Musicians dedicated to saving electronic instruments for the future

Australian musician Gotye’s international hit, Somebody That I Used to Know, was one of the biggest songs of 2011. 

Its incredible success allowed its creator, Wally De Backer, to feed his passion for early electronic musical instruments including the theremin, the onde martenot, and the ondioline — instruments which are considered forerunners to the synthesiser.

Around the same time as his song was topping music charts around the world, electronic musicians Byron Scullin and Robin Fox came up with an idea for a unique musical archive.

Byron Scullin co-founded a sound studio for people to play electronic musical instruments.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

“We really wanted to make a place where people could come and use these old machines and discover something that’s become a little bit lost in electronic music,” Mr Scullin said.

“A lot of people make electronic music now using iPads and laptops, but the laptop is probably the least musical instrument you can play, whereas these things have knobs and dials and lights and buttons.

“It’s a physical thing and you want to interact with it”

A Buchla electric music box.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

Mr Scullin and Mr Fox went to de Backer with their idea to create the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS).

“He thought MESS was a great idea so he gave us access to his collection and also some money to get the thing started,” Mr Scullin said.

Reading through the current MESS collection is like reading through the history of electronic music.

Musician Gus Franklin plays a Mellotron.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

It includes synthesisers, drum machines and many oddities from manufacturers including ARP, EMS, Korg, Moog and Roland.

The studio in Melbourne is open to anyone to come and explore and play with the collection.

“MESS has this model called preservation through use. These machines have to be used all the time and have electricity running through their copper veins,” Mr Scullin said.

Spaghetti junction on a modular synthesiser.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

Bringing MESS to regional Victoria

Having experienced MESS first hand, Emily Lee-Ack, executive officer of the South West Local Learning and Employment Network, wanted to find a way to bring part of the collection out of Melbourne and into regional Victoria.

Emily Lee-Ack came up with the idea of taking the instruments to young regional musicians.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

“I had a random musing about MESS bringing some synths to the region for our young and emerging musicians to play around with.

“It was natural to ask if that was possible, rather than file the idea away,” Ms Lee-Ack said.

What started with a text message has grown into a 10-day program in Warrnambool, the first time any part of the MESS collection has travelled outside its normal home in North Melbourne.

A KORG micro synthesiser at South West MESS.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

At the heart of the Warrnambool residency, dubbed South West MESS, is an intensive program aimed at young people in the 15-25 year age group.

“The challenge for young people in regional areas is that they lack the transport options of lots of other age groups, and cementing an interest and passion for music at that time in your life is really pivotal to whether or not you’ll pursue it as a career or a lifelong interest,” Ms Lee-Ack said.

Students sewing electronic beats

Bridget Dridan took part in a South West MESS workshop.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

Bridget Dridan is studying a Certificate III Vocational Education and Training (VET) music industry course, and is one of the students who applied to be a part of South West MESS.

Her first experience with electronic music was the first day of the South West MESS course.

“We came here on the first day and mucked around and figured everything out,” she said.

“We’ve learnt how synthesisers work, what oscillators and filters are about, and we’re working in small groups making our own pieces using these synthesisers.”

Gus Franklin says the site’s history as a factory has inspired the music being made there.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

Musicians Gus Franklin and Janita Foley are the creative leads on the project, which is set up in the old Fletcher Jones factory in Warrnambool.

The history of the site as a clothing manufacturer has been an inspiration for the pieces being created by the students.

“We’ve been talking about making patterns and ideas on a sewing machine and drawing parallels between the garment work that used to happen in this factory and electronic music,” Mr Franklin said.

Janita Foley says the students have quickly taken to the old electronic instruments to make new music.(ABC South West Vic: Emily Bissland)

Ms Foley said she had been inspired by the work the students created as they got their heads around these electronic instruments for the first time.

“I’ve been impressed with the way they’ve come up with new sounds and ideas and been quite experimental,” Ms Foley said.

“They’ve been like ducks to water.”

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