Australian Made…Australian Played…

July 1989
Copyright © 2010 CBH
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Australian made…Australian played… CD cover 30K jpeg
Harpsichord and didjeridoo 31K jpeg

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Mike Atherton performing his composition Ayers Barock
for didjeridu (maker unknown)
and harpsichord made and played by Carey Beebe
National Acoustic Laboratory, July 1989

When writing his book on instrument making, Australian Made… Australian Played… (published by University of NSW Press in 1990), well known composer and musician Michael Atherton was moved to begin collecting and documenting the tonal qualities of a number of different instruments.

Now Professor of Music at University of Western Sydney, Mike was well qualified for his project. Already having several recordings to his credit where he played many different instruments, he frequently performed for Musica Viva and traveled the world acting as ‘cultural ambassador’ for the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Stage 1 of the project involved making sound data recordings of fifty instruments by recording single notes, melodic fragments, scales, etc in a variety of manners, for lodgement in the National Film and Sound Archives for posterity and subsequent analysis.

These recordings were made in the absolute silence of the small and large anechoic chambers in the National Acoustic Laboratory. The site of this complex—a wooded valley adjacent to the Lane Cove National Park in suburban Sydney—was chosen for its low ambient noise and ground vibration levels. The facilities are unique in being the only single group of test rooms in the world specifically designed to be capable of undertaking acoustical measurements spanning the full frequency response, dynamic range and perceptive characteristics of human hearing.

You enter the anechoic chamber and find yourself standing on an open grid floor, suspended halfway up, the room being shaped like a matchbox on its end. The six sides of the rectangular room—four walls, ceiling and the real floor a few metres below—are covered with fingers of foam, and once the door closes there is a complete absence of background noise. If you stop breathing, the sound of the blood pumping through your skull is enormously distracting.

Ayers Rock at sunset 19K jpeg
Ayers Rock at sunset

Stage 2 evolved as Michael began improvising in the completely opposite sound environment of the reverberation rooms. These two 200m3 rooms have 300mm thick reinforced concrete non-parallel walls, ceiling and floor. Both are spring mounted and acoustically coupled through a 10m2 aperture which is sealed when not required.

This tape soon became the incentive to produce a collection of mostly instrumental music, eventually released as the companion CD to the book, Sounds Australian OZM1008. Mike was joined by six of his friends on various instruments. All these recordings were made inside one of the reverberation rooms, or if the twelve second uniform decay proved too much, in the open doorway leading into the airlock, the final decision depending on the characteristics of each individual instrument.

Australia map: Uluru 11K jpeg

The second-last track on the CD is a piece Mike specially wrote a piece to blend cultures, maybe upsetting the purists. I well remember the pages of the manuscript curling out the fax machine the day before we were taking the Flemish Single Harpsichord up to the Laboratory for the archival recording, and there was no mention of anything ending up on CD at that stage!

Mike’s piece titled Ayers Barock was composed for harpsichord and two traditional Aboriginal instruments, the didjeridu and paired sticks. There is a pun in the title made apparent by its aberrant spelling, although the joke may not immediately be apparent to non-Australians, unless well-versed in geography—Ayers Rock, also known as Uluṟu and sacred to the Anangu people, is the world’s largest sandstone monolith, rising 348m above the plains in Central Australia.

This recording was the first time an Australian harpsichord (or harpsichordist, for that matter) had been heard on CD.

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