an Australian experimental
aesthetic emerged ...
Whether it was a coincidence or shared circumstances, CHCMC came about just as punk’s attitude of ‘just do it’ coupled with emerging postmodern sensibilities, which saw audiences and art makers coalescing in places that ignored the mainstream’s own alternatives. CHCMC began as a community oriented music venue, but quickly, new political, philosophical and creative energies in the air would influence the pathways that artists would take at CHCMC during its five or so years of activity.
The late 70s and early 80s was a time when the dominance of institutionalised culture was beginning to wane as universities underwent corporatisation. All the while, what was considered to be popular culture was gaining a new legitimacy, recognised as a richly entangled field to explore. For some of us, somewhat unskilled or bored with mainstream music practices, a creative gap suddenly appeared that we felt we could fill through making music, discovering ideas, and experimenting with new ways to do it.
Melbourne is a big music town, and back in the late 70s and early 80s, CHCMC emerged as a space where experiments and shifts in cultural discourse could play-out, performatively and audibly, in the margins of the mainstream to a small, growing audience. The Centre provided a safe space for emerging artists and temporal art-making outside commercial and academic expectations.
Artworks performed at CHCMC were wide ranging in scope, primarily involving music, but also performance, film, video and installation. These works de-emphasised traditional ideals of craft, expression and musicianship, moreover the artworks often critically commented on the dominant channels of production and cultural framings that were seen as pervasive in mainstream culture. It is hoped that this site will be used by researchers as well as casual listeners enabling the unpacking of particular works, potentially revealing their significance in the development of music and experimental art practice in Australia.
It could be argued that at CHCMC an Australian experimental aesthetic emerged; one that no longer copied American and European ideas and trends; instead, expressive forms emerged that reflected local situations and themes and also had room for different approaches. This included the continued expounding of modernist counter-culture methods, but also embraced active deconstructions of what some artists saw as pervasive modernist tropes.
As you will hear in the archive, the broad Australian accent is very noticeable (more so than today). It became instrumental as a liberating and expressive force (Chris Mann, Ernie Althoff, Ralph Traviato). There were also explorations of Indigenous themes, albeit from colonial-settler perspectives (Ron Nagorcka, IDA); these involved polemics that were primarily discovered, stated and expressed through art rather than through written texts or curatorial framings. Language still had a role to play of course: Warren Burt often spole about his works before he presented them and Tsk Tsk Tsk had photocopied essays accompanying their performances. But the music always came first, and then, in between and following the performances, appraisals and critiques would take place around the tea urn.
As I now see it, CHCMC was a site where postmodernism 1 emerged in Australian art practice, even though the term was not then known to any of us. It first appeared in the works of younger performers (which was at that time, my generation) who sometimes intuitively and sometimes knowingly deconstructed modernist artistic and cultural methods and aesthetics, including those employed by some older artists. Listening back to the works in this archive today, they all now sound interesting to me, and it can be difficult to differentiate between these two creative ontologies. Aspects of my own work were even influenced by older composers like Warren Burt. But, it is still worth acknowledging that different creative ontologies were very much in play. My memories of this are also embellished by non-sonic aspects of CHCMC’s creative milieu: what we spoke about, how we dressed, and the different interests we all brought to CHCMC.
For the keen listener, these recordings capture a dialectic of aesthetics, derived through modern and postmodern creative methods and through framings that were variously expressed through the music, performance, film and video. For example, the slightly older composers tended to experiment with inner musical structures and processes, while the younger composers concerned themselves more with external structures that included the spectacle of performance.
It was a busy time. New works were being created each week, often in response to what other artists had presented the week before. Themes and ideas were explored directly through the act of making and presenting music, films and performance, with discourses that reflected certain philosophical precedents at the time – Marxism, the French New Wave, semiotics, structuralism. Other artists referenced contemporary American thinkers or experimented with novel musical and sonic concepts and structures, uncovering new aesthetic outcomes: For example, the use of multiple cassette recorders to layer up sounds in a process that gradually tranformed simple utterances into dense, distorted, yet evocative forms (Graeme Davis, Plastic Platypus, Ernie Althoff), or the deployment of novel pitch sets (Warren Burt). Some performers were students and academics of film theory that, at the time, was being being taught at La Trobe University and at Melbourne State College (Phillip Brophy, Adrian Martin, Robert Goodge Goodge, David Chesworth, Rolando Caputo). Other artists were influenced directly by the artists who performing there before them at CHCMC.
This was an analogue world where tapes took time to rewind and where sound works and performances often emerged slowly over timescapes, and where super-8’s grainy images evoked a blurry aesthetic (that now appears so quaint and old). Sound Art hadn’t yet emerged. There was no internet, mobile phones, nor social media to disseminate what was taking place at CHCMC. Instead, the mainstream press was in full control while public radio stations were just getting a foothold. Some journalists propagated suspicions about CHCMC’s off the grid activities: its motives and critical attitudes. As well, amongst all this, there was a vague awareness that this world that we had become familiar with would soon be swamped by the incoming tidal wave of digital technology, although it was difficult then to picture how this would affect us, and how it would forever transform the fidelity of the mediascape, our methods and our creative pathways.
This rare archive of a nascent experimental music scene was recorded binaurally on cassette by Ernie Althoff – himself a regular performer at CHCMC. It is not a complete record, rather, it reflects Ernie’s personal choices, after-all, no one asked him to make these recordings; he simply took it upon himself to attend performances and make them. Ernie’s own creative work is therefore well represented in these tapes.
Ernie’s cassettes have sat silently on a shelf for over 40 years and have only recently been transferred and arranged as a digital archive for this site. The cassette transfers were made by John Campbell who was also a performer at CHCMC (who initially uncovered the availability of the Organ Factory and its potential as a community space). I have done some restoration work on the recordings including compiling recordings of single events that Ernie spread across several tapes, filling in any available space.
Some artists who were prolific at this time are not well represented in the archive, as they mainly performed electronic music that was considered to be already documented on tape. Warren Burt, a hugely significant artist during this time has relatively few recordings. His prolific output was at the time was mainly video and film-based. We have included a separate archive of some of Warren’s work from the 70s that also include some currently undated CHCMC performances that he recorded. This can be found under the Other link.
This site also includes the distinctive season posters designed by Philip Brophy and Ernie Althoff and copies of the New Music magazine (1978–81) published by Philip Brophy and myself that contain reviews of performances followed by discussions with the artists who respond to the reviews. Also included are three earlier publications of The New Music Newspaper (1976–77) published by Warren Burt and Les Gilbert. You will also find photos and ephemera associated with CHCMC. There weren’t many photographs taken at CHCMC, as it was not the done thing. I think it was considered indulgent to consider that one’s contribution should be preserved beyond the performance. In retrospect we are thankful that some photos were taken and recording were made. We are fortunate that photographer Jane Joyce took a range of shots that now appear throughout the site as did Tsk Tsk Tsk. Other photographs as they come to light are being be added.
CHCMC Performers are encouraged to send in information and clarifications and to flesh out their own biogs. If any of you have recordings of CHCMC performances that we have missed then us know.
Postmodernism as I define it here, was an intellectual stance or mode of discourse defined by a skepticism toward the grand narratives and ideologies of modernism, as well as opposition to epistemic certainty and the stability of meaning. ↩