Canberra experimental music wins APRA award
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Canberra experimental music wins APRA award

SoundOut festival director Richard Johnson believes experimental music is slowly starting to be taken seriously alongside other genres, writes Dan Bigna.

Earlier this month Canberra music festival, SoundOut, took out an APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association) Award for Excellence in Experimental Music.

The award is well deserved given that festival director Richard Johnson performs and actively promotes free improvisation while also dealing with the dual challenge of obtaining adequate funding for the event and securing a suitable venue.

Overtone ensemble playing at SoundOut.

Overtone ensemble playing at SoundOut.Credit:Richard Johnston

He tells me that the award bodes well for the festival as "the industry is listening somewhere out there and finally thinking about such things as experimental music and starting, with baby steps, to take it seriously" alongside other forms of music in this country.

"It certainly fills me with a sense of optimism for the future of the festival," he says.

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My first experience with SoundOut was at the Street Theatre in 2011 where vibrant "sound" colours from an array of local and international electro-acoustic ensembles set the scene for the grand climax, an earth shattering performance from saxophonist Mats Gustafsson's​ trio, The Thing.

It remains, for me, the standout performance from an impressive roster of artists appearing at SoundOut including the Frode Gjerstad Trio from Norway, Australian composer/violinist Jon Rose, Spartak percussionist Evan Dorrian​ and French bassist/composer Eric Normand.

The international flavour of SoundOut is quite noteworthy for the local music scene considering that free improvisation is a method of performance frequently misunderstood within mainstream culture.

I liken this to the frequently overheard comment from visitors to the National Gallery of Australia's most famous art work Blue poles that "my child could have done a better job than that".

In music, as in all forms of cultural expression, sounds that depart from the comfortably familiar will in some quarters induce puzzlement as it is always easier to absorb whatever happens to be comfortable and familiar.

This explains why free music pioneer Cecil Taylor has sold many fewer albums than Taylor Swift. But easier doesn't necessarily mean better, and this is why I have enjoyed so many SoundOut performances - because they challenge and probe listeners.

Free improvisation involves dynamic interaction between audience and performer and requires deep listening to reach that elusive transformative effect.

Events like SoundOut create a favourable environment for this to happen; a far more appealing proposition than shopping mall ear-candy.

It certainly fills me with a sense of optimism for the future of the festival.

SoundOut director Richard Johnson

Johnson sees a future for the festival as taking the concept of free improvisation, free jazz and experimental music to greater audiences over a longer time frame with longer-term funding to allow for greater planning and security in the development of artists and themes.

"This is slowly happening as more artists hear about the good work that the festival does and the way we present interesting and stimulating new music."

Let's hope the relevant funding bodies are listening.

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