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31 July 2007

Musicology in Australia

Musicology in Australia

Andrew Ford: At the academic level, Australian musicologists are clearly negligent of their own culture. Actually most of them are negligent of music in their own lifetimes...I think there’s still a large dose of cultural cringe involved. My guess is that they see something not entirely respectable in researching and analysing Australian music, and this is the attitude they pass on to their students. (Carey, 2006)

After reading Danielle Carey’s interview with Andrew Ford in a past issue of Sounds Australian (No.67, 2006), I initially felt surprised by the boldness of Ford’s comments towards Australian musicologists.

My initial reaction to Ford’s comment that ‘Australian musicologists are negligent of their own culture’ was: How can you say that? If it wasn’t for the passion for music so evident in many of my former lecturers who are, in fact, musicologists, I would never have been so inspired to return to Australia to pursue a career in music.

Nevertheless, it appears that maybe my reaction to Ford’s comments is what he may have hoped to elicit from his readers and I would like to discuss two statements he made regarding the ‘negligence’ of Australian musicology and the issue of ‘cultural cringe’.


an appreciation of the practical ramifications of our research will ensure...outcomes will have a significant relevance to Australian culture...Trying to establish an international reputation may be difficult when pursuing the study of ‘Australian music’ – perhaps this is why many musicologists are not sure whether they should ‘go down the path’ of Australian ‘concert’ music. This may be due to several reasons, including the lack of journal publications, limited understanding of Australian culture overseas, and a lack of relevant conferences.

However, I believe an appreciation of the practical ramifications of our research will ensure that any outcomes will have a significant relevance to Australian culture and stimulate further discussion. This is not entirely straightforward, but it is in this way that we can effectively pursue research in Australian music.

An excellent example of interrelated research is evident in Larry Sitsky’s important book Australian Piano Music of the 20th Century (Sitksy, 2005). Sitsky and his team of researchers at the Australian National University have endeavoured to perform and analyse the music sourced, offering us a clearer understanding of the importance of these works in our culture. Anyone is able to hear the music researched through performance and eventual publication, thus helping to establish a culture of appreciation and discussion of Australian music.

Another possible reason for the so-called negligence of the study of Australian music is the lack of suitable specialist journals for the dissemination of Australian music research. It will be interesting to see how musicologists and composers make use of the opportunity to discuss the intricacies of Australian music in this publication.

In addition, composers should bear some responsibility for ensuring quality and access to manuscripts. The music of our older generation of composers is not always in good condition, unpublished and in some cases inaccessible, and this often deters the research process.

Cultural Cringe

...If anything, it was my time spent overseas that instilled a curiosity to learn more about my musical culture...The study of Australian music seems to me to have global ramifications. Why not? Now that more Australian music is being performed overseas, many musicians wish to know more about Australian music and its evolution in the culture. When I attended a performance of Peter Sculthorpe’s Earth Cry and Mangrove at the Colorado Music Festival in 2003, for example, the audience responded positively to the music and were eager to ask conductor Michael Christie questions about the composer and the works themselves during the interval.

If anything, it was my time spent overseas that instilled a curiosity to learn more about my musical culture. During my time of study in the USA, I learnt much about the development of American music, but it raised some interesting questions. Did I study the development of 20th century music through an Australian perspective? It had been many years since I had been an undergraduate in Australia, and – although I felt I had a reasonable knowledge of Australian music – I felt that there were some serious gaps in my education. In any case, it was time to rectify the situation.

On my return to Australia I decided to enrol in a PhD and, although initially taking time to focus my topic, I was adamant that I wanted to know more about Australian orchestral music. My research over the last two years has involved reading a large number of books on Australian music, conductors, composers and institutions, and it has been a privilege to renew contact with former lecturers and meet a number of Australia’s distinguished musicians. After being absent, I wanted to get to know the music of my country again and find out how our culture has developed. The current aim of my research is to resurrect a selected number of compositions from the mid-20th century and bring these works back into the public domain.

So, in reference to Ford’s comment on the ‘cultural cringe’, may I be so bold as to suggest that it was time away from Australia that has brought me back. Is this something that all Australian musicians should experience?

I would like to think that there is less of a ‘cultural cringe’ in the Australian psyche than there was in the past, mainly due to the world getting smaller. On another level though, many Australian musicians feel that the Australian music of the past is not at the same level of importance as European musical voices of the 20th century such as Prokofiev and Bartok. Why is it that we are always on the search for undiscovered works by European composers and not necessarily those from Australian composers?

Maybe the risks involved in the study of Australian music are due to it being difficult to determine what constitutes a ‘good’ work? To date, I have studied composers who, although apparently isolated (due to living in Australia), have tried all kinds of compositional ideas in order to find their own voice. Surely this exemplifies the idea that Australians like to pride themselves on, which is to ‘have a go!’.

It is not until we truly investigate the repertoire of the past that there is a chance of creating a good musical foundation for the future. This type of research will help to continue the process of establishing a culture that will help the cause of the Australian composer of today and in years to come.


Carey, D. 2006, ‘Confessions of a Writer: Interview with Andrew Ford’, Sounds Australian, No. 67.

Sitksy, L. 2005, Australian Piano Music of the Twentieth Century. Praeger, Westport.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Joanna Drimatis is a PhD candidate and part-time lecturer at the Elder Conservatorium of Music. She has a Masters in Music from the University of Texas at Austin and has degrees from the University of Western Australia and the Canberra School of Music.


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A problem for musicologists and a possible solution

I want to comment on one aspect of this article. The author writes:

"In addition, composers should bear some responsibility for ensuring quality and access to manuscripts. The music of our older generation of composers is not always in good condition, unpublished and in some cases inaccessible, and this often deters the research process."

As I point out in my article on Aus. Experimental Music republished in this issue of Resonate - much Australian concert music is not, was not, and will never be notated. It exists in another world entirely. If musicologists continue to adopt the attitude that non-notated music is not worth study, or is too difficult to access, then a large portion of Australian art music will continue to be neglected by them. There IS documentation of these works however. It's just that in order to find it, the musicologist has to get personal - and actually meet the composers involved, go to their homes and spend the time to go through the not inconsiderable collections of materials they have. Take for example, Jon Rose, one of the most prolific of Australian art musicians. He has tons of recordings amd other documentation at his home, I'm sure. If a musicologist would like to take Jon seriously, I'm sure he'd welcome the attention. But the musicologist would have to actually meet him, discuss his work, listen to lots of recorded examples - it would be a huge project, but then again, isn't that what musicology is about?

Two examples of people who DID do the work of research on non-notated Australian art music - John Whiteoak, whose "Ad Lib" book on the history of Australian improvisation is superb, and Clinton Green's recent CD "Artifacts of Australian Experimental Music, 1973-1990" recently launched at the Liquid Architecture Festival in Brisbane and Melbourne, and available through shamefilemusic.com. Both of these projects prove it CAN be done, if only the print-documentation-orientation of musicologists is expanded to include the world of non-notated music as well.

Warren Burt

Up close and personal

The points you've raised, Warren, are precisely what got me interested in music research and writing about new music in the first place. I love meeting composers or sound artists, talking to them about their work, learning more about their creative processes, gaining insight into their creative world... I find this is a fascinating and challenging process, which is very rewarding. So I guess for me it's largely irrelevant whether the outcome of someone's creative process is notated or recorded or a spontaneous performance - my curiosity to understand more about a creative work is what motivates me...

Symphony Austria?

Time to rip in there (no pun intended) all you Symphony Australia Artistic Directors and program some Robert Hughes.....on your mark, get set, go!

Thanks Robert, I did a piece of yours with some school kids years ago....Music for a Camp...I think it was.

I remember a year 12 student commenting on how varied your interests and abilities were, given your reputation as an art critic and all....those were the days.

See ya.

Gosh, this cozy little Contemporary Classical Music Fraternity thing is just so darned cozy. Aint it.