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Archive Highlights

 Da Contents H2

November 12 2014
Obituary & Archive: Margaret Cameron

The other side of Nightfall: Margaret Cameron & Ian Scott
Virginia Baxter

July 2 2014
Speak Percussion

November 20 2013
Jon Rose

November 20 2012
branch nebula

July 3 2012
liquid architecture (updated)

March 20 2012
clocked out - archive highlight

November 8 2011
the NOW now

May 10 2011
art & disability: new geographies of the body

November 6 2009
dance on screen

October 26 2009

September 21 2009
australian indigenous film

August 21 2009
keith armstrong, media artist

July 17 2009
liquid architecture

June 29 2009
rosie dennis: the truth hurts


what is music? festival

Jon Rose, What is music? Sydney 2009 Jon Rose, What is music? Sydney 2009
photo by Leith Thomas
What is Music was founded by Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim in 1994 and can rightly lay claim to significantly raising the profile of and expanding the audience for experimental music in Australia. Early festivals had a reputation for exploring the wild and anarchic, often involving rock, punk and noise cross-overs, outsider artists and performance art all thrown in with the more serious end of improvisation. Ambarchi says in an interview in 2004 that they wanted to present:

"really high-brow and low-brow stuff.…We didn’t really differentiate...we just threw them together. In the beginning there was more of a [pressing] reason because there were so few gigs in Sydney for experimental artists…We were interested in digging people out of the woodwork...presenting work that was really important but that no one knew about."

RealTime’s reviews of the festival start in 2002, alas missing some of the crazier 90s manifestations. The festival has grown to serious contender status, playing in venues such as The Studio at the Sydney Opera House and CarriageWorks in Sydney, Brisbane Powerhouse and the ABC Iwaki Studio in Melbourne. The festivals of 2002-2005 increased to mammoth proportions with a plethora of international acts who otherwise may not have come to Australia—Merzbow, Keiji Heino (their performances detailed in the 2004 review by Danni Zuvela), Otomo Yoshihide (see Gail Priest’s 2002 article), Sun O))) and Pan Sonic, and offering festival platforms in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, increasing interstate touring potential.

What is Music? has always been a festival that invites passionate reactions. The name itself is a provocation, and so writing about the festival has often involved critical discussion on the nature of experimental music as a whole. Greg Hooper’s review of the Brisbane leg of What is Music? 2004 reflects this most colourfully:

"Noise/experimental/microsound improvisation has a long enough history to have developed its own clichés…the formal structures to organise the sound stream are still in short supply. Sometimes it’s a bit like the one-man-band thing…Except nowdays it’s shaving a whale in a cardboard box and every time you hit the footpedal it vomits."

In 2005 Caleb K (a co-director of the event in 2004) offered an opinion piece on how What is Music? was faring, not only due to irregular funding and financial pressures, but also the changing landscape of experimental music which by then included the NOW now festival. A strong criticism was of the diminishing of local representation in favour of higher-profile international acts. This imbalance has been addressed somewhat in recent years, but unlike the early days the tendency is towards programming established artists rather than emerging (in Sydney at least).

Fifteen years on and the festival continues, now under the sole guiding hand of Robbie Avenaim: a remarkable feat of staying power. The scale of the event has reduced to a more sustainable level with the majority of the activities now happening in Melbourne, but with some events in Sydney and Perth. While it still elicits passionate criticism and discussion (see Gail Priest’s review of the 2009 Sydney What is Music?), there is no denying that the Australian experimental music landscape would be very different if What is Music? had not begun and not had the audacity to just keep on rolling! The challenge for What is Music? now is to maintain its unique flavour in a more established experimental music landscape and increase its engagement with a new generation of music makers.
Gail Priest

what did you say?
jonathan marshall: what is music? melbourne

with ears pinned back...
gail priest: what is music? sydney

what is music? this is!
gail priest

limits and leaps
greg hooper

japanese underground out loud
danni zuvela

what NOW for experimental music?

elemental vibrations
gail priest at what is music? sydney

the shame of growing old gracefully
gail priest

Ben Byrne will be reviewing aspects of What is Music Melbourne in RT95.

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