Synthesizers - those influencers of rock, pop and avant-garde music - are the stars of the Grainger Museum’s latest exhibition
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[Music - “Kraut mich mit Einem Dachshund” by David Chesworth]
Synthesizers. If you're any kind of music fan you'd very familiar with the sounds they make and how electronic instruments have influenced rock, pop and avant-garde music over the years. What many people don’t know is that the Grainger Museum in Melbourne was at the heart of electronic music experimentation in the '60s and ‘70s. Composer Keith Humble transformed the museum into ‘The Grainger Centre’: an electronic experimentation studio for students and composers.
Humble equipped the Grainger Centre with the latest analogue synths made by Electronic Music Studios in London (EMS). The synthesizers from EMS allowed local composers to create entirely new sounds to incorporate into their experimental music and processes. For a brief period of less than a decade, the Grainger Museum resonated with this ‘sound of the future’.
‘Synthesizers: Sound of the Future’ tells the story of this forgotten period in the Grainger’s history. The exhibition brings together, for the first time, the suite of early EMS instruments on loan from the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS). Evoking the ethos of this vibrant period of musical creativity in Melbourne, the exhibition also features cutting-edge video art by electronic artist David Chesworth, produced on the EMS Spectre video synthesizer from around 1980.
Today I break free of the voice booth and make my way up Royal Parade in Parkville to the Grainger Museum at the University of Melbourne, to visit the ‘Synthesizers: Sound Of The Future exhibition’. I’ll talk to artist and composer David Chesworth. Byron Scullin, composer and director of Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio and Heather Gaunt, curator of the Grainger Museum.
First up, I meet Heather inside the museum, we do a walk-and-talk through the space and marvel at the ‘Sound Of The Future’ exhibition’s many items on display. In the background you can hear these instruments and exhibits contributing a wonderful soundtrack to our chat.
The Sound of the Future, it's such a lofty kind of title for an exhibition. Can you tell me the idea behind putting it together?
The title's actually sort of interesting because it - deliberately I was going for a sort of nostalgic feel to it. It's supposed to be a little bit naïve and nostalgic in the sense of how we sort of word our feelings about that period. So I could have given it a much more hip title but ‘Synthesisers: Sound of the Future’ felt the right feel. Anyway.
So the exhibition came together directly out of my investigation into the Grainger archive. I've only been in this role as the curator of the Grainger for 18 months and so it's still a process of finding my way through this incredibly rich, diverse and deep archive that we have here on Grainger and his material.
So as part of that I was looking at some of our video content that we had and looked at a video from 1976 which showed Les Craythorne working with this large synthesiser, the Synthi 100. And the video showed some footage of Percy Grainger working with Burnett Cross who was the physicist that he worked with in the '40s and the '50s and looked at the translation of this free music score that Grainger had written and that we have a legend of in the museum - legend as in display legend - and seeing Les Craythorne translating that and making it into sound for the first time with the Synthi 100.
It's science and art. It's a physicist…
…and a musician.
Yeah. And it's really I guess typical of Grainger's way of thinking because he was such a broad thinker across all disciplines. Sort of almost an undisciplined thinker in some ways he's been described. Partly because he actually never went through university himself so he didn't have that disciplinary structure of codifying ideas in the way that we might expect now.
Which I think gave him the opportunity to think and to conceive of new ideas in a very free sort of framework. He naturally was someone who wanted to break down all these barriers and explore shifts away from western systems of meter and rhythm and pitch.
So the idea when he bumped into Burnett Cross on a railway station apparently in America in the '40s and was like, ‘oh yeah you're interested in some things’. Burnett himself was an amateur musician as well as being a physicist and was the sort of perfect partner for Grainger. Then they literally at his house at White Plains in New York State were building all these crazy machines out of paper, cardboard, bits of stuff they found in the junk piles. But then Burnett was feeding in this technological side of putting in the electricity literally into these cardboard structures. Together they were doing these crazy experiments.
But as a real outlier because what I found fascinating with this is that the Princeton Columbia electronic studio was already in development not that far down the road doing some pretty amazing things. Grainger didn't connect up with this, he was as I say an outlier in his thinking.
What period of time I guess in the 20th century was most of Grainger's interest in this area concentrated in? Was it the '50s?
Well in fact Grainger himself describes thinking about free music concepts in - as early as his childhood. There's these stories that he tells himself of being on a boat on Albert Park Lake as a child and looking at the lapping of the waves on the side of the boat and these sort of triggering ideas about waveform literally and the connections with sound and with this sort of freedom of pitch and gliding tone. This sort of err [err err err err err err] which was his ultimate conception in freeing up pitch from this step step system.
So he was composing in this way from a very early age as well. So literally the first decade or two decades of the 20th century he was creating music that was breaking down these structures. Early aleatoric music. Things like John Cage would be doing 50 years later, he was already in that headspace.
So his experimentation though really didn't start happening in terms of the instruments, trying to create a new instrument that could make these sounds that he heard in his head until the '40s or the '50s. But it was a work of a lifetime really.
I'm always fascinated by the vision of Melbourne in the '50s, post Olympics. It's sort of the newsreel footage of scenes of Melbourne. It's all nice and quaint. But there was this underground scene of avant-garde musicians making music and putting their ideas together. I always find that quite interesting.
I think that is fascinating. But the other side of it of course is at the surface and what people saw was a very conservative music tradition that was happening. The conservatorium next door to the Grainger Museum here inevitably was teaching a classical western tradition of music and music performance.
Keith Humble, who we'll talk about more later in terms of this exhibition, was a product of that conservative Melbourne period but also an example of someone who was really like Grainger. An outlier, a radical thinker, a utopian thinker in terms of his own musical practice and compositional ideas. So he's such - the classical example of someone growing up in Melbourne in this period. A prodigy on the piano, became a jazz pianist.
Then as John Whiteoak, who's done a lot of research on Keith, talks about the returned soldiers came back from the Second World War and so the positions in the jazz clubs that these younger musicians were able to fill who were in there, teenagers who hadn't had to go to war, suddenly they were seeing that they might have been losing their jobs. There was this returned sort of musical expertise. So then an incentive to study further, to gain more qualifications and to look internationally and beyond.
This is what Keith did so he came to the conservatorium, studied and then rapidly got himself a scholarship to go to the UK. Which he found actually similarly difficult and conservative in a lot of ways and ended up going to Paris where we had a fantastic time for a decade hanging out with the avant-garde and really doing some incredible things.
So then his response coming back to Melbourne in '56, meeting Grainger here at the Grainger museum and being fascinated by Grainger's thinking but also a little bit horrified about what was happening in Melbourne or what wasn't happening in Melbourne compared to what he'd been experiencing. So then it was another decade before he came back in '66 to take up a role at the conservatorium and he literally brought with him this whole head full of experimental improvisation, electronic music ideas and in some sense it sort of blew the Grainger apart.
The exhibition concerns itself mainly with that period of time between 1969 and 1974. Again a relatively early time in terms of the mainstream acceptance of I guess electronic music and synthesiser music. Was it still a unique thing for - like in the City of Melbourne and not just in Melbourne but the - in Australia and more particularly the conservatorium?
There were pockets of activity in early electronic music in Melbourne certainly through that period and before. So some key figures that stand out for example are Val Stephen, an amateur musician and a medical practitioner, was working in this space, built his own synthesiser and was doing some really amazing things. In fact was the first to publish - or have a record produced of electronic music on an international label at this time. Bruce Clarke, who had the jingle workshop was already working in this space as well in a very commercial sense, very different to Val Stephens. So he produced the fully electronic jingle for a cigarette commercial at around this time.
So it's not as if there was nothing happening but it was in little pockets and certainly Bruce Clarke had some connections with Keith Humble. There's - we've got a - some ephemera in the exhibition that talks about a workshop that he did as part of the Contemporary Music Society in the late sixties.
But I think what Keith did was to create a real centre of activity and a hive of excitement around early electronic music in association with his ideas on education. The democratisation of music education he was very passionate about. Which again aligned beautifully with Percy's ideas. Significantly he brought some of the earliest commercially produced analogue synthesisers into the museum to create this electronic music studio.
I think that that's a key shift, because instead of it happening in someone's private home, in their garage or in their kitchen, instead Keith was able to create a context in which students and other musicians could come to a place and use these professionally made instruments and experiment with this amazing new sound and this is actually what happened.
The reason why I've limited the exhibition period to - as you say sort of late '60s to 1974, is specifically because that's the time that Keith Humble set up the studio here at the Grainger and that this hive of activity was happening. Then in '74 he moved on to La Trobe University and set up the fantastic music department up there. Really that was a shift of activity here at the Grainger and within a few years the electronic instruments had - that were still here were taken out, moved next door to the conservatorium and it was a new period of time. The Grainger went back probably to being a sleepy place for a bit longer.
There's a quote, by you in fact, in a previous interview somewhere where you said, “the music and the instruments that are part of the exhibition, and also part of the Grainger generally, are current and contemporary yet drawing us back to the period of resistance and experimentation”.
That resistance is a very important part of I guess investigating these particular sounds. But I'm also interested in that retro futurism aspect of the idea of what I guess composers and people like Keith thought that the future would sound like.
And we explore that idea in a number of different ways in the exhibition. I guess one of the ways that we can visually show that idea of resistance and change is as an example through the graphic scores that we have on display. An example being, Keith Humble's Music for Monuments.
The Music for Monuments is an example of lots of different facets of this notion of resistance and of change and of breaking out both in terms of sound, in terms of process, in terms of notation. Sort of on every level in terms of performance. So the score itself is a chance piece of music with different chance events that happen. The sound texture that is built up in the music is a combination of live performed chance sounds. Of pre-recorded sounds which in this instance with Keith he recorded through educational workshops that he ran here at the Grainger. So snippets of found sound from people creating music and creating different sounds.
Then visually how to represent this and take it forward into the future so that other people could have a go at it are these scores which combine traditional notation. In this case with this score there's a bassoon line which is traditionally notated but immediately above it is a strip of colour and graphic shape. Swirls and twirls and dots and squiggles and sweeps of orange watercolour spread across the score. Very very untraditional. Very challenging for future players to perform.
As a package it sort of represents this breaking down of what we expect music to be, what we think it's going to sound like or how it is structured and an expectation that the audience is also going to do something different with it.
We had an event last week, Charles McKinnis with Ensemble Density who is another great collaborator with this exhibition, and as part of the program Charles ran some sessions with Princess Hill Primary School students here at the Grainger doing some experimental workshops on making music. He was posing to the students that question of, after they'd made all these sort of noises, is this music. It was great, these little Grade 5s and 6s going, ‘oh na’. Or, ‘yeah maybe’. Or, ‘well why’. What is it that makes it music?
So then we ran - he ran another session like this with adults on the weekend on a Sunday a few days' later. Again we did similar exploratory activities. He posed the same sort of questions. We had more of an adult discussion but similar outcomes, na, yeah, maybe, and all sorts of things in-between.
Charles recorded parts of these workshops as had Keith previously. Then that fed into a performance of Monuments or a section of Monuments at the recital centre on Tuesday a little while ago using these fragments. As members of the audience we were invited in a chance sort of system to contribute to the sound. So, so different to the sort of music that was happening in Melbourne in the '60s to have Keith bring this sort of thing in and be doing this.
But what I find is really interesting is that he didn't throw away traditional music in any sense. He wanted to explore the full spectrum of making sound and making sound collaboratively. So he formed a society called the SPPNM. Society for the Private Performance of New Music. It was a bit private, bit cliquey, bit niche. But nevertheless with that it was again a combination of both traditional music all the way through to the present.
So you might have a program that had Mozart, Grainger's Random Round and something by Varèse or Bartok or Humble himself. It was more about the process of performance and what could be discovered through experimentation and performance and working together in new modes than it was about some sort of text or perfect performance. So everything he did was deliberately - it was almost like, throw him a question it's like, ‘okay how can I do the opposite to this. What can - how can I challenge this’. Which was very much the Grainger conception as well.
What drove Keith and I guess to an extent Percy, to challenge these things? What drove them to try and find these new ways of composing and these new ways of thinking about music and performance? Why do you think that is?
It's about their understanding of sound. I think as musicians and composers they are - a musician is trained obviously to hear very richly and to consider those sort of intersections of pitch and rhythm and all the things that make up a sound. Obviously, if you're composing you're trying to do this in hopefully an individual way. I mean you're not going to be reproducing the sound of the past, you're going to be trying to create something new. I think for both of them they were working within a context of obviously the world in which they live. The sorts of sounds that they heard and how they expressed their way of existing in the world.
So for Grainger if you think he was literally the most travelled composer of his era because he was this professional pianist. He was endlessly touring around but he was hugely curious about everything. So as he went, you can imagine these huge ears listening to sounds. Gets off the ship in Durban, what do you hear on the side - on - in the docks. The sounds, the calls, the music of the local people. He's going to all the concert halls, he's going to museums. He's looking at structures even of - he was fascinated by beading and - in terms of Native American beadwork, vests and things like this. So colours and shapes and forms in other forms apart from sound.
So he's - and also he's working in a world in which technology is suddenly opening up new ways that you could mix sounds. So from 1880s when he's born and he starts hearing the sounds in Melbourne of Chinese music he's fascinated by this opportunity to hear things. Then he's travelling in Europe and then of course the radio broadcasts become available and recording. He's one of the first to record on records.
So we've got letters where he's for example comparing the voice of opera singer Tetrazzini with Nellie Melba and being able to say, well Melba's voice has the sound of the mid-distance blues of the Australian landscape. Whereas Tetrazzini's is - he actually uses this phrase - the whore voice of the European Tradition or something.
So he's having an opportunity to hear sounds that were unlike what a previous generation could do. Because he's this endlessly curious person he puts it together in new ways. I think for Keith it's the same sort of thing. It's where - Keith had the opportunity going to Europe to hear these early analogue synths and to experience electronic sound for the first time and clearly that blew his mind. The opportunities of literally feeding electric current into a machine and making an absolutely new sound that nobody had ever heard before, that's got to be one of the most exciting things a composer could ever be given.
[Music - “3 ¾” by David Chesworth]
David Chesworth is an artist and composer mostly known for his experimental and minimalist music, but he has worked in post-punk groups, contemporary ensembles, theatre, and experimental opera. In 1978 he recorded an album titled “50 Synthesizer Greats”, actually 37 tracks of minimal synth investigations, full of humour and playful experimentation.
The album was recorded in his parents’ lounge room when he was 21, on a reel-to-reel tape machine using a monophonic Korg synthesizer.
I think I've always been somebody who's explored opportunities. My friend Philip Brophy had a synthesiser that he was using and I said, ‘can I borrow it and figure out what it does’. So the actual making of those tunes was the act of figuring out what that particular synthesiser did.
It was a Mini Korg 700 which is a monophonic synthesiser meaning it can only make one sound at time. It had a whole lot of pre-switches and lots of little things you could - modifications to the sound. You could switch in and out and do lots of fancy things. So I wanted to figure out what they were. So each of the tracks - there were 50 tracks originally - is an exploration of a different set-up and patch. While I'm doing that I thought I'd put down these kind of tunes and I'd also just bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder which had just come on the market as a consumer item. I think I paid $219 for it Douglas Hi-Fi at the time.
Not the store with the big reel-to-reel machine…
I think it was.
…on the front?
I think it was, I think it was.
Yeah I remember that store.
Yeah. I could layer sounds up. So as I explored one particular sound I could then bounce that across as I explored another sound. Before I knew it I was making these kind of proto-compositions.
Even before that, like what actually got you interested in electronic music generally?
I'm trying to think why electronic music. I was definitely interested in music and definitely interested in sound. Retrospectively, I just think - I had such acute hearing - I didn't know at the time but I was - if I heard a sound and didn't know what it is was I would go and investigate it. I would - or I'd stay up - at night I'd be worried because I was hearing something in the house and I just didn't know what it was. I'd fabulate these kind of things that it might be.
So there was acute sort of awareness of any sound. Then I really enjoyed listening to music and we only had a small record player and a bunch of second hand records. But they ranged from sort of '50s pop to classical music and then I listened to the radio.
But I think that enjoyment of sound meant that I enjoyed what was in-between the radio stations. Like the sort of shifting tones and textures. Like what are they? Like, I want to know what they are too and what's causing them. I think just hearing about synthesisers. I remember in popular culture you started to hear about them in maybe Emerson Lake and Palmer or some group and they're using this synthesiser.
You'd heard the solo on a song and you - I heard this synthesiser and I imagined this organ like machine with strange massive tubes coming out of it or something and it became this mysterious object that I wanted to find out more about.
So I think as a cultural thing I wanted to find out what it was and what it did as much as just having some sort of essential enjoyment of what came to be called electronic music.
[Music - “Flea Circus” - David Chesworth]
So when you started working I guess with synthesisers on a more permanent and more general way, very much like Keith Humble's work in the late '60s and early '70s, in the late '70s there was a small enclave of people doing the type of stuff that you were attracted to and you contributed to. That would have been again way ahead of its time. How was it perceived I guess in the Melbourne music scene?
Yeah, well that's interesting because it does bring in this exhibition here quite interestingly. Because I'd learnt - firstly I went and saw some concerts and there were one or two put on here at the conservatorium. I found out later, begrudgingly by the conservatorium. But in fact they were quite interesting.
Peter Towerden and Keith Humble and other electronic musicians who had put on these concerts and I'd go and see them. They were these amazing experiences because there weren't performers there were massive speakers. It had all this air of institutionalised importance and it really was quite remarkable. James Penberthy was another person.
But Keith went onto establish the music department at La Trobe University and brought in other artists such as Warren Burt from America who was a very interesting sort of modernist electronic music composer. I'd learnt from him - it just opened a door, you didn't have to be a musician to do the course at La Trobe. So again, this thing was just presented before me. It wasn't that I sought it out and had this kind of incredible passion. Well maybe I did have a passion but I didn't know how to funnel it.
Then Warren said, ‘welcome to the world of experimental music’. He gave a whole course on it and showed all this incredible minimalist stuff. Noise-based stuff. Just a huge kind of catch up on what had been happening over the last few years in Europe and in America
And had these synthesisers at La Trobe which he and Jim Sosnan made. He said, now you're going to learn how to use these things. So it was like one - a course thing and it was just like awesome. I remember this moment when I was sitting down at a - this little synthesiser which had three oscillators and no keyboard, it was just patches. By setting them up in certain ways you could get these sort of cascades of melodies of things happening or noises and sounds. I remember at that point thinking, hey I think I'm writing music here. I think - isn't this - this is like a - I think maybe I could be one of those people that does that but in this very weird, weird way.
So it was actually there - this activity which kind of did come from here like Keith Humble having the passion to make music a lot more available to everybody - which of course it is now massively. But at the time it was like, how to get it out of these institutions where - and equipment was very expensive. How can people get access to this?
La Trobe was one of the places that opened that up and said, ‘firstly you can just do whatever you want and make music’ and you can find very cheap things, like cassette players and things like that. The other thing that was going on at the same time was the post-punk thing. Where of course the ethos was, you can do anything, pick something up and do it. So that was feeding in at the same time. Especially at venues like The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre where I ended up doing some things.
Heather touched on this before about how - and so did you - it's very accessible and it's very inviting in terms of anybody can start noodling and start creating something. Not only that, even before that, build something, then play it and then create things and then compose things. It's all sort of within one kind of motion or one action.
My thoughts - yeah, synthesisers. Yeah I kind of - I'd think about them - like in the sense of Percy Grainger idea of free music and he wanted to find new ways to express the world in creating a - yeah free music.
I like to think about synthesisers as freedom machines in a sense too. Where the - and each synthesiser has its own version of freedom because it's also - the - there's lots you can do but only within the way it is set up. But I think it allows - yeah the - a person to be a maker of music and a creator and a performer all at the same time. Especially now people are so interested in live performance of using synthesisers.
There was a point when it was originally - often they were used to play transcriptions of things or people would notate scores and then they'd get one of these synths out and then recreate the sound that they'd already scored. But now people are using them to make music in the moment which is serving them but in a lot of instances, a lot of gigs, serves an audience that enjoys that - the spontaneity.
So the idea of what music is, this thing that's specialised people play from a transcription, notation, whatever, or record in a recording studio, I think synthesisers cut through all that and enable something quite spontaneous and immediate to happen which has - gives people a connection with the here and now in a lot of concerts.
Without any - what's known as formal training I guess as well?
That's right. So the whole stigma of having to understand music from a Western point of view is no longer relevant. Because the sonic pallet that's opened up is completely off the grid when you compare it to traditional music making where you have 12 notes within an octave. Here you can have as many notes as you want and it doesn't have to conform to a particularly expressive sort of set of parameters that fit in with a way of thinking.
So they enable - in fact yeah, they do enable completely out of the box and other ways of making sound. Not to say that it's - there's still this - within communities and all that there is - there's all these genres and ways of - this is the way a certain style should be. So there are still those issues I think of people still trying to find their own personal expression that fits in or challenges or interacts with other people in an interesting way. That always remains a kind of a contentious thing, I guess.
Analogue versus digital. We can now get plugs-ins and laptops and software that does all the things back in the '70s where you had to physically…
…plug in things with cords.
Is there anything in particular you would prefer? Are they both good?
I think they're both good. I do - at the moment in electronic music performance around the city and - people love seeing knobs being turned and plugs being plugged in. They don't like seeing laptops so much and keyboards being played but they're okay up to a point. So there's this sense of getting to this essentialness of music making being - yeah, connections between modules and knobs turned.
But ultimately sonically I think there's lots of similarities between what digital can do and what analogue can do. But how digital has allowed the natural world to be incorporated into music making is fantastic. Like programs like Live and Max, MSP, have enabled this incredible rich pallet where the electronic meets the acoustic and you get these hybrid forms. You'll find that a lot of the very new analogue sort of Euroracks as they're called which a lot of people play, have a lot of digital - what seem like analogue components with chords and all that are actually digital and they're doing a lot of those things as well. So yeah.
There's a reverence for the past almost.
Yeah. The performability of - the connectivity is really great and - because it's less abstract when you see people plug things in and it's like you're plugging in your own synapses when you make those kind of connections. Whereas the laptop lid is always like this abstract world which is kind of denied from the performer and the listener fields that they're missing out on this other zone which is in the sort of virtual world of the computer.
Whereas knobs and switches and cords, it's all out there, you can see what you imagine to be electrons flowing and connections being made.
[Music - “Necrophilia” by David Chesworth]
Byron Scullin is a sound artist and co-founder of the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio, a unique not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the creation of electronic sound and music. In their workshop at the Meat Market in North Melbourne, MESS provides access to over 450 instruments, including the EMS instruments in this exhibition.
EMS stands for Electronic Music Studios and it was originally a private studio of an English composer and gentleman by the name of Peter Zinovieff. He started off just making electronic music, mostly computer generated electronic music. So Zinovieff owned one of the very earliest personal computers and was making not necessarily electronic music but music where the computer was devising the score. Like almost like an early form of artificial intelligence generated score.
Then as time went on, those guys interacted with an Australian composer by the name of Don Banks who'd been to see a concert where one of the Zinovieff's computers was controlling synthesiser modules made by another composer by the name of Tristram Cary.
He approached both of them and said, ‘I really want a synthesiser that's small and portable that I can take back to Australia with me that I can make some of this electronic sound’, because he was very enthused by it. So Zinovieff and Cary hatched a bit of a plan and bought in the help of another gentleman by the name of David Cockerell who was an electronics engineer and was good at designing all the finer points of the instrument. They built this very first instrument that they called the Don Banks Music Box and later called the VCS 1. VCS stands for Voltage Controlled Studio. So they built the VCS 1 for Don Banks.
Then they all thought, ‘oh well we could probably make a bit of a business out of manufacturing synthesisers for people’. So it led to the three of them then taking EMS and forming it into a company that manufactured these synthesisers that later became - they had subsequent models - particularly like the VCS 3 and the Synthi AKS that they put into the hands of musicians like Jean-Michel Jarre and Brian Eno and bands like Pink Floyd famously used them. They actually were the company that was responsible for making the first affordable synthesisers. So it was very much the - that company led to the democratisation in some sense of electronic music.
I guess when they were on the market they wouldn't have been the only synthesisers on the market, would that be correct?
Well, it's funny because when you look at it historically there's - a lot of these things kind of percolate simultaneously. So they weren't the only synthesiser on the market. Like Robert Moog of course was making his synthesisers. Don Buchla was making his sort of stuff. It all kind of congeals around that same time. We're talking about the late '60s, early '70s really here.
But the thing that was distinct about EMS was that they did really make them incredibly cheap, they were very affordable. So because they were cheap they cut a few corners in the design. So the instruments themselves are a bit idiosyncratic, they're a bit wonky.
Whereas say for example like Robert Moog, no stone was left unturned and the electronics were very refined because he wanted to make a very high quality instrument. But subsequently the price put them outside of affordability. So often we talk about and say, well if you wanted to buy a Moog synthesiser you could have bought a house. But if you want to buy an EMS synthesiser you're probably buying a small car in terms of the actual equivalency of what the value was at the time. So they still weren't cheap but they were cheap enough for a band or an individual artist to actually buy and own one.
The thing I love about the EMS that's on exhibit here is that you can see what you need to do to it. Like you need to twiddle knobs, you need to push faders up and down and in certain respects you have to plug things in. So you have to actually work at getting it to work. I guess that's part of the beauty of it, that sort of tactile kind of connection that you have to the instrument and also to the music that it's making.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean the other thing too about having to work to get it to work is that I think when you're an artist creating sounds that the more labour sometimes you put into sounds it really does change your perspective on them.
Sometimes it means you value them more highly. Sometimes it means if the sound isn't working out, you're doubly quick to just put it in the bin, because you're like, I spent hours on this and it's working and just throw it away out of anger and frustration. But certainly the physical aspect of the instrument is really interesting and that really comes back to Tristram Cary who kind of was in charge of that design of the instrument and how to work with it.
The other thing about the instrument that's very interesting as well is that I think a lot of people look at the aesthetics of these instruments now and do look at them in a purely aesthetic way and think ‘oh look at this great retro design’ and all that sort of stuff. But then once you scratch the surface a bit you realise that that aesthetic design is highly functional.
The synthesiser in so many ways is trying to show you how it works. It's trying to reveal its secrets as much as possible so that you can get busy making sounds as quickly as possible. The tactility of it is a really important factor I think in terms of engaging with the sound. Because in electronic music now of course, majority of sound is made in laptops and iPads and things and they kind of lack a certain tactility. Certainly a musical tactility. We're talking about different things, like laptops are very good for data entry so you're typing things in and moving a mouse.
But when it comes to making music, the idea of doing that is a bit of anathema compared to say like playing the drums or playing a guitar. Whereas - or even singing requires a lot of physical investment. Not quite the same electronic music but at least with these old instruments that tactility does lead to that musicality and physical gesture.
You've got analogue problems that go along with these electronic instruments. There's not just the circuitry involved but there's heat. There's cold, there's - you have to use them to get them to be used properly and be a regular working machine. Very much like a car, very much like any other instrument. Because I - you know back in the day I used to play an instrument like the saxophone and the flute and they changed over the amount of time that you played them. They would go out of tune because they were getting hot. The synthesiser's exactly the same. They don't avoid those analogue problems.
Yeah. No I mean they're a living instrument in that regard. I think that because electronic music hasn't been with us for very long in terms of the historical swathe of time - I mean you mentioned the saxophone there that's - and even the saxophone's a relatively new instrument. But we think about flutes and violins and things that have been with humanity for a long, long time now.
So when we look at these instruments we have this interesting kind of contemporary take on them where because these instruments made sound in that period in the '60s and '70s and then style and fashion moves on, we think about then as being vintage. But in fact there's nothing vintage or antique about them. I mean Peter Zinovieff is still alive, he's still with us.
So while one of the instrument builders is still around - and David Cockerel's still alive, the - while these - while the guys who built the instruments are still around, well they're still contemporary instruments by any kind of historical kind of reckoning. With that, yeah they are very analogue. So because they're technical, like they do require a bit of ongoing maintenance and that's a highly specialised thing but I guess in some ways too with the saxophone or whatever that yeah, you need to buy new reeds or sometimes occasionally like a spring might go or a valve might stop working and you do have to take it to a technician to get it fixed.
But it is the very essence of music that using these things means they wear down but they can be repaired. I guess the idea of a quality instrument is one that can be readily repaired, readily fixed. With these instruments, yeah they can all be readily fixed.
In fact with a lot of the other instruments we have in the MESS collection it's really interesting to note that when you open up instruments that were built in this period they're very much like - the circuit boards have lots of labelling on them. They're very clear about what you need to do to be able to repair them. That you could almost have taken it to anyone who has a basic understanding of electronics and they could fix them.
Whereas a lot of instruments that are made now that come out of China, they have dense integrated circuit boards and they're kind of like, to repair those is actually a much harder task than repairing these old machines from the '70s because they were designed to be repaired. Whereas a lot of electronics now, not so much. The planned obsolescence is a lot stronger in a lot of the more recent instruments that exist.
The thing I like about the synthesisers on exhibit here is that although they're complicated and convoluted to a certain extent, they're not intimidating they're actually quite inviting. Very much like the other parts of the Grainger Museum where there's these instruments that inspire curiosity for people to go, ‘what does this do or what does that do’. I find that these synths from this age are very similar.
Yeah well it was interesting when we was having the initial discussion with Heather about putting the exhibition on and about just the ethos that we have at MESS in terms of making sure these instruments are accessible, Robin and I were sort of thinking, well ‘I hate going to exhibitions and seeing these instruments behind glass. I want to play them, I want to see what they do. I want to have some experience of them’.
Certainly when we're talking about Keith Humble and him wanting to make music accessible for people to be able to use and all those sort of ideas, it seemed logical that here in the exhibition we should make sure that people can actually touch those instruments. They can fulfil that desire to want to manipulate something and hear what happens and hear what it makes.
Because who knows who's going to walk through the door. Maybe there's someone - some young kid who's never experienced electronic sound and all of a sudden it's like, you know switches a lightbulb on in their head. Or maybe it's even someone a bit older who's never really experienced electronic music before and maybe has a bit of a dim view of it but then all of a sudden they put the headphones on an start turning some of the dials and come to a different realisation of why so many people are fascinated with this type of sound and these type of instruments.
Robert Moog used to always say that, synthesisers aren't fake instruments they're real instruments. The sounds they make are supposed to be real sounds. Do you reckon there's still a - even in this day and age, do you think there's still a kind of reluctance to accept synths as real instruments or has that gone completely?
Look, no I think it still exists for sure but I don't think it was quite as dominant as probably the time that Moog said that. Certainly, my experience of being someone who was born in the '70s and grew up through the '80s and '90s was that I lived through a time when synthesisers I guess in terms of the popular culture - like they were very much there but the way that they were marketed and sold and presented was this idea of, ‘oh look at this machine it sounds authentically like a trumpet’. Or it sounds authentically like a trombone or it sounds authentically like a string instrument.
That's only become more sophisticated as time goes on with other forms of synthesis like sampling where you can literally record the instrument playing a million different ways and it sounds perfectly articulate. In fact, a lot of commercial music that you might hear on television and on the internet, it's actually made with a lot of artificial means and so - but it sounds very authentic.
So, to some extent that kind of - yeah, these things are like canned boxes that aren't real proper instruments, that still exists. But when you look at the designers who made particularly these EMS instruments, they were coming out of like the avant-garde, they were coming out of experimental music. They really wanted these things to actually make all kinds of non-musical sounds and actually be instruments in their own right.
But it did really take - because the wheels of culture move pretty slowly - so it took a generation for that to kind of really occur. So as a young person myself, being aware that there were synthesisers around that were like Band-in-a-Box type situations I was also aware that there were these other instruments that just didn't do any of that at all. They were so much more compelling because they were fascinating worlds that made these crazy sounds.
But it did take a long time for people to suddenly go, ‘oh well the EMS VCS 3 can make a good trumpet sound, to being the EMS VCS 3 makes a good sound’. Like it is its own instrument in its own right. It's just taken a long time for that realisation to happen. So now younger people that come into MESS and work with these instruments are much more ready to just take on the instrument as itself. Like they kind of - that realisation has happened.
I think it was a frustration for the people at the time when they were making these instruments in the late '60s and early '70s that that wasn't people's first thought. Because I think electronic music was so strange and so foreign it's hard to think about it now but at the time it was so foreign that that was the - that was a way that they could find a way into it was that, oh this thing can be made to sound like an acoustic instrument rather than being this strange beast that made sounds that nobody could really quite comprehend or didn't know where to put them.
To Emerson Lake & Palmer, ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’. We have that film clip to thank I think in a lot of ways.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Because you can see that machine and go, what is that?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know, I know, I know. Then there's something sort of fascinating about them in that regard. It's like what do all these dials and knobs and all this kind of stuff do.
See once again, a very inviting - it's not intimidating, you want to find out more. You want to go, well what does this do, what's that, what is that?
Can I do that? Then really you can.
Yeah. No really can. I mean I think that's the thing is that they do - that's the very I guess unique seduction of a synthesiser as compared to say, I don't know maybe people get seduced wanting to play the guitar because they see someone standing out the front of a band and there's a lot more theatrics that kind of go with the instrument.
I think maybe through playing guitar you then develop a fascination with the object itself. But with the synthesiser it's almost like, the people playing the synthesiser, there's not much appealing about it. There's not really much theatrics. They're kind of stuck on stage, they're kind of there static. But then the thing that they're operating is so strange and so foreign that it sort of - in certain people's minds it prompts particular questions.
Like I really think of particularly too those early Roxy Music like Brian Eno when he's in his beautiful transgender phase, just amazing looking but he's playing this weird instrument. He's like this fascinating looking person playing this weird looking object. It's like in many ways that's a beautiful summary of what draws people into synthesis I think in some ways.
I have to disagree with you there. I find myself playing ‘air synth’ a lot of times during particular songs. So I disagree about the lack of theatrics.
Well I think - we'll just categorise you as one of the people we like to call synth curious, shall we Chris?
[Music - “Have Beat, Will Travel” by David Chesworth]
OK, so there you have it, I’m synth curious. And I’m not ashamed to say it. It’s been such a wonderful day walking through the Grainger Museum, seeing and of course hearing all of the exhibits in the ‘Sound of the Future’ exhibition.
I ask each of our guests today what they would like us to think about as we walk through the space, listening to these sounds. Curator Heather Gaunt.
I guess I'd come to my own emotional experience of sound in developing the exhibition and despite having - well having had a classical music education - probably not despite but because of it, I have a great love of sound but it is - tends to be structured within certain traditions that I'm comfortable with.
So I can remember being completely hugely excited when I first listen to Ian Bonighton's work on the Sequenza album because I hadn't heard it before. Put it on and then it was just, wow this is what - this is different sound, this is a combination of choir and tape sound and the sound - the evocative sounds of - in this piece called Sleep there's the sirens. It's like - potentially it's the sounds of night time and he puts it together into this mix. So I was immediately in a completely different sonic environment.
In a way that when you're - you put on what, a Beethoven symphony or something, you sort of know what you're going to expect. You're looking for tiny subtleties. Whereas this was a whole new world.
So then I listened to Stockhausen's Kontakte again for the first time in probably 20 years. Again, blew my mind thinking this is just amazing, how can I have forgotten how great this music is.
So I'm hoping that despite it being a physical exhibition that it's an opportunity for people to really tune their ears and to be thinking about what they're hearing and to be thinking historically about what they're hearing. So instead of just being, I am hearing this now and it's blowing my mind or it's making me feel a certain way but also how might that have felt, 50, 60 years ago. That's what I'm trying to do.
So the colours of the walls, the orange vibe, the sort of use of deliberately nostalgic evocative period focused exhibition furniture, like any exhibition you're hoping people will go back into that time space but in this case with this extra layer of sound. Be in this space, think about this space but then think about how it might have felt to hear this music then. Then the chance for the people who come to visit the exhibition to actually make those sounds themselves on the VCS 3 and the Synthi A through the collaboration with MESS and these fantastic instruments that we've been able to bring in so people can literally play them, well then you do get to take yourself right back to that time and say, this is a shift in human sonic space.
It's interesting isn't it the - how this is also a nostalgic trip through. So you're seeing kind of the development of synths up until the late '70s here and then it sort of stops. People have a - but there seems to be some authenticity to these older machines which is interesting. So I think what I think is, how interesting how the present moment and these things that were very futuristic are now exhibited in a museum and how they've become these sort of markers of a particular idea of progression and how far we've come from this now.
So I'm a bit - I'm slightly weirded out. It's very pleasurable and interesting but it's - in a sense these objects are now becoming part of narrative of this progression.
When not that long ago they were the progression and they were kind of - I mean my music was giving people the shits on RRR because it was like, this is so not correct in many ways. It's not produced properly and it's stupid sounds. But now they're sort of seen as, yeah part of a text that's kind of established.
But it's also interesting seeing that's how we progress and it's how things do go on and everything. So I guess that's looking at this from a more social aspect and how museum's function, yeah.
But at the same token, I think it's great. I just love the fact that I go through and see these records on the wall that were so familiar to me and hear my own music playing and go, god that's the last thing I would ever have thought would happen to this music.
Oh look I think I just want people to think about music and sound and the possibility that exists for us to make all kinds of new sorts of music and sound and that that sort of vision of wanting to grasp the future of sound and music is really evidenced in these early stages here. That there's something very pure about the idea when it first launches out.
That with the work of the guys at EMS and with people like Keith Humble that there's something very sort of pure and utopian and incredibly admirable at the heart of what they were trying to achieve. That was to just introduce people to this fascinating new world of sound that they'd sort of stumbled upon themselves and just really wanting to share that and have as many people engage in it as possible. The exhibition is really set up for that kind of spirit to come through. That - this sense of engagement and activity and fascination with the actual sounds that these objects make.
[Music - “Necrophilia” by David Chesworth]
Thanks so much to Heather Gaunt, curator at The Grainger Museum, composer David Chesworth and Byron Scullin from the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio.
The music pieces you hear through this podcast are all from the album 50 Synthesizer Greats by David Chesworth, released in 1979.
Synthesizers: The Sound of the Future exhibition at the Grainger Museum runs until Sept 9, 2018. For more info, visit grainger.unimelb.edu.au
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne.
This episode was recorded on August 9, 2018. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website.
Audio engineering by Arch Cuthbertson. Co-production - Dr Andi Horvath and Silvi Vann-Wall.
Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2018, the University of Melbourne.
If you enjoyed this podcast, drop us a review on iTunes, and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis, producer and editor. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
Synthesizers: The Sound of the Future exhibition at the Grainger Museum celebrates these democratising instruments, with a particular look at Melbourne’s emerging electronic music scene in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Music used in episode:
“Kraut Mich Mit Einen Dachshund”
All songs by David Chesworth from the album 50 Synthesizer Greats, originally released in 1979 and reissued by Chapter Music in 2017.
Synthesizers: The Sound of the Future exhibition at the Grainger Museum runs until Sept 9, 2018.
Episode recorded: August 9, 2018
Interviewer: Chris Hatzis
Producers: Dr Andi Horvath and Silvi Vann-Wall
Audio engineer: Arch Cuthbertson
Producer and editor: Chris Hatzis
Banner image: Non Event/Flickr
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