|Jon Rose, What is music? Sydney 2009|
photo by Leith Thomas
"really high-brow and low-brow stuff.…We didn’t really differentiate...we just threw them together. In the beginning there was more of a [pressing] reason because there were so few gigs in Sydney for experimental artists…We were interested in digging people out of the woodwork...presenting work that was really important but that no one knew about."
RealTime’s reviews of the festival start in 2002, alas missing some of the crazier 90s manifestations. The festival has grown to serious contender status, playing in venues such as The Studio at the Sydney Opera House and CarriageWorks in Sydney, Brisbane Powerhouse and the ABC Iwaki Studio in Melbourne. The festivals of 2002-2005 increased to mammoth proportions with a plethora of international acts who otherwise may not have come to Australia—Merzbow, Keiji Heino (their performances detailed in the 2004 review by Danni Zuvela), Otomo Yoshihide (see Gail Priest’s 2002 article), Sun O))) and Pan Sonic, and offering festival platforms in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane, increasing interstate touring potential.
What is Music? has always been a festival that invites passionate reactions. The name itself is a provocation, and so writing about the festival has often involved critical discussion on the nature of experimental music as a whole. Greg Hooper’s review of the Brisbane leg of What is Music? 2004 reflects this most colourfully:
"Noise/experimental/microsound improvisation has a long enough history to have developed its own clichés…the formal structures to organise the sound stream are still in short supply. Sometimes it’s a bit like the one-man-band thing…Except nowdays it’s shaving a whale in a cardboard box and every time you hit the footpedal it vomits."
In 2005 Caleb K (a co-director of the event in 2004) offered an opinion piece on how What is Music? was faring, not only due to irregular funding and financial pressures, but also the changing landscape of experimental music which by then included the NOW now festival. A strong criticism was of the diminishing of local representation in favour of higher-profile international acts. This imbalance has been addressed somewhat in recent years, but unlike the early days the tendency is towards programming established artists rather than emerging (in Sydney at least).
Fifteen years on and the festival continues, now under the sole guiding hand of Robbie Avenaim: a remarkable feat of staying power. The scale of the event has reduced to a more sustainable level with the majority of the activities now happening in Melbourne, but with some events in Sydney and Perth. While it still elicits passionate criticism and discussion (see Gail Priest’s review of the 2009 Sydney What is Music?), there is no denying that the Australian experimental music landscape would be very different if What is Music? had not begun and not had the audacity to just keep on rolling! The challenge for What is Music? now is to maintain its unique flavour in a more established experimental music landscape and increase its engagement with a new generation of music makers.
what did you say?
jonathan marshall: what is music? melbourne
with ears pinned back...
gail priest: what is music? sydney
what is music? this is!
limits and leaps
japanese underground out loud
what NOW for experimental music?
gail priest at what is music? sydney
the shame of growing old gracefully
Ben Byrne will be reviewing aspects of What is Music Melbourne in RT95.
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