Greg Schiemer

Greg Schiemer Greg Schiemer, a composer and designer of new electronic instruments, was born in 1949 of Irish, German and Spanish descent in Dunedoo, NSW. As part of his Catholic education, local nuns encouraged him to learn violin in primary school. His sisters either played the piano or sang in their boarding school choir, teaching him to sing harmonies when they practised at home. His parents, who were not musical, nevertheless fostered his early interest in music.

From 1961 to 1963 he boarded at Holy Cross College in the Sydney suburb of Ryde, continuing his studies on violin with Jennifer Madden, a private teacher. He also played in a small school orchestra and taught himself the piano and landscape painting. He was inspired in the latter activity by his paternal grandmother, a self-trained artist whose paintings decorated the water tanks and walls of her wattle-and-daub house in Hannah Bridge, NSW. Schiemer's maternal grandmother, on the other hand, played a concertina in a family ensemble which performed at social functions in the local district.

In 1964, Schiemer entered a minor seminary to study for the priesthood, where two priests in the Passionist order - a student director and a novice master - fostered his musical development. He began to listen to serious music, including Gregorian chant, and wrote his first musical compositions - mainly hymns and liturgical music. His first performed piece, a hymn to Saint Paul of the Cross, was occasionally sung by the novitiate choir.

Schiemer left the path to the priesthood after he decided to follow a career in music. In 1968 he matriculated from Sydney Technical College and in the following year was admitted to the Faculty of Music at Sydney University and studied with the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe, his first formal teacher in composition.

After some exposure to 20th Century music he wrote a 12-tone work titled Laotian Wood (1970), a sextet for piccolo, soprano and tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute and harp. It premiered in Sydney at an International Society for Contemporary Music concert then was re-worked and performed for an ABC Perth concert-workshop in 1973.

In the late 60s, Schiemer was introduced to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, La Monte Young and Cornelius Cardew through workshops organised by the Australian composer David Ahern who, at this time, founded a new music performing group called AZ Music . Schiemer became a foundation member of Ahern's Sunday Ensemble , a free improvisation and performance group.

In this period Schiemer wrote a set of fairly cerebral scores called Boit ; a set of improvisational ground rules, including those relying on non-visual cues (such as touching and the tension in strings). One piece ordered musical events by using retinal after-images as part of a subjective `visual' score. All these pieces, which were performed in total darkness, also enabled Schiemer to explore the idea of `servo-time', which became a preoccupation for a number of years.

`Servo-time' is a form of duration defined by cues generated from within a process, as opposed to `clock time', which is imposed from the outside. `Servo-time' is reckoned rather than measured, whereas `clock time' is calculated according to the convention of standardising time into mechanised, reproducible units. `Clock time' contradicts the human perception that time is something that accelerates or slows down. The first day of human life may be the longest one lived. An hour performing an irksome chore may take `longer' than an hour's pleasure. Schiemer believes that by observing the beginning and end of a process, one can more `accurately' define how long it takes to carry out, without reference to `clock time'. The latter must also be subjectively defined and perceived, and is therefore no more absolute than `servo-time'. Schiemer believes all music, especially when it is improvised, is related to `servo-time' rather than `clock time'.

In 1970 Schiemer began learning Fortran programming at the Besser Computing Centre, Sydney University, with the purpose of using computers to compose music. His instructor was the pioneer of computer graphics in Australia, Doug Richardson.

After graduating from Sydney University in 1972, Schiemer collaborated on a dance project with the choreographer the late Phillipa Cullen, who organised a dance work using Theremins. Named after its inventor Leon Theremin, this instrument was designed in the 1920s. The original Theremin generated a field defined by two antennae. The movements of the musician's body within this field controlled the pitch and volume of sound produced by the device.

The four Theremins used in this project each had a single antenna, each differing in shape and size, which allowed the dancers to control the music accompanying their movements. The collaboration also involved electrical engineer Phil Connor, who designed the Theremins and frequency-to-voltage converters that allowed them to interface with two VCS-3 voltage-control synthesizers. Architect and sculptor Manuel Nobleza designed the antennae. The collaborative nature of this work, Age To Theremin II , changed Schiemer's approach to musical scores. It introduced him, significantly, to the assembly of electronic circuits. Above all, it impressed upon him that the system on which a work is produced crucially determines its musical aesthetic.

From this time on, Schiemer's most important teachers were electronics technicians, such as Phil Connor and Arthur Spring.

In 1973 Schiemer was awarded a Federal Arts Council Fellowship to engage in a highly ambitious real-time computer music project. Its aims have only now been made possible with the advent of real-time digital samplers. However, in collaboration with Phil Connor he created the tape realisation of Brolga (1973) for choreographer Ruth Galene, the founder and director of New Dance Theatre . The work was generated using an Alpha-16 mini-computer, which controlled both an analog voice synthesizer and a harmonic synthesizer designed by Phil Connor.

At this time Schiemer had begun to design crude electronic circuits and, by the end of 1974 - under the guidance of Arthur Spring - had devised a more sophisticated frequency-to-voltage converter than the one used in Age To Theremin . He also assembled circuitry for Body Sonata , a dance piece written for and performed by Phillipa Cullen. This work, dedicated to Cullen's memory after her death in India in 1975, was subsequently performed by Jacqui Carroll, Brian Coughran, Helen Herbertson and John Salisbury in 1976. It used Theremins and other electronic equipment. The piece was performed in darkness, with dancers standing on Theremin antennae while creating images and sounds by striking matches.

The dancers `froze' into postures for the duration of a lighted match. moving only when darkness returned.

The equipment had been designed to trigger a note with each sudden explosion of sound and light.

The gesture created momentary images of vigorous light - with accompanying shadows on ceilings and walls, which settled again as the dancers `froze'.

In the enveloping silence, the sounds took on monolithic proportions, and the performance ended when the last match was extinguished. The number of matches chosen, as well as the time involved in striking them, determined the duration of the piece, in accordance with `servo time'.

Schiemer also wrote a number of pieces in 1974 based on similar preoccupations or ideas, including a series of eight miniature vocal duets titled 2-Mouth Sonatas and a larger work titled The 9th 2-Mouth Sonata . The latter was a two-voice hocket, which could be performed by a soloist accompanied by tape, or by two vocalists. It made use of accidental phase shifts caused by imperfectly tuned voices separated by distance. There is no text as such, but the vocalists are required to sing a scored sequence of vowel and consonant sounds. Written while Schiemer was studying gamelan at Sydney University with Iwan Natapradja, the work is written in the mode of Salendro, an Indonesian musical scale called Madenda. Schiemer also played a two-stringed instrument called a rebab in a kechapi-suling ensemble - a group which plays Sundanese folk music.

To earn a living, for most of 1974 Schiemer taught music in high schools or serviced burglar alarms for a security company. He also composed Mass Of The Spirit , a work in which the treatment of vernacular Catholic liturgical texts owed much to the improvisational manner of Cardew. Eventually a bout of hepatitis severely curtailed his musical activities.

A final collaborative project with Phillipa Cullen and Phil Connor, A Rain Poem (1975) employed Theremins to control an Alpha-16 mini-computer program. It was performed at the Lake Side Hotel in Canberra, at the 1975 Computer Festival of Arts and Sciences. The disastrous opening performance was well documented by the popular press. The computer program `hung' moments before the performance, making the synthesizer whine aimlessly as it waited for information. This short work, based on the hardware used for Body Sonata , underscored the problems of unreliability faced by composers who design computer hardware as part of their compositional process. After a further period of teaching music in NSW high schools - which terminated with a recurrence of his illness - Schiemer enrolled in the Control Data Corporation's advanced course for computer technicians, conducted in North Sydney.

Upon its completion eight months later, Schiemer was employed as a field service technician by Digital Equipment Australia, where he gained further experience in the repair and maintenance of computer hardware.

At this time he was able to vastly improve his technical and computing skills, but his musical activities became less frequent as a result. In the mid 70s Schiemer organised performances of his own work, with a group that became known as The Ashes Of Sydney , which he co-founded with dancer and choreographer Jacqui Carroll. The first Ashes Of Sydney concert was held at the NSW Dance Company space in Woolloomooloo and featured the first performance of the final revision of Laotian Wood , with the original scoring. Previously there had been no definitive performance of this work - as it had to be re-scored for a different set of instruments three weeks before the previous ABC performance. The 9th 2-Mouth Sonata was also premiered as part of this event.

In the mid 70's Schiemer collaborated with former AZ Music colleague Ernie Gallagher in a `guerilla-art' performance for television. The two entered the popular talent quest Pot Of Gold (Channel 10) giving simultaneous performances of John Cage's 4'33" (in which the pianist does not play anything) and Ernie Gallagher's Stethophonics For Solo Audience (in which sounds are heard only by the performer). The latter piece was performed by Schiemer.

The event gained the lowest score ever in the show's history.

Schiemer's work with analog electronics continued with Ground Harp , a collaboration with Sydney-based performance artist Jim Hughes, which was performed at Sydney's Central Street Gallery, in a series presented by Paul McGillick and Colin Offord. In this piece Theremins were developed as inter-active sculptures.

In 1977, the Ashes Of Sydney , buoyed by the artistic success of their concert the previous year and by the notoriety of Schiemer's Pot Of Gold performance, staged a Ferry Concert on Sydney Harbour. Performances of music and dance took place at various landpoints and jetties, some pieces with `sequels' several kilometers apart. The audience was transported by ferry, with performances on board to maintain continuity. The concert was organised in three weeks, from a public telephone booth, self-funded on a $700 budget. Those taking part included dancer-choreographers Jacqui Carroll, Russel Dumas, Libby Dempster and Nanette Hassall; composers Warren Burt, Carl Vine, Steve Dunstan, Bill Fontana, Martin Wesley-Smith and Ernie Gallagher; singer-songwriter Margaret Roadknight; the co-founder of Melbourne's Anthill theatre company, actor Bruce Keller; acrobat Steve Champion from Circus Oz; juggler Bob Peacock; visual artist George Gittoes and harpist Marjorie Maydwell.

The concert was devised to make use of the visual and acoustic features of Sydney Harbour in such a way that the whole event was portable, and could be transported to any new environment. Billed as the Ashes Of Sydney Festival , it was also the starting point for the multi-media environmental concerts later organised by Martin Wesley-Smith and George Gittoes at Wattamolla in the Royal National Park south of Sydney.

In the late 70's Schiemer developed some simple electronic circuits mounted in plastic-ware which he called the Tupperware Gamelan . Like the `real' gamelan in which he had played, this ensemble allowed participation in a community music, much more so than performing with soloistic virtuosity on a synthesizer. The initial instruments in the set were the `humming drums', oscillating filter circuits that could be triggered by the performer. A `log dulcimer' was also designed, which was controlled by skin resistance. The performers usually played each other as well as their instruments!

In 1980 the ensemble was extended to include `ubiquitous Fontana oscillators', or UFOs. Named after the American composer Bill Fontana, these small battery-powered devices can be switched on or off, tuned over a range of about a minor sixth, and swung in a circular fashion on the end of about two meters of rope. The resultant sound is a mix of various reflections of the moving sound, all undergoing various Doppler shifts. Four of these devices were first used in Between Silence And Light , an environmental performance for the Sydney- based One Extra dance company in 1980. Held on the northern broadwalk of the Sydney Opera House, it was a collaboration with visiting American choreographer Yen Lu Wong. About this time, Schiemer also eventually became Senior Design Technician at the Computer Special Systems division of Digital Equipment Australia.

The 16 UFO's of the Tupperware Gamelan - collectively covering a range of five and a half octaves - were used in performance of Mandala (1981), performed at the Leichhardt Community Festival in Sydney, with the help of interested people who resided in a community for the intellectually handicapped.

Work also commenced on a collection of songs in the folk idiom. Titled Songs for a Pauper a King and a Jester , the set included early works Schiemer had begun in the seminary, as well as songs written by busker and song writer Tom McArdle, and one song by Hoang Quy, a Vietnamese soldier killed in the Vietnam War. This last song brought Schiemer into contact with Sydney's Vietnamese community, and others in the cycle were relevant to Aboriginal people living in Sydney's Redfern. The Songs For ... project was funded and managed by Schiemer, and continued until it broke even financially, at which point it was terminated (in 1983). It essentially involved a radical rejection of conventional middle-class interpretations of the three gospel counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience and featured songs inspired by the idealism of the co- founders of the Catholic Workers movement, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day.

In 1983 Kai Tai Chan, director of the One Extra company, proposed a work using instruments of the Tupperware Gamelan as part of a dance presentation. The result was Porcelain Dialogue , which received about 20 performances - at the Recording Hall of the Sydney Opera House, the Universal Theatre in Melbourne and the Canberra Theatre. The gamelan in this case consisted of 16 analog oscillators and a digital control unit. Each oscillator was mounted with a tiny amplifier and loudspeaker in a small Tupperware container. The instruments were then suspended from the ceiling of the theatre by a cable connecting them to a digital logic box. In performance, the speakers were swung back and forth, further dispersing the sound. The pitches, timbres and rhythms they generated were chosen by the digital control unit. The latter was also built into a (much larger) piece of Tupperware, and had a number of switches projecting from its cover. In performance, they were operated by one of the dancers. The resultant melodic movement would sometimes `beat in time' with another oscillator, and at other times it `jumped' from one to the next, or at times proceeded like a conventional hocket.

While temporarily employed by the Canberra School of Music in 1983, Schiemer organised a program titled A Concert On Bicycles . In this electronic music performance, the audience rode on bicycles fitted with transistor radio receivers tuned to a local community radio station which broadcast a pre- recorded mono tape at appropriate times. The riders heard a quasi-stereo version of the broadcast and varied spatial effects were created as the bicycles moved about. The event took place on the paths encircling Lake Burley Griffin, and the audience was split into two groups which proceeded in opposite directions to maximise the effects of Doppler shift as they passed each other half way around the lake.

In 1984 Schiemer visited India and later married (in a Hindu ceremony) while staying in Bombay. Music For Shreelata , a four-track piece for Fairlight CMI, was dedicated to his wife in 1986.

At the request of composer Martin Wesley-Smith, the work was later expanded to incorporate a part for live percussion, which was played by Graham Leak at the WATT concert in 1986. ( WATT was an electronic music ensemble organised by Martin Wesley-Smith and Ian Fredericks.)

Music For Shreelata used, among other things, a program Schiemer wrote to realise a gradual aural metamorphosis throughout the piece. For example, there is a transition from a flute-like sound to a bassoon-like one, to one like a cor anglais, becoming one like a muted trumpet, becoming a triangle, and so on. The spectral change is accompanied by gradually changing spatial shifts in the sound image. Another advantage of this special program is that the computer is able to discard `defective' results. That is, the program - which generates all the details from a few specifications - can quickly and easily be re-run using new specifications, if the composer chooses.

Music For Shreelata also makes use of the hocket technique, between four interlocking tape parts and a live percussionist. The latter is assisted at the beginning of the piece by two or three performers each operating a UFO. The work ends with a trance-like four-track exchange where four de-tuned voices produce rapid spatial shifts.

In this piece, programming computer software had finally become, for Schiemer, the means of manipulating sound in space.

The composer wrote in the program notes for the WATT concert: "The programming is intended to re-affirm rather than negate my musical instinct, to delight the performer and to say something personal for Shreelata in sounds that dance."

By the end of 1986 Schiemer had modified a small computer called a DATUM -designed in 1982 at the South Australian Institute of Technology - enabling it to interface with and control MIDI synthesizer equipment. This resulted in a work titled Variations, produced for the percussionist Graham Leake and performed in 1986 at the NSW Conservatorium of Music.

The performance involved the modified DATUM, a percussion-control device called an Octopad and an Akai digital sampler.

The MIDI synthesizer configuration allowed both the Octopad and the DATUM computer to produce sounds from the sampler. The programming of the computer allowed the sequence of notes it produced to be controlled by the percussionist's strokes on the Octopad. The result was somewhat like a duel between a soloist and an inter-active program, with all the rhythmic engagement of an early Cage piece.

The notable feature of Schiemer's approach to composition is his desire to create music, not just by extending existing instrumental and compositional conventions, but by carrying out an analysis of the change of roles that has taken place in the presentation of recent electronic music.

A truly creative composer, he believes, requires new insights to flow from new techniques. For the composer of computer music, this leads to a fundamental question. Should the engineer, who designs new computer facilities, remain the crucial instigator of contemporary musical ideas? If so, then many composers risk merely parroting ideas, however deficient, embodied in the resources created by designers of software and hardware. They may also risk succumbing to the factory system of music.

Composers who rely on electronics, he believes, are able to explore real options only when they design their own musical resources.


Anthology of Australian Music , Canberra School of Music. 1988.


Aren't you feeling at ease with Vietnamese , (video), Producer Tony Ward, Line-up 28 Channel 0-28, SBS Television Network. June 1982.

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