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Mosaics, transparencies and the always unexpected sounds of the new

The Sound Barrier : Blog

A few weeks ago on The Sound Barrier, I described the Studio for Electronic Music at the WDR in Cologne as the Ground Zero for electronic music. Of course, things grow from roots that have been planted in many places, themselves the spawns that have blown there from somewhere else and so, in that sense, it's always a bit dangerous to claim that something started here or there – but some places, like the WDR Studios, are so remarkable that they are entitled to special recognition when we trace the histories and genealogies of things.

And sometimes, those remarkable places are not as obvious as a studio densely packed with the latest electronic equipment. Sometimes it might be a little, humble space in a suburban community centre. Like the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre that was formed in 1976 – 1977 by Ron Nargorcka along with my guest on the latest edition of The Sound Barrier, American-born and now country Victoria-dwelling composer and educator, Warren Burt, for example.

The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre was not the first attempt to create a nucleus for fostering the development new music in Melbourne, but it was certainly one of the most effective due, in no small part, to the inclusive and warm-hearted personalities and principles that established it. It was an unpretentious place, driven more by a passion for the new than by ego or the drive for numbers, and Warren Burt's part in this was critical in nurturing a curiosity about, and a commitment to, new and experimental music throughout Melbourne and beyond, which continues to thrive and grow today.

Tonight's show began with music from some of the progeny of Warren's relentless commitment to keeping new music flourishing. Five of Warren's composition students from Melbourne's Box Hill Institute created works, each of them around five minutes, that between them gave a glimpse into the diversity and fertility of ideas that are forming amongst Melbourne's young composers today. Each piece was created as part of a commission for the Astra Now and Then concert series in September this year.

In works that range from social commentary on the histories that form us, like the in Tamara Violet Partridge's Please Hold and its reflections on the stigma of reliance on social security, to the interface of brainwaves and granular synthesis in Jeffrey Dunn's Phasic Pain, these five pieces shed a pretty optimistic light on where new music is headed, in the hands of young people who are able, like those who congregated at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre forty years ago, to be not driven by the suffocating demands of commercialism, but by inquisitiveness, by a sense of adventure, for what can emerge when you try something new.

Electronics manipulate extended acoustic techniques in David Weaver's Radio Coil, where a bass clarinet reed mimics the didgeridoo; a house, and the community that forms and disperses as people move in and out of it, create the found sounds out of which Dylan Imeneo's Moving In is built; and an exploration into the unsettling worlds that can be unexpectedly found then the mind allows itself to rest forms the sounds of Matthew Paine's A Muddy Moon, built upon the rhythms of Walt Whitman's poem 'A Clear Midnight'.

All of these are energizingly original, hearteningly bold, vignettes of musical intrepidity. They indicate young people enthusiastic about exploration, even as they enter into a world where the pressure, and to an extent even the need, to conform and fit into known pigeon holes, is enormous in order to make a buck. But the music these new composers produce remind us that those demands don't have to entirely throttle freedom and creativity.

This is the spirit that was what enabled places like the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre to generate such interesting and vital growth, regardless of how many people came along to witness it. Often the audiences there were tiny, but the impact was wide and enduring, and we see just how enduring not just in these pieces from Warren's students but also in how Warren himself continues to explore and innovate in his own work as a composer.

Perhaps the most striking example of this is a major new work that Warren has been composing throughout much of this year, and which he performed live in the studio in the second half of tonight's show, in its world radio premiere: Mosaics and Transparencies.

It is a work that builds its sounds out of the many little bits and pieces – over 700 of them – that move around within it, as differently textured and timbred sounds touch and merge with one another, and then depart. Its sounds are, therefore, not the sounds of narrative but of moments that are constantly forming and dissipating, sometimes leaving silences in their wake, sometimes moulding into rich, complex structures, built out of the four basic building blocks from which the piece is constructed: small sounds made with a wooden resonator and contact mic; non-Western instruments playing microtonal melodies generated by algorithms; imaginary spectrographs translated into sound; and Western, microtonally-tuned, orchestral instruments playing long drawn-out notes, sometimes with radical electronic modification.

The mixing of these sounds happens live, in real time, as Warren did in the studio at PBS on tonight's show, in its first radio performance, spatialised in stereo sound – although the work can be, and has been, spatialised in versions that move across up to eight channels.

An important aspect of all this is that it happens over an extended period – at least 30 minutes, and ideally an hour or more. It's an important aspect not just because this allows ever more diverse, sound combinations to merge and dissolve, but also because it better captures the picture of what music, and our connection to it, can be: not the three minute grabs that popular music often serves its audiences, allowing just enough break between commercials, but rather long and immersive experiences of sound, where pictures form, as mosaics do, out of the small parts, each of them unique, each of them with its own separate story and structure, building in layers upon each other, producing new colours and shades, as transparencies do.

As always, you can both check out the playlist and listen back to the whole show, here on the PBS website, where the audio file will stay online for about the next six months.

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