The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre: 1976 - 1983

Ernie Althoff

This article first appeared in NMA 7 magazine. In it, the author discusses the formation of The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne, and gives a chronological outline of activities there.

In mid-1975 composer Ron Nagorcka returned to Australia from a sojourn in San Diego, California. With him came American Warren Burt, to take up a teaching position with the Music Department of Latrobe University. Both had been involved in the running of the Atomic Cafe [1] , the University of California at San Diego's alternative performance series. Nagorcka had also witnessed the bitter infighting and factionalism that had plagued the Melbourne branch of the ISCM (International Society for Contemporary Music) and the New Music Centre in the early 1970s. From these experiences he formulated the principles that would govern the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre over its eight year lifespan. They were such that:

  1. No money was charged from the audience, thereby eliminating the notion of possibly not getting one's money's worth (This did alter slightly - see 1981 section). No money was paid to composers or performers. No equipment was supplied, and advertising was mostly word of mouth or very inexpensively photocopied posters. The removal of economics from the musical equation was of supreme importance in setting up a space with a truly alternative set of values.
  2. Access to the space was completely open and no restrictions were placed on style or content of performances. All one had to do was phone the co-ordinator of the Centre and a date for an event would be arranged.
  3. The centre was run anarchically. A person elected, or was elected, to be co-ordinator who was then responsible for allocating performance times, opening and closing the building and allocating the minimal publicity jobs. When that person tired of the co-ordinator's job, it was passed on to another. In this way, a sense of continuity and adapting to changing needs was built into the Centre's operation.

These principles were tested with concert series at La Mama Theatre and then at the Students' Church, Carlton from August to December 1975. At the beginning of 1976, space became available at the Organ Factory, a community centre in Clifton Hill housing the New Theatre group, after-school play groups and other civic action organisations. The first concert series by the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre at the Organ Factory was held shortly after with Nagorcka as co-ordinator.

In early 1977 John Campbell founded the New & Experimental Music Show (originally titled Amputations) on Community Radio 3CR. This helped to publicize CHCMC. Campbell, Burt, David Chesworth and John Crawford all presented programs. In later years most of the CHCMC concerts were taped on cassette and then played on the program, providing broader exposure for the Centre and the performers and more than satisfying the station's 50% Australian content requirement. Eventually, the program moved to 3RRR FM.

There were four areas for performance in the double storey factory. Downstairs was a large open space interspersed by pillars over a wood floor. This area was used later for large-scale works, particularly by Graeme Davis and myself, although Randelli (Robert Randall and Frank Bendinelli) used it for video installations in 1978. Upstairs was a small room where most of the early concerts were held, and a small but well equipped theatre with stage, lights and sloped seating. Next to the theatre was a carpeted foyer area. This foyer area was the only place equipped with a heater. In winter the rest of the building, like all good experimental music centres the world over was cold . Extra chairs and tables resided in various sections of the building. There was also a piano, two big hi-fi speaker boxes with cables, a hot-water urn and mugs, and adequate electric power points.

Musical Styles

The Centre's second principle meant that there were probably as many musical styles as ensembles and performers, but the `no finance' principle did push a few things to the fore. The first was a healthy and inventive participation in the low-budget ethic. This occurred in several ways. One was the use of cheap and low-calibre instruments, and in people trustingly borrowing and lending each other equipment. In the earliest Tsk Tsk Tsk line-ups both the electric pianos had some non-functioning keys and the electric guitar was a borrowed K-Mart special (The equipment of many bands improved in later years and, as people moved into areas demanding better equipment such as video production and studio electronics, the production became more sophisticated). It was well accepted that low-budget equipment helped to `shape' the music, not devalue it; there was no stigma attached to its use, although some music students claimed they hated the sounds of out-of-tune toy organs. Mention of toys takes us into another: when no `real' instruments were available, people used toys, found objects and invented home-built devices for music making. The use of the portable cassette recorder as an instrument for real-time electronic composition and performance was pioneered at the Centre, first by Burt and Nagorcka as Plastic Platypus and then by Davis and myself. Davis and I both still use cassette manipulation in our scores and performances. Other synth-type devices also appeared. Bands such as Laughing Hands, heavily dependent on electronic amplification and treatment devices, usually had a contact-miked toy guitar with rubber band strings in there somewhere.

The second important feature was a strong leaning towards works embodying multi-arts disciplines. This resulted from confidence in the freedom to invent and explore musical forms without feeling a need to gratify the audience. Even the most conventional ensembles surprised audiences with music-theatre pieces every now and then. Tableau, drama, mime and dance were incorporated inventively into concerts, and much work was done in the Super-8 film and video fields. Indeed, the Super-8 film people saw the ethics of CHCMC aptly befitting their medium. Film and/or video concerts, either combined with music or performance or just shown straight, were featured in all the years of the Centre's operation. Colour slides were also used. Installations activated by audience or performers were constructed. If a performer wanted movement in a piece but couldn't find a dancer or actor willing to perform without payment, they worked out their own set of steps and became the dancer. Most people took on these challenges of new roles in a serious, purposeful and consequently successful manner.

Performers were genuinely interested in the musical directions of other performers although the `music student' performers looked upon the radical musical adventurousness of the non-academic with perhaps just a tinge of envy. People questioned and commented freely. Performance arrangements and commitments stayed flexible, and concerts by one-off hybrids made up of members from various different bands often provided a new and challenging outlet for musical ideas. The Dave and Phil Duo and Music 4 both had a longer life, Tsk Tsk Tsk had a large and varied workforce for their many projects, and I collaborated with Burt, Chris Mann and Tsk Tsk Tsk for valuable learning experience.


Burt took over as co-ordinator from June 1976 to December 1977 and Chesworth took up the job in January 1978. Very little of the extremely rough and ready documentation remains from these first two years (neither Nagorcka nor Burt kept accessible files) but Nagorcka tried hard to nurture the `community' aspect of the Centre, with even a Greek music ensemble and dancers performing at one concert. However these bodies drifted away, probably because of the non-profit concept. This left those composers and performers who really needed a space to get their music played. Given the music climate in the rest of Melbourne, it is not surprising the Centre became a focus for experimental music.

Documentation of events at the Centre during the period from May to December 1977 can be found in the three slim issues of The new music newspaper , edited by Burt and Les Gilbert to call attention to "the enormous amount of new music in Melbourne". Their first editorial also mentions the attitudes of the mass media to "the broad mass of fine, strong work being done in isolation" as being condescending, non-comprehending or completely ignoring it [2] . Issue No 1 contains an article by Nagorcka expressing his views on the Centre, and an article by Burt entitled Out and About - a personal concert diary in which eight CHCMC concerts are briefly described. The back pages of the first two issues feature lists of concert dates, 25 of which were CHCMC events. Burt and/or Nagorcka did six, Robin Teese and Bill Fontana (these days world-renowned for his large-scale electronic cityscape installations) both did two, and the others included events by Gilbert, Dom de Clario, the Australian Percussion Ensemble, Barry Conyngham's Music Now and Tsk Tsk Tsk. Issue No 3 contains detailed reviews of three CHCMC events: Robin Teese's Songs Without Foundation , Ros Bandt's Coathanger Event - a `hands on' installation for an exploring audience, and Nagorcka's epic opera in three parts: Atom Bomb , Son of Atom Bomb and Atom Bomb Meets Godzilla [3] .


Chesworth co-ordinated four concert series with a total of 29 concerts. Tsk Tsk Tsk were responsible for eight, Nagorcka and/or Burt for five, people from tertiary music courses (mostly Latrobe, but also some from Melbourne University and from Melbourne State College) for seven, Randelli for three live/video performance concerts, two were `mixed nights' of many different pieces, and four events were by Davis, David Tolley and The Fab Four (a one-off ensemble featuring Philip Brophy, Chesworth and Jane and John Crawford). Descriptions of some of these early events can be found in New Music 1978-1979 [4] . The attitude of the then Music Board of the Australia Council to CHCMC was such that some antiquated recording equipment (remnants from New Music Centre days) stored in a back room at the Organ Factory was requested to be returned.


The Centre produced four concert series of 30 concerts: Tsk Tsk Tsk did seven, Nagorcka and/or Burt did three, Chesworth did six (two solo, two with Brophy as the Dave and Phil Duo, and two with Robert Goodge - the first emergence of Essendon Airport), tertiary music people did three, Davis and I participated in five (the debut of I.D.A. with Davis and Nagorcka and myself occurred in October), plus work by Crawford, Chris Wyatt, Rainer Linz, Ad Hoc (an early ensemble with Chris Knowles and James Clayden), Jim Gott and Paul Turner. By the middle of the year, as audience sizes had increased, quite a few concerts were held in the theatre area.


A summer season of seven improvisation evenings in January and February started the year off, and proved how diverse the definitions of improvisation could be. 1980 was also the year of New Music magazine, co-ordinated by Brophy and Chesworth for a total of five issues [5] . A process of concert review by volunteer, and subsequent interview between reviewer and performer/s filled the pages of four of these magazines with various writing styles, levels of articulation and typewriter fonts. Unfortunately, it was in one instance also the vehicle for an article containing the worst abuse of the freedom implied by the second of the Centre's original principles, and by the editorial statement in each issue [6] . This led to the first organised meeting the Centre ever staged in December 1980 to discuss the differences of opinion which had arisen.

Concert action stepped up grandly: Series One had eight concerts, Series Two had nine, Series Three had ten and Series Four had 16 concerts running Mondays and Wednesdays through November and December. These included Burt's Epic Monumental Project over five evenings, and Tsk Tsk Tsk, Laughing Hands and Chesworth in various guises with four each. I.D.A. and Wyatt both did three. Ensembles from Latrobe University did four and a vast array of performers did the rest, ranging from the punk-styled Lunatic Fringe through to the jazzed-styled Barry Veith and Judy Jacques, with nearly everything in between, including the Carrington Group string orchestra. In addition to CHCMC concerts, two benefit concerts were held at Melbourne University's Guild Theatre to help fund the magazine, and a 13 event series over an eight day period was run by Chesworth at Latrobe Union Gallery to help pay the rent at the Organ Factory.


1981 was another year of intense activity for the Centre, with 41 concerts held over the four series. One series with two concerts per week was commonplace in the years 1980-1982. The `stalwarts': Tsk Tsk Tsk, Chesworth solo or with band, Laughing Hands, I.D.A., The Connotations and Peter Simondson's various bands, all presented between four and six events. There were also eight people who had performed in previous years, and eight total newcomers. Two LP records [7] accompanying the New Music magazines were released, and a final benefit concert to help pay for the printing of the last issue was held at the beginning of the year to a thoroughly packed house. It was amusing how audiences would swell in size the moment an admission price was charged!

April saw the Centre's second meeting: the building's committee had increased the rent from $100 to over $300 per year. It was decided unanimously to adhere to the original unwritten principles of the Centre, but a voluntary donations jar was positioned in the foyer which worked well. Concerts were free until mid 1982 when a $1 donation was requested, and two benefit concerts were held to pay the rent: one in August 1982 and the other in October 1983.

With an increase in the exposure of the Centre's participants in other areas, concert audiences grew more varied and increased in size again. Both Brophy and Chesworth's bands had attracted a punk/new wave audience from hotel and club circuits, and more bands started getting work in these venues. Probably the first major acceptance by the visual arts world of the Centre was through Tsk Tsk Tsk's July 1980 Asphixiation (sic) - what is this thing called Disco? installation at the George Paton Gallery at Melbourne University [8] . In 1981 large contingents of CHCMC performers worked in art galleries in Melbourne, regional centres and interstate [9] . This resulted in an influx of visual artists, filmmakers, critics, gallery administrators and arts bureaucrats to the Centre. Some, like the new wave sector, understood and were at ease with the Centre's modus operandi while others, again like the new wave sector, misunderstood the Centre's pluralism and were disappointed and annoyed to enjoy their `favourite new act' one week and to witness something that was often totally incomprehensible to them the next.

Perhaps as a result of the attention from the visual arts world, derivations of French-based arts theory and criticism began to infiltrate some aspects of the activities at CHCMC. A strange manifestation, it attracted much ardent defense and as much equally ardent abuse from the informed and the ignorant on both sides of the fence. Semiotic labels such as `first degree, second degree, third degree...' were bandied about with great passion and great irresponsibility. Strangely inaccurate stories about the Centre's `militantly rigid ideological thrust' began to filter back to CHCMC from other capitals. It should be emphasized here that none of these events in any way altered the working structure of the Centre.

In August the Centre hosted one of the evening concerts of the 1981 Music and Technology Conference , much to the chagrin of sections of Melbourne's music academia, who otherwise avoided CHCMC totally. Several of the overseas delegates praised the Centre, comparing it favourably with New York's The Kitchen, not only in politics and architecture but also in lack of heating!


After four and a half years as co-ordinator, Chesworth handed the position over to Andrew Preston. Between them they opened the doors to 40 concerts for the year. Both Burt and I gave five concerts each, Preston, The Connotations and Chesworth did three each and Simondson, Tsk Tsk Tsk, Knowles and Di Emery did two each. Statistically this was another successful year for the Centre but, on another level, things had begun to change. Audience sizes diminished and, for the first time since 1976, the co-ordinator had to ring performers and suggest they do something in order to fill a series. Regulars started forming little one-off bands with each other, sometimes producing innovative results. New people were still appearing: Sue Blakey, Paul Taylor, the tapes of Anti-Music and Sydney musician Louis Burdett were some. In the fourth series, Preston planned four Music Forum events: Brophy, Burt, Adrian Martin and Nagorcka all had an evening each to espouse their musical philosophies, fantasies or foibles and to discuss the ensuing comments, questions and criticisms of the audience. These had mixed results, ranging from voices raised in heated debate to yawning and leaving early, but everything was possible and permissible.


To start the year's activities, CHCMC played host to a series of nine afternoon and evening events for the first Melbourne Fringe Arts Festival in February and March. It featured a mixture of regulars and new Fringe performers and filmmakers. From 30 March to 15 June, Preston organized and mostly cajoled material for ten concerts. Preston, Davis, Burt, Goodge and I (tried and true names) kept the events coming. Even Nagorcka performed again after an eighteen month absence from the CHCMC stage. Most notable amongst the few newcomers were New Zealanders Gary Fox and David Watson, in Australia for that year's Anzart Festival in Tasmania. They made special trips to the mainland for the express purpose of performing at CHCMC. However, Preston found it harder and harder to fill series and audiences were still dwindling. The altered social and economic climates of the mid-80s, compared to those of the late 70s and even early 80s, led to a marked change in people's responses to experimentation in any artform. This was distinctly noticeable in the increasingly conservative attitudes of tertiary arts faculties and their students.

Disaster struck the Centre in early June when work began on extensive renovations to the building. The last concert was moved to the Living Room in Richmond, and for the next four months the only sounds from the building were those of construction equipment.

During this period, Preston handed the position of co-ordinator over to Goodge, who ran a series of eight concerts in October and November, beginning with a well attended rent-paying benefit concert. The accompanying flyer mentioned that the renovations were nearly complete, and that people should put their names on a mailing list for the following year. It also carried the news that the Organ Factory Committee had applied for funding from the Victorian Ministry for the Arts, as well as the standard invitation for performers to present in the usual manner. The last concert for the year was held on 30 November with bands formed by Goodge and Martin, films by Ralph Traviato and Paul Fletcher (of Tsk Tsk Tsk and Essendon Airport respectively) and a solo performance by myself.


Only four people: Goodge, Preston, Linz and myself, turned up to the Centre's third meeting on 21 March. Many of the Centre's regular performers were still overseas as a result of their participation in the 1983 Paris Autumn Festival . Goodge announced that the application for funding had been successful, but that because of his present commitments, he should resign as co-ordinator. I was offered the position but declined, stating that I saw the present co-ordinator's job as "begging non-existent performers for non-existent material for non-existent concerts for non-existent audiences", and not really in keeping with the Centre's original principles. I said it would be better to disband the Centre at this stage. This was agreed upon by the others and the grant was returned to the Ministry. It is ironic that the only time the Centre received funding assistance was at the point when it was disbanding for other reasons. Later that week, I told Nagorcka of the decision and Nagorcka answered "Yeah, I think you probably did the right thing!"


Sadly, this was `the end of an era' for the Centre's regular performers. As can be seen, Nagorcka's original principles of establishment of the Centre were upheld until the end. In a way, the 30 posters for concert series from 1978 - 83 tell it all. I would like to see them all reprinted in a future publication, along with lists of the 90 solo performers and ensembles and the 30 or more video and filmmakers who presented at CHCMC in those years. Of course, in the six years that have elapsed since the Centre closed, everyone has moved on. In Art, nothing remains static for long.


1. The Atomic Cafe was founded in October 1974 with Australian Sue Thurgate as co-ordinator up to June 1975, assisted by Burt and Nagorcka. It has occurred intermittently to this day. return
2. The new music newspaper No. 1, August/September 1977 and The new music newspaper No. 2, October/November 1977, both published by the La Trobe University Union Activities Committee, 1977; and The new music newspaper No. 3, December 1977/January 1978, University of Melbourne Faculty of Music, 1978. return
3. A section of Nagorcka's Atom Bomb appears on NMATAPES 2 , NMA Publications, Melbourne, 1983. return
4. New Music 1978 - 1979 , ed Brophy, P and Chesworth, D, Melbourne, 1980. return
5. ibid and New Music Nos 1 - 4 , ed Brophy, P and Chesworth, D, Melbourne, 1980 - 81. return
6. New Music No 3 , pp.4 & 27 and New Music No 4 , pp.3 - 4, Melbourne, 1980 - 81. return
7. New Music 1978 - 1979 (NON 007) and New Music 1980 (NON 008), Innocent Records, Melbourne, 1981. return
8. A complete account of Tsk Tsk Tsk's performance activities is contained in Made by Tsk Tsk Tsk 1977 - 1982 , published in Melbourne by the band in 1983. It should be mentioned here that the band's name was really a symbol constructed from three arrows, but electronic typesetting procedures necessitate the use of the standard alphabet alternative. return
9. For examples, see Noise and Muzak catalogue, George Paton Gallery, Melbourne University, July 1981 and New Musical Performance - music by Australians catalogue, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, September 1981. return

Further Reading

Althoff, E. "An Interview with Ron Nagorcka" , Communicating Arts No 2, Australian International Press and Publications P/L, Melbourne, 1979. pp.70-72.
Brophy, P and Martin, A. "Texts and Gestures" , Art Network No 6, Sydney, 1982. pp.28-32.
Burt, W. "Seven Composers in Three Parts" , Art Network No 6, Sydney, 1982. pp.36-38.
Gerrard, G. "An Interview with Ron Nagorcka" , NMA 2 , NMA Publications, Melbourne, 1983. pp.4-6.
Jenkins, J. 22 Contemporary Australian Composers, NMA Publications, Melbourne, 1988. Chapters on Althoff , Bandt , Brophy , Burt , Chesworth , Jercher , Knowles , Linz , Mann and Nagorcka .
Walker, C. "Electronic Music in Australia" , Rolling Stone No 340, 14 May 1981. pp.26-28.

© 2001 NMA Publications and Ernie Althoff.

Composer and performer Ernie Althoff was active at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre both as a solo performer and as a member of groups such as IDA (institute for dronal anarchy, with Ron Nagorcka and Graeme Davis).
His more recent work includes a range of sound machines and gallery installations, as well as performances in the duo 2work@once with Eamon Sprod. See also the Heliosonics audio recording.

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