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Environmental themes


Environmental influences in Australian music

Australia’s favourite musical eccentric toyed with the idea of ‘free music’ – free in part, that is, from the restrictions of the tempered scale. Percy Grainger imagined a music of ‘gliding tones’, and claimed that the inspiration came from watching the waves near his home at Brighton, Victoria. Composers before and since have in some way attempted to depict their environment in music, especially in reflecting various distinctive landscapes. The musical language in which they are rendered can vary from, say, Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Music manner, through Margaret Sutherland’s nature-poetry to the more (sub-)urbane ‘impressions’ of Alfred Hill.

Poet Adam Lindsay Gordon complained that our ‘bright birds are songless’, but in the 1920s composer Henry Tate had nevertheless advocated the creation of an Australian music by engaging with Indigenous music and with environmental sounds – especially birdsong. Birdsong and traditional tonality are not, as Roger Covell has pointed out, a comfortable fit, but in 1965 Nigel Butterley composed The white-throated warbler for recorder and harpsichord, melding serial techniques with a local bird call. Since then birdsong has been an important element, in the stylised representations of Peter Sculthorpe’s string writing, and the more precise renderings of David Lumsdaine. At a time of stylistic crisis, Ross Edwards found himself listening to the intricate phase-patterns of insect life in the Hawkesbury basin, which had profound effect on his subsequent work. Environmental sounds can also be brought into the concert hall through the use of onomatopoeic instruments – Andrew Schultz makes much of a corrugated iron sheet in Journey to Horseshoe Bend, and both Roger Smalley and Liza Lim have had recourse to the use of geophones or sand drums which mimic the sound of waves – or recorded sound, à la the Fountains of Rome.

The advent of the tape recorder, and subsequent recording technology, meant that composers could begin to use the raw material of environmental sound as the basis for radiophonic work; Butterley was a pioneer of this in his Prix Italia -winning In the head the fire of 1966. There have since been several notable composers of concert music who have produced striking works of radiophony, and a group of composers such as Rik Rue and Andrew Yencken who have worked more or less exclusively in that medium.

Representative Works

  Work Notes
Entomology (1990) by Nigel Westlakeis for mixed ensemble and pre-recorded insects (none of whom was harmed in the making of the recording).
Silo pieces these works by Bandt make a virtue of the long delay times in tanks and silos with a variety of instruments.
Tank pieces (1979) by Ros Bandtthese works by Bandt make a virtue of the long delay times in tanks and silos with a variety of instruments.
Currawong by Moya Hendersonuses the bolshie sounds of scrub turkeys and other birds squawking and landing on tin roofs at Barrington Tops.
Cambewarra Mountain (1990) by David Lumsdaineuses the birdcalls of this Illawarra landscape to create an intricately patterned composition.
Artamidae (2002) by Ron Nagorckauses a range of sampled birdsong in the Tasmanian bush.
Elegy in a country graveyard (2007) by Andrew Fordmovingly celebrates a particular place through recorded sound, speech and music.

Broader categories of Environmental themes

Sibling categories of Environmental themes