Listen Charles, it simply won’t do – you cannot just sit there and not have an opinion about this. It’s 1992 and we are at Saal II – a bar in Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel – discussing Clinton’s latest policies. The comment came from someone I had only just met through a mutual friend among the group that night, and I remember the feeling and surroundings as if it were yesterday. I leave and walk home – indignant and wounded.
Saal II – Schulterblatt, Hamburg. (Photo by Charles MacInnes in January 2012)
Once the indignation passed – how dare he criticise me like that? – the real sadness came because I realised he was right. How, in my mid-twenties, had I become a fence sitter, with scant knowledge or views about what was happening in the world? It was true, but it didn’t make sense. I had had an extraordinary childhood of politics, art, theatre, traveling, writing and music – surrounded by teachers, cousins and family friends who were out to change the world. My teenage years were narrated by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, plus The French Lieutenant’s Woman and A Republic of Grass and Insects.
Channelling Anne of Green Gables, the books helped me survive a couple of pests at school – though once I started becoming more serious about music their ploys only intensified. I was getting the Ace of Spades posted in my locker, and my Music by Correspondence cassettes were stolen then returned to me hacked into pieces and jammed into a Strepsils tin. None of it really bothered me at the time, because I knew their only points of reference were the events of the latest episode of Prisoner. Also, a new English teacher had arrived and everything changed – multilingual Karin Barty taught us about phonemes, and transformed our classes into writing workshops. She showed me with everything she said and wrote, that the rhythms and contours of words were as important as their dictionary meanings.
Yet, part of the problem that the Saal II incident exposed to me was that I had become fixated on the mechanics of playing the trombone to the detriment of everything else. I loved the process of collaborating in the orchestral section behind the scenes, but this was something we did in addition to the formal workload. Developing any wider cultural or societal understanding of our roles playing opera was entirely voluntary, and was inevitably ignored in favour of keeping an eye on the conditions of the workplace itself. Somewhere in Sydney between Bennelong Point and Paddington, brilliant thinker and then-anthropologist Rozanna Lilley patiently tried to explain to me that: Appreciating the artistry of the trombone playing in Frank Sinatra’s band doesn’t absolve you from being aware of larger social or political issues.
I know now that the audition circuit was psychologically troubling. When you do dozens each year and don’t get anywhere – it’s very difficult to resist reaching the conclusion that there’s something wrong with you. That they can all hear something in your playing that isn’t quite right, and that this would not be the case if only you were more dedicated and less opinionated. To progress required flawless execution, with extrovert tendencies concealed. Safety, reliability, and a steady hand helped me edge toward the middle of the fence.
Not long after that night at Saal II, through working as a casual with the NDR Big Band, the Radio Symphony in a nearby city booked me as a jazz specialist for a week of recording Ellington’s Orchestral Suites. The resident trombonists didn’t know that I was ostensibly an orchestral player, and I didn’t let on. I guided them with the phrasing and encouraged them to try the right mutes. It was confronting seeing an orchestra in this light – and in them I glimpsed myself as I might’ve become had I stood still. Clowning around, rustling the newspaper, and knocking over coffee cups during takes with an oblivious air of discontented entitlement.
Carola Lilienthal had built her own computer from scratch at school, and told me that all the bits were right in front of me but I just couldn’t see the situation as a whole. I stopped auditioning, left the Hochschule, and was immediately absorbed into the musical theatre, studio and band scene. And when the NDR Band called, I dropped everything and got straight there. At first, I felt out of my depth working with them, but they must have thought I was better and more experienced than I was, because they continued to book me over the following eight years. The lead bone player then – Joe Gallardo – would lean over to me during someone’s solo and ask in an urgent whisper Hey Charles, is the rhythm section playing that flat 13 there in the B section? I didn’t even know where we were in the form; I had a lot to learn. Another day, guest drummer Ronnie Stephenson cracked the shits with the whole band, because they failed to come in cleanly with the head after his solo. He said: I’m playing the form – spelling it out – and you fellas are all just passively sitting there waiting for a count in. Even though it was directed to everyone in the room, I took it personally and vowed to always know my whereabouts from that moment on, no matter what the predicament.
Music ’81 was a state-wide Victorian arts funding initiative, and a number of significant things happened in our town around that time. One was a visit to the school for an evening workshop run by musicians Ron Nagorcka and Warren Burt. Their experiments and demonstrations of sound as art were completely new to me, and one of them in particular made a lasting impression. We recorded our voices onto a portable cassette deck, and deliberately spoke with exaggerated extremes of pitch. This track was then recorded from the first tape player to a second, and then back and forth again and again – through the air with the built-in microphones. With each successive copy, the sound quality degraded until we were left with the breathy wow and flutter of a single pitch. But here’s the thing that stunned my Year-10 brain – the resultant pitch depended on the acoustic properties of the room. I went home exploding with ideas, and immediately rushed around calculating the central pitch of each of our rooms. The music room was F#, which was a delight because it made E# and A# in first position on the trombone take on a whole new hue for me in my practice.
By working with the big band in Hamburg, some of these earlier musical cells started to reawaken in me. In a climate of post-reunification funding rationalisation, the band had shed its earlier function as TV and Tanz Orchester to become more of an art ensemble. A new generation of players was arriving – this was a band of soloists with an echo of ancestry in post-war European free jazz. And it was in this sound that I started to join some dots with the contemporary classical art music and literature I knew of a similar period. There was a recurring joke in the big band whenever the free stuff started – Scheiße, do we have to play whatever we want again? But for me it was an entry point and beginning of a view that there was a greater convergence of styles and artforms than I had more recently been inclined to believe. And I don’t mean those strange Third Stream pieces. I could hear it and feel it, but I couldn’t yet explain it. Something molecular of insects and grass – perhaps the sonic version of a book’s invisible narrator turning up in the train compartment, a text built of unfamiliar symbols, or alternate endings to choose from?
Another event from 1981 was the arrival in Hamilton of composer-in-residence Paul Turner. Almost immediately he became the centre of musical activity in our community. He was a brilliant writer of words as well as music, fluent across styles and with a wry sense of humour. He lived nearby and would drop in often – one time he announced he’d just bought a brand-new cassette deck for recording. I had my first boom box still on lay-by, and I quickly quizzed him as to whether his new one was portable – well, I can pick it up and carry it he answered without skipping a beat.
This device led to the first recording of the revamped community orchestra – the typed cassette label was: Hamilton Orchestral Players 1, Visitors 0. And revamped because he took straightforward Classical-era overtures and single movements of symphonies and rearranged them for the instruments and capabilities of the players we had. Paul sometimes got me to cover a viola part on clarinet or horn parts on trombone. Don’t fret, he reassured me, it was normal in those days for the composers to rearrange and adapt works to suit the resources and people at hand. And he came up with the idea to seat the orchestra on the floor along the side of the hall, with the audience in-the-round. Suddenly everything felt and sounded great.
Around that time, the privatisation drive across Australia was gathering steam, and the local VicRail workers were on strike in protest of the impending closure of the Hamilton passenger service. In support, Dad wrote lyrics and we recorded a tune that was played on 3HA – the local radio station. Paul did an arrangement on the spot, and we made a two-channel multitrack recording in the lounge room. It began as follows, and I’d only been playing trombone for a few weeks and my sound was still a bit reedy:
(Sung to the tune of Botany Bay)
Victoria’s Liberal government
Is leading this state down the drain
They tell us that we can go anywhere
As long as we don’t go by train
In the holidays, Paul left a handful of LPs with us to look after while he was away. Again, a whole new world of sound was revealed – Alvin Lucier’s Music On A Long Thin Wire, Ros Bandt’s Improvisations in Acoustic Chambers, and Stuart Dempster playing some trombone works, but oddly I can’t remember what these were. I do remember thinking that this extended and cavernous music wasn’t so removed from my other soundtracks of the day – Wish You Were Here and Dark Side of the Moon. In each, I allowed myself to float in the small cracks between the echoes and oscillations and one track dissolved into another in my head once the sides ended.
Becoming a musician has been a long process of collecting skills and gathering the right words to explain the links. And none of it has gone to waste, including the many things I haven’t been able to share in this article. Forty years ago, the fear of nuclear war was so real that it was in the shadow of everything we did and made. I’m curious now about the future of music making and teaching in an age of environmental crisis. How can we become more flexible and modular with resources and musical ideas alike? Could musical and artistic practices themselves lead the way to social change and establish new connections between phenomena, peoples and places?
I’ve made a start addressing these questions with Ensemble Density – an improvising contemporary art music group I put together in 2017. My programs are based on a scene of some sort – e.g., describing in sound the rooms of an abandoned building, or revisiting a fork in the road from an event of a past decade. The music is interspersed with short contextualising stories, and listeners are sometimes invited to take part by contributing instructions or sounds in real time. We’ve got a couple of programs already recorded and in the pipeline – out soon on cassette!
Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 1974.
Robert Noonan under the pseudonym Robert Tressell, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. 1914.
John Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. 1969.
Jonathan Schell, ‘A Republic of Grass and Insects’ from The Fate of the Earth. 1982.
Alvin Lucier, Music On A Long Thin Wire, Lovely Music Ltd. 1980.
Ros Bandt, Improvisations in Acoustic Chambers, Move Records. 1981.
Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here, Harvest. 1975.
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon, Harvest. 1973.
Charles MacInnes was born in 1966 in Perth. He grew up in Hamilton in Western Victoria where his parents were both teachers. While still at primary school he began clarinet lessons with visiting saxophonist Graeme Shilton, and switched to trombone at Hamilton High School (now Baimbridge College), where he learnt from trumpeter Roger Sullivan. Charles began bass trombone studies with Eric Klay at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1984, and was appointed to the position of Principal Bass Trombone with the Opera Australia Orchestra in Sydney in 1985. He moved to Hamburg in 1989 to study with Joachim Mittelacher at the Hamburg Hochschule für Musik und Theater, and held a Praktikant position with the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra. He returned to Australia in 2000, and was Head of Brass at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music from the end of 2009 until the end of 2011. He completed a Master of Composition there in 2014, followed by a PhD on improvisation in contemporary art music under the supervision of Thomas Reiner and Paul Williamson from Monash University. For the Music Trust he has recently written articles on the TV series Wakefield and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer.
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