Music Australia News

Clocked Out: A Foremost Laboratory For Experimental Music

Clocked Out’s Piano Mill
Graham Strahle
| June 6, 2018

At the forefront of new music practice in this country lies the Brisbane-based duo, Clocked Out. Comprising Vanessa Tomlinson and Erik Griswold, it is renowned for the remarkable fluency and ease with which these two musicians move across multiple musical boundaries, and for the way they introduce both a playful inventiveness and a serious commitment to ethics and social responsibility into their music-making.

Audiences these days know Clocked Out as the Ensemble in Residence at Queensland Conservatorium and as co-creators of the Piano Mill Project. The latter, nestled in the tall eucalypt forests at Willson’s Downfall near Stanthorpe, is a unique two-storeyed architected venue that utilises 16 reclaimed pianos; in 2017 it won the Award for Excellence in Experimental Music in the APRA AMCOS Art Music Awards.

However, Tomlinson and Griswold met long before this, in San Diego in the 1990s, when they began collaborating and performing together as graduate students at the University of California. Their interests at this time lay in American experimentalism (Cage), European avant-garde (Xenakis) and improvised jazz (Mingus), but on moving to Melbourne in 1999 their interests took off and considerably broadened to include Dada cabaret, pop and post-punk. A dedication to environmentalism and community building through music have further informed their work over recent years.

Tomlinson describes how all these elements have combined to form the duo’s creative ethos. “The central thread in the work of Clocked Out is experimentation through play,” she says.

“Our preference is to make ideas, with people, in realtime – this does not always mean the music is improvised, but that we are making music on people, in place, with specific shared ideas. So our music is rarely generic and transferable, but specific and particular. For instance our long term collaborations with musicians from Sichuan province are based around relationships with particular composers and performers whose sound world and energy we really love.”

Griswold says that two quotes made about Clocked Out sum up the duo well: these are “outside your think” and “the perfect blend of the known and the unknown”.

He explains: “Clocked Out serves as a musical laboratory, in which we explore sound, combine various musical styles and approaches, and test ideas. Collaboration has always been an essential in our work, invigorating our practice, expanding our musical language, building new partnerships and communities.”

“In our Ensemble in Residence concert series at Queensland Conservatorium, each year we invite 3-4 musicians to work with us for one week to develop and present new works. Learning about the creative process of fantastic musicians like Anthony Pateras, Lisa Moore, Erkki Veltheim, Jim Denley, and Cathy Milliken, has been a constant source of new ideas.”

“Several long-term investigations have emerged over the years. Exploring the possibilities of piano, percussion, found objects and toy instruments has been an ongoing interest. The music of Sichuan Province has also been a source of inspiration, and our collaborations with Sichuan musicians have grown from improvised trios and quartets (‘Chengdu Streetsongs’), to large dance-productions, to 10-piece Chinese-Australia big band (‘Water Pushes Sand’ with the Australian Art Orchestra). And increasingly, music connected to place, including urban and rural soundscapes, architecture, and community, has become a central theme in Clocked Out’s work. The Piano Mill project, created in partnership with architect Bruce Wolfe and researcher Jocelyn Wolfe, is now a hub of activity in site-specific, environmental and architectural music exploration. Each Easter, we invite a team of musicians to come to the Piano Mill, in regional northern New South Wales, to create and perform compositions and improvisations responding to the natural environment and architecture. This is very much a large-scale manifestation of our ‘experimentation through play’ ethos.

What lies next on Clocked Out’s horizons and where do they see their future work heading?

Griswold says: “We’re hoping to get into the studio to record our most recent duo works – ‘Restless Times’, which responds to the fast pace of contemporary and a sense of global political uncertainty, and ‘Sonic Dreams’, a composition of Vanessa’s that uses experimental music to imagine sounds of extinct and endangered animals. Our large-scale projects the Piano Mill, Water Pushes Sand, and The Listening Museum – a musical happening in a working factory – will continue, we hope, to find new outlets and future performances. And our new project of sound installations, ‘Hidden Sounds’ is pushing us into yet another new direction.”

Tomlinson elaborates: “Increasingly place has become a central theme in Clocked Out’s work. This is inclusive of architecture, urban/rural soundscapes, community, topography and weather. Making work at the Piano Mill site for the past five years has taught us a lot about integrating experimental music into landscape, and the ability for audiences to listen attentively in different environments. When audiences are really engaged and listening, they are paying attention. And when they are paying attention there is the possibility to question and deepen aspects around relationship with land/place/environment, who gets to access art, plus issues around inclusivity and respect. We have definitely found that presenting work on land does encourage audiences to rethink their relationship to place, which can only be a positive for environmental custodianship.”

Coming up soon for Clocked Out is The Listening Museum, which they describe as “a non-linear sonic mashup in a real life factory, installations, participatory works, compositions, interventions, all curated into a mega composition that is explored through a labyrinth of pathways”. Composer Cathy Milliken is involved plus another of their guests, composer-performer Lindsay Vickery. After that Clocked Out is back at the Piano Mill for Easter Harrigans Lane. Check here for details.

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