Music from 4 Fences

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Music from 4 Fences (2009)

Music and fence design by Jon Rose
Visual design by Willie Williams
Lighting design by Laurence Neff
Sound design by Calvin Ll. Jones

For over 35 years, Jon Rose has been at the sharp end of experimental, new and improvised music. Central to that practice has been “The Relative Violin” project, a unique output, rich in content, realizing almost everything on, with, and about the violin—and string music in general. Most celebrated is the worldwide Fence project; least known are the relative violins created specifically for and in Australia.

Rose has worked with many of the mavericks of contemporary music such as John Cage, Derek Bailey, John Zorn, Otomo Yoshihide, Alvin Curran, Jim Denley, Barry Guy, Frances Marie Uitti, and Fred Frith. In the area of interactive electronics, his work is considered exemplary, having pioneered the use of the MIDI bow in the “Hyperstring” project. Other interactive multi-media projects have featured badminton and netball games, a giant ball, kites, kayak, and a Front End Hoe Excavator.

In recent months Jon Rose has performed a completely improvised solo part for the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; created a major radiophonic work for the BBC on the history of the piano in 19th century Australia; toured in Europe with his current improvisation group Futch; been apprehended by the Israeli Defense Forces at the Separation Fence near Ramallah in the occupied territories; premiered his interactive multi-media composition Internal Combustion at the Philharmonie in Berlin; and directed Pursuit, a bicycled powered chamber orchestra performance at The Performance Space, Sydney. For more information, go to

About Music from 4 Fences, Rose writes:

“When I started to play concerts on fences in 1983, 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.

“However, the metaphorical significance of fence music soon became evident. As symbol and tool of division, conquest, ownership, hegemony, and paranoia, you cannot find a better exemplar of ‘the species problem.’ As the earth’s resources collapse under our imposed weight, new fences are required, and old ones need to be reinforced.

“To find music in such inherently ugly and unlikely artifacts can be a powerful experience. Fence music often encapsulates the vastness of border country; it is the music of distance. The fence also challenges our perceptions of what a musical instrument can be.

“For some years now, I have been looking to expand the project and convince other string players to get involved. 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. If you think about it, there is only one group in the world whose members would be willing to put themselves on the line for a project utilizing industrial strength wire. When David Harrington said that he wanted Kronos involved, I was delighted.

“Making fence music happen for the Kronos Quartet presented some interesting practical problems that I previously never had to contend with. Normally, my partner Hollis Taylor and I play fences in situ or build a fence in a public space where it is installed for several weeks. The Kronos fence would have to function on a concert stage (no drilling of holes), be self-supporting, be erected and dismantled for one night only, and, in a world of increasingly expensive air travel, be as light as possible. It would, however, still have to contain the sonic essence of an outback or border fence. The solution is a modular one: Music from 4 Fences with each member of Kronos playing their own personal fence.

“A fence comes with its own innate theatre—everyone knows what a fence is and what it is for—ordinarily not for concert music! Music for 4 Fences takes advantage of the unique set of images available from the wire and metal fence posts being played live on stage. Barbed wire is iconic and overwhelming in its host of received associations. Invented in the 1860s, barbed wire is as old as the music of Brahms. Further images for the composition derive from archetypal border fences that entwine and entangle our world—a smorgasbord of political and imperial screw-ups.

“Playing music on fences will not get rid of them or the causes for their existence. The fence, after all, is considered a practical success story. The future of fences is assured, as new technology is harnessed. Witness the new ‘invisible fences’ that deliver a sharp shock to hapless human or cow.

“Currently there are many debates about the origins of music—what is it for? Does it still have a function? Those who hear Music from 4 Fences will never look at a fence in quite the same way again.”

Kronos’ founder and artistic director David Harrington adds:

“When I first heard a recording of Jon Rose bowing the barbed wire rabbit fences of Australia six years ago, I could not believe my ears. The variety of sounds and range of musical color that a bass bow can get out of a barbed wire fence, combined with the intensity and expressiveness of those sounds, led me to conclude that Jon had uncovered a new and widely prevalent musical instrument. I determined that Kronos needed to learn to play this instrument, and that we had to bring it into our concerts.

“The idea that musicians can turn objects of confinement, detainment and violence into musical instruments has inspired me since I first heard the fence music of Jon Rose. Through our concerts, Kronos attempts to make statements about our world. That we are surrounded by fences seems to be an essential part of the time we live in. There might be a way to transform the nature of fences, by bowing them. We will try.”



Kronos Quartet: Jon Rose / Music From 4 Fences

The first of two short video interviews with Jon Rose, composer of Music from 4 Fences.

Jon Rose discusses how he began working with fences as musical instruments, and the political ramifications of the fence project.

A tentative pluck of the second string produced what seemed a disproportionately booming deep sound, while the barbed wire at the top clattered with appropriately rasping effect. One by one the other players joined in what became a fence fugue of plucked, scraped, and beaten sounds, and disjointed video-cam shots projected above.

The whole was a tribute to the enduring ability of David Harrington and the Kronos Quartet to find new artistic voices in an uncertain and strife-torn world.

Peter McCallum, The Sydney Morning Herald

Jon Rose's Music From 4 Fences brought the concert to a close, with Kronos scraping their bows along amplified wire "fences". The symbolism of creating music from barbed wire — in a program inspired by conflict — was inescapable, giving the work a resonance that echoed in the mind long after the final notes had disappeared.

Jessica Nicholas, The Age

Music from 4 Fences
Performed by the Kronos Quartet
Music by Jon Rose
Fences designed by Jon Rose
Visual design by Willie Williams
Lighting design by Laurence Neff
Sound design by Calvin Ll. Jones

Produced by Janet Cowperthwaite
Production management by Kronos Performing Arts Association

Music from 4 Fences was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by the Sydney Opera House, Purdue Convocations—Purdue University, Australia Council for the Arts, and the David Harrington Research and Development Fund.

Special thanks to Hollis Taylor, Ian Scobie & Arts Projects Australia, Van Jarvis & Creative Technology, Todd Wetzel & Purdue Convocations, and Tony Bond.

5-13-11Glasgow, ScotlandGlasgow Royal Concert HallGlasgow's Concert Halls
2-27-10San Francisco, CaliforniaZ Space @ ArtaudKronos Quartet / KPAA
2-26-10San Francisco, CaliforniaZ Space @ ArtaudKronos Quartet / KPAA
2-25-10San Francisco, CaliforniaZ Space @ ArtaudKronos Quartet / KPAA
2-24-10San Francisco, CaliforniaZ Space @ ArtaudKronos Quartet / KPAA
2-4-10West Lafayette, IndianaLoeb PlayhousePurdue Convocations
6-6-09Melbourne, AustraliaMelbourne Recital Centre
6-5-09Sydney, AustraliaSydney Opera HouseSydney Opera House

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