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28 February 2008

A Forgotten History

Interview with Clinton Green

Jack Ellitt Image: Jack Ellitt  

In the 1960s two important things were taking place as far as experimental music is concerned. Technology, such as recording devices, were becoming more developed and more accessible to musicians allowing them to make copies of their work and have it played to wider audiences. In addition to this, people were traveling more and returning to Australia with abstract ideas and experimental recordings from places like America and Europe, and from musicians such as John Cage and Ornette Coleman. The combination of these factors and a more open cultural attitude toward music and art saw a unique group of avant-garde musicians and composers emerge throughout the ‘60s and beyond. Robert Rooney, for instance, began using non-conventional items as instruments, such as household items and tape recorders, while Syd Clayton, influenced by John Cage, moved toward musical theatre which explored Cage’s concept of chance while combining music, theatre and ritual. The La Mama theatre in Melbourne in the ‘60s provided a forum for composers to have their work played to audiences and other musicians and became a unique new music space in Australia at the time.

Experimental composers prior to the ‘60s had a much harder time getting their work recorded and documented and audiences were seemingly less receptive to abstract ideas. It wasn’t that progressive music didn’t exist in Australia – it was just that there were few recordings of the music that were well produced before international composers began influencing Australian artists and their ideas. Australian musician and composer Clinton Green decided to delve into Australian music history to find these often-unknown, forgotten artists whose ideas and works played an important role in influencing the musicians and artists who followed them. Green selected a sample of the works he discovered and has documented them on a CD called Artefacts of Australian Music 1930-1973, which took three years of research to put together and is the only documentation of Australian experimental music that exists extending so far back into history.

Melissa Davey: What was the motivation behind putting together Artefacts and delving deeper into Australia’s experimental music history than perhaps has been done before?

Clinton Green: I was interested in the history – and if there was a history – of Australian experimental music. I used to hear people talk about the ideas behind experimental music and where it comes from and those discussions mostly referred to overseas ideas and traditions. When any kind of Australian idea was mentioned it didn’t seem to go back further than the early to mid ‘70s. I thought: ‘that doesn’t sound right’. I couldn’t believe that things just started happening as far as radical music is concerned, out of nothing. So I wanted to find out. I thought that something that documented Australia’s music history, [like Artefacts, would already exist], and I could just go and buy it. But it didn’t exist so one thing led to another I guess.

MD: Artefacts opens with an excerpt of Journey #1 composed by Jack Ellitt in the early ‘30s, a man who is largely forgotten today. How was he received during his time?

CG: Yeah that’s right, he’s very much an unknown and very few people are aware of his work. But he’s a very interesting character. And the fact that he was reclusive and he was also a perfectionist I think did have something to do with why people didn’t know about him. He also seemed to have no interest in seeking to have his music played. In some ways I think [his life] tells an Australian story as well because he was a child of immigrants, he came to Australia when he was two and [later] moved to London to try and develop a creative career, and in both Australia and the UK got some really negative feedback on his radical ideas, in film as well. In some ways that probably had an effect on his personality. Because of that [experience], he didn’t seek to play his music to people or talk about his ideas. I’ve actually been in contact with some of his family who say he never wanted to talk about his music and ideas because he said that people would never understand it.

MD: That’s something that contemporary experimental musicians still struggle with today, that lack of audience, and I imagine it would have been even tougher for Ellitt in the ‘30s.

CG: I think in some ways he was a man well ahead of his own time. So it must have been really difficult. And artistic people tend to be sensitive at the best of times and most artists will have a bad reaction when people criticise their work. I think he’s a man that anyone who has explored the extremes of art can relate to.

MD: Was there much though happening in the Australian experimental scene throughout the ‘40s?

CG: A lot has gone on, it’s just as far as Artefacts is concerned not a lot of recordings exist from that time. Tape recorders then were basically unusable. Percy Grainger in the ‘50s had a machine that recorded straight to acetate, a 78, so people like he and Ellitt, who worked in film and could record onto film audio reels, were able to access the recording technology. There were composers in the first half of the century and even prior to Ellitt that were doing interesting things. There was a female composer called Elsie Hamilton who was composing microtonal works in the ‘30s for the theosophical society as part of their religious ceremonies. There are people doing bits and pieces of research about these kind of people at the moment, but what I wanted to do with this CD was present the sounds to people. In that way I had to restrict myself to recordings that existed so if I couldn’t find anything from the 1940s I just had to leave that be, but a few people are mentioned in the liner notes where I thought it was appropriate.

MD: Is that why it took you three years to put the CD together?

CG: Yes, that’s part of it. I would go and see someone who knew someone else who had a recording, and one lead would lead to another and I had to hunt people down. A lot of the people I never tracked down or I’d never find the recordings. I also really didn’t want to push people, especially family members who had a recording but who I didn’t want to push into releasing something that they didn’t feel comfortable about. I didn’t want people to think I was trying to steal away some sort of legacy. So I had to tread really carefully which caused a bit of a delay.

MD: Speaking of legacies, I’d like to move on to Percy Grainger who really made a strong impression on experimental music because he was the first to record a large body of works and also explored that wonderful instrument, the theremin.

CG: I think it was the ‘30s or maybe the ‘40s where he worked along with Leon Theremin who is the inventor of the theremin and this was part of what he was trying to get at with ‘free music’ as well. He wanted to get the gliding tone happening, which is where you can move from one tone to another using microtonality to get that gliding effect which is what he tried to do with ‘free music’. Before he started making ‘free music’ he would work a lot with the theremin, but he wanted a lot more control over it, so I think that’s why eventually he moved away from the theremin and actually started to get his own machines constructed to realise his musical ideas.

MD: You mentioned before that in the ‘60s people had better access to recording technology so we started to see a lot more music from then documented. But was it also a healthier time for avant-garde music because people began traveling more and bringing back ideas with them from overseas? For example, the introductions of the Lydian scale and eastern scales to bands like the Charlie Munroe Quartet?

CG: I think in the ‘60s things changed [culturally] in Australia and the western world, and people became more open to ideas about music and art. Overseas recordings and compositions started to find their way to Australia and people began to find out about American experimental composers such as John Cage and Ornette Coleman and really radical music ideas. You mentioned Charlie Munroe, who I would have liked to have had on this CD actually but I couldn’t get the right permission to include any of his work. But people like Charlie Munroe and also the McKimm Rooney Clayton trio were also working with ideas they were hearing from the US and Europe. In the ‘50s there were new music societies, which had listening sessions where they’d play these new American and European recordings, but in the ‘60s you could actually buy the stuff. People like Keith Humble came back to Melbourne in the ‘60s after working deeply with experimental music in France and became an educator and mentor to musicians who would go on to be really big movers in experimental music in Australia in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. People were saying: ‘this is what’s possible’.

MD: In the late ‘60s Syd Clayton moved from his work with the McKimm Rooney Clayton trio and started exploring music theatre. Can you explain some more about that, because it’s something that’s we’re seeing in experimental performances today.

CG: There’s a very small theatre in Melbourne called La Mama, which has been used since the ‘60s and it’s like an experimental theatre space. Most of Clayton’s works were performed there. Clayton used musicians as actors, so, as well as performing on the instruments according to the score, which was chance-based, the musicians would also have to do things like light a cigarette or perform magical gestures where they had to hold their hands in certain ways. It sounds kooky, but it actually really works and there’s something very together about it. So the idea was to mesh theatre and music and also have those chance operations applied to theatre as well. What those actors on stage were going to do would depend on a roll of the dice or the spinning of a roulette wheel.

MD: Ron Nagorcka was important to artists in the ‘70s because he really gave experimental artists a forum through which to play their work didn’t he?

CG: Ron Nagorcka played a large role in establishing the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, which became a real hub for experimental music in Melbourne. It went on for about six years from ‘76 until the early ‘80s and it was just a space where anyone could perform anything they liked. It was supposed to be for all sorts of music but I guess the very nature of it being a space where you could do whatever you liked and the fact that the audience wasn’t charged made it a place for people to perform experimental music. And people couldn’t demand their money back if they didn’t like it because it was free of charge. Nagorcka was also a real pioneer as far as tape music is concerned – using a tape recorder as a live instrument. Atom Bomb is the most famous one. Atom Bomb was a live performance and they would start off with some vocalising and some keyboards and record a minute of what they were playing on one tape recorder and then play back what they recorded while they kept vocalising, and then record that on the other tape recorder and then vice versa. Gradually over the space of an hour they would build up and keep overlapping each other. He was a real pioneer of the ‘do it yourself ethic’ of using really cheap instruments and household items like tape recorders…a really important Australian composer who is still composing now.

MD: How do you think artists such as those we’ve been talking about have influenced your own work or other contemporary musicians?

CG: Certainly how I learnt about what they went through and read about their ideas I find they influence my own work – l ike I’m interested in different ways of presenting performance and chance operations as well. But probably the most interesting thing I find is just the barriers that they came up against. In panel discussions, I’ve talked about the question of whether contemporary performers are influenced by those who have come before us. And the barriers they come up with are similar, like there’s this Australian sentiment of a distrust [of or] distaste [for] anything that doesn’t have a material or practical benefit. So even music at the best of times is debatable but experimental music is so way-out that it’s almost like taboo to talk about it with people who aren’t involved in it. I was on a panel in Newcastle at ‘This Is Not Art’ [Festival] last year with Robin Fox, and we were talking about how when you tell someone you work in experimental music they look at you like you’re a child molester. If that’s what it’s like now then what was it like in the 1930s? So it’s inspiring and personally makes you feel like you’re not the only person in the world and you’re not doing this on your own and that you are doing something that’s worthwhile. It’s also good to know that Australia isn’t a complete backwater with nothing going for it artistically and that there is actually a strong tradition here.

Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music is available from the Australian Music Centre’s shop, www.shamefilemusic.com, and all good record stores.

Further Links

Shame File Music (http://www.shamefilemusic.com/artefacts.html)

Melissa Davey is a journalist working in Sydney though she is originally from Perth. She freelances as a music journalist in her spare time, with a particular interest in the avant-garde, and was the editor of Grok Magazine in 2007. She currently writes for Drum Media, works for the Media, Entertainmnet and Arts Alliance and is undertaking training at Fairfax.


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