Sydney Harbours Radicals
Sydney Music Conservatorium
Music technology Australian style. To prove that there's more to the Australian music scene than the Fairlight, Jonathan Puckeridge pays a visit to the Sydney Music Conservatorium.
Following our recent investigation into Japan's music industry, we take a look at the activities of Martin Wesley-Smith and Greg Schiemer at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music, Australia.
A SHORT WALK up the hill from Sydney's Opera House is a strange old building which looks a little like a toy castle. It was built in 1821 by the then governor of Sydney town, Lachlan MacQuarie, to house his horses and servants. At the time it was suggested that the governor paid more attention to the comforts of his horses than those of his convicts.
Almost a century later the building was renovated and re-opened as the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music. Today it contains a warren of practice rooms, auditoria and lecture halls, where students aspire to become professional musicians. About halfway down the hill from the Conservatorium is a grubby office block. Here, on the second floor, are the schools of Composition and Electronic Music. The Electronic Music School is run by Martin Wesley-Smith and Greg Schiemer.
Wesley-Smith graduated with his first class honours in music from Adelaide University in 1970. The following year, he went to the UK to complete his PhD at York University. In 1975 he joined the staff of the NSW Conservatorium and has been head of the School of Electronic Music since 1982. Under his direction, the school has become not only a producer but also a promoter of electronic music, staging impressive and occasionally bizarre public performances of its work.
Greg Schiemer joined the school as a lecturer in 1986, after a varied career, which included teaching posts, involvement with various dance theatres, a visit to India and some time employed in servicing mainframe computers for DEC.
Today the Electronic Music School consists of four studios (three sound and one audio-visual). The equipment includes two Fairlight CMI's - series IIx and series III - Voice Tracker, four TF1 modules, two Apple Macs, a CX5 and the usual assortment of analogue and digital synthesisers. The school also possesses some more exotic machines such as a complete Driscoll Modular system, a VCS3 and what is reputed to be the second Moog ever seen in Australia. The audio-visual studio sports a Fairlight CVI, computer-controlled slide projectors and video cameras.
IT WAS THE "FERRY Concert", conducted on and around Sydney Harbour, that first saw Wesley-Smith and Schiemer working together. Staged in 1977, the Ferry Concert was organised by Wesley-Smith in three weeks from a public telephone, on a budget of $700. The bemused audience was loaded onto a hired ferry and transported from place to place where they witnessed various performances (timed to their arrival) on islands or the shoreline. Many acrobats, jugglers, musicians, dancers and audiovisual artists contributed to the event. It's significant that these artists were drawn from both the "serious" and popular music worlds.
Schiemer: "Some of these performances involved sequels at locations several kilometers apart. It was designed to make use of the visual and acoustic features of Sydney Harbour in a way that could not be done anywhere else."
Two years earlier, Schiemer had gained notoriety by going on a TV talent quest called Pot of Gold. He, and colleague Ernie Gallagher, performed John Cage's 4'33", in which the pianist doesn't play anything, and a piece by Gallagher in which the performer goes around the audience listening to their heartbeats with a stethoscope.
Schiemer: "That performance in the context of a talent show totally annihilated the idea of talent and the exploitation or even the evaluation of it. Understandably, it scored the lowest mark ever on that show."
Wesley-Smith has been involved in quite a few "firsts" of his own. His experience with the Ferry Concert prompted him to organise a series of multi-media electronic concerts in the lush surroundings of Wattamolla in the Royal National Park south of Sydney. The Wattamolla concerts were set up in such a way that the environment itself played an integral part in the performance.
With the Fairlight company virtually on the Conservatorium's doorstep, it's not surprising that Wesley-Smith has been fairly closely associated with the machine since its inception. He sat on a committee that looked at funding applications for Tony Furse's original development work for it and the Conservatorium also bought one of the very first commercial machines available.
Wesley-Smith: "I'm delighted that we bought it because, almost despite themselves, Fairlight designed a machine that's very useful to the serious composer. There are limitations but, within those limitations, we can still do an enormous amount. I mean, the Music Composition Language (MCL) is better than anything I've seen even now."
In 1983, as part of the Digicon '83 festival, Wesley-Smith took part in the first satellite link-up of three Fairlights - one in Sydney, a second in Tokyo and the third in Vancouver. The other composers involved were Osamu Shoji and Jean Piche.
"That performance in the context of a talent show totally annihilated the idea of talent and the exploitation or even the evaluation of it."
Wesley-Smith: "What I tried to do was to exploit the time difference between when I played a note and when they heard it. There was a delay of 0.2 seconds by the time it got to Vancouver from me, and for Tokyo to get it was roughly another 0.2 seconds. What I tried to do was set up a global tape echo effect and it worked. I'd send a 'bop' and we'd get a 'bop-bop-bop' back. And conceptually, of course, it had been round the Pacific."
Last year, Wesley-Smith delivered the first Fairlight CMI to China, as a gift from the Australian government. He spent several weeks at the Central Conservatory at Beijing installing the machine and teaching staff and students to use it.
WESLEY-SMITH AND SCHIEMER could be classified as "serious" composers, yet as I talked to them, it became clear that the boundaries between "serious" and "popular" music are less well defined than they were, say, a decade ago. To understand how this has come about, we need to look at the history of both forms of music.
During the first half of this century, serious music was undergoing a violent upheaval. Every week, it seemed, the European bourgeoisie were being deliciously outraged by the latest affrontery to Classical Tonality. Composers of the calibre of Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Messiaen and Varese had created a rich and radical musical language which appeared to abandon all the established principles of melody, harmony, rhythm and structure.
This music was often referred to as atonal and, to those unfamiliar with it, it must have sounded like chaos. All that had happened was that new compositional principles had replaced the accepted ones.
Unfortunately, by the '50s and early '60s, these new, or "avant garde" principles had become more important than the actual sound of the music itself. The results were often sterile, and concert attendances reflected this. The bourgeoisie were no longer shocked - they were simply not interested.
At the same time, however, another form of music was beginning. This music was rock 'n' roll, and it had the power to emotionally (and physically) move audiences in a way never before seen in the west.
Today, almost 30 years later, we find that the pendulum has swung back and rock 'n' roll is in a state of stagnation. With a few notable exceptions, rock writers are simply recycling old ideas.
Even hip hop, which briefly breathed new life into rock has now become predictable.
Despite an unprecedented wealth of new sound-generating technology, financial constraints mean that a commercial studio cannot afford the time to explore the possibilities of the new equipment. In the Age of the Preset, experimentation is often limited to a studio perfecting a snare sound - or sampling someone elses.
Meanwhile, a revolution has been taking place, once more, in the hallowed halls of contemporary classical music. To start with, many composers have been questioning the relevance of the old avant garde aesthetics. In particular, they are rediscovering the importance of the audience. Compare this with Milton Babbitt, an American 12-tone composer who wrote an article, in 1958, entitled Who cares if you listen! This typified the attitude of the avant garde at that time. Today composers care if people listen.
"I set up a global tape echo effect with the Fairlights and the satellite; I'd send bop to Vancouver and we'd get 'bop-bop-bop' back from Tokyo."
Another area of importance to this generation of composers is technology. Unlike commercial studios, an electronic music studio has much more time to experiment with sound. In fact, that's its major purpose. So the full potential of the latest hardware and software is far more likely to be exploited here than in the rock world. In fact, Schiemer prefers to take this a step further and become actively involved in design.
What all this seems to have led up to is the emergence of a new "middle ground" which draws composers, performers and audiences from both the rock and serious contemporary music worlds. These people share a dissatisfaction with the shallowness of rock music or the dryness of serious music. Instead, they seek the challenge of serious music, but enjoy the pace and excitement of a rock concert.
Wesley-Smith: "Witness the success of the Philip Glass Ensemble. His concert in Adelaide was packed out - he was a star. The audience was partly rock 'n' rollers who thought they were 'stepping up a notch' (laughter) and partly people from the so-called serious world who were able to 'step down'.
"I think it's a very powerful combination, but I think there are people around who can do things better than Philip Glass does them and can get that audience to move on."
Wesley-Smith is acutely aware of this new audience. About 10 years ago, he founded WATT - an electronic/computer music and audio-visual performance group. WATT is a collection of composers and performers centred on the electronic music schools of both the NSW Conservatorium and the University of Sydney. Its success with audiences has been demonstrated by a succession of sell-out concerts over the past three or four years.
Wesley-Smith: "It's not all written to please a rock 'n' roll audience of course, but it has proven successful and that's because we don't put on pieces that are plainly boring - or if they are boring, they're not boring for too long (laughter). We try to put in a lot of variety; if you have a tape piece then it ought to be followed by something with live or audio visual involvement.
"We also make a point of presenting things properly: we start on time, we're in a comfortable venue and we go quickly from one piece to another. In contrast to the electronic music concerts of the '60s which were always in funny little halls.
They'd start half-an-hour late, there'd be masses of wires everywhere and some dickhead in a T-shirt and jeans would stumble out after a while and turn something on and then you knew the concert had started. Two hours later, he'd wander off and you knew it had finished.
"We're asking an audience to pay nine or 10 dollars to give us an evening of their time and we ought to look after them, because they could easily have paid less to see the latest fantastic technological American film and got good, plain zapping entertainment.
"I think that people now think, right... WATT concert coming up. We know we're not going to be abused. It might be a bit weird and challenging, but it's going to be a good night out."
FOR WESLEY-SMITH, computer literacy is an essential part of being a composer today. As well as producing computer generated works, he also utilises the Fairlight to play pieces he has written for traditional instruments.
"The question is one of whether the designer of new music computer facilities is the real instigator of recent musical developments."
Wesley-Smith: "The advantages of being able to hear things are immense. I mean, the music I compose is better now than it was when I couldn't hear it; I certainly don't want to go back to the dark ages."
However, the use of computers to write and produce music does have its problems, and our discussion inevitably turned to commercial packages for the serious composer.
Schiemer: "The problem with most of the commercial systems now, is that you buy a completed product, or partially completed product, more often than not. And to complete it to your satisfaction to produce the sort of results you want is very difficult, if not impossible."
Wesley-Smith: "I think we're getting to a point where, unfortunately, the commercial systems that are coming out seem to be closing off the opportunities that could be available. A lot of the commercial software makes decisions that cut off all kinds of possibilities.
"One would have hoped it would be the other way around, since computers are enabling us to do all kinds of things we could never do before, but instead of opening up and giving us the chance to do them, they say - oh well, rock 'n' roll never uses anything more complex than triplets, so we won't bother about all that.
"One of the worst aspects of this whole computer music thing is that it does force people into the rock music way of doing things. The technology is being developed because it has such financial possibilities within the rock industry. But that becomes a vicious circle; they tailor it more and more to the rock industry, and so it goes round and we're left out in the cold."
The constraints of commercial software have prompted Wesley-Smith, almost "against his will", to write his own programs to generate MIDI code on the Apple Macintosh. One of his many current projects is getting the Mac to process MIDI data from live performers to effect program changes on the CVI.
Schiemer takes the issue a stage further: "The question is one of whether the engineer who designs new computer facilities for the creation of music is the real instigator of recent musical developments. If so, composers risk becoming parrots, indiscriminately articulating ideas embodied in the resources created by software and hardware designers. Composers have real options only when they design their own musical resources. Those who don't demand that sort of freedom, have succumbed to the factory system of music production."
Putting his money where his mouth is, Schiemer's most recent project is to modify a small, 6802-based computer, originally designed by the South Australian Institute of Technology to teach assembler language. This computer is called the DATUM and Schiemer has fitted it with a MIDI interface and installed several music programs in ROM. A number of MIDI-DATUMs have now been produced for students at the Conservatorium.
The DATUM is a truly amazing machine. Firstly, it only costs the equivalent of around £160. Secondly, unlike conventional sequencers, it is totally open ended, limited only by your programming sophistication.
For example, it could be programmed to produce any microtonal tuning system you may require. It can also be programmed to "improvise" polyphonically, according to whatever limitations you set upon it. But more than that, it can be set up to respond to incoming MIDI data from a live performer, and process this to provide an "improvised" accompaniment to what is being played.
By the time you read this, Schiemer hopes to have released the MIDI DATUM, complete with demonstration programs installed in ROM and a manual explaining how to use the machine.
Schiemer: "What interests me about the DATUM, is that the development can be done by people who aren't really terribly experienced in programming. Once the demonstration programs are understood, there is enough documentation for a person to write without worrying about whether the machine is being friendly."
And Schiemer doesn't even think he's scratched the surface with the machine yet. Some other planned utility programs include MIDI echo, tape sync, equal powered stereo and quad panning and so on.
It sounds like the DATUM is worth remembering next time you're considering what the latest marvel of music technology is really worth to you.
Feature by Jonathan Puckeridge
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