Review: Search for the Sublime

25 June 2018

We huddle in heavy coats, scarves and hats under the clear night sky. Everyone clutches $8 wine in plastic cups as they listen to very good writing being read by Sam Flynn and very good electronic music performed by the Melbourne duo OK EG. The crowd is quiet, faces illuminated dimly, hands tucked into pockets and under armpits. The glowing upper levels of Arts West loom over the brick walls of the Grainger museum courtyard.

The date is Wednesday 20th of June, and Australian music journal Swampland magazine has partnered with Melbourne-based performing arts company Play On to present a pop-up techno performance in celebration of the life and work of Percy Grainger. In particular, the event seeks to explore Grainger’s influence on a new wave of Australian electronic artists.

If you don’t know who Percy Grainger was and always assumed that the squat brick structure behind Arts West was an admin building, cafe, public toilet, or some combination of the above, you can educate yourself by buying the next edition of Swampland magazine. This is a good idea because Swampland is a high quality, well-researched music publication that manages to avoid being either condescending or intimidating, even if you know nothing about music. In the meantime, it’s probably enough to know that Grainger was one of Australia’s most famous musical composers, a talented pianist and arranger also remembered for his eccentric personality, inventions and beliefs. Grainger is considered a pioneer of electronic music, and spent much of his life in pursuit of what he called ‘Free Music’, music inspired by nature and freed from the rigid structures of conventional rhythm and the 12 tone scale. He was also the curator of the only purpose-built autobiographical museum in Australia — this, the Percy Grainger museum, in which Grainger intended his skeleton to be displayed after his death.

The piece read by Sam Flynn in the courtyard of this purpose-built autobiographical museum is titled ‘The Search for the Sublime’, featured in Edition 04 of Swampland to be launched this week. Taking a well-structured, engaging and funny approach, Sam’s piece covers Grainger’s eclectic career, his personal life, the nature of the museum in whose courtyard we are standing in. In particular, he focuses on Grainger’s attempt to pioneer a new form of ‘Free Music’, which would later inform electronic artists and movements in Australia and around the world. Sam reads well, and you get the feeling that everyone really likes him and wants to bump into him afterwards so they can smile at him to show that they enjoyed his reading. I notice two people splash $8 wine on their jacket sleeves while they are clapping, their limbs clumsy with cold.

The lights are dimmed as the courtyard is filled with the sound of eerie, complex ambient experimental electronic music inspired by Grainger’s ‘Free Music’ and performed by OK EG. OK EG are an emerging Melbourne duo whose music interweaves lush ambient spaces with club beats and natural soundscapes. They employ ethereal vocals and a complex hardware setup in the performance of their own style of intelligent dance music (IDM), an abstract, often cerebral style of electronic music that emerged in the 90’s.  ‘I’m not really into electronic music,’ says the guy behind me, ‘but that was a zone.’

Wines are downed, cups disposed of and we disperse through the doors of the museum to wander through its snaking rooms, glass cases and placards dedicated to documenting every aspect imaginable of a single eccentric human life. The museum originated as a kind of object-memorial to Grainger’s mother, Rose, after her suicide in 1922. One cabinet contains clumps of Rose’s hair, the contents of her handbag when she died, the gloves she was wearing earlier that day, and a note left for her son explaining that she was tormented by accusations of an incestuous relationship between them (signed, ‘your poor insane mother’). It feels jarring to move from this cabinet onto the next case extolling Grainger’s interpretation of traditional folk music, or his experimental ‘towel clothing’ and beaded vests that he worked on while on tour in Australia.

A couple rooms later we reach the partitioned-off section referred to as the Lust Branch. Despite everyone’s best and tasteful effort to ensure that Grainger’s kinks and passion for BDSM are not the focus of this night, a childish part of me still feels like this is what we all came for. ‘So these are the whips,’ I whisper to my friend Marcus with quiet satisfaction. The person, who in fact turns out to be not Marcus but a total stranger, gives me a pained smile and walks over to join their actual friends. The whips are fanned out in a colourful display on the far wall. I wonder if they have bits of old skin on them.

The Lust Branch exists because Grainger viewed every aspect of his life and psyche essential to his legacy and creative work. This fact makes it difficult, then, to ignore the contents of an earlier display which indicates that Grainger was a racist, unashamedly convinced of Nordic, ‘blue-eyed’ superiority and blatantly anti-semitic. I recall Sam acknowledging this in his piece, and inviting us to consider how this should inform our consumption of Grainger’s work. Looking around, I saw an almost entirely white, inner-city sea of faces meeting his gaze.

In another wing on the opposite side of the museum, visitors are encouraged to experiment with replicas of Grainger’s Free Music machines: large, eccentric-looking devices designed from scratch by Grainger himself or adapted from existing technology. Created with the intention of freeing up rhythmic procedures and allowing for an extremely subtle variation in pitch which could produce a ‘glissando-like’ movement, every machine I play with emits a noise that I imagine an alien microphone would make if it got too close to an intergalactic speaker system.

In the end, the only things unifying the 40,000 objects collected by Grainger for display in his museum are the rigorously object-based approach to self-documentation, and the obsessive, innovative and intensely ego-driven nature of his various personal, professional and creative pursuits. The entire exercise is as bold as it is fascinating and infuriating. Leaving the museum, I find myself wishing that Grainger’s wishes were respected and his skeleton displayed, one more intimate object among the rest. I also leave impressed by the event itself, which delivered an engaging and uncompromising look at his legacy and influence on electronic and experimental music.

You can read about Percy Grainger, his eerie alien noise machines and his purpose-built autobiographical museum in the next edition of Swampland magazine. The museum itself is located on Royal Parade and open Sunday to Friday, twelve to four pm.

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