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21 April 2022

Josten Myburgh: Amplfying Experimentation Through Audible Edge

Josten Myburgh Image: Josten Myburgh  
© Josh Wells

Josten Myburgh is one of the masterminds behind Tone List's annual exploratory music festival in Perth. Originally a creative hub for a tight improvisatory community, Audible Edge is growing in its musical scope and audience, and now launches into its sixth year as a year-long program including performances, workshops, and other sonic art experiences. We chatted to him about the festival's changes over the years, the challenges and opportunities of being a sound artist in an isolated city, and what's to come for the exploratory music scene in WA.

Tell us about Audible Edge - how did it all start?

Audible Edge is presented by Tone List, an exploratory music label based in Boorloo (Perth), which was brought together by trumpet player Dan O'Connor in 2016. A small improvised music community was emerging in Boorloo and Tone List aimed to act as a hub for their creative output. We were also putting on concerts, both in support of our releases, but also to actively invite new voices into the scene and host touring artists.

In 2016, the NOW now and SoundOut festivals were maintaining quite a strong touring network for improvisers from abroad. The festivals had a reputation overseas, it seemed, as government funding bodies were regularly supporting artists to tour there (even though the festivals themselves mostly received no Australian government support). Having been to the NOW now, and similar festivals abroad like Cable#8, I was inspired by their directness, vibrancy and DIY spirit. These festivals felt more about the gathering of those people in that place at that time and the multiple possibilities of that: they didn't need to express anything about the vision or ambition of their curators or producers, as that was evident in the energy they managed to gather in the space for each event. The focus stayed on the music and the sharing of knowledge, with a big and excited audience.

It seemed wise to add a Boorloo destination for this touring network. Logistically, because the artists were often able to self-fund their travel, so if we could provide an artist fee, they could be there. And creatively, we figured that even if audiences were small, the presence of these experienced improvisers carrying their spirit of collaboration would be very nourishing for the community. This was the impetus for the first festival in 2017.

This year will be the sixth year of Audible Edge. Can you tell us about how the festival has grown since its first year?

From the beginning we had a vision of the festival encompassing more than just improvised music - this is just too narrow a scope for a festival in a place as small and isolated as Boorloo. Having the track record of a festival or two run in a very grassroots way with high-quality performances allowed us to pitch successfully for more funding, meaning that we were able to be a bit more experimental with how we curated the programs, rather than relying on simply who was able to be there or not, who had funding or not.

In 2020 we also made a conscious decision to break away from the dependency on the touring networks over east by moving the festival to April. This was driven by an awareness that there was a very rich experimental sound culture in broader South East Asia and in Southern Africa, and that Boorloo perhaps had the potential to use its connection to the Indian Ocean to make stronger ties with the scenes in these places. We wanted to be more conscious of what voices were being platformed and what networks were being grown. It was also a pragmatic decision, as the timing of the east-coast festivals meant that our festival fell in the midst of a very saturated period in Boorloo's cultural calendar - it just wasn't a feasible time to host a festival if we wanted new audiences to come.

Annika Moses came on board as a co-curator in 2020. Annika and I have explored curating the festival as a kind of permission-giving. Knowing that the contexts for performance available in any given place are their own kind of "score" - they set the parameters for what is possible - we try to invite people into the festival with the invitation to confront this, and to experiment with ideas that would normally seem as though they were way out of left field, or wouldn't go down in your average gig setting. Annika's broad awareness of the popular music scene in Boorloo gives her a good radar for artists that might be curious to try such a risky performance, and I think this helped the festival break out into a more interdisciplinary space - one that is quite irreverent to what "scene" folks are part of. As I mentioned before, it's a small city that's expensive to get to, so it's important we actively encourage experimentation, not just accommodate what's already happening.

2020 saw an interesting shift in the change from a 'festival of music' to a 'festival of sound'. Was this a deliberate change, or was it an organic evolution in step with what artists were creating around the world?

It was a deliberate change, but more about our intention than any response to broader trends. A first point is that experimental music has a reputation for being challenging or confronting, but experimental music fans are not challenged by it terribly often: they're getting what they came for! Annika and I like it best when we can find ways to challenge or confront the expectations that the scene itself has about itself. So, we wanted to involve artists who we thought were thinking experimentally about sound, or doing quite radical or unusual things, without thinking of themselves as experimental musicians or sound artists. This meant the inclusion of dancers, visual artists, poets, theatre-makers, musicians from the pop and metal and club scenes, and so on.

We wanted to create a messy, textured experience which would both gather a diverse audience and produce diverse responses: we really thought it was ideal if people hated one set and loved the next, talked to the person next to them who had the complete opposite experience. As curators, we didn't just want it to be a personal playlist of stuff we really like, but rather to actually challenge our own assumptions and extend respect to artists whose ideas confront our own.

I suppose there is also a thought that people can feel quite strongly about what "music" is. Something involving fans blowing air on microphones or field recordings of AFL matches which calls itself music can be confronting to people, but it's hard to refute that it's sonic. Likewise, there are various popular music spaces that are extremely sonically and formally inventive but can make people confused if you describe the music that comes out of them as experimental, because they don't fit the various expectations we have about what "experimental music" is meant to sound like. If we say the festival is just about sound, it can be understood that we're trying to broaden and investigate our experience of that phenomenon, without it needing to be done in an institutionally condoned way!

And this year, it's moving to year-long program. What prompted the change, and can you walk through the curated program so far?

This change is largely pragmatic, around the timing of community COVID spread and border closures and openings. Whilst it definitely has a different atmosphere to a two-week-long festival, we're treating it as advantageous in that we can be even more collaborative and time events strategically. Some really wonderful co-presentations that we didn't initially plan for are being folded into the festival in the latter part of the year.

This idea of co-presenting underpins Audible Edge this year. We are working with community radio station RTR.FM 92.1 on a radio art commissioning series so that the festival inhabits and intervenes in radio-space. We are hosting a telematic concert with New North happening simultaneously in Berlin, Boorloo and Naarm (Melbourne). Experimental music mainstay Outcome Unknown will be co-presenting a mixed bill program with the first international visiting artist line-up that I'm aware of in the last two years. We'll be co-presenting with Perth Jazz Society and Goolugatup Heathcote on two great double-bills, including a conceptual art project exploring the paper trail of noise complaints in Boorloo in the 1970s - very weird and silly - and a nine-piece free-funk orchestra quite inspired by Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band.

There are also two free workshops: one focussing on the FluCoMa machine listening package, inviting local sound artists to learn to use this front-running technology, as well as a workshop on improvising with a broad sonic vocabulary.

There is a lot to look forward to later in the year: soundwalks, sunrise performances, surround sound concerts, we're working on a rave…

It's amazing to see the collaborations between the tight-knit new music and art community in Boorloo in this year's program. Are there any elements of Audible Edge tied to place that make it distinctly West Australian, or irreplicable anywhere else?

I hope so, but I'm not sure! One thing I do often wonder about is how cities with small scenes start to produce quite strange and unforeseeable collaborations the longer they're given to grow. For example, if you were a free jazz musician in Naarm, you could have four different bands going with different people in each one if you wanted to, but in Boorloo, you would find it pretty hard to find more than a handful of people really committed to that music. So this speculative free jazz player has to think about how they can find a context for their music: either make the community, or put your musical learnings into a really new context.

Audible Edge has hosted bands which bring together totally naïve anti-music punks and Con-trained jazz musicians, or visual artists leading bands of improvisers to play conceptual scores about ABBA, queer shamanic black metal orchestras…Later this year there will be a kind of AFL exorcism. And then there are some collaborations which sound less wild on paper, but are very subtle and specific, where it is hard to imagine them happening without two or three people with quite different backgrounds ending up spending more time together than they might have ever expected to.

I don't think odd or specific collaborations are somehow unique to Boorloo, but I suppose when you are here you can notice the subtleties in such projects that convey the slow emergence of something genuinely new and localised. Certainly the festival last year had a distinct energy and some very powerful expressions of that, but I don't think it's ready to be put into words yet.

How do you think the new music scene in Boorloo has evolved (both artists and audiences), and what do you see for its future?

At the risk of getting too concerned with semantics, for some of the reasons I've described above, I don't use the words "new music" to describe what Tone List does or the work that I do. We used the term exploratory music - and just "sound" - to set ourselves apart from existing platforms in Western Australia and try to look for or amplify the act of experimentation inherent in many art forms. This is also because "new music" has a certain institutional power that other forms don't have and we would prefer to subvert this or challenge it, whilst still engaging with the music.

The scene under the exploratory banner is, overall, healthy. The music has gotten richer and more diverse each year and the feeling that it is growing and changing is its most exciting property: it's replete with potential energy. There's a spread of artists here who are coming into their own in recent years and making world-class music. No one outside of Western Australia has heard of them yet, but I hope you will soon.

Audiences for gigs are consistently larger than I remember them being before 2019. Gigs sometimes bring crowds of nearly or over 100, which I haven't seen in Boorloo for an experimental show in a really long time (sans The Necks). It's clear that people really want to see and hear different stuff. I feel like the shapeshifting or chameleonic approach towards genre, style or setting that the exploratory music scene has more accurately reflects how most young people listen to music today. The scene is also very collaborative and diplomatic, and people seem onboard with the sincerity and freshness of that.

New music as a subset of this often feels like a separate universe. I haven't cracked the code of how to bridge that gap because despite the obvious sonic overlaps, there is just a big cultural difference that only some people are comfortable moving between. I think our audience of late comes more from pop music, because the very deliberately casual atmosphere and non-hierarchical culture of sharing realised in the festival space makes immediate sense to them regardless of what the music sounds like. The trend of programming contemporary art music alongside other kinds of experimentalism evident in things like Dots+Loops and the London Contemporary Music Festival (to name just two) isn't happening in Boorloo so much, except in the work of very young organisations like Tenth Muse. So it often feels, sadly, like two totally different worlds.

We have programmed much more work from the new music space in Audible Edge this year than ever, actually, for exactly the reason that we want that friction between cultures and ways of working to happen in the concerts, and for us to reckon with it together towards a stronger scene.

Audible Edge begins this year with their April program, 23-30 April 2022. Find out more: ae.tonelist.com.au

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Exploring What's in a Word

A word is a word is a word that has meaning built into it by it's usage in context, in an ongoing context, ongoing/continuing like experimental music is now a type, a genre, a style that attracts, or not, particular audiences (as Josten observes).

Sonic experiences include standing just outside the runway fence as jet engines fire up to full speed, and being subjected to my neighbour's waking up and prepping for her day rock music while I am meditating.. does this make them art, performance or audience worthy?

Yet music is music is music multidimensionally constituted of sounds in patterns of patterns of patterns. We all know that some patterns are radically dismissed by the loathers of experimental music, because the preconceived sonic experience does not fit with their preconcieved listening experience to preconceived patterns of preconcieved sound types.

Anneke and Josten's use of 'exploratory' to describe the exploratory content of their exploratory festival of exploratory gigs is a wonderful exploration of the meaning of a word setting the exploratory context of listening.