Graded on a Curve:
David Chesworth,
50 Synthesizer Greats

Here’s something you hopefully already know: Australia is a country and a continent. But hey, think about that for a sec; Down Under’s double-duty means a whole lot of un(der)heard music. Like David Chesworth’s 50 Synthesizer Greats, for example. Unusual, innovative, and accessible, its original self-released edition is also rare and expensive, making it the sort of album post-punk archeologists salivate over. On March 31, it gets a deserved vinyl and digital reissue by Chapter Music.

Well, first off, not 50 but 37, though this reissue’s digital-only bonus tracks spread the total to 39. Furthermore, the initial title 50 Synthisizer Greats has been corrected. If all this resonates a little like undisciplined goofing around, as explained in the label’s background text, 50 cuts were recorded but wouldn’t all fit on a single slab of vinyl. Of the 13 extra tracks, only one survives, presented here in tandem with a subsequent long piece from ’79 using a Serge Modular Synthesizer. Overall, the results connect as serious but not stern as the LP + extras sit at the beginning of a long and varied career.

Chesworth might be better known to Aussie underground mavens as a member of Essendon Airport. Formed in ’78 with guitarist Robert Goodge, they later grew to a five piece; an expanded reissue of their 1981 LP Palimpsest and the retrospective collection Sonic Investigations of the Trivial are both still available through Chapter Music. Alongside Philip Brophy, with whom he co-founded Innocent Records in 1979, Chesworth also took part in Chocolate Grinders, the Dave & Phil Duo, and → ↑ → (aka Tsk Tsk Tsk or Tch Tch Tch).

Some of → ↑ → and Essendon Airport’s activity has squeaked out on compilations over the years, e.g. Chapter Music’s Can’t Stop It! Australian Post-Punk 1978-82 and its follow-up volume, Laughing Outlaw Records’ Inner City Sound, Shame File Music’s Artefacts of Australian Experimental Music Volume II 1974–1983, and most recently the Efficient Space label’s Midnite Spares, a set that also includes a track by Chesworth’s project Whadya Want? It appears that Chocolate Grinders and the Dave & Phil Duo have yet to be anthologized.

In short, Chesworth took part in the prolific Aussie post-punk explosion, and was not only a contributor but a graduate. More recently, he’s attained status as a highly regarded classical composer and sound artist, commissioned to provide a sound installation for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney while being included in the 2015 Venice Biennale with partner Sonia Leber.

That 50 Synthesizer Greats is seeing belated reissue instead of languishing in obscurity stems in part from Chesworth’s interest in his formative output, as he’s provided new photos and notes for this edition. Ultimately, the set isn’t a resurrected prelude to later success but stands on its own; it came to life in 1978 in Chesworth’s parent’s “lounge room,” captured by an Akai 4000 DS reel to reel tape machine as he utilized a monophonic Mini Korg 700 synth on loan from → ↑ →.

Immediately oozing a primitive aura, the approach is far from rudimentary, with opener “The Great Yawn” sure to tickle the ears of many a fan of early electronics, though its slow rising tones aren’t especially in league with contemporaneous developments in post-punk, a diversion that extends into the second, longer selection “Have Beat – Will Travel.”

Instead, as the LP unfolds it has more in common with non-academic minimalism, though there are numerous exceptions to this; “Could You Repeat That?” resonates like a brief television program soundtrack snippet, notably one lacking the retro-futuristic ambiance of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. However, the patterns of the equally succinct “Green Lady” do inch toward such a comparison without becoming obvious about it.

From there, “3 3/4,” deftly combines pulse and drift as “Malignant Humour” (the project’s non-vocal nature leaves the jokes in the titles) loiters at the intersection of post-punk and low-tech electro-experimentalism. This covers the record’s first half-dozen selections as they deliver an accurate indication of what is to follow. Partially due to the Akai 4000’s “sound-on-sound” function, a feature that allowed Chesworth to stack up sonic threads and keep things interesting, the movement toward track 37 doesn’t get stale.

With this said, the layering tactic is used with restraint, allowing the welcome non-scholarly minimalist vibe to remain throughout. Along the way, the deceptively titled “Do the Boogaloo” dishes a pretty melody via springy synth tones, while “Hommage to Billy Holiday” connects like a scrap of a soundtrack to a sci-fi film by Guy Maddin. Nice! Further along, side two holds many of 50 Synthesizer Greats’ shorter pieces, and in turn the progression flirts with becoming an assemblage of fragmentary, sometimes unfinished creations. Made by a 21-year-old engaging with novel technology, this has its own appeal.

Due to the gradual emergence of likeminded material from the same era, Chesworth’s debut is less gripping than it might’ve been roughly a decade back, though it did receive a reissue on compact disc sans bonus tracks in 2005 without much fanfare (on W. Minc, an Aussie label responsible for releasing work by the later David Chesworth Ensemble). Those who snatched up that CD might not be enthusiastic over buying this for the extra stuff, but hey, at least “And/Or = 1” stretches out to 11 rewarding minutes.

David Chesworth’s 50 Synthesizer Greats falls a little short of its titular claim, but as a self-released debut it’s a wholly satisfying artifact from the early days of electronic music. Folks energized by the subterranean ripples of the era should find it a worthwhile edition to their shelves.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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