Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
There have been a number of breakthrough moments … probably too many to go into detail. I will pick one.
As I started to explore the potential of longer and longer strings in the early 1980s, I suddenly realised that the whole continent of Australia was covered with millions of kilometres of long strings …it’s just that most people think they are fences and not musical instruments! All I had to do was get out there and play them. The Dog Fence at 4,500 Kilometers is arguably the longest musical instrument in the world. This sparked ‘The Great Fences of Australia’ project and what started as an interest in sonic material, I realised, became a fecund metaphor for just about every fuck up our species is capable of. Read more about it on my website.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I’m not good in the morning, by afternoon the neutron activity is beginning to buzz. I don’t have a method, there is always something to achieve in any day - all I gotta do is open one of my notebooks. I will never run out of things to do.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I am going to take this question literally (with a dash of humour), the business of music can be dangerous. From my memoire 2:
I’ve only had glasses and missiles thrown at me whilst onstage on three occasions. The last time was at a well-known festival dedicated to improvised music in Austria, which just shows you that even in the guaranteed correct location, people can take a dislike to your music. But in that event, it was just one beer glass that landed at my feet, so not a bad count, one disgruntled punter out of four hundred.
Previously (in the early 1980s), I took my improvised violin music to places that I thought would be accommodating if not enthusiastic. Anyway, they were paying. ‘They’ in this particular case was the Students’ Union Entertainment Committee for Sydney University. Smart bunch, I considered, the intellectual elite, should be able to handle some contemporary music.
I set up in the lunch time cafeteria (an outside forecourt) and started in. Within a few minutes the students were unsettled and yelling out for me to stop. They threw plastic bottles and the odd piece of plastic cutlery, a paper napkin dart flew past my nose. I was booked to play an hour, so I put my head down, blocked out the complaints, and carried on. Many students left. With ten minutes to go, a young woman stood before me with tears in her eyes pleading with me to stop - I have a migraine, it’s my period, my boyfriend left me last week, I have my finals next week - is what I can remember from her desperate speech. Sorry lady, I’m contracted for another few minutes. She stormed off. With two minutes to go, I reckoned I was home and dry, then someone pulled out the plug of my amplifier, I continued acoustic to the appointed hour in front of no one. I did get paid.
It was improvising guitarist Eugene Chadbourne that pointed out to me that the great quality of Country & Western music is that you can do anything to or with it, since its simplicity gives it a certain indestructible quality. We were touring as a duo in the USA, I had been reminiscing to him about my time some years earlier, when I earned part of my living playing in a straight ahead C & W band. Indeed, some of the fiddle tunes I played then bore extremely close resemblance to the unaccompanied violin partitas of J. S. Bach - both forms of dance music. My confusion remains as to why C & W (even with the most redneck lyrics) continues to be so popular in Aboriginal communities.
But before I digress into a sub-genre of musicology, I will return to the point of this memoire: missile-throwing as an everyday phenomenon in live music.
It was in the sugar cane cutting district of Queensland that our C & W band (the name must remain anonymous, as members are living) played the Proserpine Ex-servicemen’s Club. We set up, and the local cane cutters and their wives and children slowly took their seats. Sometime between the opening song and the end of the first set, the women and children had simply disappeared, leaving a cohort of repressed and hardened looking males who were speedily getting ‘Fridayed’ - blind drunk.
Now, in the film Blues Brothers, there is a chicken wire fence separating the band from the audience. We had no such defence, and while there was not quite the avalanche of bottles hurled as in the film, the aggression was palpable. There were a few bouncers who kept the lid on the proceedings as random fists flew amongst the punters. We never left the stage in fear of damage to our gear (we toured with the band’s own PA), and no one appeared to require an ambulance. The threat of raw violence remained strangely stable at about 75% volume and possibility, and stayed that way through all four sets. The police were never called. At 10 pm on the dot, as if by psychic signal, the cane cutters demonstratively put on their hats, gathered their wounds and pride, and silently staggered out the door and home to their wives and children.
In the penultimate gig I played with this band, there were no further bottles, but the police did arrive, and much to my amazement (but not any of the other band members who kept playing, eyes and hats straight ahead, as if nothing were happening), the bass player was hauled off the stage and taken away by the two uniforms. I found out in the interval that the bass player had got one of the drummer’s underage sisters pregnant and the local law had been called in to ‘fix him up’. I was asked to move from violin to bass for the rest of the night. I should point out that the bass player lived with the drummer’s family in a four-room house at the end of a a very rural valley - there were many sisters.
Despite this abrupt filmic end to the band, I really had enjoyed their camaraderie. The bass player and drummer worked in the local abattoir, the singer worked in the local police department, the lead guitarist (great pedal steel player too) helped his dad, who was the local grave digger. (I only saw Dad play with us at the first gig before he was retired; halfway through the first set, I realised his guitar was not plugged in). With such ‘local’ credentials, I was certainly the odd one out. One night they all turned up at The Basement Jazz Club in Sydney where I was putting on a night of free improvisation; they wanted to check out my other life. Sitting there in the front row in their hats, beer in hand, they were likely the most open members of the audience present.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
Along with the digital deluge, appropriation is one of the main characteristics of todays culture - as copying is the modus operandi of digital culture. It sucks basically.
When sampling became possible (the Fairlight CMI was an Australian invention) right at the end of the 1970s I was as guilty as anyone in the abuse of copyright. I quickly changed my ways when I realised how reductive this was going to be to contemporary music. By the then, cultural castration was rife throughout the world. I kept my specific cultural interventions (that used sampling of other people’s music) in projects of satire and critique, and made a clear distinction between parody and my original voice.
That’s why I remain committed to building home made musical instruments (common detritus often the source) - it’s honest and by definition a new instrument can only play new music (it previously not being in existence). It is also the reason I keep playing the violin - it’s a bastard of an instrument that takes much more than it gives back.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
The sense of touch remains the most significant in its relationship to music - the haptic feedback, kinaesthetic muscle memory, the pertinent and different cognitive processes highlighted in the main classes of musical instrument (that’s why hitting the space bar on a computer to make a file sound is so unsatisfying and bland as a musical activity).
My interest in devoting an interactive violin bow was to find ways of creating an interface between the analog world of instrumental technique and digital ubiquity. I am literate in a visual sense, so utilising video is sometimes appropriate in my work. I prefer a collision of audio and visual stimuli in the same way that in my music I often prefer non complimentary juxtapositions.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
All art is political even if you posit the pure art for arts sake meme. By avoiding political tags, the musician is in effect supporting the status quo. ‘The gentle harm of the bourgeoisie’ suffocates innovation too. That is not to say that delivering harmless homilies about identity or the oppressed is a replacement for engaging and creating in yer face music.
There seems to be an increasing tendency to privilege notions of justice, equity, sexual diversity, health, social inclusion, disability, etc. All worthwhile and honourable endeavours I’m sure; I also want a First Nations Head of State here in Australia, get rid of the stupid Union Jack on the flag, an indigenous voice to parliament, a proper treaty, and that the original cultures (both human and non-human) be recognised, celebrated, and inform the contemporary cultures of Australia. And it’s a given; music does not exist in isolation but requires a cultural petri dish in which to thrive (even if the days of a survival based and critically fundamental gebrauchsmusik are long gone and live music has moved from being a fundamental necessity to a life style luxury). Embedding a relevant music practice into its social and environmental habitat has been an obsession of mine for decades.
But music itself, the actual stuff, the knowledge of historical precedents, the qualities of sound, the physical necessity, the technical knowhow, the transformation of context, must continue to evolve (or it will die) - although in the contemporary space sadly it struggles in inverse proportions to the growth of digital inanity and the social media that transmits it.
Extra to political edge and political change, we need more focus on innovation, originality, the development of new music forms and contexts, invention of new instruments and technologies? The sharp end of musical exploration? Actually New and adventurous Music?
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
The feeling of time passing, here today, gone tomorrow. In the end, like the nature of music itself, you can’t hold onto it.