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Warren Burt

MESS Commissioned Artist 

Warren is knitted into the very fabric of Australian experimental and electronic music. His arrival from the US in 1975 to be part of the first teaching cohort at the newly minted La Trobe University Music Department was a seismic event in the development of the form in this country.

How did you first get involved with synths and electronic sound?

I first got fascinated with electronic sound with one of the themesongs from the Long John Nebel overnight talk show on WNBC radio in New York. I think the tune used either an Ondes Martinot or a Theremin. I also was fascinated with the “Monitor Beacon,” the electronic tag-theme from NBC Radio’s weekend magazine show, Monitor. Then at my local public library, I discovered a record of music by Olivier Messiaen – Three Petite Liturgies of the Divine Word – which had a prominent part for Ondes Martinot. This was all in high school. So when I went to University (State University of New York at Albany), and encountered Joel Chadabe and the Moog Synthesizer (several generations of that), I took to it like a duck takes to water. I remember Joel joking with me when I expressed interest in playing with the Moog, he said “I’m warning you kid, the first one’s free.” He was right. Playing with electronic synthesizers was wonderfully addictive and fascinating.

How would you describe the sounds you make today?

I have no guiding ideology of sound making.  I’ll use any techniques available and will explore any techniques to make beautiful, ugly, complex, simple sounds.  A quick tour through my collected works will reveal that I limit myself in terms of timbre in no way whatsoever.

Where do you find inspiration, what motivates you?

I can be inspired by many things, all of my senses seem to inform my relationship with sound to a certain extent. It could be some kind of visual stimulus like a landscape, a colour or a visual texture, but also things like food, a smell, a conversation or a physical experience. What matters more is my state of mind while experiencing that thing. It’s more about the reception of the thing and if I am open to creative possibilities at that point in time. A lot of the work I make is directed by a possibility, a connection of things, or a way to use sound to explore something from a different perspective.

It’s quite easy to make sounds and music that sound like what other people are doing.  I find it more interesting to make sounds I don’t know how to make and music I don’t know how to compose.  I also am fascinated with relations between other disciplines – music derived from graphics, or mathematics, or natural phenomena, etc.

What’s been one of the most rewarding or satisfying moments of your journey so far?

Robin Fox interviewing me about my instruments in the MESS collection on Friday 30 Sept 2022.  I think at that point I realized that I hadn’t been wasting my time for all those years, and that I’d made a real contribution to the culture.

And the most challenging?

The many times I’ve had to learn some skill set from the ground up to realise a particular musical idea.  For example, learning how to design circuits and solder them together and make them eventually work, when building my Aardvarks series of instruments between 1973 and 1978.

Do you have a current ‘go to’ set up at MESS? Any favourite machines or combos that you’re currently digging?

Because I was composing a 35 minute piece in a period of 2 weeks for my MESS commission, I had to use the equipment I had available that I knew how to use in order to make the piece.  So I didn’t have much time to use the MESS equipment.  In the future, I’d love to work with the Buchla 200 things, and also some of the EuroRack machines.

Are there any machines in the MESS collection you’ve had your eye on but haven’t tried yet?

Tons of them.  I’d also like to do a trip down memory lane and work with the Fairlight CMI, and the Serge, and half a dozen others.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice when you first started what would it be?

Cecil Taylor said that in his youth, he was playing a gig at the Village Vanguard for Sonny Rollins.  On the last day of the gig, Sonny Rollins took him back stage and said “Don’t you ever let anyone talk you out of doing that shit you’re doing.”  I’ve been quoting that story to young composers ever since I first heard that, about 10 years ago.  My composition teachers and mentors all gave me similar advice, in their own ways, at various times in my life.

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