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Making machines that make music

Dean Linguey interviews Ernie Althoff

Specialising in sound art and sculpture, Dean Linguey studies Fine Art (Media Arts) at RMIT, Melbourne.

Ernie Althoff Ernie Althoff
photo Rainer Linz
“I’m really not interested in artist as hero or artist as superstar”, Ernie Althoff’s voice bristles from the speakerphone. Althoff has been making music since 1977 when he bought his first Superscope C-104 cassette recorder. “They’re terrific machines. They have very responsive keys so you can play them just like an instrument.” He had already heard “bands like Soft Machine where they would have lots of squeaks in their tracks that deviated from your traditional rock music”, and then “‘New Music’ was being played on 3CR at the time”, where he heard a lot of experimental music from abroad.

A short course in electronic music with Ron Nagorcka the following year was to have a lasting effect on Althoff’s enthusiasm and approach to music making and performance. Nagorcka introduced him to a community of experimental musicians who held events at The Organ Factory in Melbourne’s Clifton Hill. Althoff’s compositions featured his Superscope cassette recorders, found objects and cheap homemade instruments and electronics. His approach hasn’t changed that much since then; however the level of sophistication and the refinement of his ideas, machines and performances have.

“I’m building some instruments at the moment.” For the last month, following the release of his new CD, dark by 6 that documents five installations from 2000-2003, Althoff has been attempting to rectify what he sees as an inadequacy in his music making machines. “There is one thing that always eludes me and that’s a bass: a bottom end. I look at the laptop brigade and they’ve all got this very easy bottom end. I don’t want to go down that road, I must admit, so I’ve been concentrating on building a 2-string bass instrument—actually more like an Indian tambura.” A detailed description follows involving 2 small motors, leather beaters, guitar nuts and the physics of string music. However, after studying the history of such instrument types, the machine isn’t responding as Althoff imagined. “It plays what it wants to do rather than what I want it to do and you know, that’s fine, I’m happy to work like that.”

When Althoff was first making music he was conscious of the work of John Cage as well as performance artists of the day and began developing his own techniques in chance compositions and scores while also testing the relationship between the performer and audience. He developed graphic scores for performers and instruments (mostly his own) and his machines were built in such a way that their sonic outcome would be different each time they were ‘played.’ He also began using his voice and breaking down the conventions of performance. “I was the performer, the narrator, the musician and at the end I even became one of the characters by putting on a mask”, he says of one of his earlier performances.

There is an undercurrent of socio-political ideology in Althoff’s use of recycled, found or readily available materials, the ways in which he makes his music and in his approach to performer/audience relationships. “I propose political models by example rather than being didactic. I would never say this is what you have to do, rather, this is what I’m doing, have a look at it. I’m far more concerned with the integrity and quality of the work that comes out rather than the person that’s generating the work.”
Ernie Althoff, Tide Shelf Ernie Althoff, Tide Shelf
photo Rainer Linz
There is an openness and playfulness to Althoff’s work. “Well, I like to have fun”, he freely admits. There is also a simplicity to his approach—an almost minimal aspect. “I don’t particularly like complexity for complexity’s sake”, he says. “I do like to keep things simple. Often what happens in this day and age, people expect a degree of complexity, but pull the wool away from their eyes by doing something that’s incredibly simple and yet works, well, people are quite dazzled by the beauty of that simplicity.”

Althoff’s installations are elegant in their design and functionality. He states that they are all site-specific and allow the audience to move in and around them as they please. “There is no way I’m going to demand people see my work in a certain way. The thing I like about sound and music is that it’s so ambiguous. Everybody brings their own system of evaluation to what I do and everybody takes a different version of it home and it’s fine by me, I’m quite happy to have it work like that.”

The installations are generally made up of a series of machines that produce percussive sounds. There is little mystery about what is going on. In plain view one can see the apparatus and how it works. Wood (mainly bamboo), rocks, wire, shells, metal and other objects are set in motion by record players, cassette players and fans or are struck by objects extending out of or affected by them. The beauty of these pieces is that they work on different levels at once. There is the moment-to-moment percussive act and then, over time, the installation starts to develop its own sonic character. The installation is the composition itself as Althoff places certain sound producing machines with others after much experimentation and listening.

Althoff’s installations make links with nature through their materials, design, layout and even sometimes their titles, such as The Emergence of Mammals and Song of the Centipede. “Nature’s the best resource we’ve got, basically. I’ve tried to use the natural world and geology, which I see as a strong indicator of the natural world and natural patterns, in my work.”

In the liner notes for dark by 6, Althoff warns that the “documentations presented here should not be seen as replacements for the real-time auditory experience.” On the night of the CD launch (September 3 at Ignifuge in Brunswick) Althoff performed with an array of machines and sound making devices. It seemed to be an improvised performance but Althoff says, “I had the framework worked out. I prefer to leaves things open and rough and then trust myself to do it.”

It’s getting harder for Althoff to find venues to perform in and to place installations. “Back in the 80s I would do 20 to 25 gigs a year, nowadays I do 2. I did all that for those Rechabite Hall shows in 2003 and in a way, sure I got a lot done but in the same way it’s tiring and exhausting because not only do you have to come up with the work, you also have to do all the administration and all the blah, blah with it and sometimes I get a bit jaded about having to do all of it, all the time.”

At the time of the interview there were no future gigs booked but it seems there is no stopping Ernie Althoff. One only needs to see his discography to see how prolific he has been. I ask if he still makes compositional music. “Improvising is too much fun, basically. I like the risk in improvising.”

Althoff’s machines are kept in “a lot of big old cupboards and old bookshelves”, in his garage. “I deliberately make things that disassemble and consequently if I can take things apart it means I can use the equipment again and again for another thing.” It will be worth looking and listening out for what “things” Ernie Althoff assembles next and this time maybe debuting his new “elusive bass” instrument.


dark by 6, Five Installations by Ernie Althoff, CD, antboy 07, www.antboymusic.com

Specialising in sound art and sculpture, Dean Linguey studies Fine Art (Media Arts) at RMIT, Melbourne.

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 46

© Dean Linguey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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