Record Reviews

Artefacts Of Australian Experimental Music: Volume II, 1974-1983

Clinton Green’s second volume of Australian experimental music from the late ?70s-early ?80s is far from being impenetrable – it’s an ear-opener for anyone willing to listen, writes REN? SCHAEFER.


The first installment in this series drew together incredibly rare archival recordings of Australian experimental music from the 1930s to the early ?70s. It was a labour of love for its compiler Clinton Green and grew from a desire not just to document otherwise inaccessible tracks, but to present a historical narrative that would place Australian experimental artists within the wider discourse of the international avant garde, while also highlighting their uniqueness and independent achievements. Released to tremendous critical acclaim in 2007, Volume I instantly became a definitive resource for listeners interested in this country’s secret history of experimental visionaries.

Volume II illustrates the merging of the more cerebral conceptual strains of post-Cage composers, and their increasing use of electronic technology such as tape loops and synthesisers, with the ?anything goes? spirit of noise and improvisational musicians that arrived at similar practices from the punk movements of the late ?70s. Green also focuses on the emergence of particular collectives among these artists, such as Melbourne’s Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (CHCMC), and the osmotic process by which quite cerebral ideas were absorbed by post-punk groups such as Primitive Calculators and Essendon Airport.

As with all musical movements or genres, an understanding of history helps to illuminate just exactly what today’s artists are up to. Listening to many of these recordings, it’s interesting to note how contemporary they still sound, yet one also gains an appreciation for the laborious processes involved in creating this music, which often relied on jerry-rigged technology, primitive noise-generating devices and the painstaking work of layering pre-recorded sounds.

The opening excerpt from CHCMC co-founder Warren Burt’s 1975 work ?Nighthawk? is a fine example of audio collage, consisting of cut-up recitals of newspaper articles, urban field recordings and gamelan-like percussion. Following on, Burt’s contemporary Ron Nagorcka chose to utilise tape recorders, toy instruments and live vocals in his performance ?Atom Bomb?, recorded at the Clifton Hill venue in 1977. This domestically scaled approach to musical creation is echoed in an early live-to-air recording of Sydney’s Loop Orchestra, from 1982. The group also references the French musique concrete movement of the 1950s, which alongside American minimalists like Steve Reich, embraced tape machines as musical devices in their own right.

Composition via cut-ups and loops, and the use of primitive synths had already become a much-employed technique among artists of the mid-?70s such as Ros Bandt, Carl Vine, Paul Turner and Duncan McGuire. It’s testament to their inventiveness that the pieces collected here, while sharing certain strategies, are wildly varied in their tones and moods, ranging from Dadaist-inspired moments of jarring dissonance to almost pastoral tranquility derived from drones and cyclical layering of sounds.

Electronic music pioneer and synthesiser designer Tristram Cary, who is probably best known for composing the title music to the TV show Dr Who, tried his hand at using an early version of the sampler for ?Soft Walls?, which is an amalgam of the kind of sound effects heard on popular television programs produced by the BBC at the time. Cary’s work was instrumental in introducing mainstream audiences to ?futuristic? new music, and set a trend that still continues in the sound design of many Hollywood movies.

Queensland group Browning Mummery and legendary Sydney outfit Severed Heads later combined their industrial electronic sounds with strong dance elements, but the tracks collected here are of a more abstract nature. They consist of squelching pulses and rhythms generated through looping and layering, which seem almost completely machine generated in the case of ?Dance?, thus alienating the listener by seemingly removing the artist’s input from the process of creation altogether.

Another highlight is a previously unreleased 1981 track by an important contributor to Sydney’s experimental music scene, Ian Hartley. ?Train Je Taime? lives up to its title by juxtaposing steam train-like drum machine patterns with cut-ups of heavy breathing in a conscious reference to French pop enfant terrible Serge Gainsbourg’s orgiastic ?Je T’Aime?, an ode to carnality he recorded with both Brigitte Bardot and later with his wife Jane Birkin.

Melbourne band Essendon Airport pretty much came up with the blueprint for Stereolab with their 1978 song ?Do The Flowerpot?, combining the repetition and reductivism of Steve Reich’s most minimal compositions with the motorik of German electronic pioneers like Kluster and Harmonia. Having at least one foot in the pop/rock genre, they also incorporated electric guitar into their sound, albeit in a very un-rock’n?roll fashion. Philip Brophy’s Tch Tch Tch, on the other hand, throw a spanner in the works by embracing and then fucking with the conventions of popular music. ?Nice Noise Theme? is a standard ?50s rock’n?roll riff, complete with cheesy saxophone, repeated ad nauseam. It’s irreverent, ironic and annoying at the same time.

Annoyance and confrontation also figure strongly in ?I Can’t Stop It? by Primitive Calculators. Surely, everybody even vaguely interested in Australia’s post-punk musical history would have heard this song by now, but its inclusion here makes several important points. Not only is it one of the most vicious, snarling punk artifacts ever released in this or any other country, it also balances on the knife’s edge between avant garde art and Australia’s (still) dominant pub-rock culture. The Calculators were not content to cloister themselves in the rarefied environments of arts labs, galleries or academic institutions, but believed in playing where average people congregated: pubs!

Along with interstate contemporaries like Voigt/465, Primitive Calculators realised that it wasn’t enough to work in a vacuum, but that if you kept at it you could make people appreciate the most outrageous, horrible noise. As it happened, their music was so far ahead of their time that they are only now getting the recognition they deserved, but within Australia’s post-punk band scene they were of vital importance, even in 1979. There is no way that groups like Purple Vulture Shit, Thug, or any of the Black Eye Records bands of the ?80s could have existed without the gauntlet thrown down by The Calculators or their Sydney compatriots Slugfuckers.

?[One] gains an appreciation for the laborious processes involved in creating this music, which often relied on jerry-rigged technology, primitive noise-generating devices and the painstaking work of layering pre-recorded sounds.?

Fittingly, Purple Vulture Shit get a look-in here. Their track ?Do A Shit? precedes the vastly more feted garage rock/avant noise collision of American band Pussy Galore by several years. Being located in Adelaide in the early ?80s, they would have looked completely alien to both straights and the more conventional alternative crowd with their penchant for theatrical get-ups, punk-cabaret performance art and unpalatable noise. Really though, they were at the forefront of a musical revolution that still resonates with today’s audiences. When Black Eye compiled its albums Waste Sausage* (1987) and *Leather Donut (1988), most of the bands compiled thereon might have already been defunct, but longevity was never a consideration for most of these bands anyway.

In Australia’s capital cities, ex-punks who had been turned on by experimental noise gravitated towards each other and formed short-lived groups with names such as Pizza Sluts, The Slugs, Smack Of Jellyfish, Real Fucking Idiots, Egg’N?Burgers or Toe. In Adelaide in the early ?80s, such misfits gathered around the community Justin Butler (aka Justinstinkt) helped to birth at a fabled house in Beulah Road, Norwood. Communal experiments like these later sprang up all over the place, including Hobart and Newcastle. They continue to do so now, leading to the thriving community of improvisers, experimenters and noise musicians we have in Australia today.

In contrast, a musician like violinist Jon Rose has found international appreciation for his groundbreaking improvised works, which combine traditional instruments played with consummate skill, and electronic manipulations and home-made devices. Neatly illustrating the diversity and complexity of different approaches to experimental music, Rose is more at home in the world of jazz than most of the other inclusions here. It’s interesting to note how much the previously stuffy, conservatorium-dominated world of jazz has in recent years merged with other, more lively, streams of experimental music, culminating in events such as [?Overground?](/articles/3941154) at the last Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

Similarly, there’s no incongruity in placing Justinstinkt’s ?Drainpipe? alongside celebrated experimental filmmaker Arthur Cantrill’s ?The Second Journey (to Uluru)?. Both work well, leading into a stark field recording by ex-psych rocker Les Gilbert (The Wild Cherries) throwing rocks into a river in a bushfire-ravaged landscape. The album is capped off by meditative pieces by The Institute For Dronal Anarchy (IDA) and Sarah Hopkins, who whirled flexible plastic tubing to create her eerie soundscapes.

Artefacts Of Australian Experimental Music: Volume II truly showcases the breadth of musical practice in Australia during a little-examined period of time. It is an eye-and-ear-opener for anyone willing to listen. It is not impenetrable or difficult for those unfamiliar with the genre. Clinton Green’s lovingly detailed booklet provides just the right amount of information about each piece, never getting bogged down in technical or esoteric detail, but awakening an appreciation for the creativity of the musicians he has anthologised.

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####’Artefacts Of Australian Experimental Music: Volume II, 1974-1983′ is out now through Shame File Music.