Jon Rose: ‘Cosmopolitan Swagman Violinist’

by Tony Mitchell. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 3 (May 2013)

Tony Mitchell profiles 2012 Don Banks Award winner, the extraordinary Jon Rose.

The short video accompanying the announcement of Jon Rose’s Don Banks Award by the Music Board of the Australia Council in March 2012 begins and ends with Rose being harassed by a security guard while playing his violin outside the Sydney Opera House. The harassment goes on for some time, while Rose simply states and restates ‘I’m playing the violin outside the Opera House’. He finally makes it to the end of the piece, as the security barrage escalates.

Hostile and aggressive security at the Opera House is something we all seem to have to put up with these days, especially since the ‘No War’ graffiti. I was once interrupted while doing an interview with hip hop artist Morganics prior to a performance in the Studio. I thought of a riposte too late: ‘Congratulations, you’re going out live on Radio National’ – but it probably wouldn’t have made any difference. After all, Rose was being filmed the whole time he was playing.

But it’s an apt illustration of how he stands in relation to that particular temple of high culture – a bit like Michael Moore assaulting the temples of US capitalism, or gun merchandising, and being ejected by security. Indeed, in Jane Ulman’s recent multi-stranded, scattershot ABC radio program about Rose, Out There, the title of which can be interpreted literally as well as figuratively, and from which my title is plucked, a pilot navigates a plane on a crash course into the Opera House. One of Rose’s more eccentric concert hall appearances was with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2009, playing the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto chosen by Canadian ‘plunderphonics’ musician John Oswald, in which Rose improvised along with the orchestra.

Rose’s Banks Award has an ironic touch – previous winners include Larry Sitsky and Peter Sculthorpe – not exactly ‘cutting edge’ composers, although the list also includes jazz musicians Allan Browne and Bernie McGann, who have more in common with Rose as improvisers. And as Rose has noted, ‘paradoxically the audience for improvised music has shrunk even smaller as the amount of improvisers and improvisational languages has grown exponentially’. Not much chance of performing at the Opera House then.

Nevertheless the list of international musicians Rose has recorded (on over 60 albums) or played with reads like a who’s who of contemporary avant-garde music, constantly breaking boundaries between jazz, classical, contemporary, and outsider music: the Kronos Quartet, John Zorn, Derek Bailey, Butch Morris, Barry Guy, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, Otomo Yoshihide, KK Null, Toshinori Kondo, Alvin Curran, Evan Parker, John Cage, Tony Oxley, Steve Beresford, Eugene Chadbourne, Shelley Hirsch, Bob Ostertag, Barre Phillips, George Lewis, Alex Von Schlippenbach, Misha Mengelberg, Christian Marclay, Pierre Henry, John Oswald, Veryan Weston … and they’re only the ones I happen to have heard of. That list straddles British, German and Dutch jazz improvisers, Japanese noise musicians and what Rose has called rather cheekily, given Zorn’s outspoken Jewishness, ‘the New York genre cutup scene of which John Zorn became the überfuhrer’ ( He was billed to play with double bassist Barre Phillips and fellow Sydney-based cosmopolitan improviser, pianist Mike Nock, at the Sound Lounge in Sydney last year, but unfortunately couldn’t make it due to the chemotherapy he was undergoing at the time.

What Rose has brought to all these musicians is his mastery of almost every conceivable type of unconventional approach to the violin. These include the double piston, triple neck wheeling violin, 10-string double violin, the 19-string cello (which requires two bows), the bicycle-powered double violin, the washing machine engine-powered violin, the 8-string tenor ‘bird’ violin developed by local violin maker Harry Vatiliotis, the Aeolian double-neck sail violin, which is suspended between two trees, and his development of the interactive violin bow, or K-Bow. This amounts to what he has called a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk of the violin’. He has transformed sports such as netball games into musical and mixed-media compositions (Team Music), composed pieces for kites and kayaks, devised a giant environmental electronic ball piece (Sphere of Influence) at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2007, played by the audience, and developed a whole chamber orchestra of bicycle-powered musical instruments, Pursuit, which will be revived in 2013 as part of the Centenary of Canberra celebrations.

David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet has described him as ‘the violinist’s cosmologist’, and commissioned Kronos’ performance of Music for 4 Fences, a concert hall segment performed in 2009 (one work which did have its world premiere inside the Opera House). This was derived from Rose’s (and his partner, fellow violinist Hollis Taylor’s) 2002 work Great Fences of Australia. The couple, clad in ghoulish insect-proof gear, travelled 35,000 miles around the outback playing barbed wire fences with violin bows, including rabbit proof fences, boundary fences, and the famous dingo-proof Dog Fence.

As Rose said, when he initially started playing fences in 1983 while he was composer in residence in Perth: ‘I saw fences purely in terms of sonic material. Indeed, that was the conceit: Australia was not covered with millions of miles of fences—it was criss-crossed with a network of string instruments waiting to be bowed’. But the project soon took on a more metaphorical and political significance: ‘As symbol and tool of division, conquest, ownership, hegemony, and paranoia, you cannot find a better exemplar of the species problem. … Fence music often encapsulates the vastness of border country; it is the music of distance. … Playing a fence is risky business. Apart from the possibility that a border guard might try to shorten your life, classically trained musicians are not usually game enough to exchange a tried and tested violin for the unreliable response of fence wire or even barbed wire’.

The CD release included a small piece of barbed wire, and the project has since gone on to incorporate Fences of Israel, the Sydney Fence, the Finland Fence, the Mexico-US Border Fence, the Wogarno Fence, the White Cliffs Fence, and the Exmouth Community Fence. Hollis Taylor wrote a book about the project, Post Impressions, which includes a DVD of 40 outback fence concerts, and Great Fences of Australia was included in Steve Elkins’ 2010 film The Reach of Resonance, in which Rose and Taylor share the screen with John Luther Adams, experimental ecological composer and musician based in Alaska, Bob Ostertag, who does things like transcribing a riot into a string quartet, and Miya Masaoka, who uses music to interact with plants and insects. Most recently he devised Wreck, a free event for the 2013 Sydney festival, in which a group of musicians bow or ‘sonify’ a rusty old car wreck (in fact a Kingswood Ute) spotted during one of his fence projects and retrieved from the outback NSW town of White Cliffs. It also existed as an installation at the Carriageworks.

John Whiteoak, author of Playing Ad Lib, a history of Australian improvised music since 1836 which stops just before Rose arrived in Australia from the UK in 1976, has referred to him as ‘the Percy Grainger of our times – the most original musical mind we can point to as our own’. While Rose is not into whips, S&M, incest, racism or the other dubious pursuits that Grainger was, he has written that ‘Grainger's brain, like classic quantum interference, was a crucible of contradictions where phantom or real alternatives could be both child-like and monstrous at the same time’. It’s Grainger’s more child-like devotion to Free Music and beatless music that chimes with many of Rose’s pursuits.

Whiteoak’s book was the source of inspiration for Australia Ad Lib, an ABC-curated website set up by Rose in 2002 featuring ‘a selection of the most iconoclastic, larrikin, do-it-yourself performers working in Australia today’ ( These include bush bands, buskers, backyard hackers, Aboriginal mimics of birds and animals, the Tasmanian roadkill drummers, who make percussion instruments out of dead animal parts, and the trio Toy Death, who play electronic childrens’ toys and have been described as being ‘like the Teletubbies on acid lost in Japan. Cacaphonic and suitably out there’. It also features the Ntaria Aboriginal Ladies Choir from Hermannsburg, Aboriginal gum leaf music, Danny Boy played on an erhu, a livestock auctioneer, a fridge hum player, spanner music, spoon music, along with more well-known Australian outsider musicians such as Warren Burt, Oren Ambarchi, Martin Ng, Pimmon, Lucas Abela, and the Splinter Orchestra. Extracts from this panoply of eccentric and arcane musics and musicians are included on the first CD of Rosin, a 4 CD 60th Anniversary Collection Box Set compilation of Rose’s work released at the end of 2012, which is reviewed by Michael Hannan elsewhere in this issue.

Rose started playing violin at the age of 7, and dropped a school-owned instrument, whereupon it broke into 70 different parts, which his father glued back for him. This gave him an early insight into the mechanics of the instrument, and when he returned to it at the age of 15 he was determined not to play it in any conventional way. When he emigrated to Australia, he was impressed that this country was relatively ‘baggage free’ as far as music was concerned. (This is a feature that Sydney improvisers the Necks have also commented on, the fact that their success is at least partly due to the lack of a jazz ‘tradition’ in Australia, and their freedom to invent their own path. Necks pianist Chris Abrahams and drummer Tony Buck have both performed with Rose and been influenced by him.)

In 1977, Rose started Fringe Benefit, Australia’s first musician-run collective for the promotion and recording of improvised music. They initially played lots of concerts in small venues to audiences of 15 to 20 people, and released voluminous quantities of cassettes, which are now collectors’ items. One of his most distinctive early performances was on the awning of Exiles Bookshop on Oxford Street, the recording of which includes the screaming tyres of a passing car braking in surprise. He linked up with like-minded musicians such as Jim Denley and Rik Rue and formed the Relative Band in 1984, so-called as it had a fluctuating membership, and there was a Relative Band festival in Perth. For a while he lived on Dangar Island on the Hawkesbury river, building instruments and experimenting with violins of all descriptions.

He spent the years 1986 to 2001 in Berlin, where he created an alter ego, the East German maestro Dr Johannes Rosenberg, playing violin beside the Berlin Wall in 1988, and creating the Rosenberg museum in Slovakia, along with numerous other projects committed to video. He pioneered the use of the MIDI bow in the Hyperstring project in the 1980s in conjunction with the Steim Institute, Amsterdam, and more recently has premiered his interactive multi-media commission Internal Combustion for violin and orchestra at the Berlin Philharmonic.

He has published two books, The Pink Violin, and Violin in the Age of Shopping, the concept for the second deriving from the idea that after the death of communism and capitalism will come the age of consumerism. He has also formed a trio, Strike, with Berlin-based Australian double-bass players Clayton Thomas and Mike Majkowski.

He and his partner Hollis Taylor, currently a Chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney, also have an active interest in birdsong, in particular the mimicry of the lyrebird and the pied butcherbird, on which Taylor is the foremost expert in Australia. As Rose told the author of the book, Sounding Postmodernism, David Bennett, the origin of all music practices can be found in birdsong: ‘Once the game of postmodernism had been whittled down to a certain pose, you could find it as a practical element that had lived within musical practice since the oldest documentations of our species, and that lives on in several avian species that are millions of years more ancient than our own: pastiche, mimicry, quotation, parody, simulation, cut-and-paste, displacement, faking, appropriation, false transmission, invading the sonic territory of the other and pretending to be a protagonist that you aren’t – all of these are embedded in birdsong. If the origin of our music is not found in birdsong, I’d be surprised … and the Albert’s Lyrebird and Superb Lyrebird (with the oldest passerine DNA yet detected) would have to be the oldest postmodernists still around.’


Tony Mitchell teaches cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. He is the editor of Global Noise: Rap and Hip Hop outside the USA (Wesleyan University Press, 2001), co-editor of Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now: Popular Music in Australia (Australian Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, 2008), and co-editor with Glenda Keam of Home, Land and Sea: Situating Music in Aotearoa New Zealand.