Research, Writing

It feels a bit strange that I’ve been doing research for my Honours thesis for about 3 or 4 months now but I’ve yet to share anything on here. So, a short introduction to my topic and at a later stage I’ll put some more specific writing about my subjects.

Plan A

Originally my plan for this year’s research project was to be to investigate early experimental performance practice in Australia, primarily pre-World War 2. Why? A fair bit of the work I did last year led me to learn about Dadaist and Futurist and Surrealist performance in Europe, and I assumed there must have been some kind of parallel or at least link to here (Australia). Never assume. Well, that’s a bit simplistic, I’m still confident there were progressive music performance practices going on in Australia at that time, it’s just a matter of finding a record of such activity – not easy. I’ve found a couple of mentions of some pretty interesting stuff going on in the music hall scene but what I was looking for was performance that regarded itself as something more serious than light entertainment. So, after panicking about that dead end for a while and trying to think of people I could interview under what seemed at the time pretty oppressive university ethics guidelines, I came to Plan B.

Plan B

…was to look at pre-war ‘experimental’ music practice in Australia in general. I defined experimental (and still do) as musical activity which seeks to extend or transform an existing music tradition either by the exploration of new musical materials, of new methods of composition or improvisation, of new technologies, or of new or novel instrumental and performance techniques. It didn’t take too long for it to become apparent that this was a ridiculously huge topic for an Honous thesis, although I did get a fair way into researching it, far enough to know there’s very little work done in the area and that I should probably return to it in later studies. I did spend a fair bit of time looking into Grainger’s work and ideas, and I’ve cooked up some fun toys that refer to them in Max/MSP, but more about that later. I did have a lot of fun checking out the Grainger Museum’s collection of instruments and artefacts thanks to their curator Astrid Britt Krautschneider, and I’ll be using ideas from that experience in work coming soon.

So that idea got pushed through a sieve and as I had gathered a fairly significant amount of information on a couple of very interesting characters in Australian experimental music I came to…

Plan F

Not strictly alphabetical but that’s how I referred to it with my supervisor. My current and final game plan is to look at two early Australian experimentalists – Elsie Hamilton and Jack Ellitt, and compare them to later, more well known composers who used similar ideas. Their ideas? Hamilton collaborated extensively with Kathleen Schlesinger, an early advocate for and writer on just intonation. Schlesinger devised a system of modes based on equal divisions of a string, theorising that this would have been the first way people would have approached tuning an instrument and was thus a more ‘pure’ principle for pitch choice/organisation than equal temperament. I’m paraphrasing and generalising massively here but she has a very big book on the subject [The Greek Aulos] which is hard to summarise in a sentence. Anyway, Schlesinger’s system captured the imagination of Hamilton and she went on to use it extensively in her own work and became something of spokesperson for it. Jack Ellitt was an early experimenter with tape collage, apparently using optical sound-on-film technology prior to the advent of magnetic audio tape, and was a collaborator with experimental film maker Len Lye for a number of years. The people I chose for comparison were Harry Partch and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Partch because he cites the work of Schlesinger in his book Genesis of a Music and analyses her system in depth, and Stockhausen because of an anecdote (which has since proven to be more urban myth) that he was aware of Ellitt’s pioneering work and attempted to make contact with the then reclusive Ellitt some time in the late 70s / early 80s.

So, that’s what I’m working on.

Information on Elsie Hamilton and Kathleen Schlesinger can be found on Brian Lee’s website

Thanks are due to Clinton Green for his help with information about Jack Ellitt, you can visit his website here

If anyone out there in internet world has information about Hamilton or Ellitt and would like to share it, I’d be very appreciative.


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