David Chesworth Interview: Piecing sounds together

‘Binocular Man’ by Whadya Want? was how I first came to know artist David Chesworth. Released in 1985 off the album Skippy Knows, it grabbed my attention firstly for its adventurous, almost triumphant, melody (what Chesworth jokes as the ‘sunshine’ quality to his music), set off against a latent sinister aspect. For Chesworth ‘craft’ was more about ideas and an artist’s singular sensibility—of pushing things and seeing where they could really go—more so than a one-minded focus on musicianship. At an obvious level the song is ironic, but it’s also strangely genuine in its wry understanding of the fiction of what was known as ‘Australiana’.

Now, over 30 years later, Chesworth is a staple figure in experimental and electronic music in Australia. His work has been personally influential for me, and has also been historically striking through a lineage that often gets overlooked for other more populist narratives of Australian musical history; The Go-Betweens, The Saints, Nick Cave, ACDC and so on.

Chesworth was initially part of the late-70s experimental group Essendon Airport, which came out of the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre—a space for experimental performances, music, art and anti-art, and one of the foremost sites where postmodern understandings of music and art arrived in Australia. During the late-70s Chesworth helped organised the space, released the iconic Essendon Airport albums Palimpsest and Sonic Investigations of the Trivial, and also put out what’s now probably become his musical ‘magnum opus’: 50 Synthesizer Greats.

Later Chesworth would go on to form Whadya Want? with Philip Jackson, and continue working as a composer and solo artist, while also maintaining an art practice with Sonia Leber that now spans over three decades.

I chatted with David largely about the beginning of his music and art practice: his musical childhood, how Essendon Airport started, how he understands music making and how he sees the differences between working as a multi-disciplinary artist in the late-70s and today.

Can you tell us about your childhood—did you come from a musical family? 

I came from a musical family but we didn’t play music in the house. When she was young, my mum sang in musicals and played the piano. My dad’s family were pianists. His dad was a piano teacher and his grandfather used to accompany silent films. So there is this background, but growing up we couldn’t afford piano lessons so I didn’t have them, plus I probably wouldn’t have been disciplined enough anyway. We lived in a very small town called Alsager, near industrial Stoke-on-Trent, and one memory I have is, there was a church half a mile away which used to rehearse bell-ringing twice a week and it’d go from about 8-10pm, and as a young child I would lie in bed listening quite intently to these bells, just taking them in. I was intrigued by them because of their patterns—bell-ringing was an early form of minimalist music where you make patterns in various permutations and the skill in different bell-ringing groups and churches throughout England is to play through them correctly. Each church used a particular style of ringing and would sometimes try to play other styles. I used to listen to this twice a week for two hours of intensive listening, which influenced my enjoyment of simplicity in patterns, I suppose, or the collisions of different elements which have rhythmic or melodic consequences.

So, when you were younger you wouldn’t have understood these sounds as ‘musical’ per se, but later on you came to understand and enjoy these sounds for their musical and sonic properties. Is that right to say? 

Yes, exactly. These purely pattern-making sounds would drift in over the long evenings. It was like nothing I’d ever heard that way before or since. It’s only retrospectively that I think how amazing it was that I used to hear that. I think though, I was always interested in sound—if there was a sound around the house, like someone moving something or where the water was kept in the roof in a cistern, if it was dripping or doing something weird, I would freak out and really intensely listen to it. Not knowing what the sound was was creepy, so I’d kind of keep worrying about the sound. So the whole ‘sound world’ which used to surround me at home made me quite tense. Later I came to realise that I had an interest in different kinds sonic qualities. So it was very intuitive I think. I was much more interested in listening to the world around me than visualising it.

How do you think your growing interest in this way of hearing and listening influenced your early works such as 50 Synthesizer Greats and later Essendon Airport?

It made me teach myself piano, as we had one at home. Seeing as I couldn’t have lessons I started teaching myself and realised that if you put your fingers down on the piano and missed every second white key you’d have something that sounded harmonic. I realised that some of those chords sounded happy and some sounded sad, and then I realised they were major and minor chords, and then I started bringing the black keys in and creating more complex tone clusters. My mum remembers me playing clusters and non-melodic sounds for hours on end at home.

With Essendon Airport, I was never really a great performer and so when I started playing with Robert [Goodge] as a duo—he’s a very accomplished guitarist—I found that I could play in a very simple way. If I had to move around the keyboard I’d often miss the note. So I found if I kept my hands relatively still and played the notes that I could reach within my handspan, in ways that were interesting enough, then I could fill in the gaps between Robert in a way that those bells did, I suppose, and create complexities when one of his notes connected with one of mine. We created this counterpoint, this patterning, rhythmic effect which was only due to my limitations as a pianist and his non-limitations and own interests in minimalism and repetition. Our playing usually meant that the music didn’t progress to inevitable chord changes and didn’t resemble a normal song form. Rather, we used to just stay on a pattern for a long time until we’d nod and then change to another pattern that might work with it, and so you’d get change and difference out of that. Our music was very much made out of these building blocks of change and difference and jumping between new patterns together.

I can hear this a lot on the track ‘Beguine’ off Palimpsest and it really caught my ear. The shifts sound like they weren’t calculated but rather simply performed once together, and over time they began shifting to become this recurring idea which you both simply liked. 

That’s right and I think that’s the way it happened. For instance Robert might be playing something in the time signature of something crazy like 15/16 and I’d be playing something in 16/16 and so you’d get this kaleidoscopic drift of sounds which would collide or slowly shift in time, but still keep a rhythmic consistency. Robert had a great sense of rhythm and feel and a nice tonal understanding on the guitar, which definitely helped as well.

But when Paul [Fletcher on drums] and Ian [Cox on saxophone] joined, they really got into this method as well. Ian was an Ornette Coleman fan but pretty much taught himself saxophone, so he wasn’t really trained but had a great improvisational knack and was really good with simple melodies as well. And Paul was just musically nuts in all the good ways—he was living with us and came home one day with a drum kit that he bought from an op-shop across the road in Station St, Fairfield, and it was one of these old drum-kits from the 1930’s with a cymbal on a spring. He set it up and just started playing like a crazy maniac. We asked him to join the group immediately. Given his playing style, he would sometimes just totally miss a beat so you’d be in 4/4, which you’d hope a drummer would generally be in too, but then all of a sudden there’d be a 3/4 or a 7/8 out of nowhere, and so me and Robert would have to adapt our playing to Paul’s new rhythm. I remember when we used to play live, people would be there ogling Paul’s playing. They couldn’t work out if Paul was an absolute genius or totally incompetent. It just looked like the most genius way of playing with all these polyrhythms and complexities which were continuously moving and changing. There’s not a lot of evidence of that on Palimpsest perhaps because we tended to try and get it right on the recording [laughs].

So with these rhythmic changes and oddities—musically were you aware of what you were doing? Did you have a reference point, or were you simply playing in a way where you all went ‘Oh this feels odd but it sounds really good’?

I think we all felt ‘That feels odd but that feels really good’ initially, but then later we’d start to ask each other ‘What are you playing? I’m in 7/8, where are you?’ We’d definitely analyse it and then we’d try and remember by taping what we were doing and then we’d all scratch our heads and go ‘What was I doing again?’ So we were always directly reacting from what we heard when we were jamming together—we never really wrote for each other, it was whatever we individually brought in, it somehow all stuck together, which for me gets back to that enjoyment of always just plugging in different layers of sonic material—even in the music I make now, whether it’s environmental sounds or electronic sounds, I piece sounds together rather than writing a score or instructions, which is a more ‘classical’ way of doing things where one person creates the music and others recreate it.

And like you’ve been alluding to, this was happening at a time in the late 70s when ‘musical competency’ was no longer being seen as a necessity for making music…

The idea of different competencies of music-making was very important to me, I think. It didn’t really come out of a punk aesthetic—we weren’t punks by any means. But I guess there were ’post-punk’ attitudes where you worked with the materials that were available to you. And so yes, ‘competency’ as an idea was starting be challenged—where you didn’t have to all be great technical musicians. Even though I was trying my best on early records like Layer on Layer, it obviously lacks competence in certain areas but at the same time these ‘lacks’ have an endearing quality because you can at least hear the effort being made to do something as best as possible within the individual’s capabilities.

This was a new sensibility that was emerging at a time when musical forms had become so overused and exhausted. Music that displayed a range of competencies and incompetencies created a new aesthetic. Another aesthetic to emerge was due to the abandonment of the perfection of the recording studio, and to use more basic recording techniques. Also, on Palimpsest we quoted ‘found’ recordings and referencing older song forms. Sampling would eventually take this further as you got to quote actual feelings, sounds and qualities from bygone eras. This happens all the time now, of course.

But do you think you learnt skills from playing the piano, or more so from simply listening to music, sounds and environments as a child?

I think both. Because by playing the piano you’re both playing and listening to notes, and so you’re hearing relationships between things. I supposed making music is a skill, but also listening to music or to sounds as a form of music is a skill too.

Going back to Essendon Airport—in your mind what was it that made you all want to play together? Was there an ethos behind the band and what did ‘success’ mean to you?

I don’t think any of us were interested in commercial success, such as writing pop music. We weren’t interested in making jazz music, even though Robert was studying jazz guitar and I was also studying jazz too, as an academic subject. Prog rock didn’t interest us so much either. I think we were looking for something else. So there was the desire to find something that was out there, or ‘in’ there, that we could realise. Robert and I loved minimalism and we used to listen to minimalist music together.

But I guess the ethos was really just to find some output that worked for us, and it was probably the fact that the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre was running at the time and people like Philip Brophy and Tsk Tsk Tsk had just started doing gigs there, as well as slightly older experimental composers like Warren Burt. They were encouraging us, saying, ‘We’re doing it, so you should do it as well!’ So we took our strange noodlings and did our first performance at the centre.

Clifton Hill was and still is a pivotal landmark within the cultural history of both Melbourne and Australian underground and experimental music and art—what to you meant success, or what made you want to keep experimenting with different musical forms and performances?

It wasn’t the money, although people were paid better back then than they are now. Hmm what was success…

I can assume you were performing in front of some pretty niche audiences?

We slowly built up a niche audience that had become quite large by the time we broke up in 1983. Personally, I liked that our music didn’t make immediate sense and would puzzle people, and yet something about it felt good. I guess we wanted to be antagonising, because we often played to a lot of regular rock audiences. As a duo we opened for bands like Midnight Oil, Jimmy & The Boys, and as a four-piece we supported The Sunnyboys and The Boys Next Door, Hunters… Our music was different to what the crowd had come to see. I hope some of them found it slightly beguiling and found there were pleasures to be had.

 At the time you were in your early 20s—did you have a desire to have an artistic career ahead of you, and if so how did you find yourself making this happen?

Well at the time not really. I don’t think I thought about the future terribly much. I think it took probably around 20 years or so for me to realise that I was probably more of an artist than a musician. I had received a free education, which I had taken for granted, and where I ticked a box that said I could study experimental music at LaTrobe University. At that time there was no sense of ever needing to have a proper job because the dole was very easy to get and for a while it was paying me to work full-time as an artist.

The future it seemed would take care of itself. Obviously that was very different to now. People starting out now have a completely different set of circumstances because they have to figure out and say ‘Well hang on I have to make a living before I can dedicate myself to my work full-time’. I’ve never stuck at the one way of engaging as a musician and artist and have managed to be very adaptable across different modes of working. By doing a range of things I’ve found that I have been able to continue to earn a living an independent artist. But now that I think about it, I was quite determined to do that because the last thing I wanted to do was go out there and get a real job.

How do you see the ability to work as a multi-disciplinary artist today in Australia compared to the past? Do you think there are more or less opportunities than before?

I think there’s certainly more things going on now, back then we didn’t have as many strands of media as we do today. Now there’s just so much going on, and it seems there’s more and more nooks for people to get involved with and explore—some of them are lucrative and some of them are less-so—but there’s lots of points of engagement which is a big difference to back in the day. But then again some of the more traditional ways of working or generating a steady income have evaporated. Back in the day you would’ve been offered five digits, say, to do an advertisement or soundtrack for an independent film production, but now you might get offered a tenth of that, or even less! But I can see that some people are making it work for them. For instance, in the world I’m currently travelling in, such as some younger artists who work at MESS (Melbourne Experimental Sound Studio) they appear to have multiple activities going on at once and are carving out a career.

When I started, working in several diverse artistic fields concurrently it was quite unusual, but today it’s quite the norm. As an artist or a musician you can find ways of slotting into different kinds of projects. You are no longer known as, say, a person who just does film music—as someone who exclusively does that one thing. I see this as a very positive thing but, at the same time, so many established ways of doing things have gone and so have stifled the building of careers. Many previous ways to make a living are just completely gone. This has really screwed up developing a career the arts badly, I have to say. I think it is very necessary that the arts are also subsidised, because doing new work and changing the way audiences think and feel about the world is always the way forward.

David Chesworth – 50 Synthesizer Greats
Re-released by Chapter Music in March 2017

View and listen to Chesworth’s catalogue from the 1970s to now, including Essendon Aiport, Whayda Want? and solo projects.

Mino Peric is a musician based in Melbourne.

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