that runs the device. It’s a sound sculpture installation that has its relevance in music. It’s the kind of work that raises questions like: is it improv. music? Is it spontaneous experimental music? Is it science or art? It starts to get really iffy – for me I go: “no – wear it”. This is good. This is good shit. You could walk down the street and hear an amazing sound. Those guys would, they’d walk down the street and hear some machine going, “bang, bang, bang” in the background, and they’d go “Wow, that’s a great sound.” But people never think about presenting anything like that.

Oren Armbachi has quite a big installation set up. He’ using three guitars and he transforms the sound of the guitar but he’ playing solo.

Dale Gorfinkle’ going to have a humungous installation as well, set up in front of his vibraphone, and he’ re-worked the concept of the vibraphone, it doesn’ sound normal anymore. He’ll be playing the vibraphone and other instruments he’ built.

I’ll be performing in three states but I’ve got a major piece that I’ll be performing in Sydney. I’ll be doing a composition for two mechanical-based drums and two mechanical side drums that I’ve made, so that’s a mechanical percussion orchestra that I’ve built with the help of Miles Van Doorsen and I’ll be improvising too.

Robin Fox will premiere his double laser show. He uses two lasers and works in stereo. He’ll fill the whole room with smoke and project the lasers onto the smoke. It’ll be nice in Carriageworks, because it’s quite a long deep venue. You do get lost in this, you know. Every time I watch his shows, it’s quite amazing what it does to your brain. I haven’ experienced a connection with music and a light show or a laser show or any type of visuals, that closely. People are struggling to get that connection, that close, to that degree. And because he’ been working with oscilloscopes, they can give you an exact visual reading on a sound and he just turned a laser into the same concept and got a laser to think the same way and instead of projecting it onto a two dimensional surface, he gets three dimensions out of using smoke as his surface medium.

How would you describe the music that Chris Abrahams and Cor Fueler are going to be playing?

Cor Fueler and Chris Abrahams, well they’re two great piano players, they’re amazing. Cor Fueler prepares the piano in his own way and does really beautiful harmonic music with objects he’ invented that go inside the piano. Chris Abraham pretty much will probably just play the piano. I don’ know if he’ll prepare it in any way. But to get them to do something really great together, you need a couple of pianos so I’ve organised sponsorship from Hutchings Pianos so we can have two grand pianos on the day. So it’ll be great to see that.

Anthony Pateras is also playing the piano with a heavy metal drummer from Melbourne who Anthony has been training to play improvised music. It’s a much more radical approach to play free jazz, you know? Rather than get a free-jazz musician to play with an avant garde pianist, he’ getting an extreme rock musician to play with him instead so his approach is a little bit more radical.

What about Valerio Tricoli, do you want to give us a little bit of a heads up about what he’ going to do?

He works with reel-to-reel machines. He manipulates quarter inch tape. He’ doing musique concrete and it’s all live. He’ a really amazing sound artist in the new school of nagra instrumentalists.

What is it that’s about Melbourne that’s unique in your curating the Melbourne chapter of the festival?

This year we’ve got Rod Cooper, who’ a great installation artist, and works with found objects. He’ a great instrument builder. He’ very good at organising strange events in strange environments, in really unusual venues around Melbourne that aren’ considered venues. In the past he’ organised things for What Is Music? Sub-events in tunnel dwellings and weird venues around Melbourne, so he’ found us a really great venue there called The Maize, in Hawthorne, and it’s a beautiful tunnel that goes for kilometres, and the acoustics are amazing. So I said to him, why don’ we turn it into a public event, and inspire people to bring their own instrument or amplification that doesn’ need any power and people can wonder though the tunnel and play music. We’ve got key artists as well, but it’s more designed for the general public to be involved. People should bring their own lights and their own sound resources. I think people will bring unusual objects to play. It’ll start at 9pm and go ’til dawn [it will be cancelled if it rains due to the risk of flooding], it could turn out to be a really special underground sound event.

The other night we’re doing, on April 14, is another another installation-based event involving artists in the Melbourne scene. We’ll be removing all the seats from the venue and not using the PA and setting up a very non-hierarchical event that doesn’ set any conservative views of how you sit down and see a band or how you see an act. The audience can roam around the venue and experience key artists from the community and there’ll probably be anywhere from 20 to 40 artists on the night performing an installation based piece in a particular part of the venue. People will be free enough to pretty much walk around, talk to the artists, move over to one side of the venue, listen to one artist for while if they want, go over to the other side of the venue, listen to something else. I’ve got a roaming horn section that will move around the room together. Performing artist Eric Mitzak with be doing some installation-based speech performance. It sets up a very different concept for curating an event. In one sense, I think it’s going to inspire the artists to do something a little bit different for the night, they can set up something and walk away from it and in another sense it will set up an environment for the audience to enjoy themselves in new ways.

As a curator it’s challenging for me to organise something like this for the Melbourne chapter of the festival, because I don’ know exactly what’s going to come out of it and I like that element. Instead of putting on several things and pretty much knowing exactly what I’m going to get out of the night, this way it’s just as exploratory for the audience as it is for the organisers and artists. That’s very important, especially for an experimental festival. There should be nights like that, not keep it so safe.

So you’re closing the festival in Brisbane, and Joel Stern who is Audio Pollen is behind that, and I notice that a lot of the artists you’ve assembled have been involved with Audio Pollen for a while. Ross Manning is an instrument builder and a kinetic artist, can you tell us a little bit about what type of work he’ going to be performing at the festival?

Well he told me he’ going to be using washing machines. Once again I rang all these artists up and said I need something different. Lawrence English is performing a piece with his laptop and two percussionists (Jason Elliot and John Parker) who are a couple of very talented guys so they’ll do something great. I found out from Yusuke Akai that he’ been training children to play noise. He’ an avant garde noise guitarist and he’ working with children at the moment and I love the festival having that component as well. At the end of the day it’s about approaches so if you’re watching a child playing something, you’re abandoning all your preconceptions of how you’re supposed to play experimental music. And a kid goes out there and does it without intellectualising the process. Nik Mayer-Miller is also doing something with 12 year old Alex Rayment, a student of his, who he’ been teaching improvised drumming to. Why not? I think that’s great! What experimental festival is doing that?

When you put on a festival your actually making one humungous musical statement. What is Music?’s philosophy has always been, just when you thought you knew what experimental music was and just when you thought things were safe, things can be really unsafe, musically. When things are getting really conservative musically, we can break that wall down. Because this art form shouldn’ be safe, it should be constantly exploring what it’s best at. It’s slowly turning into a very conservative art form and I worry about that.

Full details for the What Is Music? festival can be found at