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Jon Rose & Hollis Taylor, play a fence in the Strzelecki Jon Rose & Hollis Taylor, play a fence in the Strzelecki

UK born, Rose arrived in Australia in 1976 at the age of 25 and, somehow finding this country’s idiosyncrasies to his liking, exploded into a plethora of activities, which continue to this day. As well as being a consummate violinist and versatile improviser, he has made a multitude of instruments and has also created many radio works. Most recently he has been exploring interactive music making experiences in works such as Pursuit, using musical bicycles (see RT90; RT96), an interactive netball game, Team Music! (RT96); and the multi-user festival hit The Ball project (RT102).

Rose has also embraced the Australian landscape, evidenced in his Great Fences of Australia project undertaken with his partner, violinist Hollis Taylor, which saw the couple travelling across the outback playing and recording the sounds of Australia’s many fences. This journey is beautifully documented in a book by Taylor called Post Impressions (see RT82). Another epic adventure was the Ad Lib Project, an extensive archive of weird and wonderful music-making activities from around the nation, housed on the ABC’s website. It perhaps best illustrates Rose’s conflicted love for this country and its curious history which he enticingly articulated in his 2008 Peggy Glanville-Hicks address (RT83) and which he discusses in the following conversation with equally respected musician and improviser Jim Denley.

instrument builder

Jim Denley In preparing to talk with you today, I actually went back and listened to some of your early 1980s work, like Devils and Angels [Fringe Benefit Records 1984], where you use multi-stringed instruments. If I compare it to say Derek Bailey’s solo guitar playing in the 70s it seems like what you were doing is a logical extension—this search for a kind of multiplicity through complexity and velocity.

Jon Rose A multiplicity of events—that’s a good way of describing it. First of all there was a 19-string violin which was stolen in London. Then there was the 19-string half cello to replace that, which has incidentally also been stolen...Those instruments were specifically about multiplicity, using also amplification to project certain things, so you had a stereo image and could place things within that image.

But there were other instruments…I had ideas about certain areas of experimentation and I built the instrument to try to figure out what to do with it. So there was one violin with a very long neck and 16 strings set up in a way that they were never intended to be played individually, but played as a mass. There was an instrument that was played by the wind—an Aeolian violin. There was a tromba marina [a medieval triangular bowed string instrument] that was attached to my boat which I had at the time, which used water to change the focal length of the resonating chamber. There was a megaphone violin that had an FM radio microphone in it. So it’s not true to say that it was always about finding multiplicity. Some things were about trying to get a sound happening which was not the normal sound made through applying a bow to a string—the usual hold, slip, hold, slip, sawtooth wave form.

 Jon Rose playing the Tromba Mariner, 1979 Jon Rose playing the Tromba Mariner, 1979

…In the second half of the 70s I was in this strange country and I just got on with what I thought was appropriate. There were not that many people to play with and those that were available had a certain area they wanted to go in that wasn’t so interesting to me, I was basically left to my own devices…I enjoyed that space. I think if I’d stayed in Europe I wouldn’t have done that somehow. I would have been busy in bands or in groups. And I also had the advantage of very quickly being able to get commercial work to live off. Playing in a country and western band or in Club Marconi two or three nights a week...You could be a professional musician and the rest of the time free to do whatever you wanted to.

JD In thinking about those times, as a young musician from the ‘Gong’ [Wollongong], you were kind of a mentor to me and other musicians. You just sidestepped the local inanity and if you couldn’t get a gig in Sydney, you didn’t worry about it…You presented an international agenda and a multimedia agenda. If you couldn’t operate in one sphere, you’d operate in another.

JR Well in the 70s…you could go almost anywhere except the Opera House and play a concert, because people said, ‘Sure.’ The first improvised concerts took place at the Institute of Contemporary Art—a gallery run by a couple of architects which [sound artist] Rik Rue helped set up. And they were just delighted to have people come in and do stuff. The same as Stephen Mori Gallery later. It was open. The thing that I got from Sydney was that I finally formulated what I was going to do with my life…which was this artform around the violin or strings in general.

the dominant body

JD There’s something almost paradoxical in much 21st century and late 20th century music: it’s almost as if music has been running away from the human body. I was talking to Stephen Adams, the composer and ABC broadcaster, recently and for him you represent a kind of humanist approach to phraseology and gesture. It seems to me, when you work with technology, the body dominates the technology.

JR That’s very well put. Otherwise I’m not interested. I’m not interested in pressing return and playing a file. Although that’s not to say it can’t be useful. That technology doesn’t give me much as a musical instrument, whereas if I apply it—like in The Ball project for example—[I can] use technology to try and re-engage the populace at large in the business of making music. The last time I did The Ball Project, it was in front of 400 people [at MONA FOMA 2011]. I said they shouldn’t kick it because they might hurt their feet but really they could do what they wanted with it, and they just started to make music. You couldn’t sit those 400 people down and get them to listen to a playback file of electronic music, they wouldn’t have it. But they got it immediately—they could make this stuff.

 Jon Rose playing Palimpolin, with the K-Bow at Galapagos Club, New York, 2010 Jon Rose playing Palimpolin, with the K-Bow at Galapagos Club, New York, 2010
photo Jill Steinberg

All my interest in that technology comes from the bow anyway. That’s the first thing I tried to do was to make the bow interactive so that it would do other things…Now I’m working with a small company in California who’ve got real resources and can make things much better than I could…But all that interest in the technology comes through the violin. If I hadn’t been born when I was I would have been doing “what can a violin do with a horse and cart?”…I’d be looking at the context for what to do with this instrument. Because the context in which it’s usually stuck is always out of date.

historical landscapes

JD It seemed to me that you embraced Australia. And reading through Hollis Taylor’s book, Post Impressions, she documents a love—especially of the outback. What is it about Australia that makes it such a fertile place to work?

JR Culturally this is a perverse place, and it’s a uniquely perverse place. Colonialism happened all over the world but Australia is extremely distant and it’s a big place with a small population which has made people confused, psychologically really unsure of themselves, desperate to grasp at things from other places, overseas and so on. And you have this culture that is permanently in denial, even to this day.

… If you look for the history of music, particularly in the 19th century, here it’s just got these extraordinary stories. You couldn’t make them up. The first Aboriginal string Orchestra in the 1860s, founded by [Benedictine Monk] Rosendo Salvador in New Norcia in Western Australia; you meet people like Rosina Boston who plays the gum leaf. Everywhere I look, there’s some extraordinary stuff…Jamaica has come up with three genres of music: Ska, Reggae and Calypso, it’s also a colonial place. But in Australia, nobody came up with a genre. And you start looking at why…If you’re going to be a musician and live in Australia, you have to deal with the place at some level.

JD Is that why, later this year you’re going to take a bunch of young musicians out to the far west of New South Wales?

JR This is the plan… I’ve been doing this stuff (with Hollis too) pretty solidly since I got back and started living in Sydney again in 2002. Any skill or knowledge we have should be handed on…we’re the only people who have worked extensively in that part of the world, as far as I know, in what you might call…what do you call it these days…I hate the word ‘sound art’—new music, experimental music, exploratory music?

exodus australis

JD As the Ad Lib website proposes, there’s a lot of interesting stuff that’s happened here and is happening…We’re saying this is an exciting place, Australia, it’s got a great history. And yet, you’ve gone off with a DAAD scholarship to Berlin and lived in Europe again and then returned. I see generation after generation of young musicians relocating, usually to Europe. Are we always going to be parochial? To make a mark do you have to relocate?

JR Up to 1981, which was the first time I played at Moers (New Jazz Festival), I assumed that no one ever got paid for this. I thought that’s extraordinary. So after that there came more opportunities and I thought, well I’ll divide my time. Pretty much every year I lived in Berlin I did come back, mainly because there was the option of the ABC [radio] which was amazing. I could make programs and do some concerts and whatever. But it became clear to survive doing this work you have to be international. But where my passion lies is here.

Also it depends what kind of a musician you are…I have a broad output and so that makes me different really from say a classic improviser. That’s a little part of what I want, but it’s not the whole picture.

changing contexts

JD But that collaborative improvising musician which you clearly are, a lot of people might not know about that Jon Rose. With the Don Banks Award you’re presented as a composer.

JR It’s a word I hate. But eventually you give up trying to correct people. What is it? I don’t know any more because now everyone uses the word ‘improvisation’ all over the place…

…Collaboration is one thing, and with different groups—working with communities on one thing and seeing what can come out of that; working with classical musicians is another. But basically it’s the context change that interests me in a primary sort of way. Anything can sound extraordinary if you change the context. So one of the pieces I did out at Wogarno station [for Tura New Music’s Outback series] was with a front-end hoe—a digging machine basically. Just an amazing collaboration which I thoroughly enjoyed. It wasn’t because it was warped or off-centre. I really enjoyed it. It made me want to play.

I think I need to be in situations where I really want to play like it’s my last concert, that’s really important to me. And I tend to avoid situations where that’s not the case, where it’s going to be a routine….That’s not possible for me. I guess it is for some musicians and I guess that’s really important for music that there are people who will do that—keep the Mozart churning out.

…I really want to use the Don Banks to point or put a very small spotlight on the other people and other organisations that do whatever we want to call this music, this ‘other music.’ People who have worked in What Is Music?, Robbie Avenaim, The Make It Up Club, the NOW now, people like yourself Jim, Tos Mahoney in WA, Lawrence English and lately MONA FOMA, there’s a list…The funding is a joke, but somehow the stuff keeps going. And the wonderful thing about it is that it points back to a time when to be living in Australia made you look to your own resources. It was the ultimate do-it-yourself boot camp in a way and has been for most of its history.

Can I interview you now?

Jon Rose, 2012 Australia Council Don Banks Music Award;;

The Australia Council’s Don Banks Award is valued at $60,000 and is offered annually by the Council’s Music Board honouring an artist of high distinction and over 50 years of age who has made an outstanding and sustained contribution to Australia music.

Interview introduced and edited by Gail Priest.

Click here for the artv video of this interview

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 34-35

© Jim Denley & Gail Priest; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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