Tom Ellard is a ‘musician’—a term he describes as ‘an old descriptor for a sound/video/interactive artist’. While it is hard to establish all aspects of his work briefly, Ellard is best known as founding member of electronic and industrial band Severed Heads (officially active from 1979 to 2008). For those wondering, think tape loops, discordant noise, synthesisers and drum machines. Contextually, the group’s output defied genre generalisations—personified in multimedia innovation—the visual synthesiser.
In the mid 1980s, Severed Heads were a part of the cross-pollination of post-industrial, electronic and dance genres eventuating in the oeuvre Electronic Body Music. The band anticipated and affected future electro-industrial artists in the period following post-industrial music, and avant-garde synth-pop dance hits like ‘Dead Eyes Opened’ (1984), from album Come Visit the Big Biggot, left an undeniable imprint on like-minded bands after their 1986 world tour, as well as upon the genus of electronic music itself.
Recently, Ellard performed as part of the Adelaide Festival and he currently lectures in the School of Media Arts at COFA, amongst a myriad of other exploits. Here is what we discussed.
Being an artist and musician for thirty years, how do you feel about the separation arguably dividing the two disciplines? What keeps them apart commercially, i.e., do you feel as though they should be more intertwined and considered as one? Is your research and catalogue involved in dissolving this gap, and did working in a group such as Severed Heads expand the possibilities for knowledge?
You say commercially, so I assume you mean in part the art and music industries. Industry deforms the original intention and deflects its energy. I think the impulse to create is identical across sound, image and so on—like desire, it’s polymorphously perverse. Each artwork is sublimated in different ways—music has a costume it has to wear and painting has a different costume and so on. By the time you see it or hear it it’s dressed in the appropriate straightjacket and so artists identify that as ‘being an artist’. Any definition of art seems to come down to this ‘art context’.
Whatever I do services the one internal need. I call it music, because that annoys tiny-minded people and also conveys the right balance of mathematics and hysteria for what I like to do. I truly believe in and practice the Orphic principle of drunken mess and tidy structure. Neither can provide art alone—each empowers the other.
Recently there has been promotion of a ‘creative industry’. It’s a straightjacket combining design utility and neoliberal governmentality. By that I mean it provides expert metrics by which governments can measure and then impose artistic outcomes—music is bad for that. Its most overt guise is projecting onto buildings—the twenty-first century fireworks show meets Triumph of the Will, but in general it simulates being useful. My ideal of art is the opposite.
Will it ever be viable to make underground music, or will bureaucratic industry limitations actually always make it difficult to be employed doing what you love? Severed Heads appear to be a group that was privy both to the world of DIY music culture and that of international recognition, in that you crossed from the former world to one of more commercially defined success. Was it all what you imagined? Did you notice profound differences in your approach towards your music, the music industry and making more records down the track?
‘Viable’ again sounds like economics, and so of course it’s not viable! But in terms of being life-affirming and generous then of course it is! But what does ‘underground’ mean? I spent a while designing record covers for major labels called things like ‘underground’, ‘indie’, ‘alternative’. I used to be angry about this adoption of language before I thought—hang on, none of these things ever meant anything. The closer you get to them, the less they have any substance. My favourite thing is a ‘popular underground’ band—that’s the sound of one hand clapping.
Severed Heads made our own media before and after commercial success. In some ways that success was like owning two bakeries rather than one. More bread, so what? In other ways, it was like any tedious job in middle management—teamwork with your team leader to meet goals. The most interesting thing was that when we went back to being ‘independent’, the audience still wanted our records which had been on the major labels. But they saw themselves as being ‘alternative’. Same thing with Radiohead—being on EMI was what allowed them to not be on EMI.
Attention comes to few—did you see many make a living from music who deserved to? This is where I want to ask about any older local bands who fell by the wayside and should have attention brought to them.
Well, I can’t be sure who deserves what. Bands fall over for all kinds of reasons, sometimes people just get sick of each other. (I got sick of myself.) The most successful people moved on to more mainstream pursuits—like Graeme Revell making film music or David Chesworth forming an ensemble or Philip Brophy as a filmmaker. Moving overseas was the big bet—you would do well or slink back home. Soundtracks and jingles fed some, others like me just got ‘real jobs’. If you follow any group of people they disperse as fate takes them.
You often refer to the death and resurrection of Severed Heads in your writings. It must feel good to be part of a working machine for this long. On the other hand, does it feel strange to have surges of attention almost thrust upon you at different points throughout the existence of Severed Heads? You must wonder where these surges come from. Did working consistently with people make the process easier and did the success of Severed Heads affect the music and ideology?
I talk about it too much, but it’s all tied up with identity. You begin to think, ‘I am synonymous with this public thing’. Then the public aspect gets ugly—they treat you as a brand that they paid for. You want to grow and change and your owners get very angry, they don’t like you changing. The anger is a conversion of the praise you used to get long ago and so you come to hate that praise, hate the fact that they aim their praise at a corpse. You try to bargain—here is me now, here is the thing too—that doesn’t work, you are getting in the way of the thing! So you murder it. Repeatedly. But it never stops—their rejection of you and their love of the thing.
Success is a funny idea. When does it happen? When every living thing on the planet is obsessed with you twenty-four hours a day? When a relative says ‘that wasn’t bad’? The couple of times that we were successful I found it like too many drinks: starts great, ends up nauseating. When it would happen again I’d be pleased but frightened about how it was all going to blow up again. After years of binge and purge you just want small but real moments of happiness, to be liked for who you are, and because there’s a political imbalance between performer and audience that’s not likely to happen through the music industry.
I wish I’d worked with people consistently. But Severed Heads was a sitcom that had too many seasons, and I’m the last one standing. The weird thing is how the audience still identifies people as being part of the band even though they died years ago. ‘Do you still talk to blah blah?’ is a common question. ‘I don’t have an ouija board’, I tell them.
In the doctorate of Creative Arts that you’re currently undertaking, ‘the end result is planned to be a series of broadcasts performed on a system that draws on parametrics of character held by the visual assets. In realising this system a number of issues in personality theory and ontology have to be solved from the perspective of the video composer.’ What has this meant for modern visual technology? Through your research, what is being solved for the composer?
I am immensely ambivalent about this. On one side some things should remain free of language, remain inscrutable. On the other side, things that can’t be described are in danger of being lost and forgotten. My musician bias says I want to provide a score of my video so that others can interpret it. I can hum some Beethoven, you will recognise it—it is not tied to a specific sound recording. Most abstract video is only kept as the recording and can’t be transcribed. That makes me sad.
The annotation tools for video we have now are about narrative—somebody somewhere does something. Or it’s raw colour. Most old visual music assumes that colour equals pitch and that’s it. How do we describe timbre? I am trying the idea that we can say the same thing that we say about a sky—that it’s ‘moody’ or ‘sad’ or ‘cheerful’. Personality theory is able to provide a simple inventory of these kinds of traits—a five-dimensional grid of character. As bogus as it may be, it’s better than re-inventing some scale from scratch. Previous systems were for one composer only, while this might inspire a universal descriptive system.
You are working on a modern clavivox with Paul Greedy. What defines it as modern and what is involved in the assemblage procedure? Through your project Opmitter (that no doubt transgresses audio-visual boundaries), what information have you obtained as an end result? Broadly speaking, what is the next step in terms of your research and the ultimate outcome/machine/visualisation? Have your research and subsequent affirmations continued to prove things you previously believed impossible within sound? Failures?
The Wilfred Clavivox is one of many twentieth-century visual music machines. It’s mechanical, having rotating translucent shapes that create a delicate fire-like swirl on a screen. Wilfred built two main types—big organs that only he would play and ‘junior’ versions for the home—we are building a junior. This had rotating discs inside like phonographic albums. We’ll replace the records with a computer-generated signal that means the user can place colours as they like from a controller screen.
But not just any colours, because Wilfred was a Theosophist, and for him colours had particular significance. The colours will be selected according to mental forms they represent in Theosophical teaching. So the idea is to make a Clavivox that keeps everything good about analogue calculation and adds some of the good of digital calculation while satisfying the musical framework that he used. This obviously relates to my own hope of finding a scoring system for visual music.
In terms of interpreting and channelling art through music, your recent project involving abstractionist Ralph Balson is on at the moment in Penrith. Is this process appropriation rendered as creation, or is it something you see just as an act from your own artistic practice?
Balson was a musician who used canvas and paint. He was concerned with a question that occupied the early twentieth century: as abstraction comes raw from the individual soul, what makes a ‘good’ painting or a ‘bad’ one? Kandinsky and others saw music as a structure which could answer that. Balson followed on. I think that he shared my rejection of art straightjackets. It’s redundant, perhaps insulting, to take his score into sound but it makes the quality of his work evident—I can read it and make a transcription. Just to be cocky I then made a video based on the sounds based on his painting, and that’s showing in the gallery too. All up it declares that the investigation of visual music isn’t complete.
Was the central idea within The Shape of a Note realising music three-dimensionally, as some sort of measure of the emotional effect music has on everything? How did you come to this point in your investigation? What data got you here?
The Shape of a Note was a few things all at once and failed at all of them, so that’s interesting. It was the first time an electronic musician was an ‘Australian composer in focus’ for HSC students. That didn’t seem to be a popular choice with schools and challenged the staff. We performed with visual music, which was billed as a ‘VJ set’, so we had to provide some scratch video as well. But mostly it was a plea that music and sound be brought together, that a note can be a sound sample and that there is room for both. So the dot on the score actually has a shape—a waveform, for example. That was aimed at changing secondary school teaching, the few who took an interest were keen on it but there was no wildfire! I overestimated what was being asked for, that’s not a bad thing.
There are a lot of references to Australia within your music—what was your inspiration behind obtaining your samples? Was Australian identity received or thought of particularly internationally and how do you feel about being here?
It was all you had. Severed Heads were bowerbirds and picked up shiny sounds on the local radio and TV. You were far away from Paris and New York and you spoke from your place. The video Kato Gets The Girl is a ‘city symphony’ based on Sydney because that was in walking distance. It wasn’t done on purpose or to make a point. When we finally did tour overseas there came songs about travel and eventually an album, Cuisine, that responded to country and western from living in the USA.
Some musicians are bothered by nationality—for example, they consciously rap with ‘Aussie’ accents. Not for me to say wrong or right, but I think it’s over-cooked. My nationality can take care of itself.
How do you feel about contemporary music? Does it feel dead to you entirely? Does your teaching reflect and affect your thoughts on the state of modern popular favourites, or does it lend hope for commercial music? What music or things currently inspire you?
The problem is I don’t hear any contemporary music being made. I hear replicas mixed with old folk being revived to rekindle memories. That being the case, I don’t feel the need to ‘keep up’ with anything. That recorded music is in a dead end seems mostly accepted. Some are happy to look backwards (note the endless parade of 1970s and ’80s musicians to head art festivals). Some are flailing around trying to spark something new. I was one of those for a while, but recently I began to understand that it’s not back or forward, but sideways that we need to go.
Instead of bands and labels we have a new kind of DIY—the tools are the bands—people buy Ableton Live or a guitar instead of a record. Instead of following musicians that represent a style, they DIY on a tool that represents the style. The Pro Tools guys like well-produced rock and the Fruity guys like techno and the MaxMSP girls are all about the new academy. The ones I like to tease are the ones with impossibly large modular synthesisers and myriad button controllers. They used to buy expensive ‘hi-fi’ just to play test records on their turntables. These days they control things.
So bands and labels and all that are off to one side, in a petting zoo. Now we see a new DIY, sort of like the one that we started in. I don’t know what happens next.
Harriet Kate Morgan is a writer, curator, musician and artist who previously co-ran Joint Hassles gallery from 2006 to 2009.