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28 February 2008

The Missing Link

Interview with Jim Denley

Jim Denley Image: Jim Denley  

The Splinter Orchestra – an improvisation ensemble based in Sydney – has spent the last four years exploring large-scale collaborative music making. At times the group has had up to 55 members who have worked together musically without a leader or conductor. They released their first first album in July 2007, and in January this year they performed at the NOW now festival of spontaneous music. Danielle Carey chats to Jim Denley, a member of the group and one of Australia’s foremost improvisers, about aesthetics, anarchy and possible connections to improvisation groups of the ‘70s.

Danielle Carey: Can you tell me a little about the founding of the Splinter Orchestra?

Jim Denley: Clayton [Thomas] and I were sitting in Brussels one night listening to the London Improvising Orchestra. We talked about the possibility of doing something with a large group in Sydney. A few weeks later he was doing it. He's like that – an activist.

It was possible because there were suddenly lots of interesting young players on the scene and they had a different sensibility to my generation: they were less concerned with expressionism and less egoistic. It made large group playing good.

DC: So what does the group aim for musically?

JD: We don't have long collective discussions about aims. There is no manifesto. But I'd say we are trying to make large-scale group improvisation work. When we did an ABC recording a year ago, the ABC producer was clearly against the way we organise ourselves, and she cited Sun Ra as an example of a large group that we could learn from, in adopting a more compositional approach and to have clearer hierarchies.

We were offended by this – at the assumption that we hadn't thought about this, and that what we were doing wasn't clearly in the tradition of groups like Ra's.

Sometimes individuals have a notion of how the music could or should sound, and work out procedures or scores to realise this. Some of these have been successful: in particular I'd cite Adam Sussman's and Gerard Crewdson's ideas. But in general the idea is to not know anything in advance – this seems to be our main process. Of course we build up a culture and, through that, assumptions and expectations and contextual structures are very important to the outcomes, i.e. how we stage the group, length of a performance, where is the audience, etc. etc.

Sometimes (twice), individuals who join the group don't work well in the group. This is revealing about what we are trying to achieve. Sometimes, individuals who have worked well in the group for some time, leave for artistic reasons, this too is revealing.

DC: The idea of a large group of improvisers playing together brings to mind Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra of the ‘60s. And [Australian composer] David Ahern, after having spent time with Cardew in England, came back to Australia in the ‘70s and formed various groups inspired by his ideas. Is there a strong connection between the Splinter Orchestra and Ahern’s early AZ music activities and his [improvisation] group Teletopa?

JD: Not really, because I'm the only link. (Finally I've found my role - the missing link.) Teletopa, I now realise, was my major early influence.

DC: You were studying flute at the Sydney Con when Ahern first came back to Australia. Has Ahern played a role in shaping your own ideas about collaborative music making?

JD: Ahern was a HUGE influence for me. But more correctly: Teletopa, (a collective). I have recently heard recordings of this group from 36 years ago, and I love what they were doing. At the time I remember going to gigs and not really having an opinion – just soaking the experience up like a sponge. I was overwhelmed and taken by their performances.

DC: So in hindsight then, what is it about the actual music that you love? What’s going on musically?

JD: It was their uncompromising clarity. I remember Teletopa performances at the Inhibodress Gallery in Woolloomooloo [Sydney] in the early 1970s. It was the loudest music I had experienced and the performance was staged unconventionally as the musicians sat on the floor and wandered around the space. They had a total dedication to a ‘noise’ aesthetic. Despite Geoffrey Collins (flute), David Ahern (violin) and Roger Frampton (sax) being accomplished instrumentalists, at no point was there conventional instrumentalism. We heard gongs, kalimbas, cymbals and drums, thumped, bowed and scraped, contact mics amplifying rubbings and grindings, electronic bleeps and gritty tones, and occasional hints of a violin, a flute or a sax. It was a total dedication to skronk – but skronk without cathartic expressionism. This was spacious music: the placement of sounds in time/space is enlightened by advanced listening despite their rush towards sonic elementalism. It was never manic, and always collective – there are no solos here – this [was] a disciplined band with a clear agenda.

DC: For me, one of the most interesting things about Ahern’s experimental aesthetic is the way he destructed the relationship between the audience and performer. What are your thoughts about this? What role does the audience play in your own music making?

JD: I think re-contextualising serious music making was inevitable when you maintained that classical music was dead. AZ [music] and Teletopa were trying to explore new ways for audiences and performers to be conceived. That was an exciting time. I remember one concert my whole family went to at the Cell Block where we were given tickets and then an usher took us to our numbered seats. The stage was in the middle of the space. The usher after a time returned and said there had been a mistake and that she had to take us to new seats, she lead us over the stage, where Roger Frampton, I seem to remember, was underneath the piano. This was happening all over the hall; the audience was being moved around and at various times ended up 'on stage'. For our little family from Wollongong this functioned as DADA. It exploded my head.

DC: When I last saw the Splinter Orchestra play (at the NOW now festival) the performers were also in the middle of the room. Audience members were sitting, lying or standing in the space around the performers. I actually found myself wandering around to a few different places in the room, and at times I was sitting right next to some of the players. It was a fascinating experience. I found myself tuning in to different instruments at various moments depending on where I was in the room. It almost felt like I was part of the creative process because I was creating my own thread through the soundscape (despite how unrelated each moment I was connecting might have been) and what I was hearing was probably completely different to what the person across the other side of the room was hearing. But was I missing something by not hearing the orchestra as a complete entity? As a listener, how should I be approaching a performance like this?

JD: I'd say, as you see fit. It's the job of advertising or propaganda to try and control audience reaction and perception. Art has to be created in the head of the audience. Use it how you like.

In general, Improvisation is not concerned with 'works', it's concerned with process – it's presence culture as opposed to meaning culture. As there was no God-like creator, outside of the work, then I'd say your listening style was entirely appropriate.

DC: Anarchy seems to play an important part in the running of many collaborative music making activities – for example, the early days of Ahern’s AZ music; the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, which Ron Nagorcka founded in ’76; and in more current times, along with the Splinter Orchestra, you’ve got events such as the NOW now festival. Why is this so?

JD: Art for me is about alternatives. That's why, for me, Ross Edwards isn't art, it presents more of the same. All the groups and organisations you've mentioned have strong individuals who were activists. But they can't call themselves artistic director – the music is too grounded in politics. Ahern tried to control the others in Teletopa, and according to Frampton, that's what destroyed the group.

The Splinter was organisationally hierarchical (Clayton drove the band, even called it his band on occasions), but artistically anarchic (in principle). Now, I think it's more collective in both senses. In reality? Very hard to judge, I think you'd need an anthropologist to do a study on us to find out.

DC: That’s interesting because since the NOW now festival, something that keeps coming up in conversations about collaborative music making is the interaction between acoustic and electronic artists (particularly laptop artists). Many people I’ve spoken to seem to feel that more often than not there is an unequal dialogue between the two. A friend recently explained this in the sense that she felt like the acoustic players are generally expected to respond to the electronic ones rather than meeting halfway. What are your thoughts on this?

JD: For me this is a furphy. People are bringing their own prejudices to this debate. I don't care whether people make sound with a swanee whistle, a cello or a computer. Of course, there are differences between instruments and methods of sound production. And there is something very complex going on with conventional instrumental traditions and singers that is totally engaging. But the notion that computers are devoid of the complex corporeal interactions that make music interesting seems absurd to me. You could equally say that a harpsichord, with limited dynamic range, and no contact by the performers with the string is a lesser instrument to the cello. Something is lost with the harpsichord and something is gained: it's different, has different potentials. The job is to play within those potentials. Can Ben Byrne play with his computer's potentials? Yes. That's all that counts. I don't feel any meeting with him musically is a halfway meeting. It is different but no less engaging for me to play with him than to play with Amanda Stewart. Her instrument is not only her voice, she isn't just a vocalist; like Hendrix her voice interacts with a complex mic/loudspeaker set up. She is as much as an electronic artist as Ben Byrne.

DC: That wasn’t really what I meant. The ‘unequal dialogue’ wasn’t referring to an instrument’s capacity to interact and make interesting music. There are differences, but making that kind of quality judgment definately misses the point! It’s more about the actual interaction itself. Often the sound created by a laptop artist is constant. Even though they are reacting and responding to other players and therefore creating different sounds, (generally) the totality of their sound doesn’t change. There is generally no sense of space or silence throughout their interactions. This is an observation rather than a judgment (comparing silence and non-silence isn’t the point here). But from a listener’s point of view, continual sound from the laptop artist can give the appearance that they are driving the performance and the interaction then doesn’t seem ‘equal’. Does that make sense? This is interesting because obviously as a performer your experience is very different!

JD: Not really. Having just spent hours [over] the last 2 months mixing recordings we did of Metalog [an improvisation project consisiting of Jim Denley, Natasha Anderson, Dale Gorefinkel, Robbie Avenaim, and Amanda Stewart], then I'd say more often than not it's Dale, Amanda, Robbie, Natasha or me making the 'constant' sound. Ben on laptop is largely using short violent phrasing. Of course laptops often play constantly in blocks without the use of silence. But they don't have to.

In performance, there is a resolution issue. Even 24-bit digital sound lacks the presence that an acoustic instrument has. But as soon as you amplify the acoustic instruments and put them in the same PA then you have partly put everyone into the same space: microphones in live situations are usually pretty insensitive. And a lot of computer musicians and electronic musicians in general use compression, so dynamics are contained. Having played in ensembles for years with electronic and computer musicians I am well aware that these resolution issues create problems (but art is about solving problems). I've always felt equal to Rik Rue, Martin Ng or Ben Byrne and I don't perceive there to be an inherent power problem in interactions with computer artists. When I shut my eyes and play I really don't care how others are making their sounds.


I think there is a big difference between loudspeaker sounds and acoustic sounds. What is acoustic sound though?

When you go and see an orchestra at the Sydney Opera House these days it is miked up and slightly compressed: we are so used to hearing electronic music even when we think it isn't. Almost all music that people hear now is through loudspeakers. In a group like Metalog, Amanda’s voice is loudspeaker sound, while I sometimes operate acoustically as well as with the PA; in a sense, she has more to do with Ben and his laptop. But because it's a human voice our perception is that it's acoustic, or we analyse it in that realm. It's electronic signals going to a loudspeaker.


I think partly what you are identifying is that phrasing in music has changed dramatically in 21st century music. La Monte Young has more to do with that than the laptop, but I guess laptops have made long blocks of sound material without phraselogy based on breath, accessible.

The theatre of making a sound on an instrument [is what] signals to the listener [the importance of that sound]. The lack of gestural information coming from the laptop player means that there may be a perceptual problem for the audience: the sounds [aren't] visually signalled. They are used to seeing the sound produced and consequently can't listen to the sound of a laptop – maybe they don't even hear it?

It would be interesting to do tests on the blind to see if they have problems with laptops in performance.

DC: I’ve heard that you plan to release a CD of some of Ahern’s music later this year?

JD: Teletopa actually. Yep that's the plan. It's a recording of the group from 1971 NHK Tokyo [Nippon Hoso Kyokai, i.e. Japan Broadcasting Corporation]. They went on a world tour. It's a great recording, sound wise and artistically. It will, I hope, put Teletopa where it should be: as the most important development in 1970s Australian serious music.

DC: Ahern once described the art form of improvisation as a ‘living organism’, since this kind of music is structured in the single moment of its occurrence. So if this type of music is constantly evolving and moving forward do you think it is important for musicians to be aware of their music heritage?

JD: No. Mozart didn't hear Bach till he was 21. Phil Samartzis, who with his group Gum was experimenting with turntables, said recently that he hadn't heard Christian Marclay. Culture moves in strange and complex ways; memes spread like viruses. My exposure to Teletopa means that I carry that knowledge with me, and the younger musicians who interact with me don't necessarily need to know Teletopa. We exist in traditions that we may not be aware of. That's why I'm a missing link: nobody knows my traditional importance! (part joke). They will, though, when the CD comes out.

But in the world we live in, there are so many recordings and works to know – far too many. You cannot get your head around all the stuff that you 'should'. In fact it isn't possible to know the tradition any more. My experience is that musicians tend to be more interesting the more they know. But there are too many examples of naive artists doing great work for this to be dogma.

Further Links

The Splinter Orchestra (www.splitrec.com/index.php?go=thesplinterorchestra)

Danielle Carey is currently editor of resonate - the Australian Music Centre's web magazine.


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