Meet the Guy Who Uses Fences as Instruments

Forget musical chairs, the musical fence is where it’s at.

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Dec 6 2013, 6:33pm

Forget musical chairs, the musical fence is where it’s at.

The Australian musician Jon Rose is a "fencologist" who has played music on all types of fences – from barbed wires to army fences – worldwide. Whether it was playing the old 1967 border between Syria and Israel or the Strzelecki Desert, Rose, for the past 30 or so years, has been playing the fence with a bow. And he has gotten damn good at dodging authorities while doing so.

Rose, who has been trained as a violinist, has musical fence anecdotes that go unmatched: His visit to the Sonoran fence at the Mexican-American border had helicopters circling around as he was approached by border control. That is probably because fences are typically used to conceal or provide a division – they are typically not used for concert music. However, Rose notes that barbed wire is as old as the music of Brahms.

What does playing the musical fence sound like? It sounds like what you may imagine strumming a bow to a wire might sound like. The techniques are varied: He strums fences to get screeching highs and deep bassy bellows, as well as tapping fences (making what sounds like electronic music) to a sort of slapping, bouncing technique which sounds a bit like subtle drumming. He is an inventor.

Rose, who he has a 26-page CV, and is a king of the avant-garde scenes internationally, generously took the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us about the best and better times of the musical fence and what it means to play left field.


Jon Rose plays the musical fence in White Cliffs.

How did you get to working with the fence?
Jon Rose: I have been involved for 40 years with what used to be known as the avant-guard or experimental music (the first 10 years of which I also worked in a variety of commercial music and professional situations as a "jobbing" musician). In the 1970s, I became interested in the hacking and sonic transformation my instrument, the violin, through a variety of experiments. One of these projects involved seeing what happens as strings get longer and longer and longer. By 1983, I was filling up art galleries with long fence wires. Then in 1985, on a trip out back in Australia, the penny dropped. Why was I building fence like string instruments, when the entire continent was covered with string instruments? Instead of seeing millions and millions of miles of fences, I heard millions and millions of miles of string instrument – all I had to do was get out there and play them.

The pictures you have of the fences are amazing. Are they postcards capturing fleeting moments?
They can give the wrong impression, as in scenic beauty. Mostly playing fences outback is hot, dusty, constant wind, fly plagues, and sometimes dangerous work. Lethal snakes and spiders, and even crocodiles can make themselves part of the performance.


Jon Rose plays the Fence at Wogarno.

Each fence has a history, a story and a divide. How much of what you do is a political act?
Playing the fences of Israel is about as political as I have ventured with this project. If you read the story, the no-win result of political music is clear. But having said that, all music performance states a political position by its situational existence. When I started to play fences, it was just the sound that interested me, but you have to be blind and deaf not to see what fences are, how they are used, and eventually to consider that they are perfect metaphors for the way in which we humans perceive our world. Despite the debunking of Descartes, duality is alive and well; the notion informs every aspect of how we deal with ownership, each other, and the other beings with which we try not to share this planet.

Do you still play the musical fence today? Are there any future plans?
Yes, but I have many different projects on the boil, so it is not always possible to get to the fences. Playing fences, because of the amount of travel, can be expensive and it always consumes time a plenty. It is also physically demanding.

Has your work ever been mistaken for novelty? Do people fail to see the deeper meaning?
Oddly enough, unlike much of my music making (which is generally considered left field), people get fence music. It makes sense in a fractured environment.

In total, how many fences worldwide have you worked with?
Impossible to say, but here in Australia, my partner and colleague Hollis Taylor and I must have done over 50,000 kilometers by now – traveling, finding significantly sonic fences, and playing them. Hollis studies the songs of The Pied Butcher Bird, so we have combined both fields of enquiry in the past.

Why did you decide to keep a security camera on "music from 4 fences?"
Not my idea. This was a commission from Kronos String Quartet who wanted to play a fence on stage. Eventually I designed four musical fences, one for each member of the group and then they decided on the visual parameters of the performance. The cameras are in fact just picking up live images of the fence playing for projection purposes, but of course living in our culture of surveillance, the other significance of camera is highlighted.

I don’t fully understand the Sydney Fence – you speak of a “map of the Sydney fence shown in red, snipers were stationed on the roof of the opera house, three helicopters carried out surveillance from the air, six police controlled the fence performance, no photos were allowed.” Were you joking or was that true?
All true. It was a huge international conference with 21 political leaders from around the world; half of them bone fide criminals. They fenced off down town Sydney to protect themselves from the citizens of Australia! You couldn't make it up.


Jon Rose playing a violin outside of the Sydney Opera House; he was told he was “not allowed to play music in front of the opera house.”

Nadja Saye has won musical chairs several times but never musical fences. @nadjasayej