Portrait

A visit to the studio of composer Cale Sexton to discuss his commission for the Federation Bells. By Elizabeth Flux.

Musician Cale Sexton

The room is filled with equipment. By the door, what looks like a hundred cables are neatly arranged on hooks. Behind where I’m sitting several guitars are mounted on the wall. The rest of the room is taken up with machines, big and small, complex looking, neatly arranged on shelves, and all surrounding a desk with a big computer. This is where Cale Sexton spends every spare minute he has, making music.

We try to figure out exactly how many gadgets there are – synthesisers, samplers, drum machines – but by the time we get to 10 we realise this may take a while, so settle. “Ten-plus?” says Sexton with a smile.

None of it is gratuitous. “Almost everything in the studio goes into a song,” he says. “Pretty much everything in here has a purpose. I’ve taken anything out that doesn’t get used.”

He’s been described as a “cosmic electronica genius” but when, about halfway through our conversation, I quote this to find out what he thinks, he immediately laughs and gets shy, starts tamping down the comment. “Genius is an overstatement.”

Downplaying his accomplishments is a recurring theme. On finding record labels to release his music, the softly spoken Sexton responds, “I’m very lucky, I think.” On building his career in electronic music over the past 10 years: “I just found myself here”, followed by a small laugh. But it is clear, both from looking around the room and talking about his latest project, it isn’t luck at all – it’s hard work.

Beyond a course in sound production at RMIT and a few guitar lessons at age 11, Sexton is mostly self-taught, filling in his gaps in knowledge with internet tutorials and experimentation.

“I think I take the long way around to find the idea, but that can be fun,” he says. Rather than planning a piece from start to finish, he works intuitively, tinkering until a composition feels right. As a result, he leaves a lot of work unfinished, and estimates that between 70 and 80 per cent of his pieces have yet to see the light of day.

“I never sit down with an intention of making a particular sound or piece,” he explains. “Which is why it’s been interesting working on the Federation Bells project – because I did have to have a view of what I was doing.”

For the past six weeks, Sexton has been working on a piece of music commissioned by the City of Melbourne for the Federation Bells at Birrarung Marr. It’s been a faster than usual turnaround for Sexton, and he describes putting together the 40-minute composition, to be performed live on June 28, as both a steep learning curve and a good learning experience.

The bells themselves are unusual. There are 39 of them, all upside down, and they range wildly in size – the biggest is more than a metre high. Though bells are an ancient instrument, the Federation Bells are an interesting mix of old and new technology. Their hammers are computer controlled, which means they can have a sequence programmed in advance, or members of the public can download an app to play them in real time.

With Sexton’s music being so modern and bells, seemingly, an unusual match for him (though his last name provides a subtle link, as the role of a church sexton historically included the occasional ringing of bells), I ask about the challenges of melding what might have appeared to be two separate camps. He pauses.

“I didn’t think about it being super different. I find some of the bells sound quite nice and meditative – a lot of them sound like singing … and I think droney synths sit quite well with them.”

Originally, due to the tight time line, Sexton had thought he could perhaps transpose some of his existing music and then adapt it slightly – but this rapidly turned out not to be an option. They aren’t simply 39 different, chronological notes. “Some of them are in the pentatonic scale and some of them are in another scale – which has been a really interesting way to start,” he says. “They sound wrong to the European equal tempered scale.”

So he composed something entirely new, starting with the bells and building from there. We listen to an excerpt of what he has prepared and suddenly, somehow, the small studio feels bigger, more full.

As the live event approaches, Sexton will keep tinkering with the sound, fiddling with different elements until it sounds right to him. But even then, the piece won’t remain static. On the night, much of the equipment in this room will go with him – “I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to lugging gear to shows,” he says, laughing – so there will be the opportunity to improvise.

Despite the many hours of preparation and rehearsal, this is one of the most important elements of performance for him. “Sometimes you can make it too easy for yourself and other times you make it really hard for yourself,” he says. That way, “it’s more fun, more challenging”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Sexton’s destiny". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.