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Experimental Music

Melbourne has been a centre in Australia for the development of new musical ideas since at least the early 1960s. The activities of Melbourne-born composer Percy Grainger (1882-1961) in developing electronic and mechanical instruments to play his 'free music' were a crucial precursor to this activity. These instruments are now in the Grainger Museum. Among the earliest Melbourne-based practitioners of experimental music were Robert Rooney, Barry McKimm and Syd Clayton, who from 1963 worked with ideas of free improvisation, and graphic notation as applied to both instrumental performance and music theatre. Between 1969 and 1972, Clayton (1939-94) produced 14 music theatre works at La Mama Theatre. From 1972 to 1974, a group of composers and musicians including Ron Nagorcka, Chris Mann and Peter Mumme organised and ran the New Music Centre, which produced weekly concerts and had the first public access electronic music studio in Australia. The activities of Keith Humble at the University of Melbourne, and from 1975 to 1990 at La Trobe University, were critical in encouraging several generations of experimental music composers and performers.

The period from 1975 to 1982 was extremely active. The Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, founded by Nagorcka, John Campbell and Warren Burt, produced weekly concerts, and acted as a non-academic training ground for many Australian composers. Also active in this period were Felix Werder's Australia Felix ensemble, which also investigated improvisation and process-oriented ideas; The Victorian Time Machine, a student new music ensemble based at the Victorian College of the Arts; and Live Improvised Music Events (LIME) led by Ros Bandt, which gave many performances in Melbourne and overseas. This period also saw the birth of NMA Publications, founded by Rainer Linz, which became the main source for information about this field. The publication of John Jenkins' 22 Contemporary Australian composers in 1988 by NMA marked a coming of age for experimental music in Australia.

Groups active in the late 1980s and 1990s included the Melbourne Improvisers Association; Gong House, who made their own musical instruments; the Linden New Musicales, which produced monthly free concerts at the Linden Gallery in St Kilda (1986-95); the Make-It-Up Club, an improvisers' forum that ran at various caf├ęs in Fitzroy (1998- ); and Liquid Architecture, an annual festival of electronic music and sound art organised from 1999 by people from the RMIT Media Arts program. Although some experimental musical ideas were taken up by more mainstream groups or venues, or used in conjunction with, for example, dance groups, which might perform in such venues as the Victorian Arts Centre, the main thrust of the development of experimental music in Melbourne has been to develop a small but vital and viable innovatory and cutting-edge alternative to other, more established or commercially based forms of music-making.

Warren Burt