Tag Archives: musical instruments

New Sounds on the Street

The conversation at the BBQ turned to complaining about various buskers: love them or hate them, the bagpipes at Flinders Street Station or the Chinese fiddle player at the NGV. Melbourne has a good culture of buskers from living sculptures and sidewalk performers to musicians. There is an international feel to Melbourne’s buskers, reflecting the multi-cultural nature of the city. There are amateur musicians with just their instrument and its case open for coins to professional buskers with CD for sale and so much equipment that they need a roadie or at least a handcart to move it.

India Bati and friend

India Bharti and friend

I always like to see different instruments played on the street, not the usual busker with a guitar. This is about the stranger instruments, the unique inventions that I’ve seen played on Melbourne’s streets. New musical instruments are a combination of invention, engineering, make-do and art.

The variety and quantity of buskers in Melbourne is impressive. From the bagpipe player who used to play on the on the steps of Flinders St. Station to a guy doing beat boxing . The human beat box was doing bass and drums with just a microphone and an amp. He was excellent, impressive as the vocalisations — covers of ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. The human beat box was also expressing his artistic desperation in between songs: “I don’t want to be busking for the rest of my life.”

One day I saw a guy playing a “dagpipe” player on the corner of Elizabeth and Bourke. The “dagpipe” were his inventions, or maybe not, another guy playing one called it a “gagpipe” — either way it is a very Australian alternative to a bagpipe. It used a foot pump for an air mattress to inflate the plastic bag from a 4-litre cask of wine that supplies air to the single pipe.

Dagpipes

Man playing “dagpipes”

Another day I saw another very Australian improvised instruments being played by a busker — tuned beer bottles hung on a wooden rack.

In the late 1980s there was Jerome and Soul Desire who were street performers using improvised percussion instruments. And now there is Victor Lancaster aka Mr Mention who plays the improvised drum kit made of plastic buckets.

India Bharti is my favourite busker because of his unique collection of instruments. He is a Shivaism, a Shiva devotee with long wild hair, trident and other accoutrements and his lyrics reflect this interest. He performs with several unique handmade stringed instruments; the largest being a long piece of natural wood with many strings attached. All of these stringed instruments are augmented with many guitar effects peddles. The sound that it produces is somewhere between an electric guitar and a tempura (the Indian instrument that provides the continuous tonic drones that backs the soloists). He has released CDs and I even saw a video clip on Rage many years ago (he now has many videos on YouTube).

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Grainger Museum

You don’t have to be a fan of Percy Grainger’s music to appreciate the Grainger Museum; you don’t really need to know anything his music. You can look at this remarkable little museum as an exhibition of the life an early 20th century eccentric. It is half a biographical museum and half a music museum specializing in musical invention.

As a music museum the collection of instruments focuses on the eccentric and innovative. Grainger was a great musical inventor and experimenter, late in his life Grainger made a programmable electronic organ powered by vacuum cleaners. Grainger’s great  “Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-pouch Tone-Tool” completed by 1952 is on exhibition (Burnett Cross writes about his experience collaborating with Percy Grainger on this and other experiments). Grainger’s eccentric position isolated his  work from other electronic music pioneers at Melbourne University programming CSIRACto play digital music in 1950 or 1951.

Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-pouch Tone-Tool

There are less of Grainger’s folding suitcase pianos and his collection of European folk instruments on display now. They have been replaced with a whole room of Australian musical inventions and musical instruments. There are new instruments by Garry Greenwood (1943-2005), Colin Offord and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893-1965), who went from the Bauhaus to Geelong Grammar School. These inventors of musical instruments are also visual artists because musical instruments are also sculptural aesthetic objects and there are paintings by Colin Offord and drawing by Garry Greenwood that compliment the sculptural beauty of their invented instruments.

Instruments created by Garry Greenwood

The biographical part of museum presents an unvarnished biography of Percy Grainger, the way that he would have wanted it. The museum is notorious for its exhibition of Grainger’s collection of whips and other relics of his sadomasochism. Grainger should be more notorious for his proto-fascist attitudes about the Nordic race and anti-Semitism. Other of his eccentricities such as vegetarian and passion for jogging (Grainger was known as the “running pianist”) appear ordinary today.

Grainger’s unbridled creativity and inventiveness is on display throughout the museum. Along with his musical inventions there are his designs for his published edition covers with the free-hand typography and his clothing creations (Grainger may have also invented the sports bra). The remarkable clothes that Grainger made for himself from towelling reminds me of the costume designs of Matisse for Diaghilev ballet.

And there is art from Grainger’s collection, portraits, cartoons, photographs, erotic Norman Lindsey prints and Grainger’s father’s collection of cartoons by Morris & Co. Grainger’s collection of Native American beadwork is on exhibition (beadwork was also one of Grainger’s hobbies).

Fortunately not all of Grainger’s desire for the museum have been carried out; such as, his bequeathing his skeleton “for preservation and possible display in the Grainger Museum” and his stipulation that the museum be lite by “daylight only, and to contain no electric lighting or other lighting (to avoid fire danger)”. It is a remarkable and unique museum; what might have been intended as an egotistical plan to fetishize the relics of Grainger’s life has changed with history to tell a different story.

Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne and left a museum to Melbourne; for most of his life he was in Europe and America. The old brick museum at Melbourne University doesn’t attract much attention; it looks similar to the toilet block/changing rooms at the sports fields further along Royal Parade. The museum has been refurbished since I last visited a decade ago and the exhibits have been rearranged to create a more coherent exhibition, so even if you have seen it before the Grainger Museum is worth another visit.

The Grainger Museum @ Melbourne University


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