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A Closely Woven Fabric

Jim Denly

 "We hear the alien quality of the non-human in our music and the humanity of music in nature."

David Dunn.  Nature Sound and the Sacred –

"The Real is a closely woven fabric. It does not await our judgement before incorporating the most surprising phenomena, or before rejecting the most plausible fragments of our imagination."


 A Whiff of Decay

In the early 1990s with a group of friends, including the late Jamie Fielding, I went to see Boulez conduct contemporary music at the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House. Although we were interested in the music, someone in our row had trodden on dog shit. The distraction became so ludicrous for Jamie and me we became wracked by laughter, which the more we tried to stifle, the worse it became. The red and white-wood seats were all linked, so our vibrating bodies rocked the entire row – after 10mins or so of unsuccessful attempts at control we had to leave.

You could say this was juvenile behaviour, but in our defence, it wasn't the whiff that was funny. It was it's insertion into the ritual the players and audience were involved in – it's total focus on the star conductor. And the music became suddenly inappropriate - smell broke the spell and allowed us to see the ritual for what it was to us, ridiculously obsequious. Once we'd escaped, our laughter was huge and releasing.

In the 1970s at the same hall, a Japanese Noh performance, which I'd been looking forward to for weeks, was destroyed when the Sydney audience laughed inappropriately, (usually the moments when the percussionists produced vocal/drum interjections). At the time I was annoyed by the audiences ignorance, (probably just as annoyed as people were at Jamie and me) - but genuine amusement is revealing.

With music, audiences suspend disbelief and enter a parallel world - ritual helps engage with this new reality. But ritual must resonate appropriately with time/space or it runs the risk of ridicule. You cannot assume powerful performances from another realm will work re-contextualized.

Both these performances should have been serious and edifying examples of high art, but ended up misinterpreted. It's been our past and maybe it's our future in Australia to bumble along accepting misinterpretations. Most "serious" music-making in Australia has been focussing on the content, while the contexts it places itself in are stultifying and inappropriate. It seems like an inelegant way to proceed.

Plonk Culture

The rituals that we have plonked from the northern hemisphere are largely irrelevant to Australia and end up as powerless, or worse, ridiculous. When it comes to so-called serious music, there's nothing post about our colonialism.

(There are some obvious examples of stuff that isn't, Ross Bolleter's ruined pianos, Amanda Stewart's super-language-collider, Alan Lamb's wires, Thembi Soddell's sampled-psycho-scapes, Carolyn Connor's clear-lighted cocky-attacks – all comfortable in this place and all largely disregarded by the institutions that are supposed to be about serious music.)

And most of our halls, like the above mentioned Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, (a great building from the outside), are classics of plonk culture in themselves – they have very little appropriate resonance in C21st Australia. (And they're often confused acoustically).

So we have double plonks, the places themselves are inappropriate and most of the events struggle with context.

What contexts have currency in Australia? I'd like to discuss places that we can make audio art in this country and argue for more use of outdoors. And I'd like to argue too, that when we talk about acoustics, a focus on rooms and buildings is not particularly relevant to this continent. I'm arguing for sonic richness and appropriateness, but also for an awareness of the negativity of plonk culture. 


As a counterpoint to the two examples above, sometime in the 1990's I had an experience that convinced me to search for opportunities to change the contexts for my music.

In a valley in Cape York - Quinkan Country, (named after the strange and mysterious figures in the rock art in the escarpments which I'd spent the day looking at), there were a number of 'grey nomads' (or SAD's {See Australia and Die}) around a camp fire after dinner, and they asked me to play a tune. So, in a cliché of what Aussies are meant to experience, (but it's guaranteed very few ever have), I played music into the still night. Against the subtle low frequency drone and sudden fire-cracks, my sounds bounced off the trees and the valley's escarpments, and in this setting, I thought these ordinary Aussies grasped what the music was trying to achieve.

If you were to view their travel as a pilgrimage, and that day as visiting a sacred site then it's not surprising they were open for a musical experience of ambition.

They didn't seem to mind that there was no 'tune' in any conventional sense, and they grasped that this performance was inclusive of the entire field. In this context, the fire, owl calls, dog shit, or laughter about it, couldn't have undermined the process – it would have had to be a part of it. And in this context, old debates about tonality or atonality, complexity or minimalism were thankfully side-stepped. Music could be experienced afresh.

Australia has unique geography, history, weather, flora and fauna, and all the elements conspire to create wonderful sonic environments. I've found this in our forests, the sandstone caves of Sydney, the desert clay pans of western NSW, down the Todd River in central Alice, or amongst the boulders of Tibooburra. If you can plunge into these worlds and play with the elements, then you can engage with the place in a way that we rarely, at other times, do.

This engaging through sound is instantly understood by those who attempt to know the place - perhaps this has always been one the major functions of music. Just as birds delight in space through sound, there is a delight in finding appropriate human sounds to resonate in space. Inherent in this is a deep listening to the space. This complex activity defies easy analysis - it doesn't begin with thoughts, but with our bodies engagement with place.

In this state, the world neither surrounds nor is surrounded by musical sounds – they're intertwined - through the music we can be woven into the world. The camp fire experience convinced me that in this intertwining, exploratory music, in this continent, could engage with Mr and Mrs Average in a way that we can rarely achieve in a high art venue.

And between the music and the world, it's possible that we can catch sight of a pre-established harmony, or natal bond, and I'd been looking for some place to begin since about 1970.
First Contact

The first time I remember playing in the bush I must have been 12 or 13 on a family holiday to the Warrumbungles. On the top of a Mountain I played my flute while the eagles soared, aware that the content shouldn't be Mozart or Jethro Tull – the things I could play. I felt I should play something else, something more appropriate.

In the 80s, at Dark's Forest near Wollongong with the sound recordist Rik Rue, we did some field recording and he encouraged me to play. Trying to express to him the difficulty of creating material in that space. I said. "I don't know what to play." He thought that was stupid – "just play". (Rik's gift to me wasn't so much these directives but his listening, which was profound, as shown by his "Ocean Flows" CD, Tall Poppies TLP36.)

Largely what I played was appropriated from other time/spaces – it felt alien there. This material made some sense in a concert hall, an art gallery or a squat, but standing on the sandstone, listening to the frogs, I felt musically empty – and that was a good place to start.

The sandstone rocks exposed my faux experimentalism for what it was, displaced derivative doodling with no sense of place.


Of course, people have been playing and singing out into these landscapes for thousands of years - no one has convinced me that we have a good reason to break with this tradition and box the sound in - but it doesn't feel right for an exploratory musician to learn to play within Aboriginal song traditions, even if they are unbroken in some parts of the country. Despite Germaine Greer's promptings, it's a tricky thing to claim Aboriginality. But in her essay, "Whitefella Jump Up" she makes some points that indicate a way forward.

"If we climbed out of the recreational vehicle and sat on the ground, we might begin to get the message that we can't afford to hear, the message that, since contact, Aborigines have never stopped transmitting. The land is the source of everything..."

Through the simple act of sitting down, listening and playing in these spaces there is hope that we can find appropriate music, and perhaps gain an inkling of the experiences musicians have had in Australia for thousands of years.

In disregarding the local, we do sound art a grave disservice. Music is never just about human beings, it has always had an inherent connection to place. Much new music behaves as if it could have been created anywhere and that it can be judged outside of context.

Jacques Attalli says in Noise, "We are all condemned to silence unless we create our own relationship with the world and try to tie other people into the meaning we create. That is what composing is."

Much of what passes for composition in Australia has missed this point. It has failed to position itself within the world we live in here, it models itself 12,000 miles away in concert halls in Europe, or a jazz club or loft in New York or Berlin, or a tiny obscure space in Tokyo.

Radio Space

So, for much of my playing life I've been sounding out into the environment, but mostly for my own enjoyment – professionally I've been boxed in, even boxing myself in.

For years I've been going to the Budawang Mountains south west of Sydney, often with a small flute - the acoustics there are exhilarating. But when in 1989 recording a CD dedicated to this region, "Sonic Hieroglyphs from the Night Continent", I was in a studio in Sydney. The square that I couldn't think outside of was a powerful cultural habit - CDs were meant to be recorded in studios.

Probably the medium that led me to explore the idea of creating a body of work outside the studio or concert hall was radio. And that's appropriate, radio has never been boxed in.

Throughout the 1990's I was lucky enough to do a series of programs for the ABC's Listening Room that explored microphony and space, these programs were made with engineer John Jacobs. With "It's Hear" we rehearsed for a week in Studio 256, the Drama studio at ABC Ultimo. The studio has multiple acoustics – an air-lock, an anechoic chamber, reverb rooms, a bathroom, staircases, etc. We used most of the mikes in the store room, and put them in the strangest places, and then performed live to air in a duo between the sounding musician, and the interacting recordist.

In a "Guy in the Middle" we explored stereo, creating scenarios for extreme use of left and right, with my bass flute in the middle. E.g. In the Eugene Goosens Hall two cycle couriers circled with mics attached to their shoulders and bikes, doing figure of eight, concentric circles etc. Some of the experiments were outside studios and rooms – at Australia's Wonderland on one of those amusement rides that circle and roll, the left recordist and the right where in carts tumbling around mine. In the Jenolan Caves two sound recordists gradually approached a central chamber, one from hundreds of metres to the left, the other from the same distance to the right. We synched the mono tracks in the studio later to create 2 channel recordings.

In "Inside Out" we put contact mics over my respiratory system and recorded the sound of my sax from as if from an interior perspective.
These programs were preparing me, conceptually and technically for my next project.

Coming Out

In 2006, returning to the Budawangs to record a series of pieces for the ABC, "A walk in the Budawangs with my Saxophone", I spent 15 days walking and playing saxophone in these rugged mountains. There are dramatic architecture-like spaces, caves, crevices and a hidden valley – it is a wonderland of natural acoustics. In 2007 I released a CD of these recordings on Splitrec, "Through Fire, Crevice and the Hidden Valley" (Splitrec 17).

I took two recording devices, two stereo mikes and a solar battery recharger and spent my days there playing and recording in spaces wonderfully conducive to making music. Often I recorded on both tape recorders to get multichannel impressions, these were synched up later on computer.

It was important to play. There are many field recordists "capturing" natural environments these days but something different happens when you take yourself from behind the microphone.

In Dark Brothers Cave in the Hidden Valley, the rock walls behind me were a complex set of wind-sculptured surfaces, and across the narrow valley stood other sandstone walls. There were hundreds of trees between the walls, and they gave multiple layers of reflection. Enjoying the complexity of this acoustic, I slap-tongued low notes to excite the space - playing with volume to overlay tones under the reverbs. Then a squall swept up the valley, the sax stopping to allow it to fill the space with sound. This pause is probably the best music I've ever made. On the surface it seems like this is "solo" music, but there are other forces at work and there are palpable outcomes to accepting the entire field in the "work".

From behind the mic, the quite recordist sees him/herself as being separate from the time/space – an observer, and that's not a position I can accept.

"The sounds of living things are not just a resource for manipulation, they are evidence of mind in nature, and patterns of communication with which we share a common bond and meaning" David Dunn.
In June 2008 back in the Budawangs recording and playing again for the ABC, I produced "Co-existence", which is a radio manifesto of my ideas about music in these spaces. From my diary entry towards the end of the trip I say;

"It's been a week now - it's late Autumn, so the nights are long - plenty of time to muse, and the majority of the the day is night – the darkness makes me live in a sonic world. I haven't seen another human face in that time, including mine. This absence of humans and mirrors allows me to drift towards another world, populated by the face of the moon, the birds, the wind. What I learn out here, and what I hope to bring back, is to tune in more closely to what is really here. To retain more intimacy with what will best nurture our nature."

In the Flesh

Derek Bailey once said to me about recording, "It's  a curious and quite striking by-product (of improvisation)."

While committed to recording, I essentially agree with Derek - it  creates something else, related to, but not the same as the original event. So it's been important to get people to come and listen, in the flesh.

For three years now The New Music Network has been producing concerts I've initiated in the Kuringai National Park in Northern Sydney. On a large tessellated rock that has commanding views of Pittwater at the beginning of the peninsula called West Head, we've played with groups of six or seven musicians each year for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon. This rock has been a cultural centre for a long time - amongst the tesselations are engravings of emus, kangaroos, whales, fish and boats or shields. The sound there is clear and precise, carrying easily over a distance

And the festival and concert series in Sydney, the NOW now, has been producing concerts at Kings Cave Linden in the Blue Mountains, (one of the best venues in the Sydney region), and the abandoned WW2 bunkers at the headland between Malabar and Marourbra.

Urban environments are not inherently uninteresting, but the noises of the city are often  dominating and banal, and the acoustic spaces often too hard edged and simple-minded to make music with. An isolated and distant engine can be wonderful to play with but when noises are constant and dominating, it's difficult for acoustic music. And I'm not against the use of electronics, one of my favourite gigs was with Matt Earle on battery powered guitar in Kings Cave, but the use of PA systems for outdoor gigs tends to be a brutal disregard for the acoustic they are placed in.

In March 09 I travelled to Tasmania for "A Walk on Maria Island" as part of the Ten Days on the Island Festival with collaborators Monica Brooks and Dale Gorfinkel. We were in residence on the island for 10 days, playing and walking daily together in forests, by the sea, around camp fires, on the top of a mountain and in old barns (where we woke a wombat). And then for the last 2 days we took audiences on a sound walk and at points along the way we performed for them.
David Dunn has said " is not just something we do to amuse ourselves. It is a different way of thinking about the world, a way to remind ourselves of a prior wholeness when the mind of the forest was not something out there, separate in the world, but something of which we were an intrinsic part. I think music may be a conservation strategy for keeping something alive that we may now need to make more conscious, a way of making sense of the world from which we might refashion our relationship to nonhuman living systems." David Dunn.

By sitting down, listening to, and sounding out into this land we simply aim to add sounds that don't feel out of place. Because these are unique and often wonderful acoustics, our in-place solutions are potentially unique. In these time/spaces the music can intertwine with all the other elements present. This feeling of being woven into the world, is what i live for. And making stuff that isn't out of place and that is part of a greater whole, at this point in time, is surely what we all have to aim for.