Ernie Althoff: the concept of organised sound

In a shopfront gallery on Brunswick Street experimental composer and performer Ernie Althoff sets up his homemade music machines on a table. The machines are simple structures that are designed to simultaneously be played, play by themselves, and respond to the vagaries of a spinning pendulum, the wind, or any number of other external elements. It is mid-winter and some of the audience have gone out in the freezing wind to smoke, others are poring over stands of CDs and records for sale. Leads are plugged in; tiny motors begin to rotate, sending the fragile self-playing instruments into motion. The crowd are still conversing, but slowly, attention turns to the machines. Vertical strips of sheet metal twist like leaves in the wind, catch on suspended nails, or touch the inside of an empty tin can. The turning and spinning create a pleasantly arrhythmic series of chiming tones. He places a golf ball in a large flattened bowl, moving it around, producing a kind of rolling bass. He adds a shaker to the mix, waggles metallic clapping sticks, taps a toy drum. Irregular yet synchronized. He is constantly adjusting, shifting, and varying his devices. The effect is an intimate sound experience.

The applause is sustained. Sean Baxter, long-time curator of Melbourne’s Make It Up Club, makes a short speech expressing admiration for Ernie and his work.

The reverence with which Ernie is held in the experimental music community of Australia is partly in recognition of his longevity in the field. He has been performing his unique sound art since the seventies and, at 63 year old, is a stalwart veteran of home-made music.

The experimental music scene of Australia is small but thriving. It is music but not as you know it. Sound performances are happening all over; especially in Melbourne. On a Tuesday night at the Make It Up Club, you can see a range of improvised music performances from a solo trumpeter, to a man working broken records around two turntables like an anti-DJ. He creates needle-jumping compositions of scratchy song bites, culminating in the tipping of a bucket of bottle tops on to the turntables with the whole thing exploding into the noise of scattering tops. On a summer Saturday afternoon you might find twenty-five people gathered in an unassuming weatherboard in Melbourne’s inner west: performances planned for the day include noise guitar, super 8 B grade horror movies projected on the wall, and a piece with home-made instruments.

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(Above) Turntable rotating at 16 r.p.m. swings arm-attachment around and around. Ping-pong ball is suspended near vertical support, and two wooden beads are suspended at the ends. The objects get hit, and the beads follow erratic, elliptical paths.

Who goes to these shows? Friends and relatives, certainly. Men outnumber women usually, though women do attend as both audience and performers. Other musicians are there, the experimental music cognoscenti (someone was once said of these gigs that the same twenty dollar note is passed around as performer becomes audience becomes performer). And me. I was there that cold June night and I fell, with the rest of the audience, into Althoff’s subtle world of sound. When I try to explain to my uninitiated friends what the big deal is about an Althoff work, the response is often a blank stare.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is the name ‘experimental music’. It implies a kind of deliberately confrontational approach, an attempt to spoil the experience of music, of forcing the audience to suffer harsh, atonal sounds, of computer-generated laptop-operated wankery. And, I can attest, it certainly can be that.

But as Warren Burt, godfather of Australian experimental music and one-time collaborator with Ernie Althoff, says Ernie’s music is not some hit and miss, jarring poseur party. ‘What a wonderful composer’s ear he brings to his work. Sounds carefully matched and considered for their timbral and range characteristics – he’s got one of the most elegant senses of timbres and their combinations of any composer I know.’

Don’t ask a musician to define music. They hate that. And don’t look it up in Groves. There was no entry under ‘music’ until the 2001 edition. And when it did appear, the author refused to commit. ‘Presenting the word “music” as an entry in a dictionary of music may imply either an authoritative definition or a properly comprehensive treatment of the concept of music, at all times, in all places and in all senses.’ Such a definition is not possible, the author says, and continues to say so, dancing around the idea, for eleven more pages.

Even the legal profession have tackled the issue. Copyright litigation forced the first judicial attempt at a definition of music. In the 1777 copyright case Bach v Longman, Lord Mansfield described music as “a science; it may be written; and the mode of the conveying the ideas is by signs and marks”.

The experimental music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries challenges the possibility of a classification even further.
I asked Ernie for his definition of music. He said he is content to go with Ron Nagorcka’s observation, that music is a ‘social interaction involving the concept of organised sound’. Wait, the concept? Not the sound? A concept-based view of music implies we need information with the sound.

Academics have tried to explain the Ernie Althoff musical adventure, with mixed results. Larry Wendt, a musicologist, theorised in 1990 that Ernie was ‘surveying’ the musical landscape. In his article ‘Sentient Percussion: Ernie Althoff’s Music Machines’, Wendt says Ernie’s machines ‘are like surveying instruments which aid him in mapping out a section of this little-known land for himself. His wanderings are part of our own attempts to find a more resonant cultural centre through our art, and re-invent ourselves as people of the whole world in the process.’

Ernie Althoff, the man, is part of the performance. He performs as though alone, tinkering and adjusting, seemingly without regard to audience expectations. Spectacles down the bridge of his nose, humming as he operates the machines, endlessly rolling and spinning; a mini-Sisyphean metaphor if ever there was one. Each performance is unique, given the numerous variables affecting each machine.

The use of chance elements in music is now well established. In John Cage’s famous work 4’33”, composed in 1952, the performer sits at the piano, raises the lid and follows the written music consisting only of tacets, instructions not to play, for a period of about four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The sounds the audience hears are those in the auditorium, coughing, movement, different each time.

I know Ernie is an admirer of Cage. And as I watched him working his machines, introducing more instruments and layers of sound, and hence the possibility of friction or  dissonance or difficulties with the sound, I can’t help but think that Ernie Althoff is attempting a collaboration with chance elements in his compositions, in each performance.

John Cage has always been a big influence. I’ve read many books on Cage and his works. I can’t do what he did and don’t really try or want to but I’m so damn impressed with his rigour. His working out what he wanted to do and then sticking to that so solidly and cleverly. His renunciation of any “ego” in the composition of music is a big lesson for me. It’s the music that’s important, not the maker. I have tried doing chance ‘number-crunching’ scores – I learnt that it’s the questions you ask of the processes that ‘make’ the music, not the numbers themselves.

A recent New Yorker article proposed a ‘two artists’ theory of new art forms. They are the experientialists and the arrangers. An audience attending an experientialist performance must give in to the artist’s slow and challenging method, in order to experience the genius. The arrangers, on the other hand, defer to the audience. They make the experience more enticing and engaging. The experientialists think the arrangers are ‘cliché and easy’. The arrangers think the experientialists are ‘self-indulgent, tedious and abstruse’. The author concludes that ‘the ablest artists are those who inhabit a middle landscape, mastering the art of special attention while meeting the challenges of effortless appeal.’ I asked Ernie how would he like audiences to respond to his work. ‘With the awareness that it’s not entertainment-driven. It’s not wallpaper for other activities. Be prepared for a ‘problem-seeking’ environment. But after all that, if the audience is pleased/seduced/finds an idea of beauty, then so much the better.’

Ernie Althoff’s parents emigrated from Austria in 1950. Born in Mildura in 1950, and raised in Geelong, Ernie studied science at Melbourne University. He completed two years before switching to graphic design. In Melbourne he was able to pursue his passion for jazz, and then discovered the work of John Cage. In 1977 Ernie heard Warren Burt’s program Amputations on Community Radio 3CR and was inspired to create his own work. He bought a cassette recorder and began experimenting with sounds. In 1978, Ernie attended a CAE course on electronic music taught by Ron Nagorcka. Nagorcka had honed his craft in the US where he met Burt. Both Nagorcka and Burt were involved in establishment of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (CHCMC), a disused organ factory. More than a venue, the CHCMC was a fertile creative breeding ground for experimental music artists and hosted performances by, among others, Philip Brophy’s Tsk Tsk Tsk.

In the early 80s Ernie constructed his first music machine, for use as a centre-piece accessory for a solo performance. More machines followed, and led to the evolution of his performances into a kind of wrangling of multiple machines, all producing numerous unique sounds, and all set in motion with the same casual approach to set up and operation.

‘I can still recall,’ Ernie wrote in a recent email, ‘the thrill when my first “t-arm and pendulums” turntable-based machine played its music for me in 1982. I had shown an earlier primitive cassette-player based rotating machine in 1981 but it wasn’t dependable. This early version was still rough in its construction and the sounding perimeter had only 4 instruments but it played beautifully. This little invention led to so much.’

Found objects worked their way into Ernie’s machines. He once discovered a partially damaged CD player at a friend’s music shop. It was unable to track properly and the tracking could be moved in one direction or another depending on how hard, and which side, one tapped the player’s drawer. This allowed Ernie to play a section of recorded material over and over again in an unrepeatable pattern.

This device became more than just “part of the piece” – it became a sort of surveyor’s tool for a whole new sonic landscape that I guess in which I’m still wandering happily.

While Ernie is happy enough with the ‘surveyor’ metaphor, Wendt’s image is a rather meagre symbol. A theodolite is too mechanical, too limited a tool to stand for the mad, erratic whimsy of his machines. The dimensions at play in an Ernie Althoff performance are better illustrated by, say, the alchemist working with elements, searching for a new substance, one that delivers both a kind of transcendence and the antidote to banality. What John Cage gave the experimental music project was an ingredient that uplifts, one that scorns bad faith, and relegates the composer to a supporting role: chance, the Deus ex machina in the performance. The nature of Ernie’s machines invites the possibility of unintended, accidental sound.

Warren Burt says Ernie works with chaos, and has done for years. ‘No theoretical simulations for him, interrupted-and-accidental-ellipses abound in his work, making it unpredictable but not random.’

With any new device, Ernie experiments in his studio, mining as many sounds as possible – aiming ideally for at least twelve unique sounds – from a single item. By the time of the performance he might reduce that down to three. And when he feels he has satisfactorily explored every possible musical use he moves on. In the last few years, Althoff has started giving away his instruments at gigs.

His tenacious adherence to the principles of musical exploration stands in contrast to the popular music of our time. His advice to young sound artists is simple:

Be rigorous, don’t sell yourself and your ideas short. Do the best you can – it may need a bit of thought and time to get it right but that’s okay. Don’t think of yourself as an island; get out there and share what you’re doing. There’s not much point in doing what someone else has already done (unless you just want to learn how they did it). Chuck the whole fame idea out the window – concentrate on the quality of the output.

Ernie’s work has been exhibited and heard in galleries and clubs, outdoor sculpture gardens and pubs, and to each performance he brings the same exacting approach to set up. According to Warren Burt, ‘his insistence on having proper conditions for the work has helped the Melbourne music scene immensely by raising the bar for standards of presentation.’

What does Ernie think of the current state of Melbourne experimental music? ‘Very healthy, and so diverse. It’s really very broad with lots of stuff happening in lots of different venues. In the late 70s it was seen as attached to a sort of universitied avant-garde, and that allowed some people to criticise work such as mine and my apparent music knowledge or skill but that’s gone. Now if someone gets tired of their thrash-metal pursuits and wants to venture into other areas and finds out about “the experimenters”, there’s no bias in either direction and that’s great. The web and digital developments in general have made lots of things easy (including doing crappy work too). I reckon there’s room for it all.’

Jenny Green

Jenny Green studied professional writing at RMIT. Her work has appeared in Overland and she received an honourable mention from the Sisters in Crime Scarlett Stiletto Short Story competition. Her first novel, Good Money (Scribe), is due out this week. The second Stella Hardy novel, Too Easy, is in progress. She lives in the western suburbs of Melbourne.

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