Enter your username and password

Forgotten your username or password?

Your Shopping Cart

There are no items in your shopping cart.

15 October 2015

Revealing the Roots

Researching Australian contemporary percussion

Louise Devenish Image: Louise Devenish  

Percussionist Louise Devenish's doctoral thesis tackles a largely unwritten part of Australia's contemporary music history by documenting the emergence of contemporary percussion practices in Australia between 1970 and 2000. In this article, she explains the background of her research and gives a summary of her work and findings.

Over the past forty-five years, the presence of contemporary percussion in the Australian contemporary music scene has increased in prominence. No longer existing at the fringes of contemporary music, today percussionists can be found pushing boundaries via interdisciplinary collaborations, directing some of Australia's most prolific chamber ensembles, championing Australian music overseas and developing community and education projects that use percussion instruments to bring people and places together. In most city centres there are individuals and ensembles continually redefining the nature of percussion performance, making work that requires the development of new instruments and performance practices. Collaborations are frequent, and opportunities are created to bring the next generation of composers, performers and sound artists interested in exploring percussion together with established artists. Contemporary percussion is diverse by definition, existing in a state of constant evolution. Although artists and audiences recognise innovation in new Australian percussion work, little is known about the roots of this area of contemporary music. How did contemporary percussion emerge in Australia?

In 2010, I travelled to Indianapolis to perform at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in one of four concerts linked by the theme of 'Ecology of Percussion'. This theme provided the opportunity for percussionists to share works that highlighted the influence of place on the composer and/or performer. At the time I was especially interested in music for the marimba, and I presented one of my first commissions by a Western Australian composer, Their Kind of Moon by David Pye. During PASIC I also attended a fascinating presentation on the emergence of contemporary marimba performance practices. During discussions of mallet percussion in South America, Asia, Africa and Europe, I eagerly awaited a discussion of developments in Australia that never came. The percussive histories of the aforementioned countries connected contemporary practices to indigenous practices, and it was suggested that the exclusion of a discussion of Australian developments was because there are no Australian indigenous mallet percussion instruments.

I started to wonder how it was that the marimba (an instrument at the centre of so many well-known Australian percussion works) was first used in Australia, and why. This quickly led to a much bigger question: how did contemporary percussion emerge in Australia? Most percussionists would cite Synergy Percussion as responsible for the earliest contemporary percussion activities in Australia, but how and why did these activities take place? What, if anything, came before Synergy Percussion? Finding virtually no documentation of the history of contemporary percussion in Australia only made me more curious, and, in 2011, these questions became the focus of my doctoral research.

…And Now for the News by Graeme Leak, performed by Louise Devenish (YouTube)

Although percussion instruments have existed for hundreds of years, contemporary percussion practices emerged in North America and Europe in the twentieth century, and it was from these that Australian practices developed. As percussion practices continue to grow, access to history - and therefore an understanding of the context of new creative work - becomes increasingly important. However, for Australian percussionists, the only access to the roots of this sub-discipline of Australian contemporary music was via informal conversations with teachers and colleagues. Hearing stories about percussion ensembles rehearsing in lifts or in separate rooms of a share-house because there were no percussion studios, or players sawing off the top half of a marimba to appease a conductor demanding a smaller instrument, is entertaining, but it doesn't give a complete picture. Additionally, relying on stories makes this a temporary (and potentially changeable) history that is accessible only to a small group of people at any given time.

Over the past four years of my Doctor of Musical Arts at the University of Western Australia, I attempted to fill a gap in Australian music history by documenting the emergence of contemporary percussion practices in Australia between 1970 and 2000. In three parts, my research project provides a variety of perspectives from which Australian contemporary percussion practices can be examined:

• A historical account of the emergence of contemporary percussion activity in Australia, followed by a documentation of percussion ensemble activity between 1970 and 2000

• Lists of repertoire commissioned by the percussion ensembles

• Performance of percussion solo and ensemble repertoire, including the performance of 'lost' repertoire composed in the early 1970s

Together, these components offer an insight into Australian contemporary percussion history, repertoire and community. The research journey for each component was wonderful, providing many opportunities to connect with performers, composers, musicologists and pedagogues around Australia. A series of 35 interviews formed the starting point for much of the historical research, and data gathered during interviews was supported by archival research of both public and personal collections. About half-way through this series of interviews it became obvious that this doctoral research would only be the beginning of research that I hope will continue for years - the more information I gathered, the more I realised how much more information needed to be gathered.

Adjacent to the historical research was the performance of works by Australian composers including Keith Humble, Graeme Leak, Andrián Pertout, Andrew Byrne, Nigel Westlake, Anthony Pateras, and others.

The final thesis was titled …And Now for the Noise: Contemporary Percussion in Australia, 1970-2000, a title that references one of the earliest solo multiple percussion works composed in this country, …And Now for the News by Graeme Leak. In seven chapters, the thesis begins with an exploration of the elements of the Australian music landscape in the 1960s that led to the first Australian contemporary percussion activity. During this period there were significant increases in federal arts funding, the pioneering addition of percussion studies to tertiary music at Elder Conservatorium in South Australia, and the inclusion of ensembles featuring percussion instruments on Australian Broadcasting Commission programs.

This was followed by the introduction of cutting-edge international contemporary percussion performance to Australian audiences when French ensemble Les Percussions de Strasbourg toured Australia in 1971. The impact of this tour on the Australian music scene was significant, and percussion ensembles became the foundation upon which professional contemporary percussion practices were cultivated. Chapters Two through Six are organised geographically and chronologically, comprising documentation surrounding the emergence of percussion activity outside of symphony orchestras in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart and Brisbane.

This documentation begins with the Australian Percussion Ensemble in Melbourne. The activities of this group were unknown to me at the commencement of this research, and I discovered that this ensemble had all but faded from collective memory since they disbanded nearly forty years ago. However, examination of the Australian Percussion Ensemble's early forays into contemporary percussion soon revealed their vital contribution to the emergence of contemporary percussion in Australia as the first professional ensemble in the country. The bulk of chapter two discusses the interdisciplinary programming style and commitment to performing Australian repertoire by this ensemble, supported by lists of commissioned repertoire.

Research into the Australian Percussion Ensemble activities in the 1970s led to the rediscovery of a number of unpublished percussion ensemble works composed by Robert Irving, Felix Werder, Keith Humble, Helen Gifford and John Seal that were all but lost. In a lecture recital titled 'The Australian Percussion Ensemble', two works were performed in full for the first time since their premieres in 1974: Keith Humble's Prime Riff and John Seal's Structures. The journey of reconstructing these works was one of the most rewarding parts of this research project, and I am indebted to John Whiteoak, Jim Sosnin, Jill Humble, John Seal and members of the Australian Percussion Ensemble for their warm assistance.

Structures by John Seal, reimagined and performed by Louise Devenish (YouTube)

Unlike the Australian Percussion Ensemble, the activities of Synergy Percussion are well known - their founding director Michael Askill is arguably the most important figure in the genesis of Australian contemporary percussion and his work as a performer, composer, director and collaborator continues to influence musicians today. The foundation of this ensemble, just two years after the Australian Percussion Ensemble, represents a pivotal event in Australian percussion history. Chapter Three explores the exciting early forays into contemporary percussion by Synergy Percussion, who were originally known as the Sydney Percussions.

In Chapter One, the significance of percussionist and pedagogue Richard Smith's activity outside the orchestra in Adelaide in the 1960s is identified as the principal precursor to contemporary percussion. Chapter Four follows on from this, documenting contemporary percussion in Adelaide in the late 1970s, with a focus on Adelaide Percussions. Chapter Four then moves to Western Australia, where contemporary percussion began to take off in the 1980s. The influence of Nova Ensemble on percussion in Western Australia was significant at this time, and their work established instrument building, the performance of works composed by members of the ensemble and the inclusion of the music of neighbouring countries as recurring characteristics of Western Australian percussion music.

Although Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth were the primary centres of contemporary percussion activity prior to 2000, flickers of activity also occurred in Hobart and Brisbane, and this is featured in Chapter Five. Chapter Six moves on from discussion of percussion ensembles to document activity by two individuals who made significant contributions to Australian percussion adjacent to the collective ensemble environment: Graeme Leak and Claire Edwardes. Both were associated with Synergy Percussion in the 1980s and 1990s, respectively, albeit in different capacities, however Leak and Edwardes individually engaged in various other contemporary percussion activities that had significant impact on ensembles and individuals. Their notable solo projects prior to 2000 conclude the historical section of the thesis.

Documenting the history of Australian contemporary percussion brought a number of questions about the Australian percussion identity to light. What are the defining characteristics of Australian percussion music? Are these characteristics unique to Australian percussion? How have Australian practices aligned with international practices since 1970? Can such questions be answered with less than fifty years of history to draw upon?

This study provided the opportunity to examine how Australian percussionists - past and present - create work, and how they view their practice in both local and global contexts. The final chapter of the thesis does not attempt to definitively answer the question 'What is Australian contemporary percussion?' It does, however, open a discussion around questions such as those listed above, questions that are not often asked within the Australian percussion community. Chapter Seven includes observation of a number of influences on the development of contemporary percussion in Australia, including mid-century French avant-garde, visual art, interdisciplinary collaboration, Asian and African traditional musics, geographical context, and a small number of international percussionists who have engaged with Australian artists over long periods. This leads to a discussion of further observations surrounding the approach taken by Australian practitioners when creating new work. It is my hope that this chapter initiates a discourse around Australian contemporary percussion, and I welcome comments from readers of Resonate as I continue this research in the future.

Further links

Louise Devenish's thesis …And Now for the Noise: Contemporary Percussion in Australia, 1970-2000 can be accessed online via the University of Western Australia Research Repository.
Louise Devenish - homepage

Subjects discussed by this article:

Louise Devenish is a Perth-based percussionist whose practice incorporates performance, commissioning, curating, research and education. Her work includes co-directing percussion duo the Sound Collectors, directing Piñata Percussion, percussing for electro-acoustic sextet Decibel and curating the annual Day of Percussion event. Louise works regularly with Speak Percussion as a percussionist and contributor to Sounds Unheard. She has also performed with the WASO, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, Synergy Percussion, Clocked Out Duo, redfishbluefish (USA) and was a core member of Tetrafide Percussion (2004-2010). She has performed throughout Australia and overseas in the US, UK, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Japan, China, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Vietnam. An advocate of Australian music, Louise has commissioned over 40 percussion works.


Be the first to share add your thoughts and opinions in response to this article.

You must login to post a comment.