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Composing Australia

On the occasion of the World Premiere of Nigel Sabin's Symphony, Charles Southwood looks at the diversity of Australian music.

In 1978, when I was working for 6UVS FM in Perth, a couple of composition students from the University of WA Music Department offered the station a series of programs on New Music from America. I see now that it was among the first waves of Minimalism to wash my way. The series was to be called Modern Music Doesn't Have To Be Ugly.

We ran it, not (I think) so much for the music as for the title which I found extremely funny. Audiences had been calling modern music ugly for years; composers, never – not even in jest!

What I and others were not anticipating in 1978 was an imminent and dramatic shift in the sound of New Music.

For example, in 1980 Richard Meale wrote a new and high-minded work not only built in long lyrical lines – tunes, almost – but also formed substantially from near derivatives of those least avant-garde of harmonic structures, major and minor triads: his Second String Quartet.

In fact his choice of that kind of sonority should not have surprised anyone, but it did. I remember Richard Meale at an ABC Composer Workshop concert in the early '70s, still angry at a London critic who'd taken offence at his inclusion of a C Major chord in Incredible Floridas. It's ironic that in 1971 the most revolutionary thing about a piece of New Music should have been a C Major chord.

If audiences in 1971 had had ears to hear, we would have heard the fore-rumble of a lot of C Major chords or their equivalents. On the other hand, I can't blame any of us for our lack of fore-hearing. First contact with the New Music of the 1960s and early '70s had left us with some recovering to do.These were pieces written within the techniques of international post-World War II modernism.

Around 1960, Richard and colleagues – Kieth Humble, Nigel Butterley, David Ahearn – had seized the full armoury of this technique and plonked it right down in none-too-international Australia. Things were different then. The shepherds of Australian music, if not solely representatives of the English Pastoral tradition, at least had a marked bias in that direction.

English Pastoralism was tossed aside – and French Pastoralism, for that matter – in favour of a New Music with an idealism, intensity, a tearing honesty, a sharpness as of glass-paper toothed with Waterford crystal well smashed. 1960s Australian modernist music, at its best, is brilliant, elitist, aggressively 'high-art', a deadly sort of sonic killing machine launched against the 'basin' haircut, meat-and-two-veg cuisine and all other symptoms of post-War Australia's chronic incuriosity.

But was it ugly? Yes, of course, and no, of course not. Dispute over matters of taste has constituted a kind of mainstream in the history of Western music for a long time. But all present-day disputants in the case of Australian music – arguing the modernism vs ugliness debate – have, for once, missed the main event. The potential voltage between these legitimate, highly-charged and opposed points of view has already gone to earth. The lightning leapt around 1980. In the process, Australian music has been jolted into the region of extraordinary achievement where it finds itself today.

To hurry my argument ahead: the conclusion I've reached, talking and listening to many Australian composers over the last few years, is that the very health of new Australian music is expressed in the absence of any serious heat lurking under any serious collar as to what Australian music can or cannot be. The debate has gone well beyond Ugliness. I discern no overarching direction or ideology for Australia's new music.Consonance, dissonance, simplicity, complexity, even style, aren't the issues they once were – at least not among the composers, by and large, though various 'schools' have stabbed out at one another with the pen every so often. There is a prevailing ease and, I think, wisdom about what music can be made from, and why.

It is relevant but not ultimately significant that anyone should describe this music as 'Australian'. Of all subjects, the 'Australian-ness' of Australian new music bores our composers most. On the other hand, composers do not merely demand but confidently claim the right to use whatever ingredients, whenever, however and wherever. It's a matter of adult self-acceptance. Composers seem to be saying that, even if nemesis awaits individuals who trust too much to their own resources, they'd rather die of their own hands than under the effects of someone else's.

Just what the effects of someone else's hubris might be, was borne in on me at an Adelaide Symphony concert in the series whose name gave this essay its title. The program included a suite, The Chantyman, by a much earlier Australian composer, Horace Perkins. It is a capable essay in the sort of cautious heartiness favoured by those giants of turn-of-the-century English academe, Charles Villiers Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry.

Horace Perkins' musical language seems to characterise his australia as colonial, earnest and utterly un-slick. And though with music there is always the risk that the imagery will slip out of control and drag in the Unspeakable, the conscious subject matter was safe, known, familiar: sailing-ships, sailors and jolly songs … which does not sound odd till you realise that, not only does the piece seem to have been written in the 1930s, but the score I've just described was the revision of 1962-3, the years that saw the composition of Meale's Homage to Garcia Lorca.

Horace Perkins' Chantyman is an extreme case of the sort of imperial intellectual architecture that Australian modernists were trying to blow up. Perkins was no fool, but there is no getting round the fact that he was in an impossible artistic double bind. Roger Covell spotted the problem in Australian Music: Themes for a new society (1967). The internal culture in mid-century Australia was such that anyone wishing to be 'finished' in their musical studies had to go to England. Not to be 'finished' in that way, as composer or as performer, was tantamount to not being taken seriously as a musician; yet by renouncing the possibility of a purely Australian set of standards and goals, Australians could never stand out in their own right against the engulfing English backdrop. If we did stand out by virtue of greater vigour or independence, we could be dismissed as colonial and crude. If we didn't make the effort to stand out, we effectively didn't exist.

Into this world stepped Peter Sculthorpe. If his example provided soft furry Australians with a much-needed bolt-hole from the dovecotes and sheep-folds of Englishness, it may also have provided a more hard-eyed generation with an escape from the hermetic vessel of international modernism.

It's only recently that I've started to feel what the influence of Peter Sculthorpe has been. Even in the late '60s anyone with ears could have picked up the fact that Peter's music was not particularly avant-garde, but neither was his music exactly like anything that had come before.

In fact, his 'way' was already apparent in 1954 in his Piano Sonatina. At the age of 25, his language already had the marks that suggest deep sympathy with certain forms of the Australian landscape: simple, slow-moving, stable, big, broadly consonant with the occasional parrot-flock of dissonances to set off the stillness.

Until 1965, when Sun Music I was first performed, my only point of contact with Australian music had been those little blossom-and-possum piano pieces written for teaching tiny fingers. No one west of Parramatta seemed to know about Miriam Hyde's powerful Clarinet Sonata in F minor (1949) and even Dulcie Holland had relegated her excellent Piano Trio (1944) to a bottom drawer. Margaret Sutherland's Haunted Hills (1951), a beautiful and unique evocation of the Australian landscape, was largely ignored by ABC programmers once it had received its first performance. Only now is it finding its rightful place, as a major work in the Australian orchestral repertoire.

So I could well believe that Sun Music was the first music that was 'really Australian'. I was even told people in England had sat up and listened to it with interest. Clearly there was no reason to look back to whatever Australian art music had come before.

I didn't. And neither did a lot of others. In the process, a whole commonwealth of earlier composers was plunged into a sort of pre-Sun Music Dark. Not because of any Sculthorpe-led takeover of Australian music history; he's a very active teacher, but there are no Sculthorpe clones. It's precisely as a 'stand-alone' artistic presence that Peter Sculthorpe has had his greatest influence on the current shape of Australian new music. In his own special way, he has helped set the tone for a younger community of individuals whose common cause, if they have one at all, is an apparent resistance to imposed authority (with the emphasis on 'imposed').

The end result is a body of work with a quiet authority of its own. Our composers' independence has been won in the teeth of opposition from forces both British and international, but no one seems to feel a need to deny either the existence or the value of the larger world. Rather, Australia's composers take full responsibility for whatever choices they make among a wealth of possibilities. Australian music joins with the international world on equal and adult terms, its uniqueness – its Australian-ness automatically ensured.

© Charles Southwood
Charles Southwood presents the weekday afternoon program on ABC Classic FM

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