Two visionary artists have created a Mecca for electronic music in Melbourne.
There’s a VCS 1 synthesiser on display in a NSW museum, and sound artist Byron Scullin is concerned for its welfare.
“These instruments need to be used to be maintained,” he says. “They can’t just sit in a cupboard. Because they’re electronics they’ve got copper and chemicals inside, so things can bust and explode, they can suffer from corrosion and rust. So unless they’re turned on and used, they degrade over time.”
As co-director of the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio with fellow noise maker Robin Fox, keeping synths and other electronic instruments in active use is part of Byron’s job description. The pair created the not-for-profit organisation two years ago to give today’s electronic composers a chance to get away from their computers and play with some real toys – synths, drum machines, theremins and more.
Located in the basement of the Meat Market art space in North Melbourne, the idea is based on spaces that helped launch electronic music into the world, like the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and the West German Radio’s Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne. “What happened to all those places where it was just a big room full of machines, and it wasn’t really like a recording studio and people could just experiment and muck around with tools, and come up with ideas?,” says Byron.
And a big room full of machines is exactly what they’ve built. Thanks to some generous loans and donations from avid collectors who also want to keep their treasures out of storage, the collection at MESS now sits at over five hundred pieces, with around 120 available in the studio at any given time. Robin and Byron have provided some instruments, along with Wally de Backer (also known as Gotye), merchant banker/musician Tony Osmond and Nicole Skeltys from the ‘90s group B(if)tek. More items are being donated all the time, including huge stacks of magazines like Keyboard, Sound on Sound, and Future Music.
Despite the studio’s name everything is organised very neatly. Smaller controllers and keyboards are arranged on shelves and racks of cables dangle at useful intervals down the corridor-like room. Instruments of greater historical significance have their own dedicated desks, accompanied by laminated explanatory notes. Members of the studio can book a four-hour session for a small fee and use whatever equipment they want. The studio also offers a series of workshops for newbies and veterans alike.
Already, MESS has played host to some high-profile visiting artists. The Magnetic Fields dropped by when they were in town for the Melbourne Festival, and they’ve had visits from Berlin-based DJ and producer Paula Temple and Chilean-American musician Nicolas Jaar. They’ve also hosted an artist-in-residence program, which this year featured “musical chameleon” Chiara Kickdrum and minimalist composer, David Chesworth.
“Generally, when international guests come through they pay a visit to us, because we’re pretty unique, globally, as an institution,” says Byron. “In some ways Robin and I really wanted MESS to be a bit of a honeypot, so that people would come out here to work in Australia and interact with Australian artists, rather than this constant feeling that Australians need to go to Europe or the States to validate what they do.”
The MESS team also want to reach out to a global community through a series of instructional videos that help bridge the learning curve in using some of the instruments. They recently received funding through Creative Victoria’s Marketing Innovation Fund to produce the first twelve. After that they’ll be looking at ways to make the project financially sustainable so they can keep using the videos to promote MESS to a wider audience.
“The videos show off all the instruments we have access to, and shows us as a centre of knowledge and learning about synthesizers and electronic music,” says Byron. “But it’s also useful for our members because when they come in, they can use those videos as a resource.”
MESS has also received funding through the Music Works program to create a professional, artist-driven education program for artists who want to take their electronic music career to the next level. The course will help them create a folio and start building a professional career through masterclasses and private tuition.
“It’s for people who want to take that step from being an amateur or a hobbyist,” says Byron. “This focus is on electronic musicians who want to tip their careers over into trying to make a living from it. What we’re about is people making good music. MESS wants to support a culture of pragmatic creativity.”
So while some synths might be kept under glass, the VCS 1 at MESS is one of hundreds of instruments ready and waiting to make some noise.