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David Brown: An Undocumented Seminal Figure Within the Australian Improvised Music Community

Sam McAuliffe[1], Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, Monash University

Abstract

This article investigates the improvisatory aesthetic of Australian guitarist David Brown in order to establish an understanding of his position as a seminal figure within the Australian improvised music community. To effectively discuss Brown's musical output and evaluate his musical aesthetic, audio recordings will be subjected to critical examination, interviews conducted by others and myself will be reviewed, and Brown's own PhD exegesis, which outlines his multifarious approach to improvisation, will be consulted. The intention of this article is to address the lack of published literature focusing on Brown's musical output and to establish his position within the Australian improvised music community. This article highlights Brown as an exponent of non-traditional performance techniques, with a specific focus on his approach to improvisation in solo and duo contexts while performing on the prepared, semi-acoustic guitar.

Keywords: David Brown, Australian improvised music, prepared guitar improvisation, Melbourne avant-garde music, Keith Rowe, Fred Frith.

Introduction

David Brown (b. 1956, Melbourne, Australia) has been developing his improvisational and compositional language since the mid-1970s, regularly performing in the Melbourne avant-garde, art rock, and punk rock music scenes with such groups as False Start (1978), Signals (1978-83), and Dumb and the Ugly (1987-93) (Brown, 2014). Since his involvement in these ensembles, Brown has contributed to and performed in a variety of settings, contributing to the film score for the major motion picture Wolf Creek (2005), his solo guitar project Candlesnuffer (2007)[2], and duo Culture of Un (2012) with Chris Abrahams (Brown, 2014). With no formal tuition or training (Brown, 2014, pers. comm. 16 August), Brown joined various bands during his teenage years and quickly found himself experimenting with sounds and texture. The band Signals began early on as 'a noise band, but we had no notion of noise music […] We'd do things like stand three guitars against amplifiers and turn them on and let them run for fifteen minutes, and that was a performance' (Carey, 2005: 9). As Signals was one of Brown's first performing ensembles (according to his online biography), it appears from the outset that Brown possessed an interest in sound and non-traditional ways to approach musical performance. Developing a personal approach to improvisation, Brown has received critical acclaim as an improvising musician; his albums and live performances have received positive reviews in magazines, newspapers and online sites such as The Wire, Aeternal Flux, Tiny Mix Tapes, Herald Sun, Beat Magazine, Inpress Magazine and the Melbourne Times, to name a few, and his 2004 European tour was listed as a highlight performance by The Wire writer Dan Warburton (Carey, 2005: 10). His reputation as a 'six-string wielder of the first water' (Pinsent, 2011: para. 1) has allowed him to collaborate with a variety of performers from within and outside of Australia, such as Sean Baxter from Australia, Lukas Simonis from the Netherlands, and KK Null of Japan, as well as to tour internationally and throughout Australia.

Through the implementation of prepared guitar techniques, Brown's music has a focus on sound and texture[3]. Consequently, his music has been described as 'weird, difficult, obscure, pretentious, noise' (Carey, 2005: 8). Perhaps due to the challenging nature of his music, Brown's contributions within the Australian and global music scene are largely undocumented outside of his own discography, despite the comment of Samartzis (an associate professor at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, and Brown's PhD supervisor - arguably someone intimate with Brown's music), included in the CD liner notes, that Brown's album Wakool (Brown, 2007) 'easily posits him as the most vital figure in the Australian musical avant-garde' (Samartzis, 2014: para. 1). The intention of this article is to elucidate Brown's approach to improvisation and to situate him as a seminal figure within the avant-garde and improvised music community.

In order to arrive at an understanding of Brown's aesthetic of improvisation, a qualitative research methodology has been implemented, which is appropriate as it advocates both interviewing and participant observation, in this case the critique of audio recordings. Denzin and Lincoln state that there are three main approaches to conducting an interview: structured, semistructured, and unstructured (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008: 119). A semistructured interview process was selected for my research as it encouraged Brown to respond to questions in a personal manner, advocating a dialogue that may have exposed insights unattainable through a structured interview. The interview process was an important aspect of my research, providing first-hand insights into how Brown perceives his approach to improvisation; knowledge otherwise unattainable due to the lack of published literature on the topic. Additionally, interpreting audio recordings of Brown's musical performances was an integral aspect of this research, as it allowed me to verify and provide examples of performance approaches verbalised by Brown within the interview process, and elucidate techniques otherwise not discussed.

My intention is to establish a clearer understanding of how Brown has become a seminal practitioner within the Australian improvised music community; a position suggested by many who have reviewed his music, such as Andy Hamilton from The Wire: 'Live in 2013, I finally caught the celebrated NOW NOW Festival in Sydney, where one highlight was the deliciously low-key Culture Of Un - the Necks' Chris Abrahams on piano, and Dave Brown (aka Candlesnuffer) on prepared guitar' (Hamilton, 2014: para. 1); Jonathon Kromka from Aeternal Flux, 'Brown's prepared guitar is a beguiling sound world unto itself, his playing an exercise in disciplined command over a deceptively restricted sound palette as demonstrated on the releases Wakool and Mimosa' (Kromka, 2010: para. 2); and Warren Burt in Computer Music Journal USA (commenting on a solo performance of Brown's), 'his lovely sense of phrasing made this one of the most beautiful of his pieces I've ever heard' (Burt, 1999: 89).

Situating Brown's approach to improvisation

Brown's music can be situated within a global community of improvisers and avant-garde musicians, many of whom are documented in John Zorn's (ed.) Arcana series (Zorn, 2000-14) of which there are seven volumes. In regard to prepared guitar, however, there are two seminal practitioners who are arguably leaders in the field: Keith Rowe and Fred Frith.

Rowe is probably best known for his work with the British improvising ensemble AMM, which he co-founded in 1965 (Ronsen, 2007: para. 1). His performances on the guitar are characterised by his laying the guitar flat on his lap or tabletop; a decision influenced by the work of painter Jackson Pollock, who Rowe asserts broke free from the European school of painting through the abandonment of traditional technique (Warburton, 2001: para. 6). Influenced by Pollock, Rowe cites that laying the guitar flat was his attempt to abandon traditional technique and rethink his approach to the instrument (Warburton, 2001: para 6). Rowe's music is largely textural, seemingly disconnected from traditional notions of melody and harmony. He has been described as 'one of the improvisers who has most contributed to the definition of a new vocabulary for the guitar' (Scaruffi, 2003: para. 1). When performing in the ensemble AMM, Rowe states that he often establishes a schema that runs throughout a piece, 'a schema that has an ambiguity and open-endedness which will automatically accept almost any other activity along side it' (Ronsen, 2007: para. 7). Additionally, he describes textural sheets of sound as something he would create that the band would 'try to climb over like a wall. It was a barrier to get through' (Warburton, 2001: para. 28). Rowe's tendency to create homogenous, long-duration schemas (often with a focus on electronic manipulation) seems to characterise his approach to improvisation and is a trait consistent across much of AMM's discography.

Frith has been a prominent guitarist within the progressive and avant-garde music scene since he co-founded his iconic band Henry Cow in 1968. Since then, Frith has been described as a 'major figure on the New York scene' (Warburton, 1998: para. 1) and 'one of the pioneers of prepared guitar' (Horvitz, 2009: para. 2). As an improviser, Frith is known for employing a combination of extended techniques and preparing his guitar in an attempt to orchestrate the instrument (Dery, 1992). Frith notes that 'a turning point for me was hearing David Toop play guitar […] I saw him play guitar with alligator clips attached to the strings, which immediately set off a bell in my head' (Dery, 1992: 79). On his seminal album Guitar Solos (Frith, 1991), Frith makes extensive use of prepared guitar and approaches the instrument with a variety of techniques. What characterises the album is Frith's virtuosic approach to the instrument, wherein he is able to produce dense, complex rhythms[4] and flurries of notes. Additionally, the smooth, developmental transitions from one theme to the next seem to be indicative of Frith's approach, especially in regard to the content of Guitar Solos.

By outlining Brown's approach to improvisation I strive to elucidate aspects of his performances that set him apart from (or in alignment with) his contemporaries Rowe and Frith - not with the intention of claiming that one is better or worse than the other, but to establish Brown's personal approach, in order to situate him as a seminal figure within the Australian (and global) community of prepared guitar improvisers. To develop an understanding of Brown's performance aesthetic, I review his PhD exegesis, interviews by others and my own interview with Brown. This will establish comprehension in regard to how Brown approaches performance on the guitar.

What is striking about Brown's performances is the diverse range of sounds he conjures from his instrument - primarily due to his implementation of almost every physical surface of the guitar to create musical contributions. For example, the guitar's strings no longer function as the primary generators of sonic resonance; instead, each part of the guitar, including the headstock, neck and body are of equal importance and can be played by knocking, tapping, scratching, etc. Through Brown's exploration of the guitar, it seems he has been able to break down any sense of hierarchy between which part of the guitar creates the sounds of most importance. This approach (also demonstrated by Frith) is particularly noticeable when performing with a semi-acoustic instrument, as this type of guitar, with its large rounded body, acoustic resonance, electric pickups and extended tailpiece, allows a variety of extended techniques to be employed. These include the striking of strings behind the bridge (the point where the strings stop resonating at the body of the guitar), permitting the guitar to feed back through the electric pickups, and allowing the pickups to amplify hand-held motors, such as travel fans and cappuccino frothers.

Figure 1: Illustrating how Brown may attach foreign objects such alligator clips to the strings of his guitar. Image by David Brown, reproduced with permission.

Figure 1: Illustrating how Brown may attach foreign objects such alligator clips to the strings of his guitar. Image by David Brown, reproduced with permission.

Figure 2: Illustrating how Brown may attach foreign objects such alligator clips to the strings of his guitar. Image by David Brown, reproduced with permission.

Figure 2: Illustrating the various foreign objects Brown may employ during any given performance. Image by David Brown, reproduced with permission.

As a result of Brown's inclination to tap, scratch, knock, etc. the surface of his guitar to create sounds during performances, as well as to use various objects to strike or prepare the instrument, his musical output is stylistically removed from sounds generally associated with the guitar. This approach contrasts with that of Frith, whose prepared guitar performances on Guitar Solos resemble sounds associated with the guitar, albeit in a somewhat abstract form. When listening to Ataxia (Pateras et al., 2004) by trio Anthony Pateras (piano), Sean Baxter (percussion) and David Brown (guitar), it is at times difficult to discern which performer, or instrument, is making which specific sound, a result of both Pateras and Brown preparing their instruments with a variety of utensils such as alligator clips and chopsticks. However, generating traditional, tonal sounds on the guitar does not appear to be Brown's primary objective; instead, he seems more concerned with the sonic timbres and textures created by the ensemble (Brown, 2012: 25). This is an approach similar to that employed by Rowe; however, Rowe's musical contributions are largely electronic, in contrast to Brown's acoustic timbres.

So far, it can be noted that the basis of Brown's aesthetic of improvisation is built around implementing almost every surface of the guitar to create sonic contributions to music; employing a variety of utensils to prepare the guitar, along with a range of extended techniques; and creating sounds that are not indicative of standard guitar performance. These traits characterise Brown's approach to improvisation. However, through the analysis of the following audio recordings, I strive to uncover any additional techniques that may contribute to Brown's improvisatory aesthetic, as well as to provide evidence of the aforementioned techniques.

Case studies: Wakool and Moonish

Having established a general background on Brown's aesthetic of improvisation, audio recordings of his performances can be studied to further understand his improvisatory approach. The first study, Wakool (Brown, 2007), on which Brown performs under the name Candlesnuffer, is a collection of eight solo recordings. The other study showcases Brown in a duo context: Moonish (Brown and Abrahams, 2012), which features pianist Chris Abrahams. After reflecting upon Brown's approach to solo performance on Wakool, a point of reference will be established, which will further inform discussion regarding how an improvising partner may or may not affect his performance. While recorded documentation of Brown's solo output is minimal, there were numerous options when selecting which duo album to incorporate as a case study. Moonish was chosen due to Brown largely performing with the same guitar on this album as he does on Wakool (Brown, 2014, pers. comm. 16 August). This is an important factor, as performance on different guitars will often require a varied approach, resulting in different techniques being employed and, consequently, different sounds being produced. This process of gaining knowledge through observation and critique allows the listener to judge two different and/or similar approaches to the same source instrument. This will further our understanding of Brown's approach to improvisation and provide insight as to how he has arguably arrived at the forefront of his niche music community.

Samartzis describes Brown's solo album Wakool as a 'testament to David's sustained and unwavering commitment to improvisation, which he executes with enthusiasm, vigour and inventiveness' (Samartzis, 2014: para. 1). The album offers a restrained, sparse approach to improvisation, presenting stark soundscapes juxtaposed primarily against space and silence, an approach at odds with his contemporaries Rowe and Frith, who more often than not present dense approaches to solo performance. Brown's use of long and regular silences between sounds creates what one could almost describe as a dialogue, in that silence is not simply employed as a method for framing the audible experience. It is not secondary to sound; instead it is a powerful compositional device and is treated as an equal to the audible musical statements within the overall performance - an idea and musical concept commonly associated with the compositions of John Cage (whom Brown cited as an influence during our interview), notably Cage's piece 4'33"[5].

'This Happened When Dogs Could Talk' (Track 4 from Wakool, Track 1 on the Audio CD, Appendix 1) exhibits Brown playing in an intense and fragmented manner. By preparing his guitar with objects between the strings and fret board (the surface of the neck of the guitar upon which the guitarist's fingers push upon the strings) and striking the strings with a variety of foreign objects, a technique regularly exhibited by Frith and Rowe, Brown is able to create an array of percussive sounds reminiscent of a gong-like instrument. By selectively striking different strings, he not only creates percussive sounds, but also sounds that embody pitch, to create varied, yet intense soundscapes. After 1:48 Brown employs an additional technique, reminiscent of a bend - where a guitarist can stretch the string of the guitar to alter the pitch of the resonating note. However, due to the resonance of the note and the way it was struck, it is more likely that Brown is bending an open string (one where no fingers are being used upon the fret board) from behind the nut (he point where the strings stop resonating at the 'head' end of the guitar, before the strings are attached to the tuners) of the guitar. This is done by pushing down on the resonating string up the top of the guitar behind the nut, close to where the string attaches to the tuning pegs, and is an example of his implementation of extended technique. From this moment in the recording, the piece becomes less dense, with periods of quiet, drone-like sounds interspersed with the aforementioned frantic, percussive sounds. Towards the end of this piece, approximately 2:46, Brown more frequently incorporates silence and minimalism within his performance. It is in these moments when Brown's approach is noticeably distinct from that of Frith and Rowe. Brown's ability to regularly juxtapose noise and silence appears to be indicative of his solo performances and is a characteristic that sets him apart from his contemporaries.

From developing an understanding of Brown's approach to solo performance, comparisons can be made in regard to how he may or may not implement similar techniques when performing with another musician. Specifically, how the involvement of another musician can influence Brown's musicality and his selection of techniques. In regards to the difference between solo and duo performance, Brown states:

When you play solo, even though in some sort of way it's more confronting, it's also somewhat easier because it doesn't matter where it ends up. It's your own voice that you're following, whereas when you're playing with other people, whether that be an ensemble or a duo, it's somewhat out of your control where the improvisation leads. That's extremely important for me and consequently informs the solo playing because due to sympathy, deference, or whatever, you can end up in completely unknown places playing with someone else. I guess by design I have developed a lot of duos recently, specifically with that endeavour in mind, but also to specifically allow another person's approach and colour when playing to influence where I'm lead. (Brown, 2014, pers. comm. 16 August)

Thus by observing Brown's performance in a collaborative performance we can discern how his approach to improvisation differs (or remains the same) in comparison to when he performs solo. Moonish, a duo album featuring Brown on guitar and Chris Abrahams on piano, has been described by Pinnell as:

Very beautiful, particularly when Abrahams lets long decaying notes hang in the air while Brown contributes tiny scratches and trickles at his guitar. There is a definite closeness between these musicians as the interplay between them is very easy to hear, and the way the instruments are balanced is excellent, the perfect companion for one another with a very clean, precise feel to things. It is very easy music to listen to, simple to connect with, light on the ear and yet full of subtle detail, particularly with Brown's guitar, which shifts through a vast range of sounds without you nearly noticing. (Pinnell, 2014: para 4)

'The saw had a job to do that summer' (Track 2 on the Audio CD, Appendix 1) begins with Abrahams playing tense, low-pitched chords, interspersed with infrequent delicate high notes. While Abrahams slowly develops this theme, Brown converses by making sounds that most listeners would probably not associate with the guitar (while this is a trait exhibited by Rowe, Brown's approach is largely acoustic, as opposed to Rowe's extensive use of electronics). Brown's performance, however, does not appear to impede upon Abrahams' ability to interact with him, even though Abrahams is playing the piano in the traditional sense, without preparing it. While this relates to Rowe's 'accepting schema', Brown's musical contributions are not an underlying textural bed for Abrahams; rather, more closely related to the style of free-jazz, they are fragmented musical contributions equal in presence to those of Abrahams.

Around 1:36 Brown introduces sounds generated by a motorised object, such as a cappuccino milk frother, or hand-held fan. When turned on, the sound of the motor is detected by the pickups of the guitar and the guitar amp subsequently amplifies the sound - the result is a harsh, drone-like noise. Brown continues to start and stop the motor until 2:40. Due to the sound produced being quite intense, rarely does Abrahams layer his own sounds upon those created by Brown. Instead, Abrahams predominately allows the sound to occur on its own, choosing to play only after the sound has ceased. At 3:09, Brown introduces another idea. Throughout this section Brown performs in an aggressive manner, encouraging Abrahams to take somewhat of an accompanist's role. Brown produces dense, percussive sounds, executed in a flurry of energy. The consistency of these sounds creates a soundscape that is simultaneously textural, yet constantly mutating and developing. This is an instance where Brown's propensity for textural performance is taken to its limits and is demonstrative of how he can create something highly textural that embodies noise characteristics and is not a schema for others to layer their own sounds upon - similar to Frith's performances on Guitar Solos.

From these case studies, one can discern Brown's approach to both solo and duo performance. Notably, his approach to similar source material (instrumentation and performance techniques) in contrasting settings provides insight into Brown's multifarious approach to prepared guitar improvisation. In addition to the aforementioned techniques discerned from reviewing interviews and Brown's PhD exegesis, we can add his regular use of silence and juxtaposition, as well as his relatively acoustic approach to textural improvisation as characterising his approach to improvisation. Witnessing these performance traits in both solo and duo performance highlights Brown's ability to adjust his fundamental techniques in order to assimilate them within varying musical environments. While Brown shares several performative traits with Rowe and/or Frith, there is also evidence of a personalised approach distinct from his contemporaries.

Conclusion

By examining interviews, literature and audio recordings, this article has elucidated the performance aesthetic of David Brown, in regard to prepared guitar improvisation. While Brown's musical output displays an aversion to a variety of conventional music-making techniques, such as tonality, structural repetition and melody, by accepting characteristics of noise and silence, Brown generates a musical approach that, while unconventional, appeals to a variety of other musicians, allowing him to collaborate and perform locally and internationally. As a practitioner of a minority art form, much of Brown's musical contributions have seemingly gone unrecognised by the wider public; however, within a niche group of improvising musicians he is highly regarded, which can be acknowledged by reading the many reviews of his recorded works[6]. This article has taken steps towards acknowledging and documenting Brown's aesthetic of improvisation and argues that while he is largely undocumented in academic literature, he is a seminal figure within the field of prepared guitar improvisation.


Acknowledgements

I would like to acknowledge and thank the people who have contributed to my being able to successfully complete this research. My family: Tim, Barbara and Emily for their ongoing support and encouragement, as well as Kelsey for her continuous presence throughout this research. I would like to thank Monash University for providing me with a means to complete this research, through regular access to classes, literature and, most importantly, regular, personal meetings with staff. In particular I would like to thank Paul Williamson, Stephen Magnusson and Joel Crotty. I would also like to make special mention of David Brown who inspired me to undertake this research in the first place and has consequently inspired both my writing and performance. Thank you for always making yourself available in every aspect of this research.

List of illustrations

Figure 1: Illustrating how Brown may attach foreign objects such alligator clips to the strings of his guitar. Image by David Brown, reproduced with permission.

Figure 2: Illustrating the various foreign objects Brown may employ during any given performance. Image by David Brown, reproduced with permission.

Appendix 1: Audio tracks

All recordings reproduced with permission.

Track 1: 'This Happened When Dogs Could Talk' (David Brown)

Track 2: 'The saw had a job to do that summer' (Chris Abrahams and David Brown)

Notes

[1] Sam McAuliffe graduated with first-class honours from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia in 2014. He is currently undertaking a research masters at Monash University for which he has received an APA scholarship.

[2] A project that has a focus on integrating conventional electro-acoustic compositional methods with noise and rock and roll ideologies.

[3] The term texture when used within this article refers to layers of sound and the density of components; however, the importance of melodic and harmonic relationships within these layers is negligible. In this context, texture simply describes a character of sound or a group of sounds, regardless of pitch and harmonic association.

[4] See track one, 'Hello Music'.

[5] A performance of this piece by the BBC Symphony Orchestra can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnOIlsZOH70

[6] Many reviews of Brown's discography can be accessed through his website: http://candlesnuffer.org/discog.php

References

Discography

Brown, D. (2007), Wakool, Red Hill: Room40

Brown, D. and C. Abrahams (2012), Moonish, Poland: Bocian Records

Frith, F. (1991), Guitar Solos, London: ReR Megacorp

Pateras, A., S. Baxter and D. Brown (2004), Ataxia, London: Synaesthesia

Bibliography

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To cite this paper please use the following details: McAuliffe, S. (2016), 'David Brown: An Undocumented Seminal Figure Within the Australian Improvised Music Community', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 9, Issue 1, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/issues/volume9issue1/mcauliffe Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.