We chat with Robin Fox and Mat Watson of Melbourne Electronic Sound Studios to find out about one of the year's most ambitious concerts.
There seems to be a cruel misunderstanding among some concertgoers that synthesisers don’t make sense as a tool for live performance. Whether it’s due to a noted absence of rowdy onstage antics or simply the stereotype of the meek, bespectacled electronic musician rearing its ugly head again, synths generally tend to be written off as being an instrument best saved for the studio, and for many, that in itself is a crying shame.
With their ambitious takeover of the Sidney Myer Bowl this March, Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio aims to change all of that. As part of the Arts Centre’s Live at the Bowl concert series, the studio will be bringing out an eye-popping array of electronic instruments to mark the debut live performance of the MESS Synthesiser Orchestra: a groundbreaking display of MESS’s collection and an overall celebration of Melbourne’s thriving electronic music scene.
“MESS doesn’t want to be a studio in the traditional sense,” says Robin Fox, co-founder of MESS and an internationally acclaimed audio-visual artist in his own right. “The whole point of the organisation is to put these instruments in front of as many people as possible – giving people unprecedented access to these machines.”
In addition to bringing performances from MESS members and keynote local electronic artists such as Simona Castricum, Naretha Edwards and Artificial – best known as being one half of pioneering ‘90s rave duo Biftek – MESS at the Bowl will also play host to the world premiere of Magnitudes, an awe-inspiring composition performed by the MESS Synthesiser Orchestra.
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The piece combines the talents of 16 MESS members and utilises a staggering amount of instruments from the MESS archives, from finicky old drum machines and gargantuous analogue oddities through to cutting edge modern innovations. To say it’s an ambitious concept would be deemed an understatement at best, yet Fox’s attitude remains unflappable.
“I’ve always been of the mind that if something isn’t ridiculous, it isn’t worth doing,” he says. “When the Arts Centre approached us to put on this concert, I wanted it to be something substantial, especially after coming out of lockdown. So I thought ‘the idea of getting upwards of 50 synths onstage is insane – let’s do that.’”
A sprawling electronic symphony that pays tribute to ‘70s synth pioneers like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, Magnitudes was composed by MESS’s own Studio Manager Mat Watson, who’s also slated to conduct the orchestra at its debut performance this month.
With his only brief for the composition being to showcase the immense collection of synths stowed away behind MESS’s doors, Watson was able to exploit the mass of gear to its absolute fullest in anticipation for the performance: something he refers to as being a ‘dream project come true’.
“The composition was born out of me just trying to expand my thinking – not in practical terms, but to expand my thinking ‘to what sounds do I want to hear onstage at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, and as an audience member, what would I like to look at?,’” Watson says.
“I started thinking back to all those big prog groups from the ‘70s who used to bring all their gear onstage for each show, and realised that with our collection, it was going to be substantially bigger. From there, it was just about thinking of all the elements of those machines that I love, and to try work out a way that I can bring all of those together into one piece.”
“Matt was the obvious person to ask to make a work for these machines,” Robin says of Watson’s appointment to the Herculean task at hand. “His intimacy with these machines as a studio manager is second to none, and his work as an artist makes perfect sense for him to bring this collection together and compose a piece of music for it.”
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Despite the abundance of machines utilised throughout the duration of Magnitudes, Watson is quick to stress that the composition isn’t just an upscaled version of a typical electronic performance. Save for a few machines being hooked up to send and receive signals, each and every machine used in the composition will be performed live and in the flesh – totally void of sequencing and synchronisation.
“I made the decision early on that this wouldn’t be a techno show,” he explains. “It’s not about things being synchronised or controlled by MIDI.
“Magnitudes is really about shape, form and colour merging with melodic and harmonic elements. It’s structured in a way that allows for the artists to explore each instrument within certain areas of the piece, but each part is quite defined in itself. I think that there’s something really liberating about that; seeing these instruments in that context, and seeing people responsible for physically wrangling with them onstage.”
To bear witness to an electronic musical performance of such an enormous scale should be considered as a special event for any keen punter, but there’s obviously one particular niche of the public who are especially excited for MESS At The Bowl: Melbourne’s own mass of gear-heads.
For those out there who dabble in all things electronic composition and production, the prospect of seeing half a century’s worth of hardware laid across the stage of one of Melbourne’s outdoor music venues is nothing short of a dream come, with Watson rattling off a list of the arsenal of gear set to be incorporated in the performance.
“There’s a Serge Paperface from 1975, a Buchla 200e clone system, a Moog System 55 with a bunch of Moogerfoogers, a Buchla Music Easel with an expander, a Transaudio Procase 6, an ARP 2600, an EMS VCS 3 MKI and MKII, a Wasp Deluxe, a Roland SH-101, Korg MS-20, an ARP Odyssey, Roland SH-1000, Korg MonoPoly, Yamaha CS-30, Roland SH-2, a Mellotron Mini, a Fairlight CMI 30a, a Sequential OB6, a Korg PS3200, Moog Voyager old school, Roland SH-5, two Synthi AKS’s and one Fractal Eurorack system,” says Mat, working his way through the exhaustive list of synths on hand before delving into the array of vintage drum machines used as well.
“There’s also the Ace Tone Rhythm Ace FR-1, the Elka Sidekick, a Hohner Rhythm 80, Korg Minipops 120, Maestro Rhythm and Sound G2, Olson Rhythm Beat X-100, Roland TR-55, a Univox JR-5 and SR-95, a Wurlitzer 5020 Swingin’ Safari, a Sears Rhythm-Matic, a CRB Rhythm Boy 480 and a Korg Doncamatic Minipops 5. There’s also a bunch of outboard effects and stuff that’ll be used in conjunction with some of those machines.”
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As formidable as a display of gear as it may be, Fox reaffirms that MESS At The Bowl isn’t just all about showing off their vast collection of equipment – rather, it’s about sharing the history of electronic music with the public, and making sure that these machines aren’t just subject to living a lonely life within some museum.
“Of course, one of the motivations here is to showcase the collection, but I think it’s also more nuanced than that,” he says. “One of the great things about putting them all onstage to form part of a living, functioning orchestra is to make sure they’re not under glass and never switched on because the electronics might fry.
“In instrumental terms, these instruments aren’t that old – even the oldest ones were only made 47 years ago. The leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example, plays a Stradivarius that’s probably hundreds of years old, so the idea that an instrument should just be put under glass and not played again is a bit of a tragedy to me. MESS is very much about preserving these instruments and the legacy of these instruments through ensuring their continued use.”
“On the one hand, it is an amazing kind of nerd out to put this many synths on stage, but it’s also about making the point that we honour this orchestral tradition in instrumental form, and we fund it and we back it to make sure that it doesn’t die,” Fox continues.
“I like to joke around and call it the new Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which I’d probably get sued for, but if you think about it like that, it does beg the question: why don’t we have a fully-funded synthesiser orchestra? We have a fully-funded instrumental orchestra; so why not fund a synth orchestra? I mean, this is the music of the future, isn’t it?”
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Magnitudes is set to be debuted at MESS At The Bowl on Saturday March 27. For tickets and details, head to Live At The Bowl.