an Australian experimental
aesthetic emerged ...

Terminal Moraine (1980)

Whether it was a coincidence or shared circumstances, the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre (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 spaces that ignored the mainstream’s own alternative venues. While CHCMC began as a community oriented music venue, it wasn’t long before this gave way to political, philosophical and creative energies that revealed new creative pathways that artists could take at CHCMC during its five or so years of activity. I hope that this site will be used by both researchers and casual listeners to unpack specific works, potentially revealing their significance to experimental art practice in Australia.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a notable shift occurred as institutionalised culture began to lose its dominant grip while universities underwent corporatisation. Concurrently, popular culture, once looked down upon within the arts, was gaining a new legitimacy, recognised as a entangled rich field to explore. For some of us, somewhat unskilled and disillusioned with mainstream music practices, a creative gap opened up that we could fill by exploring music-making, uncovering novel concepts, and experimenting with new methods that embraced our varying levels of competence.

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 could be argued that at CHCMC, an Australian experimental aesthetic emerged—one that ceased to merely replicate American and European ideas and trends. Instead, expressive forms began to reflect local experiences and themes, and also had room for different approaches. This included the continued expounding of modernist counter-culture methods, but also began to embrace active deconstructions of what some artists saw as pervasive modernist tropes.

One curiosity from the archive is that the broad Australian accent, more pronounced than today, played a significant role. It served as a catalyst for personal liberation and expression, exemplified by figures like Chris Mann, Ernie Althoff, Ralph Traviato and Adrian Martin. Additionally, there were explorations of broader topics including Indigenous themes - albeit from colonial-settler perspectives - as seen in the works of Ron Nagorcka and IDA. These themes engaged in polemics primarily discovered, articulated, and expressed through music, sound or moving images artistic practice rather than conveyed through written texts or curatorial frameworks. Spoken word still had a role to play of course: people like Warren Burt, Ernie Althoff and Chris Mann often spoke at length about their works or within their performances before he presented them, and Tsk Tsk Tsk had photocopied essays accompanying their performances. But the music always came first. Following the performances, appraisals and critiques would take place around the silver tea urn.

As I now see it, CHCMC was a site where postmodernism 1 emerged in Australian art practice, although none of us were familiar with the term at that time. Initially evident among younger performers, including my own generation, this emergence involved both intuitive and deliberate deconstructions of modernist artistic and cultural methods and aesthetics, occasionally challenging the approaches of older CHCMC artists who’s creative pathways were informed by a counter-culture practice that were informed more strongly by modernist methods. Revisiting all the works within this archive today, I find them all intriguing, making it challenging to distinguish between these two creative philosophies, plus, I recognise influences in my own music from older composers like Warren Burt. But I feel it is still worth acknowledging that different creative ontologies, rubbed up against each other at CHCMC and created some creative friction.

My memories of this time also include non-sonic aspects of CHCMC’s creative milieu, which were still important: what we spoke about, how different people dressed, and all the different styles, methods and interests we all brought to CHCMC.

And so, 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 us younger composers concerned ourselves with external structures, such as 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. Some artists referenced contemporary American thinkers or experimented with novel musical and sonic concepts and structures, uncovering new aesthetic outcomes. For example, there was the use of multiple cassette recorders by some artists to layer up sounds in a process that gradually transformed simple recorded utterances into dense, distorted and evocative soundscape (Graeme Davis, Plastic Platypus, Ernie Althoff), or the deployment of novel tunings and pitch sets (Warren Burt). Some performers applied 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 performer were influenced directly by the artists who performing before them at CHCMC.

All this was taking place within a world that was still analogue, where tapes took time to rewind and where musical works and performances often emerged slowly over long timescales, and where cheap super-8 film’s grainy chemically derived images evoked a blurry aesthetic that now appears so quaint and old. Sound Art hadn’t yet emerged as a term or a distinct discipline. There was no internet, mobile phones, nor social media to disseminate what was taking place at CHCMC. Instead, the mainstream and alternative rock press maintained its full control, while public radio stations were just getting a foothold. Some journalists harboured suspicions about CHCMC’s off the grid activities: its motives and critical attitudes. Amongst all this, there was a growing awareness that this world and creative milieu would soon be swamped by the incoming tidal wave of digital technology. 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 had been silently resting on a shelf for over 40 years until recently when they were transferred and organized into a digital archive for this site The cassette transfers were made by John Campbell who was also a performer at CHCMC (and 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 mainly video and film-based. We have included a separate archive of some of Warren’s work from the 70s that also includes undated CHCMC performances that he recorded. This can be found under the Other link.

This site also includes the distinctive performance season posters designed by Philip Brophy and Ernie Althoff and copies of the New Music magazine (1978–81) edited and 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) edited and 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 as it was considered indulgent to think 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 and CHCMC performer Jane Joyce took a range of shots that now appear throughout the site, as did members of →↑→. Other photographs are being be added as they come to light.

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 please us know.

David Chesworth

  1. 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. 


Clifton Hill
Community Music Centre

These recordings relate to CHCMC in different ways...

Includes a 1983 two-part ABC radio feature made by John Crawford, plus additional compositions by Plastic Platypus (Warren Burt and Ron Nagorcka) performing in the 1970s at various venues including CHCMC, included here because their music is not well represented in the main CHCMC archive.

001PLAYPAUSENew Music. Ep.1. ABC Radio feature written and presented by John Crawford.42:2106.06.83

Part 1 of a two part 1983 broadcast on ABC Radio National presented by John Crawford. Crawford was himself a performer at CHCMC and describes strategies and processes artists used, and Interviews several performers. Also, some great musical examples. This broadcast, now 40 years old, reflects a distinctive broadcast style of the day. It occurred just as the CHCMC was winding up

002PLAYPAUSENew Music. Ep.2. ABC Radio feature written and presented by John Crawford.43:4713.06.83

Part 2 of a two part 1983 broadcast on ABC Radio National presented by John Crawford, targeting a non-specialised audience. Crawford was himself a performer at CHCMC and describes strategies and processes artists used, and Interviews several performers. Also, great musical examples. The broadcast occurred just as the centre was winding up.

003PLAYPAUSE3 Burt pieces28:06

Short spoken intros before each piece from Warren.

  1. 00:44 two short ukulele pieces

  2. 6:10 harmonica drone piece (with acquired tape/mic distortion).

  3. 10:15 Final piece called 23 Excerpts from a Movie You Will Never Get To See

WB. ‘These cassettes are from the collection of Ron Nagorcka. They consist of compositions by Warren Burt from performances at La Mama and Clifton Hill Community Music Centre from 1975 to 1978. All the pieces [in this sub archive] are by Warren Burt except for “Tumbling into a Snare of Dreams” which is by Ron Nagorcka.

004PLAYPAUSEpiano piece & 20 mins11:47

two pieces
00:00 Piano Piece
04:30 20 Minutes

005PLAYPAUSENagorcka - Tumbling into the snare of dreams33:23

This work is by Ron Nagorcka

reed organ and glockenspiel

006PLAYPAUSESlow Drag Justinotation-Utonality Blues23:30

Short spoken intro
WB. ‘For ukulele and electronic tape’

007PLAYPAUSEPastoral Australia - Burt17:19

As with many of Warren’s performances there is a spoken explanation by Warren to the audience before the work is performed. Piece begins at 1:20

008PLAYPAUSEHebraic Variations37:54

Starts with a long spoken introduction by Warren. Music starts at 19:25

WB. ‘24 Preludes (and Fugues) (vol. 2) (1976-78) various instrumental and conceptual media. Some performed, some not, WB and friends, Aust. USA, Europe, 1975-1980; “Hebraic Variations” from this set published in the Anthology from the Centre for Contemporary Music, Mills College, Oakland,
1979-80 (various lengths)’

009PLAYPAUSEHarmonies of the Universe12:1101.01.75

WB. ‘Harmonies of the Universe for two reed organs. Perf. Ron Nagorcka and W.B., La Mama, Melbourne, 1975

WB. I remember also playing it (solo) at CHCMC that first winter in 76. I remember that by the end John McCaughey was the only audient left. So it was a solo performance by me for him.’

010PLAYPAUSESilver (piano dance)6:4901.01.78

WB. ‘Silver (Piano Dance) (1978) color PAL video of dance with off-camera piano.
Collaboration with Eva Karczag, dance;tape perf. Watters Gallery, Sydney, 1978’

011PLAYPAUSEFive Synthetic Pop Songs & Taking the Fifth49:2201.01.77

Begins with short spoken intro from Warren.
Five Synthetic Pop Songs begins at 2:35

Taking the fifth begins at 12.35

WB ‘Five Synthetic Pop Songs for voice, ukulele and reed organ - texts by Ned Sublette after Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. Perf. WB, CHCMC, 1977
Institute of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1977’

012PLAYPAUSEViola & Cassettes01.01.78

WB. ‘Viola and Cassettes 1978 might be by Warren Burt or it might be by Ron Nagorcka. We can’t remember which of us wrote the score, but we’re both performing.’

013PLAYPAUSELive at La Trobe Uni Moat Theatre42:5807.03.79

DC. Made on a summer evening in the open-air moat amphitheatre at La Trobe University. Attended by about 10 people and recorded to audio cassette by Chris Wyatt using binaural mics. David Chesworth on Wurlizer piano and Philip Brophy on a Fender Rhodes (borrowed from the La Trobe University Music Dept.)