The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada
The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada

Warren Burt and Catherine Schieve

Percy Grainger's Electric Eye Tone Tool

Arts and Culture Centre, July 13, 2006
Sound Symposium, St. John's

The Sound Symposium in St. John’s Newfoundland is known for its exceptionally eclectic nature: it gives the exotic and arcane a warm welcome. So in 2006 when Warren Burt and Catherine Schieve flew all the way from Australia with their replica of Percy Grainger’s Electric Eye Tone Tool, they must have felt right at home.

Composer, writer, and instrument maker Warren Burt is a Grainger completist who has researched this truly strange composer and inventor’s early revolutions in analog synthesizers. As Burt noted in an Australian Radio Broadcast interview: “Between 1954 and 1961, Percy Grainger and Burnett Cross worked on a machine called the Electric Eye Tone Tool. Years later, I was looking at the diagram of the Electric Eye machine in the Grainger Museum and I said, "That should be fairly easy to rebuild." Well, it turns out it's not fairly easy to rebuild but it was rebuildable. And after much love, much sweat we have, in fact, a reconstruction of Grainger's Electric Eye machine.” Intermedia Artist Catherine Schieve has collaborated with Burt on a number of performance projects. It is she who made the mylar graphic score you see in the video excerpted here. It is called "Rock and Light Tracing". Schieve writes that, "I composed it on site in St John's, using the formations of the local rock outcroppings, overlayed on rock patterns from Enchanted Rock in Central Texas. These are combined in a translucent score designed especially to interact with Warren's re-design of the Electric Eye Tone tool. I've made several scores for this instrument, and this particular one uses vertical space "flying" over the sensors as well as the "dragging" motions previously used to trigger sound - by allowing and blocking light. This made for a particularly theatrical performance that was a surprise to us as well as the audience." (Facebook message October 5, 2015) "Rock and Light Tracing" is pictured in Theresa Sauer's book Notations 21, Anthology of Music Scores (2009).

Check out Warren Burt’s excellent 2007 article “Some Musical and Sociological Aspects of Australian Experimental Music” at

Reconstructing the Electric Eye Tone Tool – the first light-controlled synthesizer

Percy Grainger (1882-1961), the famous Australian pianist, composer, inventor might be best known for his early folk song collections and popular arrangements, such as his 1918 arrangement of Country Gardens (an English folk tune collected by Cecil Sharp). But Grainger was also an inveterate experimentalist whose ideas were decidedly ahead of their time: his experiments with uneven time signatures like 2.5 over 5 (1899); indeterminacy (1912); extended piano techniques (1916) predate much better known 20th century examples. During the 1950s he worked with physicist Burnett Cross to invent a number of early electronic synthesizers capable of playing his “free music”. In a 1942 letter, Grainger described free music thus:

In this music [free music], melody is as free to roam thru tonal space as a painter is free to draw and paint free lines, free curves, create free shapes. (Current music is like trying to do a picture of a landscape, a portrait of a person, in small squares-like a mosaic-or in pre-ordained shapes: straight lines or steps.) in free-music the various tone strands (melodic lines) may each have their own rhythmic pulse (or not), if they like; but one tone-strand is not enslaved to the other (as in current music) by rhythmic same-beatness. In free music there are no scales-the melodic lines may slide and glide from and to any depths and heights (practical) tonal space, just as they may hover around any 'note' without ever alighting upon it. In other words, they have freedom of melodic movement, as a bird has (compared with an airship, which does 'trips' between 'destinations' - just as, in current music melodic lines make trips between destinations). In free music harmony will consist of free combinations (when desired) of all free intervals - not merely concordant or discordant combinations of set intervals (as in current music), but free combinations of all the intervals (but with a gliding state, not need fully in an anchored state) between the present intervals ... for me of course, my free music seems entirely inspired (heard in the inner ear) and that is why I feel so much duty towards it. It seems to me the only type of music that tallies our modern scientific conception of life (our longing to know life as it is, not merely symbolistic interpretations), and clearly the kind of music to which all musical progress of many centuries has been working up. The irregular rhythms of Cyril Scott (adapted by him from 1898 experiments and copied from Scott and almost everybody else) are a half-way house towards free music ... free music, alone, uses all the resources as it stands ...(Grainger).

A fascinating account of Grainger’s analog synthesizer inventions can be found at

Burt and Schieve recreated Grainger’s last invention (with Burnett Cross), the Electric Eye Tone Tool (1960) in a version commissioned by the Australian Broadcast Corporation in 2004, which they used their performance at the 2006 Sound Symposium. Alas, the crankshaft was broken in transporting the instrument from Australia, so Burt and Schieve played the score over the photocells using the elegant choreography you see in this excerpt.

Later, they modified the tool to make it easier to transport and perform in contemporary situations:

After that, we made a lighter, more portable version of the tool, which now consists of a box with 8 photocells, and voltage to midi conversion hardware by Angelo Fraietta of Newcastle, NSW. The original Tone Tool was built by Percy Grainger and Burnett Cross in the late 1940s and early 1950s and controlled pitch and loudness of seven oscillators. For this version, our 8 photocells are selecting samples from vintage electronic and computer music machines, including the CSIRAC computer from Sydney. (Thanks to Stephen Jones for samples of the CSIRAC.) Catherine Schieve and I move our hands in the air above the photocells, selecting and shaping the vintage synth samples. Rather than use the Tone Tool to only re-create the past, we wanted to use it to extend its use to our current and future interests. The sounds are produced by a laptop running Ross Bencina's AudioMulch software.

Many thanks to Warren Burt and Catherine Schieve for permission to document their concert and post this excerpt.



Letter, Percy Grainger to music critic Olin Downer, 10 September 1942. Quoted in Elinor Wrobel, “Percy Grainger's Art: Da-Da ist or Aussie 'make-do-ist'?”.

Percy Grainger, interview with Barry Ould and Warren Burt. Broadcast 6.30pm on 09/02/2004, Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Transcript available at accessed 22 July 2015.