AZ it was

Geoffrey Barnard

This article first appeared in NMA 7 magazine. In it, the author discusses aspects of the early formation of AZ Music, formed around composer David Ahern in Sydney during the 1970s.

In any discussion of AZ Music - what its significance was in the broader context of contemporary music, internationally, during its existence, how (and why) it came into being, perhaps the ramifications (if any) that are felt today - it is essential to bear in mind from the outset that AZ actually comprised two distinct phases in its (almost) six year history: the first running from its inception in February 1970 to August 1972, and the second roughly from the beginning of 1973 to the end of 1975. This article deals exclusively with that first (formative) phase of AZ Music.

Sounds come and go.

AZ music grew out of the free weekly class in experimental music - the Laboratory of the Creative Ear - which David Ahern started at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in February 1970, in much the same way as The Scratch Orchestra developed out of Cornelius Cardew's class at Morley College the previous year. Not insignificantly, Ahern had just returned from overseas, London in particular, having been involved with the Scratch Orchestra from the time it was founded.

Listening with a bent ear, I retain the memory of some, not all .

The influence of Cardew on our activities in the class was paramount, with emphasis on non-elitist, non-hierarchical forms of music-making, essentially for people without the `benefit' of a formal `musical' education. The concerns of La Monte Young relating to audition and the psycho-acoustic by-products of the auditory process were also very prevalent.

Standing at one point in the universe, notate what you hear with what you see .

Writing on the history of The Scratch Orchestra, Rod Eley is quick to point out that the nucleus of the Morley College composers "were dissatisfied with the elitism of `serious' music and its strong class image, and with the repression of working musicians into the role of slavish hacks churning out the stock repertoire of concert hall and opera house" [1] . Certainly a number of us attending Ahern's class on a regular basis felt that, by means of our activities, we were subverting bourgeois cultural values. Essentially we reacted against the tyranny of the self-contained music-object, not only that which had emerged out of the tradition of tonal functional harmony, but also that which embodied the authoritarianism of serialism and subsequent developments in European contemporary composition.

A catalogue is an ordered representation of what you hear and what you see .

Right from the start in these classes, the essence of music-making was explored. Notions about the identity of a piece of music, the ontological status of scores, the function of notation and the relationship of composition to improvisation were thrown up and re-assessed through our efforts in both composition and performance.

Composing's one thing, performing's another, listening's a third. What can they have to do with one another?

`Compositions' were primarily verbal, though some graphic scores were produced, but the emphasis in the main was on improvisation rites , glees and catalogues , with some very interesting work being done by Peter Evans, Roger Frampton and artist Peter Kennedy.

Glees are patterns and preparations for song. They are plans for action - vocal chord action .

AZ Music `officially' came into being with the presentation of a 24-hour concert at Watters Gallery in East Sydney over the weekend of 21-22 February 1970. This temporal `block' was defined by a performance of Erik Satie's Vexations against which works by American composers (La Monte Young's Trio for Strings 1958, Composition 1960 #7 and Composition 1960 #9 - and Christian Wolff's Stones , from his Prose Collection of 1968-69) were realised. Duration, then, became a `concrete' dimension in itself, affirming the thrust of Young's music towards (perpetuating) a sense of `timelessness'.

I think that music is now able to be not so much `listened to' but `existed in' .

Pianist Peter Evans stopped playing after the 595th repetition and was replaced by Linda Wilson, who completed the performance.

I felt each repetition slowly wearing my mind away. I had to stop. If I hadn't stopped I'd be a very different person today...People who play it do so at their own peril .

Over the next two and a half years, AZ went on to propagate much of the music that has since been documented by Michael Nyman in his book Experimental Music : indeterminate compositions by John Cage (in particular his Imaginary Landscape No 4 (1952) for 12 radios and 24 players and his Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1957-58), Christian Wolff and Morty Feldman; live electronic music; the `new tonality' of Terry Riley ( In C ) and Steve Reich ( Piano Phase ); Cardew's The Great Learning (1968-70), Paragraphs 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7, as well as a fragment of his graphic score Treatise (1963-67); free electronic-acoustic improvisation (following the formation of the group Teletopa); works by local composers, particularly David Ahern, Roger Frampton and Ernie Gallagher.

During this period, the `noisicians' of AZ were to acquire a reputation as the `enfants terribles' of the Sydney music scene and were constantly ridiculed in the press by critics who accused us of deliberately inflicting various forms of aural air pollution on a gullible and unsuspecting public. Our notoriety increased considerably during 1971 by virtue of two separate incidents which bear recounting in some detail.

At the Sydney Proms in February, an augmented AZ ensemble took part in a realisation of Paragraph 2 of Cardew's The Great Learning , simultaneously with the first public improvisation of the group Teletopa . While the four members of Teletopa were up on the stage of the Sydney Town Hall, the five groups required by the Cardew composition (each comprising a drummer and a number of singers) were placed at various points in the body of the hall. As critic Roger Covell remarked in his review of the night's events, it was the first time in the local history of the series that the audience did actually promenade. However, the dissent of many in the audience was not confined to merely `promenading right out the door'. A good number were overtly aggressive, jostling performers, snatching drumsticks out of their hands or tipping water on them from the upstairs balconies. The Town Hall guards joined in the occasion, and one such charismatic individual (who bore an uncanny resemblance to Dan Blocker's Hoss from the TV series Bonanza , both in his physique and good looks) threatened to break me in two if I didn't pack up my gear and clear out. As he succinctly put it: "The show's over"!

In October that year, a realisation of Cage's Piano Duet by Roger Frampton and Geoffrey Collins took place in the Conservatorium's Verbrugghen Hall. The score used was that of Cartridge Music (1960), whereby contact microphones are to be attached to the body of a grand piano - which necessitated putting music stands, kitchen utensils, pillows and sheets of plastic inside the piano. This was too much for the assistant director of the Conservatorium, Francis Cameron, to bear. Horrified at the "vandalism" being inflicted on the Conservatorium's precious Steinway, he jumped up on stage during the performance, locked the lid of the piano and pocketed the key, a red carnation quivering indignantly in his lapel.

The music that typified this initial phase of AZ was clearly the antithesis of the music of such contemporary composers as Boulez, Berio, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Birtwistle or Maxwell Davies, "conceived and executed along the well-trodden but sanctified path of the post-Renaissance tradition" (Nyman), where the relationships between components within each composition are of prime concern. Running very much against the propensity for creating aesthetic objects were Cage's ideas regarding process and the bringing into play of sounds free (for the most part) of fixed relations between each other, and the endeavour (in theory, at least) to blur the distinctions between composers, performers and listeners.

A music requiring particular attention to listening among performers, to coordinating, to developing a sense of timing - when to lead, when to remain silent, when to join, each of these available to any performer .

Perhaps the pertinent aspect of so many indeterminate and improvised works is that they offer themselves implicitly, by means of their very structure, as "models of classlessness in opposition to [economic] class domination" [2] , affirming a stance that is essentially anarchistic.

AZ Music, then, was both a flexible body of performers of varying ability and an entrepreneurial organisation. The `inner sanctum' of AZ was always a quite separate entity from the body of people who attended Ahern's class, though naturally there was bound to be a considerable overlap in terms of the specific individuals involved. Having been `obliged' to move from its original premises at the Conservatorium after only a matter of weeks, the class eventually became `formalised' under the auspices of WEA and continued to provide a pool of performers required by such large-scale works as The Great Learning through 1971 and into 1972. It was out of the remnants of the second WEA `terms' that the Sunday Ensemble emerged. [3] Those of us who made up the entrepreneurial coterie were responsible not only for organising all the AZ concerts - and besides determining the `content' in each case, this involved the spade work necessary for securing suitable venues - but also were actively engaged in designing posters, brochures and the like, compiling program notes and seeing to the distribution of such advertising material in accordance with AZ Music's extensive mailing list.

Despite Ahern's standing as a composer prior to the formation of AZ - by virtue of such works as After Mallarmé , Music for Nine , Ned Kelly Music , Network and Journal - he was to compose only one major work during these early years of AZ Music, Stereo/Mono . This is a live electronic work written in 1971 for wind soloist, who is required to not only elicit high, medium or low feedback tones through one or both loudspeakers for specific durations (long, medium or short), but also to interact with these feedback tones or to substitute an acoustic instrumental tone for that of a feedback tone. Written in a graphic (or symbolic) notation, Stereo/Mono bears the influence of such compositions as Stockhausen's Spiral and Prozession , while ultimately forging a link with the work of American composers David Behrman ( Wave Train ) and Gordon Mumma ( Hornpipe ). The work received its premiere realisation in December 1971 by soloist Roger Frampton playing saxophone and saxorecorder (a plastic recorder fitted with a saxophone mouthpiece), with Ahern controlling the potentiometer.

Pieces such as Stereo/Mono reflected AZ's move away from composition per se towards a playing situation weighted in favour of improvisation. One tendency did emerge within the group that was, in effect, at variance with this general direction. The highly idiosyncratic projects propounded by Ernie Gallagher challenged the traditional composer/performer/listener configuration and accordingly placed the listener at the centre of the creative process. His off-centre record project (1971) required a hole punched slightly off-centre in any 33 1 / 3 , 45 or 78 rpm recordings and for the re-designed discs to then be played on suitable audio equipment. Even though two off-centre realisations - Sonata in F by Mozart and Robert Allworth - were given hearings in traditional concert situations (in 1971 and 1972 respectively), his off-centre record project and subsequent compositions concern themselves with personal auditory explorations without necessary reference to usual performer/audience contexts. The performer, in fact, becomes redundant. These personal listening experiences extend into a completely private realm in Stethophonics (1971-72), where a standard binaural stethoscope is (primarily but not exclusively) used in conjunction with an acoustic resonator to alter the sound(s) of the aural environment as perceived by the listener, the transformation of the awareness of the listener being constituted as a form of `content' in itself.

What is improvisation?

The improvisation group Teletopa was founded in the spring of 1970. The nucleus of the group consisted of Ahern, Evans and Frampton, though at various stages over the following two years membership included Linda Wilson, Philip L Ryan, myself and Geoffrey Collins.

Does it have anything to do with improving?

The name `Teletopa' was derived from the Greek topas , "as used by Plato, meaning `the place of the origin of ideas; tele , a prefix meaning `far, distant, an openness to any ideas whatsoever'" (Phillip L Ryan). And as Ahern would insist, implicit in the prefix tele was the ensemble's global outlook, a willingness and a readiness to use sound materials found in every corner of the world.

Take away notation and what have you got?

Teletopa, in essence, was a `pure' electro-acoustic improvisation group, utilising contact microphones to amplify all sound sources, from traditional instruments such as violin, saxophone and flute, to various percussive devices, sheets of tin, glass and masonite, metal and plastic materials, vacuum cleaner and shortwave radio.

Bibbidy, Bobbidy, Boo?

The in-performance characteristic of Teletopa - of seeking or questing after new sounds - was fraught with danger, yet this precariousness was inevitable, an intrinsic part of the very fabric of free improvisation.

We are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment .

As Ernie Gallagher remarked at the time, sounds "are discarded as soon as they are created because of the danger of becoming known, or becoming knowable. This uncertainty is essential to a live, as distinct from preserved, performance." [4]

Teletopa perpetuated a viable, open form of music-making which hinged on the integrity and self-discipline of the players for its success or otherwise. The improvisations, like so much of Christian Wolff's music, retained the notion of musical performance as a "dynamic, social activity" [5] ,

self-realisation coming about through a social process .

Yet Teletopa was probably more like the English group AMM (with which Cardew was associated during the late 1960s), both musically and in terms of its social structure, than other groups in existence at the time such as Musica Elettronica Viva (US/Italy) or the Taj Mahal Travellers (Japan): "extremely self-contained and private, basically hostile to `out-siders' " (Nyman). While Teletopa, in its two years, only performed publicly on a small number of occasions, the group would play on a regular weekly basis behind closed doors at the Inhibodress Gallery in Woolloomooloo.

Connected with this is the proposition that improvisation cannot be rehearsed. Training is substituted for rehearsal, and a certain moral discipline is an essential part of this training .

It was here that the regular members of Teletopa were often joined by Greg Matheson, who (rumour has it) would ride his push-bike across the Nullabor to Sydney from Perth, seeking respite from post-graduate studies in Psychology.

In August 1972, several members of Teletopa (Ahern, Frampton and Collins) embarked on a two month overseas tour in conjunction with the International Carnival of Experimental Sound (ICES) in England, linking up there with Peter Evans. Sadly, a marked contradiction became apparent between the implicit anarchistic orientation of Teletopa, with its sense of communality and reliance on mutual aid within the group, and the actual playing situation which had emerged. And despite Ahern's professed Utopian vision of a world "in which communication is free and spontaneous between human beings", Gavin Bryars made the observation, reviewing one of Teletopa's improvisations at London's Round House, that certain members of the group "would play in an heroically dramatic way which gave a sustained hierarchical view of their music-making (unlike early AMM music in which this was also present, the relationship did not significantly change in that David Ahern maintained a dominant role...)" [6] . As a consequence, irreconcilable differences arose between specific individuals in the group, leading ultimately to the disbanding of Teletopa.

From the beginning of 1973, AZ Music took a completely different path, in effect the antithesis of the original directions AZ had taken. The idealism which endeavoured to bring about a set of contexts whereby "concepts such as the specialised performer and concert-giving itself start to fall apart" (Ahern), gave way to a new phase that re-affirmed the conventional concert situation. This second phase of AZ Music was characterised by an emphasis on through-composition, particularly the work of young Australian composers Cameron Allan, Robert Irving, Allan Holley and Carl Vine, the dissemination of these Pieces in such `respectable' venues as the Recording Hall of the Sydney Opera House and the hiring of professional musicians.

Looking back, however, the significance of Ahern during these years (1970-75) should not be underestimated. In fact, what Feldman said of Cardew in 1967 could justifiably have been claimed in relation to Ahern several years later: "If the new ideas in music are felt today as a movement in [Australia], it's because he acts as a moral force, a moral centre." [7] Yet it was the activities of AZ Music specifically during those early years that were "too thorny for the Australian musical establishment to handle" [8] , an establishment presided over by people such as Donald Peart and saturated with the residue of late-Romantic English composition. Paradoxically, the ideas of Cardew, giving vent to peculiarly English sensibility - arising, as they did, out of a tradition of amateur music-making - were transposed into a local context and served to underpin the radical diversions of AZ Music.

1. Eley, R. "A History of The Scratch Orchestra", in Cornelius Cardew, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism Latimer New Dimensions London 1974 p.12 back
2. Metzger, HK. "Essay on Prerevolutionary Music", in the booklet accompanying the 4-record set Music Before Revolution (HMV 1 C 165-28 954/57Y) back
3. The Sunday Ensemble was one of two subgroups to emerge out of AZ Music (the other one being Teletopa), whose membership consisted of the following individuals: Deirdre Evans, Ernie Gallagher, Greg Schiemer, Kathie Drake, Robert Irving, Ruth, Ann and Richard Lucas, John and Nan Sundbury and Malcolm Smith. back
4. Gallagher, E. "The State of the Art" in Music Maker vol.38 no.29 (October 1971) p.28 back
5. See Christopher Fox, "Music as Social Process: some aspects of the work of Christian Wolff" in Contact 30 (Spring 1987) back
6. Bryars, G. "ICES" (review) in Music and Musicians December 1972 p.72, emphasis added back
7. Feldman, F. "Conversations without Stravinsky" in London Magazine March 1967 p.88 back
8. See Richard Toop, "The Concert Hall Avant Garde: Where Is It? " Art Network 6, Winter 1982 back

© 2001 NMA Publications and Geoffrey Barnard.
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