Against a backdrop of nascent electronic music experimentation in 1960s Melbourne, a self-avowed ‘amateur’ musician became the first Australian to have electronic music released commercially on an international label. Val Stephen, a practising anaesthetist, developed an interest in electronic music in the late 1950s and recorded a large body of work with a range of tools and techniques. Stephen’s music, along with his public advocacy of electronic music, was pioneering in regard to the acceptance of electronic music as a legitimate musical concern in Melbourne.
Stephen’s work reveals a level of diversity in the development of Australian electronic music that is outside both the academy and commercial applications. A 1971 seminar held at the University of Melbourne detailed sporadic progress amongst music departments at both tertiary and secondary levels throughout the previous decade in developing electronic music studios and courses, as well as detailing activity in the private sector where composer/musician Bruce Clarke had been utilising electronic music to compose advertising jingles. Stephen was far from isolated from these academic and industry developments and had several points of contact locally and internationally with both, yet his music was primarily realised outside these circles.
The music selected here is from a much larger pool of recordings on nearly one hundred reel-to-reel tapes and twenty-five audio cassettes that formed Stephen’s private collection. I examined and catalogued these tapes with John Whiteoak in 2009 whilst preparing an article we wrote together on Stephen that was later published in Musicology Australia. The original tapes have since been deposited at the National Film and Sound Archive.