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Tag Archives: Grainger Museum

Synthesizers at Grainger Museum

I am a synthesizer nerd, I once was in Clan Analogue and recently I had to go into a music shop just to look at an ARP synth. Synthesizers inspired synesthesia generated new images in my head. So I had to see and hear “Synthesizers: Sound of the Future” at the Grainger Museum.

I went to the exhibition opening where David Chesworth, ex-Essendon Airport (the band), made a speech. In it he described the institutional and scientific machismo associated with the limited access to the early synthesizers.

Although Chesworth describes synths as “freedom machines” and associates this with Percy Grainger’s “free music”. The location for the exhibition and Grainger are additional point in the strange connection between the right wing and synthesizers. From the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noise to Gary Numan’s support for Margaret Thatcher this strange connection persisted until access to synths changed and synths for the consumer market became widely available.

After the speeches there was a performance by Lauren Squire and Matthew Wilson of OK EG using one of the old synths from the collection of the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio. The exhibition has a public program of events; for more go to https://grainger.unimelb.edu.au/whats-on

The exhibition has some of the first analogue synthesizers that were used in Melbourne’s electronic scene in the late 60s, including the EMS VCS-3, a classic black box instrument, that was used by Pink Floyd, Brian Eno and Jean-Michel Jarre, and an EMS Spectre video synthesizer, which will explain all the graphics that you would see in an early 80s music clip. All of the synths on exhibition are working and can be used, to a limited extent, by visitors to the gallery.

There are more interactive exhibits at the Grainger Museum including some experimental electronic instruments of Grainger’s designs. You can even play on a Moog Theremin signed by Bob Moog. The Grainger Museum remains one of Melbourne’s most curious and thought provoking places. The examples of magnetic tape loops, that were used in the Grainger Electronic Music Studio in the 1960s, hanging in the display case look like some of the masochistic Grainger’s leather whips that are also on display a few vitrines further on. 

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Grainger Museum

You don’t have to be a fan of Percy Grainger’s music to appreciate the Grainger Museum; you don’t really need to know anything his music. You can look at this remarkable little museum as an exhibition of the life an early 20th century eccentric. It is half a biographical museum and half a music museum specializing in musical invention.

As a music museum the collection of instruments focuses on the eccentric and innovative. Grainger was a great musical inventor and experimenter, late in his life Grainger made a programmable electronic organ powered by vacuum cleaners. Grainger’s great  “Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-pouch Tone-Tool” completed by 1952 is on exhibition (Burnett Cross writes about his experience collaborating with Percy Grainger on this and other experiments). Grainger’s eccentric position isolated his  work from other electronic music pioneers at Melbourne University programming CSIRACto play digital music in 1950 or 1951.

Cross-Grainger Kangaroo-pouch Tone-Tool

There are less of Grainger’s folding suitcase pianos and his collection of European folk instruments on display now. They have been replaced with a whole room of Australian musical inventions and musical instruments. There are new instruments by Garry Greenwood (1943-2005), Colin Offord and Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack (1893-1965), who went from the Bauhaus to Geelong Grammar School. These inventors of musical instruments are also visual artists because musical instruments are also sculptural aesthetic objects and there are paintings by Colin Offord and drawing by Garry Greenwood that compliment the sculptural beauty of their invented instruments.

Instruments created by Garry Greenwood

The biographical part of museum presents an unvarnished biography of Percy Grainger, the way that he would have wanted it. The museum is notorious for its exhibition of Grainger’s collection of whips and other relics of his sadomasochism. Grainger should be more notorious for his proto-fascist attitudes about the Nordic race and anti-Semitism. Other of his eccentricities such as vegetarian and passion for jogging (Grainger was known as the “running pianist”) appear ordinary today.

Grainger’s unbridled creativity and inventiveness is on display throughout the museum. Along with his musical inventions there are his designs for his published edition covers with the free-hand typography and his clothing creations (Grainger may have also invented the sports bra). The remarkable clothes that Grainger made for himself from towelling reminds me of the costume designs of Matisse for Diaghilev ballet.

And there is art from Grainger’s collection, portraits, cartoons, photographs, erotic Norman Lindsey prints and Grainger’s father’s collection of cartoons by Morris & Co. Grainger’s collection of Native American beadwork is on exhibition (beadwork was also one of Grainger’s hobbies).

Fortunately not all of Grainger’s desire for the museum have been carried out; such as, his bequeathing his skeleton “for preservation and possible display in the Grainger Museum” and his stipulation that the museum be lite by “daylight only, and to contain no electric lighting or other lighting (to avoid fire danger)”. It is a remarkable and unique museum; what might have been intended as an egotistical plan to fetishize the relics of Grainger’s life has changed with history to tell a different story.

Percy Grainger was born in Melbourne and left a museum to Melbourne; for most of his life he was in Europe and America. The old brick museum at Melbourne University doesn’t attract much attention; it looks similar to the toilet block/changing rooms at the sports fields further along Royal Parade. The museum has been refurbished since I last visited a decade ago and the exhibits have been rearranged to create a more coherent exhibition, so even if you have seen it before the Grainger Museum is worth another visit.

The Grainger Museum @ Melbourne University


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