I think of music as an invisible architecture. An architecture of vibration. All of life is vibration. Music can bring these vibrations together and transform the world.
Often broke, never poor, music has given me a rich life. Somehow, I have managed to provide for myself and my family through my work for over forty years. I have travelled the world many times over, giving performances, making exhibitions, installations, artist-in-residencies, community projects, workshops and cross-cultural collaborations with musicians, singers, dancers, film and video makers and for theatrical productions. I have played in festivals, art centres, great concert halls and rickety old halls, cathedrals, temples, swanky music venues and dingy clubs, in beautiful environmental settings, architectural and industrial sites, schools, universities, zoos and in villages and remote towns throughout Australia and the islands of the South Pacific.
So how did all of this happen?
My family migrated to Australia from London when I was four. I grew up in the cultural wasteland of a small town on the outskirts of Sydney, playing in the bush, swimming in the local waterholes and making bows and other things from wild bamboo that I cut in Bow Bowing Creek down by the railway tracks. Many years later, after I had formed my performance group The Great Bowing Company and was immersed in the development of my mouthbows, I realised how influential and important a sense of place had become to my development.
My mother was a pre-school teacher and my father a metalworker. He taught me how to use tools and to put materials together to make something. He was astounded when I won the local art prize with a welded metal sculpture that I had made from scraps that he had brought home from the factory.
When I was eleven my parents took me to my first concert: The Beatles at Sydney Stadium. The experience was mind blowing and I remember watching John Lennon and thinking, I want to do that, though I had no idea what that was. A few years later my inspirational high school art teacher Joan Brassil walked into class, put Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on the record player and instructed us to paint. I didn’t realise it at the time but she had helped me make an important connection – music and art are one.
In high school we played guitar and sang. I made a guitar out of masonite and a fence paling – it was extremely heavy and didn’t work so well, so I saved up my paper-round money, bought a guitar and learned to play Blowin’ in the Wind. We listened to The Beatles, Hendrix, The Animals, Jethro Tull, Easybeats, Pete Seeger and of course Bob Dylan. On the weekends I would take the steam train into Sydney to visit the N.S.W. Art Gallery, go to the cinema (Woodstock was a revelation) and check out the “International” section at the record store. I bought the Unesco collections and Ocora recordings and was swept away by the sounds of Korean Court Music, P’ansori, Japanese and Islamic music, micro-tonal Solomon Island singing and panpipe playing, Aboriginal music from Arnhem land and so forth.
At fifteen I couldn’t leave school fast enough – to become an artist. My parents neither encouraged me nor tried to dissuade me, they said “Okay, but you must study or get a job”. I did both. I took menial jobs, then for the next nine years worked as a graphic designer whilst studying painting, drawing, design and hand lettering at TAFE at night. In 1975, after months of travelling in South East Asia I naively began experimenting with various flutes I had picked up along the way. Balinese and Thai music had affected me deeply, I knew I needed some technique to create my own music so for the next seven years, one night a week I went to private lessons and murdered my way through classical flute pieces, scales and arpeggios. Some years later I studied Chinese flute, voice and solfege with private teachers and Khene in Thailand and Laos.
As a young white boy living in a post-colonial multicultural society, surrounded by the islands of the South Pacific and South East Asian cultures and having a sense of the importance and depth of Aboriginal culture, I asked myself the obvious question “What is my music?”.
I was listening to free jazz and experimental music: Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Pharoah Sanders, Sam Rivers, Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos. When I discovered the music, books and ideas of Harry Partch and John Cage it felt like the walls were down and anything was possible.
I had no desire to play the music of others, I was in search of a music that was mine. I was looking for a way to bring together the many influences I was experiencing. I wanted to create something new. Improvisation and sound sculpture became an obsession. I applied a kind of visual arts “truth to materials” concept to my exploration of sound producing found objects. I made gongs from 44-gallon drum lids, multi-phonic bells from steel welding practice plates, simple mouthbows, bamboo long horns, harmonic flutes, Wallharps and Earthharps. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I staged solo and collaborative group events in the vigorous performance art scene that was happening in art galleries around Sydney at the time. I had exhibitions and installations of my visual works and gave performances on the weekends. Galleries such as Watters, Central Street I.C.A., Coventry Gallery and the Sculpture Centre generously provided their spaces for free. Sometimes it was even possible to raise enough money from the door to pay the week’s rent.
My first international tour was in 1982, small venues in Germany and Holland, playing homemade and traditional bamboo flutes, simple mouthbows, conch shells and vocal improvisations. People commented how environmental my music was, that it sounded like the Australian bush. These comments struck home and I began to explore ways of responding musically to our vast landscape, the wind, ocean, birdsong and the sounds of the bush. I looked for ways of sharing this with an audience without compromising the music or playing to the crowd. In London I wandered into a performance of Finnegan’s Wake by John Cage, with Cage himself reading. I expected something avant-garde. I did not expect something so exquisite and staggered out, never to be the same.
In a constant process of experimentation, failure, discovery and success I have been developing my original instruments now for over forty years: musical bows of wood, bamboo, gourds, palm fronds and husks, Harmonic Flutes of bamboo and aluminium, Moonbells (multi-phonic brass and aluminium plate chimes), Earthharps, Long Zithers, Water Bells, Xylopt (bailer shell xylophone) and so forth.
I am best known for my development of the simple mouthbow into a complex multi-stringed musical beast. I first heard mouthbow music in the early ‘70s on a Unesco Collection recording of Solomon Island music and was immediately captivated by the intimacy and subtlety of its sound. I made one from a branch of a fruit tree and taught myself to play. I listened intently to recordings of the many variants of musical bows that are still played throughout the world. I experimented with materials, proportions and resonators and a breakthrough came in 1982 – the Grand Jacaranda Mouthbow. It employed a two-metre length of piano wire stretched over an old gramophone diaphragm. The sounds were transmitted via a tube into my mouth so that I could modulate them harmonically with movements of my tongue and throat. Think of a deep jaws harp that can be bowed, plucked and struck. Raw and limited as it was, I knew that I was onto something.
In 1984 I received an Australia Council grant, enough to provide a modest wage that enabled me to focus exclusively on developing my instruments. In the next six months I built my first Great Island Mouthbow using a bridge on a central pivot to transmit the sounds into two small diaphragm housings, which in turn amplified the sounds into my mouth via a mouthpiece. The instrument allowed me to create rich rhythmic and textural soundscapes to accompany my songs and vocal improvisations. During this time, I also made my first set of Moonbells, Tongue Bells and Windpipes. This small grant enabled me to build the foundation of my musical life ever since.
Every few years, I build a new version of my mouthbow, to improve the design, clarity, sound possibilities, ergonomics and transportability. In 2014 the Great Island Mouthbow morphed into the Australasian Mouthbow, a reflection of both my musical interests and my living circumstance. The most significant change was moving from a centrally pivoting bridge to a floating bridge held in tension between the playing strings and a set of short, highly strung strings that provide an opposing pressure. This reduces the downward force on the diaphragms, allowing them to vibrate more freely, significantly improving the articulation. This idea was inspired by Peter Biffins’ Tarhu system.
I work instinctively, viscerally, spontaneously. My Australasian Mouthbow offers me a vast array of sound possibilities from a single instrument. My solo concerts are focused on creating rhythmic and textural soundscapes, vocal improvisations and songs with short interludes for Windpipes, Jaws Harps and Conch Shells. I tend to play an entire concert in one tuning, it gets the room humming. Although I am working only with the harmonics of open strings, I can create the feeling of key changes by muting some strings and varying the starting or bass note. I usually tune the bow with two bass or drone notes, a fifth, and a range of intervals, most often a 3rd, a 2nd and a semi-tone. And sometimes I play “untuned”. I prefer to tune the mouthbow and sing in flat keys: Bb, Eb, F which is popular with horn players, not so much with guitarists. Although most of my music has a tonal centre, the loosely tensioned piano strings can be pushed up or down off the centre of a note whilst the mouth harmonics tend to create subtle inharmonic clouds behind the bass notes. My ideas for a piece of music may come from the sound itself, an idea, concept, or the extraordinary writing of poet Philip Hammial. His poetry and my own lyrics tend to be non-literal, non-descriptive, socially and philosophically provocative. I turn to vocal abstraction when I want to express those feelings that lie beyond words.
Improvisation is central to all that I do. It is a mirror of life, it leads us from the known into the unknown and only exists for a specific time and place, for those listeners present, never to be repeated.
In 2016 I released GOADING the BEAST – Anthology 1986-2016: a limited edition, 6-disc box set with a 48-page book. I have been inspired by and worked with many wonderful musicians – some of whom are featured on this Anthology: Matthew Doyle, Ron Reeves, Chris Finnen, Calvin Welch, Yilan Yeh, Mal Wood, Saxi George Laurent, Naomi Vaughan, James Pattugalan, Peter Kennard, Paul Jarman.
At the time of writing, in this time of pandemic, isolation and reflection I am busy restoring and rebuilding my instruments, and am about to release a new collaborative album TIME DISTANCE MUSIC featuring improvisations and sound collages with thirteen wonderful international musicians and instrument inventors (available as a download directly from me). I am also working on a solo album of songs for mouthbow and voice, working title SONGS of the ANTHROPOCENE.
These days music is mostly used as an accompaniment to other activities: dancing, eating, driving, partying, as background and so forth. I grew up when it was common practice to sit and listen to music: classical with my father, modern with friends. I can remember a time when no one spoke in a jazz club while the musicians were playing. Listening to music is one of my greatest pleasures: live of course but also recordings. They are like photographs. They capture a moment in time that will never be repeated. For me, the most extraordinary thing about music is its impermanence. Here now, then gone, its vibrations lingering on in our memory and spinning off eternally into the outer reaches of the universe. Long life and happiness to you all. Colin Offord October 2020.
VIEW AND LISTEN
AUSTRALASIAN SOUND: excerpts from various performances:
- CURLEW REPUBLIC with Yilan Yeh, Chris Finnen & Paul Jarman.
- GREAT BOWING COMPANY with Peter Kennard, Naomi Vaughan, Rene Thomas, James Pattugalan & Alison Brazier
- BLACKMAN / WHITEMAN with Matthew Doyle
- FOR THE TERM OF HIS NATURAL LIFE: 1929 Silent Film with live music
VOCAL IMPROVISATION with PALM BOW, Butter factory Arts Centre, Queensland
HARMONIC WINDPIPE: Vidy Theatre, Lausanne, Switzerland
BLACKMAN / WHITEMAN WITH MATTHEW DOYLE: Sydney Opera House
EARTHHARP community music project, Southern Moreton Bay, Queensland
Colin Offord: GOADING the BEAST Anthology review: