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What NOW for experimental music?

caleb.k

caleb.k produces impermanent.audio. He is a lecturer in electronic arts at the University of Western Sydney and was a co-director of What Is Music? 2004.

Scott Hoscroft Unsemble, What Is Music? ONATHON Scott Hoscroft Unsemble, What Is Music? ONATHON
photo James Tsai
In the last 7 years the Australian experimental music/sound scene has undergone a huge explosion in production, promotion and audience interest. Sydney alone is host to 2 large experimental music festivals: What is Music?, the longest running and most influential at 10 years; and 4 year old The Now now. In addition Sydney also holds a number of regular events and by late 2004 there were 5 such nights: impermanent.audio, if you like experimental music we like you, Disorientation, 1/4 Inch, Sound No Sound plus the long running Frigid (also 10 years old) which occasionally features experimental music.

Not long ago there were a few irregular evenings and one-offs that attracted large crowds of people mostly interested in catching up with each other. The experimental music scene was focused on one yearly event, What is Music?. Directed by Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim, it brought together the local and national community, providing the only major outlet for performance. In addition the festival brought a few international (often Noise-based) musicians who provided a reference point, introducing new ideas but, perhaps more importantly, proving that the local scene was as good as anything happening abroad. The importance of this festival in the past cannot be overstated–it simply generated an entire scene.

This scene is now at a turning point. Events, performers and audiences have been established but due to their experimental nature, the events are always going to form at the edges of music, performance and art and as such the audience by its very nature is small. Without funding support it is impossible to pay musicians and organisers. How far can this funding stretch to allow new festivals and regular events to enter the fray?

To their credit the funding bodies do support some of these endeavours. What is Music? is a key organisation with the Australia Council and has been funded by Arts Victoria and the NSW Ministry for the Arts. Over the years it has expanded to become a travelling festival, touring to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. It also has support from a number of venues including The Brisbane Powerhouse in 2004-2005. However in 2005 What is Music? was unable to raise the requisite funding, a situation that required a major rethink of the festival.

The Now now 2005 run by Clare Cooper and Clayton Thomas was also affected by lack of funding support. Three successful festivals had previously been staged on a shoestring in Space3 and Lan Franchi’s, though neither venue suited the music. For the fourth festival no funding was received, a short-sighted decision given the event’s strong history of success.

Two very different strategies were taken up by these events to cope with this situation. The Now now found an extremely supportive venue, @Newtown, a location accessible to a major part of the event’s audience, and attempted to sell enough tickets to make the venture possible. They did this by producing an almost 100 percent local, Australian music festival. The audiences included the usual suspects but most excitingly a new group of curious patrons, perhaps attracted by the ‘above ground’ nature of the venue with its comfy chairs and air con. What provided the most excitement for the future of the scene was the willingness of this audience to try something new–4 nights of Australian experimental music with no ‘big names’, simply the promotion and celebration of Australian improvised musics. The Now now has taken over from What is Music? as the focus of the experimental music year in Sydney, from the point of view of both musicians and audience.

What is Music? made some drastic decisions in the face of its funding problems, albeit in drastic circumstances. The producers sought industry support from outside the experimental music scene through The Big Day Out promoters, resulting in the ONATHON. While this appeared to be part of the festival, the event was run separately and was not produced by What is Music?. On paper this seemed exciting–a mega experimental music festival with the possibility of stacks of locals and high profile internationals. However, it was not What is Music? but a privately funded event that was costed out of the market at $80 a ticket. The producers of What is Music? were distanced from their own festival, a loss of control that was felt in the scene. In Sydney What is Music? staged only 2 nights of music, more of a mini-festival. The biggest problem for the event was that exactly the same acts, bar 3 local performances, had featured the previous night at the ONATHON. There was little reason for most to attend both events, but those who did venture to the Gaelic Club witnessed a much better listening environment.

The first show was more akin to a metal theme night than a new music festival. It started out with the fantastic local trio of Peter Blamey, Jim Denley and James Heighway, a first-time outing combining 2 mixing desk performers with Denley’s wind improvisation. This was a gratifying performance filled with texture and focus. The drone metal of Reverend Kriss Hades followed. The size of the sound and the virtuosity of his guitar playing was exciting providing an intelligent juxtaposition of metal and experimental music. However with Sunn O))) (USA) also on the same program we heard 2 performances that were similar, and a DJ playing more metal.

The Dead C (NZ) is a band I hadn’t seen for 12 years and I was way too excited to be objective. They lived up to all hopes showing what the combination of Flying Nun style pop and Sonic Youth guitar noise could produce. There were no surprises here, simply a band that has been playing brilliant noise-pop for 18 years. The night ended with Sunn O)))–loud beyond belief with a row of Marshall guitar amps, 4 musicians playing electronics and 2 guitarists. The performance included electronic drone, massively slow strum guitar and monks’ hoods. The combination of subterranean metal and experimental drone was bliss: my ears will never forgive me.

The second night was more what we’d expect of What is Music?, but the environment could not support the focused listening required. Brendan Walls played a set of resonant cymbal feedback, a slow drone, which I found extremely difficult to listen to in the rock environment. Black Dice (USA), looking like cool American indie kids singing along to noise (though the singing was itself noise), performed a set which was either brilliant or kinda terrible. I still can’t decide. The night ended with a virtuosic display of minimal dance meets noise in the duo Pan Sonic (Finland). The simplicity of their oscillator projection and the stripped back rhythmic noise was sublime.

The Now now and What is Music? have been forced to take creative steps to solve the problem of under-funding. What is Music? has turned to the private sector, but in doing so duplicated its program, pushed up ticket costs (for ONATHON), diminished its support for local and emerging musicians and alienated its audience. The Now now on the other hand has turned to what it knows, calling on local musicians to support a festival that is fully behind their practice. The outcome of The Now now approach was a large audience, an exciting vibe and a community feel. That musicians were not paid is an unsustainable outcome, but hopefully this year’s success will encourage the funding bodies to recognise that the scene is large, vibrant and highly creative, and that it needs and deserves support. If festivals such as What is Music? are to be maintained at the standard they themselves have set then arts funding bodies need to wake up to what is actually happening in contemporary practice and come to the party.


What Is Music?, Sydney, March 8-10

caleb.k produces impermanent.audio. He is a lecturer in electronic arts at the University of Western Sydney and was a co-director of What Is Music? 2004.

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 48

© Caleb K; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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