6 May 2009
Jon Rose in pursuit of music with socio-political intent
© Steve Elkins
Jon Rose writes about music with socio-political intent and his recent Pursuit project. A new work by Rose, Music from 4 Fences, will be premiered in Sydney in June by the Kronos Quartet.
Looking back, it's hard to think of much composed new music that's been played in Sydney over the last 35 years that has socio-political intent – Martin Wesley Smith's audiovisual pieces in support of East Timor's struggle for independence and his collaboration with George Gittoes on the Wattamolla events, Greg Schiemer's Ashes of Sydney, and Alvin Curran's Maritime Rites are rare exceptions. Radical as David Ahern's music practice was, he had no clear political agenda.
Historically, there are some truly huge examples of functional music with political clout, such as Arseny Avraamov's Symphony of Sirens – performed in a public event in Baku in 1922 for the fifth anniversary of the Soviet Republic – involving thousands of singing comrades, hydroplanes, two artillery batteries, the entire Caspian flotilla's foghorns, dozens of sirens and 25 steam locomotives produced on the financial resources of an oily rag. By comparison, all the money thrown at the opening of the Sydney Olympics produced massed musical results of ... let's not go there.
In the clearing-up rush at the end of The Pursuit on 14th February at the Performance Space, a former member of the infamous Scratch Orchestra* and founder of the People's Liberation Music in London, Laurie Scott Baker, came up to me. He had enjoyed the music but was surprised by the socio-political inference of the event – especially in a place like Sydney (known to the world as a cultural holiday camp). Laurie was born and bred in Sydney and was obliged to leave in the 1960s to join a musical scene where political action was a common core belief.
Pursuit evolved on a number of levels – as sonic phenomena with acoustic generated sounds travelling at different speeds; as a challenging environment for interactive media technology; as an ecological paradigm (recycled junk, pedal-powered electricity); and as a social DIY interchange, drawing on participants from outside the usual new music set.
Involved with designing and riding the bicycle-propelled chamber orchestra in Pursuit were: Jo Jones (who hosts the Bike Love show on 2 SER), Jens Birchall (cellist and ex-bike courier), Nicholas Boyakovsky (who works at in Newtown at Cheeky Transport); Patrick Jones (ex bike courier and former national Penny Farthing Champion), Peter Thomas (bus driver), Narelle Sinclair (bus driver), Stephen Butler (Electrical Trades Union Rep), Harry Vatiliotis (violin maker and former worker at Carriage Works when they used to actually make things like railway carriages), Paul Bryant (dentist and renaissance man), Rod Cooper (furniture designer turned sonic sculptor), Robin Fox (media artist), Garth Paine (composer), and me (former member of the Marconi Club House Band).
I made my first mobile violins in the late 1970s, but this present project started in 2004 when I met Paul (dentist) at Harry's (violin maker) place and started to discuss, in between rants against the Howard government, the issues of speed, doppler effects and other acoustic phenomena. Weeks later Paul turned up with a completed mechanism of cogs, wheels, and pulleys – I called the prototype 'a Viocycle'. We jumped in the truck and set off for the Velodrome to try it out. The bloke who runs the Handle-Bar (a couple of old fellas on the pokies and the only sign of life) let us in. Built for the 2000 Olympics, the Velodrome wallows there in the western suburbs, barely used by anyone let alone musicians, with acoustics so pristine it's sickening. We made our tests and escaped with a video.
Over the next two years, I tried to persuade the management of the Velodrome to allow The Pursuit project to happen there. A series of quickly dug technical, financial and legal holes were placed in my way. The underlying message was: sport is professional and the most serious thing in this country, don't fuck with it. The fact that I wanted local community involvement in a contemporary music project didn't make any sense. I wasn't exactly riding around with a red flag, but sport and sport venues are considered sacred cows, the Opera House is for culture, I was told. (By the way, I have it from a security guard that 'It is illegal to play music in front of the Opera House' - see Youtube).
I've always thought that sport, live music and community should be natural bedfellows in Australia. But apart from the horror moments of the national anthems (an invention from the days of empire), enjoyment and celebration of the physical body in sport and music remain unconnected. And this in a country where for thousands of years, dance and music were near impossible to part.
The production team at the Performance Space got the concept and did their best to facilitate a positive outcome. Despite the foyer of Carriage works being packed with punters for Pursuit, members of other institutions like the Music Board, the Sydney Festival, Arts New South Wales just don't seem to get the connection between the corporal and the musical.
* The Scratch Orchestra was arguably the most political musical phenomena ever to exist in a western european country. One of its key members composer/improviser Cornelius Cardew wrote the notorious book Stockhausen Serves Imperialism and died in a mysterious hit and run incident shortly after Thatcher came to power.
© Australian Music Centre (2009) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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Jon Rose has created a body of radical music, and an alternative cultural context for the violin, its practice and its history. His new work Music from 4 Fences, will be performed in Sydney and Melbourne (5 & 6 June) by the Kronos Quartet.
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Socio-political intent? Try This
There aren't enough songs these days which are written from the heart for protest or social intent. But this is one.
It is absolutely remarkable:
You will need to turn your speakers up loud and keep the film running after the song has ended. That really is a cry for help from SC herself. Heartbreaking.
Have you ever seen anything like that?
Well, not for years, I'll bet!
Some really clever stuff in there to back up the really clever lyrics, particularly towards the end.
There you go.... quality socio-political intent in 2009.