Gail Priest is a sound artist and associate editor of Real Time. She’s edited a book Experimental Music: Audio Explorations in Australia (UNSW Press) that attempts to chart some kind of course through Australian experimental music from the 1970’s onwards. It’s a slippery slope, with issues arising simply at the definition and Priest readily acknowledges that this is not a definitive account, it is just one account, no doubt coloured by the contributors actual involvement in the scenes they’re describing. And that’s probably a good thing. At least we know they were there.
The book gains its direction via these contributors, a mixture of practitioners and academics, who take a subjective journey through their area of expertise. We’ve got performer and academic Julian Knowles who has the unenviable task of taking in the mid 90’s onwards, yet taps into Percy Granger’s 1950’s experiments as well as taking us through the evolution of the What Is Music Festival, Now Now, Liquid Architecture, Totally Huge, and nights like The Make It Up Club, Impermanent Audio, and Small Black Box amongst others, emphasising the importance these institutions had and have in developing the scene. Ian Andrews (Disco Stu) tackles the diverse range of experimental electronic music that developed in the post punk period between around 1978 and 84, tapping into DIY cassette culture, the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, Severed Heads and Industrial Music. Cat Hope explores noise music, again struggling with definitional issues. After all isn’t all music noise? SPK, Bucketrider, Lucas Abela, Toy Death, Philip Samartzis’ Gum and Darrin Verhagen’s EPA project all get a nod. Artist and academic Shannon O’Neil (Alias Frequencies)takes us through the history of sampling, appropriation and sound collage, again via Severed Heads and Gum, Dave Thrussell and Antediluvian Rocking Horse, yet also via the strange workings of ‘outsider’ label Dual Plover. Gail Priest and Seb Chan (Cyclic Defrost) unpack the rise of dance music with If, Psy Harmonics and the dissecting of various dance parties. Bo Daley gives an insiders account of the development of Clan Analogue, beginning with the fascinating quote that ‘being an electronic musician in Sydney in the 90’s was like being gay in the 80’s’ (Dan Bugagiar). Virginia Madsen explores experimental radio where Radio National comes off looking pretty good in a very bleak landscape, and instrument maker Sean Bridgeman explores his area of expertise via Ernie Althoff, Rod Copper and Jon Rose amongst others. Improvising musician Jim Denley takes us through the history of improvised music in Australia, and he would know, being possibly one of the most qualified exponents of the genre. The above are all names that have featured regularly in this site over the years, yet the book attempts to provide some kind of sequential context to their work. It’s admirable that finally someone has deemed this broad, cross pollinating and ill defined scene worthy of some kind of investigation. It is the first book to document this scene, and whilst there are some attempts at critical discourse, the need to simply document the vast array of important practitioners leaves little space for any kind of meaningful dissection.
The accompanying cd features some rare live material from Teletopa in 1971, The Loop Orchestra in 1982, Lucas Abela’s glass blowing shenanigans, Severed Heads, Biftek, Rod Cooper. Thembi Soddell and Anthea Caddy, Kaye Mortley and an audio visual excerpt from Robin Fox’s mesmerising Backscatter. Again, this could have been a 7 disc set such is the range of material that you’d wish to include, though you can’t help but wonder how artists as diverse as Rod Cooper and Biftek could ever exist under the same banner. Making sense of this you would think would be one of the main challenges of the book, however in their desire to simply document the abundance of styles and approaches over the years, precious little space is left over for these kinds of broader unifying discussions. Perhaps that’s now the next step.
Bob Baker Fish