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Ross Bolleter, Zen Master, improvisor, composer,poet and writer, was born in Subiaco, Western Australia, in 1946
A creative development grant from the West Australian Department of the Arts in 1986 provided a year for him to develop skills and devise new techniques for prepared piano and accordion. Late in 1986 he visited Sydney and Melbourne, making contact with many improvisers and composers of new music, including Rik Rue, Ernie Althoff and Warren Burt. The stimulus and swapping of ideas that flowed from this contact, and from playing and corresponding with improvisors Steve Moore and Jim Denley, has led Bolleter to a new period of musical exploration.
Previously, he had gained similar stimulus in working with Western Australian flautist Tos Mahoney, with whom he formed the duo Alone Together . With a working background in jazz and rock music, Mahoney is also director of Evos Music, a co-operative promoting contemporary and improvised music in WA. The duo specialised in open-form improvisation and writing and performing original music.
The collaboration encouraged him to return to the University of Western Australia where he had studied music, including theory, history and composition, with Dr David Tunley and Dr John Exton, between 1964 to 1967. It also re-awoke his interest in the music of composers such as Anton Webern, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez, whom he had studied as part of his course.
In 1982, at Mutant Mule Studio in Fremantle, Alone Together recorded the tape album Openings on the Wasit Music label. Almost all of this material was original and improvised, marking a radical departure from the mainstream jazz and jazz-rock idioms both musicians had practised for the preceding three years where they had played at venues such as the Basement and Jazz Society in Perth. They developed new ways of organising long improvisations for the album, without simply `playing on the changes', as is standard in much mainstream jazz.
In 1982, Mahoney and Bolleter also began a long and rewarding association with the Polish avant-garde double bassist Ryszard Ratajczak, who was living in Western Australia and playing with the Arts Orchestra. He encouraged Bolleter in the use of prepared piano and prompted Mahoney and Mark Cain to become more involved with free improvisation. Cain presented the contemporary jazz program Pure And Fusion on radio 6NR. He also owned a large collection of contemporary improvisation recordings and played didgeridoo, percussion and saxophone. Bolleter regards Cain, along with Ratajczak and Mahoney, as the main sources of encouragement for improvised music in WA.
Bolleter, with his three improvisor friends, participated in the Relative Band Festival in Sydney in 1984. Then Mahoney organised the first Perth Festival of Improvised Music in April 1985 at the Praxis Galleries in Fremantle. Bolleter found this a stimulating time, especially playing with Steve Moore, who has developed individual techniques for extending soprano saxophone, and with Gillian McGregor, who improvises with movement and voice techniques. Both were visiting Australia from Britain, and were in Perth after performing in the 1985 Relative Band Festival in Sydney.
Bolleter took part in the Perth Relative Festival and its successor in 1986, which was also held at Praxis and other venues and included participation by composers Ernie Althoff, Jeff Pressing, Ron Nagorcka, Roberto Laneri and local improvisers Mark Cain, Sally Trewin and Philip Kakulas. These events gave Bolleter the opportunity to use the inside of the piano percussively and employ the accordion in a variety of contexts. One of the more colorful performances was a duet with Ernie Althoff incorporating a pushbike and prepared piano.
The first festival also provided stimulus for Temple Of Joyous Bones , Bolleter's album of solo keyboard improvisations recorded in mid 1985 on the Homegrown Headroom label. It utilised prepared and electric piano and the inside of the piano and accordion. In the second festival he used a taped backdrop of harmonium and accordion improvisations and children's voices against which he improvised on prepared piano. A week later he recorded Bloodfire , a series of duets with Ratajczak for double bass and prepared piano, on the Wasit Music label.
Although he has composed some pieces formally, Bolleter is primarily interested in improvising live to tape, both as a solo player and in group work. Vital expression, he believes, is gained from the advantages of surprise and risk; while notation is secondary because each improvisation is unique to the moment. He feels little interest in having pieces recreated by other performers.
Bolleter is attracted to the prepared piano in performance and for recording because of the vastly increased timbral choices that become available, and the rhythmic possibilities provided by a radically modified keyboard. He feels pieces like John Cage's Sonatas and Interludes , while showing the remarkable possibilities of the medium, do not exhaust them. Moreover, he is interested in preparations that are easily set up, changed and dismantled during performance; a flexibility adapted to improvisational needs.
Bolleter believes composition may "encompass the entire soundscape". For him, the problem is to find a `frame' that will draw attention to a continuous and ever-shifting backdrop of sound, much as the mere presence of a pianist who does not play in Cage's 4'33" draws attention to everyday environmental sounds - foot shuffling, coughing, the rain on the roof - which become part of the piece. In Blue Sky, Bright Day , he uses a set of projected slides, the content of which is minimal to the point of emptiness, to provide a psychological frame for sounds which, to the listener, seem to focus then recede.
He often organises compositions in which participants have an unpredictable range of choice. To explore this area further, he has devised an ingenious series of musical games for children. These include `boat pieces' and `ball games' that articulate musical improvisation. New ways to extend and refine the game are also introduced by those taking part.
When soloing, he may feel able to play literally anything on prepared piano and accordion. But in practice this theoretically infinite choice is narrowed by the limitations of the human body, his degree of technique and sheer habit. In ensemble situations he may remain silent, or play only this note, this figure[...] often he feels there is no option at all. Even a squeak as he shifts on the piano seat may intrude in the most open of improvisations, one sound too many totally undermining the enterprise.
Through improvisation he is able to live most intensely in the present, without anxiety about what is to occur or has been. It is, in some respects a way for him to forget the self and also a form of meditation. But this, he is careful to stress, does not mean new music need be `meditative' or `new age' in style.
Bolleter has carried on a long correspondence with British saxophonist Steve Moore, who approaches improvisation through a Taoist perspective. Also, through his own Zen meditation, he believes the sounds around him are brought more fully to life. He has become more sharply aware of how sounds "inhabit each other" - that of a fridge "living happily" within the scratching of his pen on the page, or the sound of his breath "casually including" that of late-night traffic[...]
Increasingly, he has recorded in `noisy' environments, completing a recent collaboration with young Perth violinist, composer and visual artist Nathan Crotty at Canterbury Court in Perth. In an old carpark with adjacent studios, traffic sounds from eight floors below and the wind mingle to create a distant `surf' as their instrumental sounds emerge and subside. In 1987 he also recorded a 42- minute piece The Abomination there. This piece was recorded for his album of solo prepared piano pieces The Telephone Never Rings , on the Wasit Music label.
For another project originating at Canterbury Court, Crotty took about 70 slides of the sky, mainly from the top floor of the complex. From these, 32 were selected to accompany a long prepared piano solo by Bolleter, with the slides projected at set intervals during performance. Titled An Accordion Beast it also featured Lorne Clements, a young Perth improviser, who wore two accordions that were simultaneously played on stage.
Bolleter's tape pieces are `chunk edited'. That is, he chooses a series of sections cut from long sessions of pre-recorded material. He never edits within these sections, which he regards as formally self-contained miniatures. The compositional process becomes one of arrangement - deciding, for example, what musical textures match a very open single note pattern in section one[...] whether two sections should be brought together with less than a second between them[...] if this particular long section will counter-balance a tiny burst of clusters.
In making these decisions he works closely with recording engineer Rob Muir, whom Bolleter regards as having an unerring ear and compositional sense. The two have long discussions about placement of fragments, then Muir cuts the tape before the album is made. Much of the initial recording is done at home, for convenience and to stay within budget. Environmental sounds are freely incorporated.
Bolleter enjoys collaborating with various artists from other areas - including story tellers and poets, visual and video artists and dancers. Sometimes he incorporates highly unusual instruments into his improvisations; such as electrical and manual hedge clippers in Not My Tragedy . The latter, a set of three dance pieces conceived with visiting New York dancer John Mclaughlin, was performed at Fremantle's Prism Galleries in 1987.
McLaughlin, who has worked with Merce Cunningham's company in the USA, set activities for Bolleter to improvise to on stage, including playing cabaret- style accordion while being pursued by four dancers.
Bolleter is also vitally involved with music education in WA, and finds much inspiration and pleasure working with children. He has taken part in Playback Theatre, under the direction of Deborah Pearson, and Theatre Sports, both in Perth. He has organised many improvisation workshops for children over the past six years, and has taught privately for 15 years. His work in this area gained impetus when he discovered that the pre-school and school his own children attended included few musical activities. He volunteered to supply them, devising a number of musicals for, and performed by, children: Mr Gumpy's Picnic and The Elephant's Sneeze in 1982; and Lost In Space in 1983, all while musician in residence at Winterfold Primary School. At the same school he also directed two video musicals: The Agricultural Show (1983) and Jack And The Beanstalk (1985). Music for both was totally improvised by the children.
In the (multi-arts) improvisation workshops, some of which have been live-in ones over a number of days, children are encouraged to work creatively with improvised music, theatre and art. Typically around 35 young people aged from eight to 16, and around seven artists, dancers, musicians and actors, all of whom are committed to improvisation, assemble at a venue - usually in the country - and tutor the children in producing their own work. This may lead to group-devised pieces for eventual performance.
Teaching piano and improvising with students led to the publication of Bolleter's first book, Fostering Creative Improvisation at the Keyboard , published in 1985. A sequel is in preparation for 1988/89. For the future Bolleter would like to pursue music arising out of solitude, friendship and community involvement and to remain true to the living moment, while also seeing a deepening and consolidation of his musical interests. His recent activities include a five-day workshop held late in 1987 at Bickely in the Darling Ranges 90 km from Perth, the results of which were recorded on video.
Openings , (with T. Mahoney), Wasit Music. 1982.
Open Sky , (with T. Mahoney), Mandala. 1984.
Temple of Joyous Bones , Homegrown Headroom. 001 1985.
Sky Burial , (with N. Crotty), Wasit Music. 1986.