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28 February 2008

Critical Times: Australian New Music and the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s

Editorial, resonate journal issue two

Critical Times: Australian New Music and the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s

This issue of the resonate journal re-approaches some of the music composed by Australians in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Although these years are often acknowledged as important for establishing contemporary understandings of Australian new music, they are under-represented in writings about more recent Australian music of this kind. What scholarship exists tends towards the biographical.

There are also startlingly few commercial recordings of new music from this era. Indeed, if there is one question that prompted the theme of this issue of the resonate journal, then it is this: how is it that one can find endless references to Nigel Butterley’s In the Head the Fire as ‘the composition that won the 1966 Italia Prize ahead of Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II’, and yet listening to the piece requires a record player and a long-out-of-print LP?

In the Head the Fire is but one work in a catalogue of distinguished music that Butterley composed during this period; Butterley is one composer amongst many whose works are worthy of studying afresh. Even those composers who we think we know well are often deserving of renewed interest. Reconsidering long-held assumptions about the interpretations of key compositions is more than a rewarding pastime, for it is vital in making old works relevant. Exploring perspectives present in works reveals much about the makeup of more recent music, and it facilitates deeper understandings of current cultural concerns. Gathering together the articles herein reflects preoccupations of their authors, since it articulates some of the ways in which music from this period is important now.

There are also some personal reasons for this particular span of time: when I was a young concert-goer in Sydney, Matthew Hindson, Paul Stanhope, Ian Shanahan – and a host of others born in the final years of the 1960s – were established voices. They taught me at Sydney University. I am interested in the music of their teachers, and in the impact it continues to make. I am curious about the connections that exist between the composers of their era and those born more recently. I am keen to understand better why some compositions that were essential to notions of ‘Australian Music’ in the 1960s are no longer in favour and in many cases not performed, while others have proved more enduring. Why is it that many of the aspects of this music that I find most engaging have fallen out of currency, put aside as though worthless artefacts when at the time they seemed (and seem to me now) so valuable?

The articles herein point towards a passion for the music of this era and explore its continuing significance to contemporary practice. In some cases they provide new ways of approaching old understandings. In other cases they prompt new questions for future debate.

James Humberstone considers the legacy of David Ahern. Although almost never performed, Ahern’s extraordinary ability to connect with other composers to form the music he wrote resonates strongly with Humberstone’s own music. The gravity of considering Ahern’s music is summarised in Humberstone’s statement that: ‘the conclusions he drew and the aesthetic he refined for Australian culture lie like paths trodden only once’. As Humberstone points out, in most other countries the legacy of someone like Ahern would have been explored many times over by now.

Cultural cringe in Australia is an issue explored by Nicholas Vines who rehabilitates it as a powerful metaphor for exploring current arguments. In writing about the Australian traditions and genealogies with which his own music connects, Vines looks back to Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Musics and its expression of Sculthorpe’s views of Australia’s place in the musical world as a source of critical optimism for new ways of working. In this regard, Vines argues for a greater acknowledgment of the achievements of this music, particularly for the way that it incorporates, as a sign of respect, musics from various Asian cultures.

Natalie Williams brings to this issue of resonate the voice of a recently expatriated Australian composer, writing that ‘I now have a much more refined awareness of what it means to be an Australian composer’. She comments on some of the reasons for composers of her generation, and of generations past, to move away from Australia to seek ‘the best training’ and international careers.

The significant momentum that contemporary classical music was gathering in Australia during these decades in question is one thing that draws Williams to study this music. Concern for Australian identity was a major concern for many composers at this point, and Williams is fascinated by the predominant aesthetic explorations in style and technique.

Andrew Robbie focuses on the mid-1970s and the rhetoric which surrounds this period of Australian new music. He argues that ‘dominant narratives’ not only marginalise composers, but that they also become a ‘powerful distortion of how we view the history of Australian music’. Robbie re-details the story of Edwards’s music, providing meticulous lucidity where phantasies of transformation have reigned.

Elliott Gyger recontextualises some of the debates surrounding the music of Nigel Butterley within a more direct discourse of a composer’s response to musical heritages. His article articulates some of the most exciting aspects of Butterley’s music alongside a discussion of various issues that may have resulted in its rare performance.

For Kate Moore understanding her music heritage is crucial for understanding her own creative practice: it provides a point of departure. Now based in the Netherlands, she gives a context for her music which demonstrates the diversity of her musical world and her continuing engagement with earlier composers.

Current discourses surrounding Don Banks are increasingly fleshing the details of his significance to contemporary Australian music. Stefanie Rauch provides a European perspective on his music, with her research focussing on his part in the legacy of Arnold Schoenberg. This approach connects Banks with various traditions, operating within and beyond the centres of his residence in Australia and Britain, with which he engaged through studies with Mátyás Seiber, Luigi Dallapiccola and Luigi Nono; their acknowledgement is useful for understanding some aspects of his music.

Another prominent Australian composer who lives in the United Kingdom is David Lumsdaine. For Peter Wiegold, who studied with Lumsdaine at the University of Durham in the early ‘70s, Lumsdaine’s legacy is an important one. Wiegold’s hugely successful career has been built on music that combines improvisation with notated composition, and, while his use of improvisation is markedly different from the way Lumsdaine makes use of it in his early works, there is a lineage that strongly connects these two composers.

My article returns to the piece that first prompted my interest in Lumsdaine’s music, Kelly Ground, in connection with a slightly later composition Flights. Considered as a pair, they raise questions about the connections of serialism and improvisation in the 1960s. More widely, they relate to Lumsdaine’s articulation of an idiosyncratic musical language within a community where stylistic allegiances were well known and vitally important.

Studying Lumsdaine’s music reminds me frequently of some of the first issues of Sounds Australian that I read, wherein occurred heated debates surrounding modernism and postmodernism. Given that it is 20-odd years since these debates of the ‘80s, it is pertinent to re-examine the music that led to these discussions. Rather than marginalising those involved, or avoiding the arguments raised, this issue of resonate moves on from many of those earlier debates by reconsidering from new perspectives some of the music that was entangled in those arguments.

What comes through clearly in this issue of resonate is that the composers who strove to ‘articulate idiosyncratic musical languages’ considered this an act of generosity rather than of arrogance. What this collection demonstrates is that the apparent difficulties of the musical materials from this period continue to provide fertile ground for new composition.

An immediacy underlies these discussions: it is vital to investigate the music of these decades while composers, performers, and audience members from the time are still alive. The firebrand composers from the 1960s are now in their seventh decade.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Michael Hooper is a performer and musicologist. As a mandolinist, he specialises in the performance of the instrument’s recent repertoire and is active in commissioning new works. As a musicologist, his PhD at The University of York considered the music of Britain in the 1960s and '70s, and specifically the Australian-born, but long-time English resident, David Lumsdaine


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re Oz music of 60s & 70s

It is perhaps significant that all the Australian composers mentioned in these articles are Sydney composers, or composers who have worked for at least part of their careers in Sydney. Is it necessary to have a Sydney connection, to be remembered as an Australian composer??? Just asking...

it's a good question!

No, I don't think it's necessary, but it does seem to help.

From my perspective, I am interested (though not by any means exclusively) in the music that was played around me as I grew up, and in the music of my teachers, and their teachers: therein lies a Sydney bias.

Additionally, it is hard work (in the end impossible) finding someone of my generation or thereabouts who wanted to write about the music of Keith Humble or Jennifer Fowler or Roger Smalley or...

One of my central questions in approaching this topic was: why is it hard to find composers who want to write about music from the era in question?

Why is it hard?

Naturally, this is a question that only young composers or musicologists can answer accurately. But pending responses from them, could I suggest a couple of obvious answers?:

(a) that they simply don’t know this music, or

(b) if they do know it, they don’t much like it or respond to it.

On (b), remember that this is stuff that happened a long time – not with their parents’ generation, but largely their grandparents’. While my generation may still occasionally get involved in polemics about What Happened Here in the Sixties, there’s no pressing reason why the younger composers should. For a start, most of the composers considered in Michael’s issue wrote non-tonally (at least at that time), whereas the world of Australian Music that most young composers have encountered, whether through the school system, tertiary teaching or (above all) local performance practice, is primarily tonal-modal.

On (a), one has to ask: how (teaching programmes apart) are they supposed to know about this music? Live concerts apart (and not everyone lives in a capital city), the two natural routes would be broadcasts and CD recordings. ‘Broadcasts’ means, above all, ABC-FM, which is more or less atonal-phobic, except in the ghetto confines of Julian Day’s weekly, welcomely eclectic ‘New Music Up Late’ slot, where tonality, modality, atonality and ‘noise’ all have their place, but the focus is rightly on recent music.

While it may an exaggeration to claim that, currently, almost all levels of official Australian music culture seek to deny or disavow its modernist past, they’re clearly in no hurry to affirm it, as they were when I came to Australia in the mid-seventies (though then it was the present, not the past). When I first got to the Conservatorium, the Library had a couple of shelves full of non-commercial ABC LPs of Australian music, with everything from Alfred Hill to David Ahern (by the way, we still have a couple of items by the latter –‘ Journal’ and ‘Ned Kelly Music’ - that even the AMC doesn’t seem to have in its catalogue). They were mainly mono, and often roughly performed and recorded, but they provided a huge range of music to listen to. In these CD days, despite the best efforts of Tall Poppies and the CSM series, there’s really nothing to match that. If there were, Michael, you might have found more takers. But then, again, you might not…

Richard Toop

Experiencing Music

This in an interesting disucssion, in particular the ideas thrown up around Miceheal Hooper's response to Jennifer Fowler's concerns about a Sydney centric approach. Much writing about new music is now generated this way, by artists experience of it - rather than a more traditional musicological model of coverage - states, styles and genders (did this ever really happen anyway?). It does not mean that this writing or review is less relevant, significant or appropriate. It does mean that artists from the different states, styles and gender need to write, not wait to be written about. The Western Music Canon is constructed of composers who were written about in thier lifetime and indeed wrote about themselves; most composers in it were excellent self promoters. As it did then, 'publish or perish' holds true today - and publishing is easier to access than in the past. What a lively debate could happen if we all wrote about each others practice! It may go some of the way to resolve the black hole in critical review of music Australia seems to be experiencing....