Solo Series - 25th Anniversary AAO

To mark the Australian Art Orchestra’s 25th anniversary, we're presenting the Solo Series: a monthly video release that puts the spotlight on one of the twelve selected members from our pool of incredible AAO collaborators. Artistic Director Peter Knight speaks about the occasion and the project.

Joe Talia

Joe Talia - Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine and percussion (watch video here)

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I’m beginning my response to this video with a set of instructions that you don’t have to follow.

1. Get a cup of coffee or tea, or a glass of wine.

2. Get your headphones.

3. Pull up the video then darken the screen and listen with your eyes closed. 

4. Repeat the above with the screen bright and watch the video while listening to the music.

You could of course also listen in the way most of us listen to music these days: on the hop, on a pair of laptop speakers or a mobile phone, and skipping through as we go! This experience of the work of Joe Talia will also be rewarding, but an infinitely richer experience, and even a transformative epiphany may occur if you take the time to dive deep into this music.

What you will hear is an incredibly rich and abstract soundworld created completely spontaneously using a piece of magnetic tape spliced into a loop, a couple of heat sinks taken from old desktop computers which are used as percussion instruments, some bells, and some rattles. You’ll also hear the hum of the machine and the sound of feedback generated from within its circuitry. These sounds are then manipulated and processed live by Talia through the unusual configuration of record and playback heads that provide an array of expressive possibilities never intended by the designers of this machine.  

It is amazing to hear all of this without being able to see how the sounds are made. The materials are unfamiliar but there are also melodies and strange loping grooves that unwind themselves as insects seem to buzz around my head. It’s such a rich, unusual world that the pure listening experience is intense and very different from the one had whilst also watching the performance. It is incredible then to turn up your screen brightness and see Joe’s hands at work and get a sense of the visceral material nature of this practice. It’s earthiness.

This is electroacoustic music. It relates strongly to Musique concrète, the ‘tape music’ movement pioneered in the mid 20th Century by John Cage, Halim El-Dabh, and others. It’s also a big part of the sound of the Australian Art Orchestra these days but we don’t often get to hear this element stripped back to its essence.

I asked Joe about the relationship between his practice and Cage’s tape music: “In a sense, yes it relates to that history, but there’s also a performance aspect that feels much closer to free improvisation for me.” He mentions the 60s British free improvisation movement including AMM and Derek Bailey and also contemporary tape improv artists, Valerio Tricoli and Jerome Noetinger: “I remember they both came to Melbourne for a festival about 10 years ago. The day after the concert I was searching online for used [tape] machines.”

This reveals something of the work we are hearing and watching in this video but it also reveals something about more about Joe Talia: his curiosity, his restlessness as an artist. 

Joe has several strands to his artistic practice. He is a drummer and for over a decade played kit in Andrea Keller’s multi award winning quartet as well as an impressive list of other projects from Australia and abroad in jazz, art music, and rock. He’s also a recording engineer/producer with an extensive CV, and a sound designer. He is an improviser and autodidact researcher. He’s a low key person and flies somewhat ‘under the radar’ but has had a profound influence on so many musicians and artists.

Solo Series #3
Performance: Joe Talia
Audio and video producer: Leo Dale
Photography: Sarah Walker
Text: Peter Knight, Artistic Director

AAO’s 25th Anniversary

This year the Australian Art Orchestra celebrates its 25th anniversary. I remember when the group was formed and the impact it had on me as an aspiring jazz musician - the first show I heard at The Continental in Prahran in Melbourne, with 20 of the most talented musicians on the scene. Bristling energy, barely tamed. It was exciting, and it reconfigured the idea I had for what a jazz musician could aspire to. There followed collaborations with musicians from Indonesia, Arnhem Land, and India, and performances of music written by the most challenging contemporary western composers. It was a long way from what I had experienced as a music student, and opened in my mind a world of possibility that was expansive and exciting and that was directly connected to the here and now.

The Australian Art Orchestra changed things for me, and I think it changed things for a lot of musicians and listeners. The vision of its founding artistic director, Paul Grabowsky, recognised that we live in a place of abundance and as ‘jazz’ musicians and artists that we need to respond to what’s around us rather than look primarily to America and Europe for inspiration. A quarter of a century on, I believe that vision is perhaps more relevant than ever.

In 2013 I was appointed the Orchestra’s second artistic director and have since tried to carry on this vision in my own way. The group certainly sounds very different now, and there are new faces, but I believe there is a thread we have woven through each of our projects that traces back to those first performances of Ringing the Bell Backwards in Melbourne in 1994.

This history is important. Understanding where we have come from as a group is crucial to building a vibrant future. As we celebrate 25 years we want to look forward while at the same time reaffirming our commitment to a set of core values that are centred on deep music practice and community building, and that also give space for the kind of individual creativity that made the first performance of the Orchestra I heard at The Continental in 1994 so exciting.

This individuality and anarchic spirit is somewhat at odds with a more traditional idea of an Orchestra, which is generally associated with blend and seamless integration. But this is a contradiction that the Australian Art Orchestra has always embraced, and it’s one of the things that sets this strange and wonderful organism apart from other musical groups. It’s also the defining aspect that I have focussed on to celebrate this 25th anniversary.

Each of the musicians we work with is an improviser, but more than that each has a highly refined, idiosyncratic, and personal language on their instrument. When we come together as a group, these voices are the starting point for our sound. The composers we commission listen to recordings made by our musicians to inform their compositional processes, and when we rehearse we spend time improvising together and workshopping ideas towards the creation of a collective language.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of this ‘orchestra of individuals’ we have chosen 12 musicians from our large pool of players to record solo improvisations that will form a portrait of the Australian Art Orchestra in 2019. Each of these recordings will also be captured on in high resolution video by innovative Melbourne company, Digital Pill. These videos will be released monthly with an accompanying photographic portrait by Sarah Walker, and a written response to the music.

Peter Knight, Artistic Director