AS “SoundOut“ founder-director Richard Johnson prepares for the 11th iteration of Canberra’s Festival of Experimental and Improvised Music, he’s finding it hard to conceal a sense of fatigue.
Although the festival was the recipient in 2015 of the Award for Excellence in Experimental Music at the ART Music Awards in Sydney, and has seen scores of international musicians descend on the nation’s capital each February, it has been rebuffed again and again by funding bodies.
The event has in the past received funding but not for some years now, during which it has survived through crowdfunding, the generosity of the ANU Drill Hall Gallery where it has been held for the past four years, and out of Johnson‘s own pocket.
This is a boutique festival never likely to attract great masses, but the interest in experimental music and free jazz is a worldwide phenomenon and Johnson has made Canberra part of that movement.
Last year I watched in fascination as the patrons for the festival’s rarefied kind of music absorbed the moody ambience with eyes closed. Often the instruments themselves were the objects of experimentation – strings plucked inside the piano, the trombone used as percussion, a trumpet muffled then enhanced by a speaker and a double bass given temporary bridges.
“CityNews” music reviewer Rob Kennedy says, “Free music, improvised or formless music is a tricky thing for most people to grasp… More of this type of experimentation could be something that breaks music out of its traditional path and helps lead music into new territories.”
“The funding bodies don’t understand this kind of music,” Johnson says of the experimental sounds that are music to his ears but caviar to the general public.
It’s a hard one,” Johnson says. “Funding bodies tick the boxes for bums on seats, value for money and tourism dollars.”
He reluctantly admits that SoundOut, with its intimate audiences, doesn’t rate many bums on seats. “But it could do, if tied in with a grand scheme like Tasmania’s Mona Foma, he says – the January event in Launceston billed as a “summer festival of hedonism and hot stuff”.
“I pitched the idea to eventsACT and artsACT to create a larger festival. But they didn’t get it.”
To Johnson, “getting it” is key to the success of his festival. Terence Maloon, the famous curator who now directs the Drill Hall Gallery, most definitely “gets it“ and has given the festival a home. In Johnson’s words, “Terence is the bee’s knees.”
Luckily for SoundOut, international cultural bodies like the Goethe Institut and the Austrian and the Canadian embassies have assisted in bringing overseas performers in – although that can be chancy, as it depends on the individual taste of diplomats.
Above all, there are the music networks. A sax and wind player, Johnson has been travelling regularly to Sydney over the years exploring the many alternative venues for free experimental music.
He’s been a convert since age 16 and says, “What’s great about this kind of music is that it liberates both classical and jazz musicians within the freedom of a rock gig – not musically, but in a relaxed atmosphere.”
“It frees up musicians to think differently and gives them scope to be more compositional – many jazz players are held back by having to perform standards and this liberates them to push against the boundaries.”
Johnson has set up a crowdfunding campaign, but is well aware that this year the public focus in fundraising is on the bushfires. He’s even promised the person that donates the highest amount the reward of an artwork in the form of an “Art Banana”. Don’t laugh, in 2019 just such a banana installation sold for US$120,000.
The line-up for the afternoon and evening sessions on February 1 and 2 is impressive, with pianist Elisabeth Harnik from Austria, double bass player Wilbert de Joode from the Netherlands, percussionist Dylan van der Schyff and trombonist Scott Thomson from Canada, object artist Annette Krebs and pianist Achim Kaufmann from Germany.
The Canberra contingent is headed up by Johnson himself, Rhys Butler on alto saxophone, guitarist-songwriter Jess Green, electronics whizzkid Shoeb Ahmed and experimental filmmaker Louise Curham and many artists from Sydney to Tasmania complete the list of musicians.
“SoundOut” music festival, at the ANU Drill Hall Gallery, Saturday and Sunday, February 1-2, from 1pm-5pm and 7pm-11.30pm on both days, book at eventbrite.com.au
Workshop with music exponents from Europe, UK and Canada, ANU School of Music Canberra Big Band Room, January 31, book at eventbrite.com.au
A crowdfunding appeal for SoundOut is here