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29 May 2023

What is Robbie?

"What is Robbie?" Image: "What is Robbie?"  
© Clare Cooper

Robbie Avenaim is a complex and warm force. We've made music in many incarnations since 2002, and he has been a mentor, a bandmate, a cautionary tale, and a dear friend to me. To the untrained eye (ear?) Robbie's oeuvre and 'professional life' may look hyperactive and chaotic. But that warm force - the drive to connect people, amplify curiosity, push himself and others to their creative limits - is a consistent thread through all of Robbie's projects and efforts, perhaps never more so than his most recent endeavor: Safe In Sound (SIS) which he founded in 2017.

Robbie describes SIS as an 'exploratory music concert series specifically for persons with a disability, their families and supporters', offering this service across Australia, engaging an array of incredible improvising musicians such as Jim Denley, Laura Altman, and Carolyn Connors. All his early years of experimentation has given him the agile skills to focus on and respond to his audience, moment by moment - a departure from playing a standard improv set, and opening up a new approach to collaboration.

Safe in Sound concert, Jim Denley and Robbie Avenaim with Jessica
Safe in Sound concert, Jim Denley and Robbie Avenaim with Jessica

When he was performing the SIS concerts in family homes, Robbie quickly discovered the need for family members and supporters to get involved in the improvisations:

"I can't speak for 'normal' music therapists, just to clarify SIS performers are not therapists and all music is therapy to us all, but I would say trying to teach a non-musician chords on the guitar or piano would be almost impossible during a session. As SIS was delivering a fairly experimental approach to the music they would hear, it left me thinking how easy and beneficial it would be to teach the families and their supporters during the concert how to make sound and enjoy improvising and in turn help them build a new form of communication with their loved one."

The relinquishing of control, smashing hierarchies, and messing with codified tropes to open up new possibilities1 also is threaded through Robbie's practice. He is forever modifying what he does with his instruments, installations, as a curator and now through SIS - throwing himself into the juicy unknown. Robbie notes that he tried radical approaches from the beginning of SIS, trusting that involving all of the participants in the concerts would lead to brilliant results. With his very first SIS session with a family he used his Motor-Stick device, and has even played a Rife frequencies (that utilises low energy electromagnetic waves) through family stereo systems for participants with Canavan disease.

Robbie Avenaim and Clare's daughter playing at Supersense: Supersense: Festival of the Ecstatic at Melbourne Arts Centre, 2017.

Back in 2017, he spontaneously invited my then six-year-old daughter to perform as a duo at Supersense: Festival of the Ecstatic at Melbourne Arts Centre. I expected a punk, joyful skirmish from the duo, but was blown away by what Robbie set up and drew out for/from/with her: delicately feeding small objects to a hungry, vibrating snare drum while 300 or so attentive audience members' hearts melted. This kind of invitation to create with a little kid in a massive festival is typical of Robbie's creative openness and radical trust. He is able to make a safe space for risks to be taken. It is consistent with his history of involving kids and persons with disabilities in What is Music? Festival - wanting not only well-known adult artists to have the stage. To that Robbie elaborates:

"To be honest, at the time I never saw it as equality, I saw it as everyone we programmed had something special to say, I never let age or ability hold me back as a curator. In fact the harder it was the more reason it was to make it happen. Back to that day, I guess those who saw that show (or any other experimental music performance with kids) demonstrates their ability to take those risks without any conformed ideas they adopted like; how they look on stage or how successful they will become from it, but instead see how they can deliver some of the purest critical ideas musically."

In Robbie's organising, I see someone who is always giving more than he has. It's infectious, and has made those of us just starting to put on gigs try to channel some of this seemingly boundless energy to make live music happen. What I discovered as a nineteen year old trying to run an experimental music festival is that this model is terrible for your health, but it's awesome for making friends and collecting stories. In 2007, we made a set of 'What Is Robbie?' badges for the NOW now festival merch pack. I don't think he took it in the way it was intended… a loving dedication to his uniqueness, and a genuine question to consider in terms of the way we go about our music and community-making.

1Clare Cooper, 'Context Responsive: Intersections of Design and Improvised Music Practice' (Ph.D. thesis, Macquarie University, 2020), 130.

Editor: Liang Luscombe

Co-published by Liquid Architecture and the Australian Music Centre, 'Robbie Avenaim: A Complex Warmth' presents four accounts from close peers and collaborators Oren Ambarchi, Ernie Althoff, Clare Cooper, and Robin Fox of the artistic practice of experimental percussionist Robbie Avenaim. The editor would like to thank the writers for their contributions, Robbie Avenaim for access to his extensive archive, and Joel Stern for editorial support.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Clare M. Cooper has brought together thousands of people to work together on community festivals, skill-share spaces, pleasure activism, speculative design, and critical listening through co-founding the NOW now (2001), Splinter Orchestra (2000), Berlin Splitter Orchester (2009), Frontyard Projects (2016), and Climate Strike Workshop (2019).

She wrote her PhD thesis on the intersections of context-responsive improvised music practice and collaborative design, and is a Lecturer at the University of Sydney School of Design Architecture and Planning. You can check out the profile on Cooper for Disclaimer written by Jim Denley here.


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