Jon Rose (for the Peggy album): “If you say your music is non-political then that basically means that you are supporting the status quo.” Interview by Innerversity Sound


Jon Rose is a Sydney based composer and violin player. Having appeared on possibly 100 albums, including at least 25 solo albums. He performs 50 or so concerts a year, invents musical instruments, is an educator, a musical community enabler, an author and engages with indigenous communities in Australia in music projects. His latest album is a collaboration with pianist Chris Abrahams (The Necks) entitled Peggy, an experimental improvised work that explores non standard tuning, pitch, counterpoint and fascinating textures.

Innerversitysound: Let’s get into Peggy’s house. I like the pun by the way.

Jon Rose: I thought it was quite obvious but showing the CD at the launch, there were people I considered to be quite smart who just didn’t get it, until I pointed it out.

Innerversitysound: I presume just on the tuning aspect of the pegs they have both been you and Chris’s obsessions or behavioural ticks for a very long time. That you are so attached to these objects and use them to change your sound and what the perceptions of your actions are.

Jon Rose: Well it’s a big subject and I don’t know how much you are into the technical side of tuning but from a violinist’s point of view the piano is out of tune, even when it supposedly is in tune. Because it uses equal temperament, the twelve notes are evenly divided and it doesn’t actually bear that much relationship to the natural world of tuning in terms of how all sound works with the harmonic series and everything. So violinists are always traditionally swearing at the pianist, because they have a fixed tuning system on the piano obviously and once it’s fixed you play it as it is, whereas we are always trying to get in tune with the piano. Historically speaking that is what we have been pushed to do as violin players and the fact is we are trying to get into tune with something that is inherently out of tune. So it is a kind of odd world – this tuning thing.

There are two tracks on the Peggy album where I am playing an instrument which is called the Bird, that is a tenor violin, in other words it is sounding an octave lower than a regular violin. But it’s like a hardanger fiddle as well, so it has these sympathetic strings which go through the bridge underneath the playing strings. It makes that buzzy resonant almost Indian music kind of sound. And the tuning for that particular day of this recording that we did I put one of the pitches completely out from what the piano has and so you hear that. It is quite alarming because if you play open strings on a stringed instrument, people assume they are in tune. And so when you play lots of open strings, which I do on those two particular tracks, the piano actually starts to sound out of tune, I get a great kick out of that.

I don’t think Chris is bothered but for me it is almost like 1-nil. Because usually the violin sounds out of tune, there is no such thing as an in tune violin. It’s what you can get away with, even the big classical virtuosos, there is always a degree of latitude of what is considered to be in tune or out of tune. It is an interesting world.

Innerversitysound: On the idea of Peggy Glanville-Hick’s house and the idea you had of building community and of all the aspects of what your residency was about can you expand on that, either how you went about it or how you developed the series of performances.

Jon Rose: The last track is live but we didn’t actually have such a great recording. The playing was fine but the recording, somehow there was a bleed and one of the microphones made it a bit kind of muddled so we recorded the following day in fact. We played the concert and thought, well we would come back the next day and do some more. So most of the tracks are from the following day, not in front of an audience. The whole thing about the Peggy house, originally it was set up for a very traditional view of how a composer functions, you sit in ivory tower and you churn out your eleventh symphony or whatever. And the idea is that you escape from the world to do this. Well my whole view about music is that we are on the rack really for the survivability of musicians and one thing we have got to do is make it relevant and connected to the community as much as possible.

So my idea is that to get a house in the centre of Sydney, and Melbourne is not far behind, but Sydney is insane, the real estate here is insane, the house is worth $2.5 million. It’s a two up, two down workers house in inner Sydney and so to live in the centre of town is a kind of luxury, so I was determined to use it to build a concert series and a debate. To have music and then to debate what music is about, what’s it for, its value, its use, what are the syntax that go into making it, what it is, sonically speaking, and at the same time I thought I should build a community. One thing about Melbourne has always had over Sydney is that there are communities of musicians in Melbourne in a way that doesn’t really exist in Sydney. Sydney is much more aggressive, more every person for themselves kind of environment. So I thought I have got a year, let’s see if I can do it. So it’s like a paradigm, setting this up and well yeah it’s possible, you can. You can get people, at one stage we had 70 people crammed into a terrace house so it’s possible and people will come. That was my idea of expanding the idea of being a composer if you like. In other words the responsibility for the music doesn’t just remain with you for the creation of the score, it is actually about creating a community for music and of people who engage with the music. It is a kind of broader definition.

Innerversitysound: You have had a long history of invention of musical instruments. And a couple of appearances at Ars Electronicia and you have had one more recent go at re-invention of the violin which had a more commercial aspect to it, you were working with a company?

Jon Rose: It wasn’t a violin, it was a bow. The bow also relates to Ars Electronicia because when I performed there in 1990, I had been working for several years on an interactive violin bow. They heard about that and invited me there. Later the company I worked with was Keith McMillan which was the typical kind of cowboy west coast technology company and he was interested in taking this idea further and it was a real company so I sort of went with him and I shouldn’t have really. But I did and after a while it became clear to him that he was not going to make enough money out of it so he dropped the whole thing.

I put in several years getting the interactive bow thing working really well. So I have several decades of working with a violin bow which is anyway a kind of technology when you think about it. Some guy in pre-history was using his bow as a weapon to shoot animals or whatever and discovered well actually it is not a bad musical instrument. So it is a very ancient, organic piece of technology and to make it a midi bow, in other words to make it an interactive bow, as something that is measurable, that can be converted into digital information is very difficult. It is very easy for example to make a keyboard into an interactive technology and using everything that is possible as a trigger from a keyboard. And it is not so hard to do it with other kinds of instruments like the guitar and particularly fixed pitched instruments. But the violin bow itself is a very amorphous piece of equipment and it’s never quite the same because it depends on how tight you tension it up, it depends on how far you have dug in on the note before compared to the one you are going to play after it. It’s really wild, I can only compare it to be like being thrown into swimming pool at the deep end if you can’t swim, it’s a bit like that. Because once you start to thrash around and play with the bow, everything you do changes how it was micro seconds before.

So it was several decades of real experimentation. I worked with Stein in Amsterdam for years and years on this and I am still interested in the idea, it’s just that what we started off talking about at the beginning, now Apple make it impossible for you to keep up with them because they keep changing the operating system. I think they are now going to get rid of Intel and that will change everything again. So the moral of the story is don’t throw away your old Macintosh. I keep all mine because each one has a certain program on it that works and would not work on the next upgrade of the operating system. It’s the same with the bows now. Even the one I was working with Keith McMillan no longer works on a modern Macintosh, so it is already obsolete technology. And in my museum (The Rosenberg Museum), I have this shelf that is for obsolete modern technology. It gets obsolete faster than the violin which is from 1535 the the earliest date of a violin mural. So that is quite old technology – a violin.

Innerversitysound: With the experimental music scene, creating instruments is a prime activity in it. Almost as if everyone wants to throw off the shackles of limitations of each device. And as if this promises a kind of freedom. But it is never really solved.

Jon Rose: Well yes, you can’t have three arms, or five heads or twenty three fingers or whatever. There is a physical limitation to the human body and that defines a lot of music. It is a very different physiological process that is going on, from someone who is playing a violin to someone who is playing a piano to someone who plays a flute for example. No-one has done any work on this yet because no-one knows well enough how the brain works (there is no general theory of cognition – on the toilet wall of Steim in Amsterdam I saw some graffiti – ‘If the brain were simple enough that we could understand it, then we would be so simple that we couldn’t). We have yet to understand what is going on but it is not by chance that there are these different families of musical instruments. What they do and the pleasure and satisfaction, the necessary requirements of a musical instrument in the hands of a human, or even an animal too, I mean a non-human animal. I try to keep both; I keep a balance.

I go for total experimentation on one side and on the other side, because I was trained as a kid, as a violinist, I try to keep the rigour and the practice of working within this very narrow, tight framework, which also creates expression. There are many kinds of expression and one is that if you play a violin, it is very limited, it’s just four strings, you are working on a very tight little area, it’s extremely difficult to get something that sounds at least half decent out of a violin if you don’t actually play one. That’s one side of it and on the other I like to go into my garage and put a string on a chair that never had a string on it before and ipso facto there is a new instrument there. I just made one, literally I had an old chair that I found in the street and I just converted it into a harp. So I am still trying to work out how to play it actually, it seems to work best upside down. So I like both options and for some people they wouldn’t need to do both, they are happy either with the limitations and the rigour of a traditional instrument or they would prefer to forget all that stuff and go with the newness of doing something that hasn’t been done before. It is quite a buzz, if you put new strings on an object that has never been designed to be a musical instrument or it is something that you have just thought up, or whatever, it has a resonating body of some kind. It’s exciting, it’s not cheap thrills but its thrills definitely. And that is where my fence project came from, I like playing fences because they all sound different. And that’s the wonderful side, it’s the extension of string music.

Innerversitysound: On that, every time I discover new ideas, I quickly do a lot of research and find there are ancient roots poking through. With idea of building communities there is also the idea of connecting with communities and the fence thing is almost metaphorical in this but you have had aspects of the fence in Israel, or was it in Palestine?

Jon Rose: Well in Israel, but it depends, it was The Occupied Territories, so the Israelis like to think it’s theirs and the Palestinians think it’s theirs but actually how that tour came about was because I worked with a conductor called Ilan Volkof, who is a regular conductor, but he is probably the only conductor in the world who is an absolute avid fan of improvised music and experimental this and that and the avant-garde in general. He invited me to Israel to play the fences, that’s how insane that was, he knew well the Israeli opposition to the status quo, so each day there would be a new guy who would take me to a fence somewhere in Israel and we would play it. Of course the ultimate one was the separation fence and I nearly got my head blown off there by the Israeli defence forces.

Innerversitysound: You also have a strong connection with Indigenous communities and work with indigenous communities.

Jon Rose: I think it’s a necessity. We have fucked it up for so long and it’s an absolute priority and I have noticed with some joy that a lot of musicians are starting to really discover the music of this country, the extraordinary tradition, and everything about that can change how we can carry on with our music too. Next month, in June I will be working in Warmun which is a remote aboriginal community in the north west of Western Australia. The east Kimberley and last year I did the Wreck project, so we got a wreck and made it into a musical instrument and got the kids and the community to play it and this year we are going to do more work in the school and try to find ways that kids can play the violin but they don’t have to learn the violin like most white kids who learn how to play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star first and move on to Handel or something. It will be trying to work from the origins, the deep origins of their own musical tradition. So it’s quite a challenge but I am looking forward to it.

Innerversitysound: Back to the album itself. Can you tell me the concerns that you were working on and exploring with Chris Abrahams?

Jon Rose: For me, I am sure Chris has a completely different rationale, but for me the idea of playing with a pianist, or a piano, opens up a can of worms in my intellectual head and my emotional body. As a kid that’s what you had to do, you had to play with the piano. And as we spoke earlier, you had to get in tune with the basic instrument that formed the whole of Western music or the whole of Western music was formulated around it, if you like. If you want to write the history of Western Music, you cannot do it without the piano. So this whole thing about getting the two instruments to work for me is a real issue and there are not many pianists that I have been able to work with where the results are satisfactory. The scale of the instruments are completely different, let alone the tuning. The piano is a huge thing whereas the violin is very small. So there are all these kinds of issues.

I have known Chris donkey’s years, it has got to have been since the beginning of the eighties that we played together. I have created projects where Chris has been involved. One in particular was The Shopping Project which was satire basically. Socio-political satire. And there was a band I had before that which he was in briefly and we have known each other for a long time but we have never really got together and said alright we are now going to put our two music’s together and so this was a chance to do this at Peggy’s and I think we were pretty happy. I certainly was happy with the way it just flowed out.

So there is no editing on the CD at all, it’s just is what it is. It just happened and the concert that we played last week at Foundry 616 was very different again but it had this kind of flowing sense, something that could not be stopped, except when we decided to stop, as if arbitrarily. We did have a trio with Clayton Thomas. Clayton is really quite a character, he just had a really bad bike accident which he is recovering from. But the difference between a trio and a duo is massive in improvised music. With a duo there is nowhere to go, there is nowhere to hide. It is a fairly full on deal, all the way through. When we did the recording we actually did stop, so the tracks are seven minutes long, or ten minutes long or whatever. But for the concert that we just played live in Sydney, we just played an hour. We decided on an hour and we played continually for an hour. So that’s a lot of notes.

Innerversitysound: Have you ever tried playing with prepared piano people.

Jon Rose: Yes quite a bit earlier on, in the seventies when I was doing the commercial music gigs I also played with some piano players and explored that notion of the prepared piano and the last time I did it that I can remember was probably with Anthony Pateras and we played at Nick Simmonds loft which is called the People’s Republic which is to my way of thinking probably the most enjoyable little venue in Sydney these days. So he played prepared piano and that is always enjoyable. There is one track where Chris is playing inside the piano, he is not actually standing inside it (!) but he is playing the strings and I am doing more of what you could call extended techniques or noise elements, pizzicato, or banging on the wood and stuff like that. So in that one, it gets into a much more noisy zone of transmission and stuff, but for the most parts we tend to treat the instruments like they are, as the received instrument, if you like. That is really another difference you would have between Chris and myself, if I am playing the violin I tend to treat it as the received instrument, so I don’t tend to mess with it too much. If I want to do something that is outside or away from the tradition or much more experimental in terms of the sonic resources that I want to access then I would make a new instrument, I would do something to the violin, I would pull it apart or play it with wind or a wheel or with water or whatever – the more experimental things I have done. But when I come back to the plain vanilla regular violin I tend to play it just like it is, what I can do within the limitations of this particular piece of history.

Innerversitysound: There was a Zen story about a butcher who used his art of carving the caucus to achieve some Buddhist state of enlightenment, by basically using the same instrument over a very long period of time and getting to know what it is to be.

Jon Rose: There is almost a semi religious thing of God pointing his finger, if there was one, and saying did you practice today, were you real. Because the violin is so raw and so obvious. If you can’t play the violin, you can’t fake it, and if you don’t practice, I think it was Jascha Heifetz who said, “if I don’t practice for one day, I notice, if I don’t practice for two days, the other musicians notice, if I don’t practice for three days the whole audience notices.” It’s a bit like that, the violin is like that, it’s a kind of torture chamber really, its contortionist anyway, if you ever try to stand or hold a violin you realise that your left hand has been bent like a dog’s hind leg or broken or something. It’s not a user friendly instrument, it doesn’t give you much for what you have to put into it. Whereas most other instruments, the guitar, the cello, the piano, they are much more user friendly. I think it is a certain kind of characteristic of the instrument and the character of the person who is going to play it that the violin demands you put in a lot of effort.

Innerversitysound: That’s an odd commentary on the classical world and the modern world too. The classical world did seem a lot more demanding of people in a lot of respects and the modern world seems to have let a lot of things go.

Jon Rose: It absolutely is like that, we are living at high speed, and there is no time for anything. The notion of practicing, especially the kind of music I play, there is no noticeable benefit. It is a purely psychological game I am playing with myself, to still keep going with this. There is a reason why there are no old violinists on a classical concert stage, because you are fucked after a certain time, your body won’t do it anymore and improvising is different because within the rules of improvising, there are no rules, you make the rules.

Innerversitysound: The other thing is recording has changed classical music to a great degree where it has required greater precision to reach the world that is created in recording studios and how that is pieced together. It would seem that people who play in classical environments have a harder time at it, a much more physical time and more precision orientated.
Jon Rose: But they can do that after the event, they can edit almost anything now…

Innerversitysound: But you can’t edit audience’s expectations for performances that are unreal and they can’t expect, even though they hear it in their lounge rooms every day they expect that to be replicated when they go top concerts and it’s not.

Jon Rose: Yes and that’s so true of the so called ancient music genre too, say people playing Bach in authentic style and with instruments that haven’t been updated. People go to the concerts and of course the music is almost inaudible compared to the recordings they play at home on their hi-fi sets. So that’s one everything, on the other hand Baroque music has actually made a killing with the recording industry, not now but certainly with the advent of CD’s because they could produce these really clear, loud in your face recordings and it has helped re-evaluate and resell that music all over again. But with improvising it is a different thing. With improvising there is nothing and recording has changed that too. There used to be this argument, certainly with free improvisation should there shouldn’t be a recording even. And well basically that’s all we have got. Because there is no score and there is memory which is great, and there is living in the moment while you are doing it and hopefully the audience is right there too. But once it is over there is nothing left, it has vanished. And in this particular time (where we assume the internet is for ever) I think that is a hard one to grapple with but I think we may be in a situation where we more and more value the ephemeral.

My feeling is that there is a small but growing audience in Sydney who demand to have music first hand. No one at Peggy’s was recording on their phone, or even being on their phone. Or doing their email. They were just sitting there and being completely in the music. That’s a new sense, specifically for me who used to do commercial music where people spoke and did the pokie machines, screamed and threw beer mugs at you. All kinds of stuff. This is a small but growing body of people who value the essence of a musical experience. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

Innerversitysound: There are arguments about how technology and contemporary innovation are driving us towards how to create experiences as ways to make a living. If the tyranny of the object which experimental music tries to get rid of actually leads you to the place where you are just creating pure experiences and people have to work out themselves through that, then we are all the better for it.

Jon Rose: That’s an interesting thing you have said because I often have these talks with Chris Cutler, who is the head of ReR, the label on which this Peggy CD is released. And of course he has seen the CD business basically vanish but he does still manage to keep going by doing box sets that not only have the CD but they have booklets that have everything to do with the music, they have stories and artefacts. All kinds of things. So there is the object thing back there in a little way, it is a bit like the album, the LP. People do like to have a memento of something, that’s physical, particularly if there are only a few of them. So that’s also a game that is in flux. I think, yeah everyone is downloading everything free all over the place, including my stuff, but the people who are coming to these concerts, they don’t want to be like that. They want their life to have some reality in it. Now we are in this absolutely turbo charged fake world of frauds and fakes there is nothing that can be trusted. There are just algorithms that are churning out shit; a digital deluge. We are kind of under attack the whole time. I think there is already a strong reaction to it and that reaction will grow stronger.

Innerversitysound: What surprise me most about reading your biog and the writings about your work is that there seems to be a strong ethical element that is in the background of your endeavors. We could talk about post modernism and the facade of fake culture for a long time but I think it would mean nothing. But people who are addressing that ethics are real and not just imposed structural ideas and it leads to greater thought and greater experiences in life. And that incorporating that into your practice actually makes you a more engaged human being.

Jon Rose: Well I definitely do try and do that. From a young age, a really young age. I remember at the age of ten, the Berlin wall went up, in 1961 and I was fascinated by that. I remember a big discussion with my father about “why are they putting a wall up, that’s really amazing why you would do that?”, he couldn’t really answer my questions. From that point on I wanted to go to Berlin and live and play music there, which I did before the wall came down. So there is never anything as non-political music. If you say your music is non-political then that basically means that you are supporting the status quo.

I try to engage with the world as I find it and with the politics of the world as I find it. And in the eighties I did a lot of overtly political pieces, projects and pieces. I haven’t done much of that recently. But I think my game is more critical, if I am going to make a cultural critique I am probably going to write an article, or I am going to write a book or I am going to make a radio piece which has got text to it. Rather than music which is the abstract nature of sound, I am going to leave that to be what it is. And the application of music to the political sphere I am not so gung-ho about, let’s say that anyway. So I think it is more politically and culturally significant if I go and work on an Aboriginal community rather than write a satire or stage piece on the state of the Australian National Liberal party or whatever. One has much more benefit and it is much more efficient and it is much more about the time and the place than if I start doing political satire about Turnbull or whatever – that is just wasted energy. Because obviously I am a musician and I am not even a musician with any power. What I do or say will have no effect on the structures that are set up to run us.

But I can influence small scale things. Small scale community events and inevitably you are going to influence people who are your colleagues. And more recently I spent a lot of time working with people who were thirty, forty years younger than me, so that also is important. It is a bit philosophical but when you get to a certain age you have an obligation as a musician, if you think you have done anything worthwhile, to hand it on so that other musicians can use it or abuse it or throw it out or steal it or whatever. But you basically have to hand on that continuity of what it means to be a musician.

Innerversitysound: In all aspects of life that is the case, you don’t really have any choice but to shed your light, so to speak. You never did.

Jon Rose: In music there is a kind of defence mechanism too. It’s a very competitive world, so you are fighting for the limited amount of well-paid gigs for example. So there is this conflict, you are part of a competitive scene, not just in a capitalist sense, but also you have to be good or people have to think you are good so that people are going to pay you money, so you can eat, so you can live. So there is that basic criteria which is the bottom line. But those comments that you said, which are equally true, I think they have started to be on my mind as I have gotten older.

Innerversitysound: Earlier you seemed to have a Dadaist or absurdist take on the world. Which often relinquished teleology or ends or even reason to create oddities to make people wake up or to look at how the world was? Have you relinquished that sort of trajectory?

Jon Rose: No, not at all. It’s just sort of morphed into the museum more and more. So like this fictional character I have, Dr Rosenberg. Over the years I have collected, not just as a clearing house for my work and my own ideas, but I have collected all kinds of stuff to do with the violin, which of course is the icon par excellence of the music world. Because everyone thinks they know what a violin is. If you get in a taxi and the driver automatically thinks – it’s a violin, its expensive. And of course you can buy a violin now from China for $4O AUS including packaging, post, case, strings and bow. You can mass produce anything and you can do it with the violin too. They are quite playable, they used to be complete crap but now they have upped their game and the technology has been upped and the production process. So with the museum I am taking on all that Dada stuff, it fits perfectly in a museum. I have just finished one here in Sydney, it was at the Delmar gallery and was called Dr Rosenberg’s Wunderkammer, I have stuffed it back into my little rental here in Springwood but it is just full of the most insane stuff. Some of it I created, but some of it is just the nature of the instrument. It is something about the instrument that makes people crazy, or it is crazy, the notion of the violin is a crazy icon that just continues to deliver on all levels. Particularly on one level it has completely modelled the rise of china.

I used to collect pieces of kitsch crap in the early eighties but now China makes more of everything that was ever made in all of the world so that they make violins out of everything. I have these violin keyrings that kind of flash, in the dark and that is out of over a thousand items in the museum. It includes all kind of stuff, it even includes a jar with a replica of Paganini’s penis in it. Because Paganini suffered from a priapism, which is an erection which you can’t get rid of, at the end of his life. He suffered from a lot of things, one of his testicles was the size of a pineapple apparently when he died and so I had the story but I didn’t have the artefact. So in Alice Springs a few years back there was a fantastic woman, Nancy Hall, she was originally a teacher and she was asked by the Northern Territory Government to do this kind of safe sex campaign and they asked would she make some penises So she is a sculptor by trade and she made dozens of these cocks so that people could practice putting condoms on. I told her about this story and I asked would she mind donating one to the museum, so it could be Paganini’s reconstructed penis and she said absolutely.

There is also a coffin in the museum and in the violin world people talk about the old fashioned violin cases, the ones you would have seen when you were younger, they don’t have them anymore, they are all modern and flashy. But the old violin cases used to be called coffins. So a few years ago I thought let’s have a real coffin. I got a real coffin from an undertakers in Sydney and made it into a musical instrument. So it has an amplified string inside it and a very good friend of mine, a Butoh dancer is inside the coffin playing the thing and she springs the coffin open and there she is stark naked and screaming, makes the people in the front row tend to wet their pants actually. So to say my Dada days are over is not true.

Peggy by Jon Rose and Chris Abrahams is now out on ReR


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