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Percy Grainger (1882 - 1961), the eccentric but brilliant composer / pianist from Melbourne, Australia lived on the edge. Not content to try and change the course of music, Grainger experimented with clothing design, beadwork, language reform and music technology. Even in the bedroom, Grainger pushed himself to the limit.

Grainger was unusually open about his sexuality and documented it so scientifically that dozens of photos were taken, each with the time of day, length of exposure and even the number of lashings carefully written on the back.

A keen photographer, Grainger not only developed his own shots but was able to take photos of himself from all angles via mirrors on the walls and ceiling! He hoped that eventually this material would be lodged with an medical or scientific institution that may wish to "investigate the nature & habits of creative Australians."

Although an avowed heterosexual, he would encourage all sexual partners to engage in mutual flagellantism. Not only was the whip preferred, but he manufactured various protective apparatus to complete the act – from helmets, to arm, breast and crotch protectors. No less than eighty-three whips were assembled for his museum collection – many handmade out of cane, bamboo, leather, wound fabric and even conductor’s batons.

As Grainger felt his creative urges were tied to his sexual drive, when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, he initially refused treatment – surgical castration – because he felt this would quite literally remove his urge to compose.

As early as 1900, Grainger wrote in his diary that "the future of music lay with machines." Dissatisfied with the limitations of earlier technologies, he decided to invent his own Free Music machines – early synthesisers – out of recyclable material and found objects to keep things cheap and easy to maintain.

Grainger assisted with the design and construction of his own museum at the University of Melbourne, one of the very few truly autobiographical museums in the world. The museum was intended to present Grainger as a model Australian artist to young people. To achieve this, his life needed to be an open book and thus was stocked with everything from clothes to musical instruments, letters, manuscripts, shopping lists and other memorabilia (1/4 million in all). He willed his skeleton to the collection and wanted a pornographic display but both were refused by the University.

Grainger designed his own intricate beadwork and grass skirts based on traditional South Pacific and North American Indian models. These were often strung up individually in train carriages, giving the impression of a giant spider’s web!

Inspired initially by Zulu costume and designed in unisex style to enable his Danish sweetheart could go jogging with him, Grainger created his own clothes made out of towels in 1910 – towels being an incredibly durable and comfortable fabric, warm in winter, cool in summer and washable at all times. These innovative costumes – ranging from jackets, to shorts, togas, mumus and leggings – were not for private use but were worn everywhere, even to hail taxis!

Grainger invented the concept of "power walking" and designed a crude but effective forerunner of the modern sports bra or athletic support for his Danish sweetheart, all before the First World War.

Grainger insisted on designing his own music covers, to the extent of copying lettering from London street signs (for his British folksongs) and creating his own colour hues using anything from around the house.

Not content to try and change the course of music, Grainger wanted language reform. A talented multilinguist, speaking over a dozen languages and dialects fluently, Grainger wanted to eliminate all Latin and Greek derived words from his written vocabulary and created his own unique multi-hyphenated equivalents – for instance, museum becomes "past-hoard-house", a restaurant, an "eat-take-ment" and vegeterianism, "meat-shun-ment".

Grainger was an ardent vegetarian and visited his first meatless restaurant in 1894. Known to many as "the running pianist", Grainger often jogged or hiked between concert recitals instead of catching trains or taxis.

Grainger was an accomplished athlete. His penchant for "getting his hands dirty" led to him stripping naked on his steamship journeys and assist with the shovelling of coal, as well as laying bricks on his museum every morning during its construction.

Compiled by Alessandro Servadei – Assistant Curator
The University of Melbourne

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Percy Aldridge Grainger


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