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18 November 2019

A lifetime of engagement with Australian music

Michael Hannan Image: Michael Hannan  

Michael Hannan gives an overview of his lifelong involvement in Australian music, from his early fascination with Peter Sculthorpe's music, to his professional career as composer, musicologist and performer. Turning 70 this month (19 November), Hannan lives and works in Nimbin, northern New South Wales.

My early musical training was in piano performance at the Dominican convent in the Hunter Valley city of Maitland. Later I studied at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music (Newcastle Branch): piano (with Eileen Keeley), clarinet (with Douglas Gerke) and music theory and organ (with Keith Noake). From the age of fourteen I was the organist at St John's Pro-Cathedral in Maitland. Although this was an unpaid position, I was paid well to play the organ at weddings, of which there were usually two or three every Saturday.

It was in the context of organ playing that I first developed an interest in improvisation and composition. Fascinated by the palette of organ timbre combinations, I improvised regularly and even notated some of the ideas I developed through improvising. In addition, Keith Noake, in our one-on-one music theory lessons, encouraged me to write settings of poetry for voice and piano in addition to doing strict exercises in harmony and counterpoint.

When it came to studying music for the Higher School Certificate (I was in the first HSC cohort in 1967), I decided I would write the 5000-word thesis required for First Level on one of the prescribed topic areas, "Australian Music". I had no idea what aspect of the topic I would choose until I attended the January 1967 Music Summer School at the University of New England, where I was the youngest participant. There I met Graham Cole, who was one of Peter Sculthorpe's composition students at the University of Sydney. He had a sound system in his college room and played me reel-to-reel tape recordings of Sculthorpe's music including String Quartet No. 6 (1965) and Sonatina for piano (1954). I knew immediately that Sculthorpe's music was going to be my HSC thesis topic. Also at the Summer School was harpsichord teacher Dorothy White, who was a keyboard harmony and score reading tutor at the University of Sydney. I asked her if she would arrange a meeting for me with Peter. She helped me connect with him and I travelled to Sydney from Maitland to meet with him in early 1967, armed with many questions. The resulting thesis was assessed by Peter's biographer Graeme Skinner as 'the most thorough and perceptive analysis of Sculthorpe's output to date [i.e. 1967]' (Skinner, 2007, p. 537).

A manuscript extract from Hannan's 1987 work Resonances I
for solo piano (movement 2, 'Earth Song). Larger view.

Despite my interest in improvisation and composing, my main trajectory as a tertiary music student was musicology. In the first year of my studies at the University of Sydney I had little contact with Peter, but one of my tutors, Anne Boyd, had noticed that my musical handwriting was of a good standard. She was Peter's composition assistant at the time. Having received a scholarship to study for a doctoral degree at York University Anne was helping Peter to find a replacement assistant. From mid-1969 to mid-1971, I worked for Peter as his assistant. At first all I was required to do was to ink in his very neatly pencilled scores. After some time in this role I became more involved in arranging and composition tasks. I didn't realise it, at the time, but I was receiving a composition apprenticeship. Throughout the 1970s I also collaborated with Peter on a number of composition projects, notably for the film score of Essington (Julian Pringle, 1974).

But I was still very much focused on musicology and I ended up writing my PhD thesis on Peter's music, graduating in 1979. This was only the second PhD in the field of music conferred at the University of Sydney. My book Peter Sculthorpe: His Music and Ideas 1929-1979 (University of Queensland Press, 1982) was based on my doctoral research.

In order to supplement my scholarship stipend during my postgraduate candidature, I worked professionally as a performer, an arranger, a copyist and as a composer of theatre and media music, including a stint in an advertising jingle business. But, having graduated, I realised I should obtain a composition qualification to enhance my chances of getting a university lecturing position. I had made a mental note that all the courses on Australian contemporary classical music in Australian universities were being taught by composition lecturers, not musicologists. My subsequent enrolment in a Graduate Diploma of Musical Composition at the University of Sydney was a challenging experience as my creative music interests were not exactly in tune with what was required in a composition portfolio submission. I had been enjoying writing musical pastiche in a variety of styles to make money, but my heart at the time was squarely in experimental music, including visual scores, word event scores and compositions involving improvisation. None of these approaches were acceptable in a composition portfolio at the time.

Thus I was forced to go down the modernist music pathway. Luckily I had a theoretical interest in Olivier Messiaen's development of complex harmonic frameworks from synthetic scales. My major works in this portfolio focused on generating harmonies from a variety of tone sets. For example my work Rajas for cello alone (1981) used the six-tone set [F, G, A flat, A, B C] and a number of transpositions of this tone-set to generate all the melodic and harmonic material of the work. As an example, I offer a recording of the fourth movement of Rajas as recorded by David Pereira on his CD Cello Dreaming (Tall Poppies, 1996 - CD and MP3). This movement is entirely based on the tone set [C, D, E flat, E, F sharp, G].

Michael Hannan: Rajas - IV 'Agitato'

As I had done my PhD on an Australian music topic in Australia, I was looking to do some postdoctoral work overseas. After numerous applications, I was successful in obtaining a Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellowship to do research on African-American music terminology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Lexicography was one of my academic sidelines having worked on the development of The Macquarie Dictionary as a music consultant for a decade before its first edition was published in 1981.

Being at UCLA was also a chance to connect with music communities in Los Angeles. I attended the postgraduate composition seminars of Professor Elaine Barkin, and was regularly involved in her free improvisation gatherings. I joined several UCLA world music performing groups (Japanese gagaku orchestra, Ghanaian drumming ensemble and Balinese gamelan orchestra) and also had private lessons in shakuhachi honkyoku repertoire. All of these experiences had an impact on my development as a composer.

In LA I shared an apartment with an Australian friend, Kim Ryrie, who had been the recording engineer for my 1972 advertising demo tape and had played in a band with me in Sydney. Kim and his business partner, Peter Vogel, were the inventors of the revolutionary Fairlight Computer Music Instrument (CMI), and we had a Series II model in our LA apartment. During my time at UCLA I wrote a lot of music for the Fairlight and connected with many of the LA musicians who used the instrument. Only just recently, I released an archival CD of my Fairlight compositions from that period, Callisto: Music for Fairlight CMI (Wirripang Media, 2016).

I enjoyed the challenge of composing for the Fairlight, but perhaps my watershed compositional experience in LA was writing Three Meditations for Dane Rudhyar for piano (1984) of which I gave the first performance in UCLA's Jan Popper Theatre. It was inspired by American composer and astrologer Dane Rudhyar's book, The Magic of Tone and the Art of Music (1982). Rudhyar suggests in his book that sustained complex chords on the piano is one avenue for exploring the 'magic of tone'. This was cue for me to write piano music with the sustain pedal depressed throughout long sections of my piano music to emphasise complex piano resonance in both atonal and pandiatonic chords spread out over the full range of the piano keyboard.

In 1985, I was appointed to the position of Lecturer in Composition and Writing Techniques at the Queensland Conservatorium. In my Paddington rental cottage I embarked on writing a 12-movement piano work Resonances (see Resonances I (1987), II (1989), III (1992) and IV (1997) with the sustain pedal depressed throughout. This was in part a follow-on from my Dane Rudhyar-inspired piece but also modelled on the astrological structure of George Crumb's Makrokosmos pieces. My idea was to dedicate each of my star-sign movements to friends (mainly composers) born under the various star signs, and to include some music references to their works where they could be fitted with my other materials.

While I was working on the first (Aries) movement, 'Celestial Ground' (which is dedicated to Anne Boyd, Vincent Plush and Trevor Pearce), I became aware every day of a bird singing loudly in my backyard. At first I found it distracting because the melodic lines were so intervallically interesting. In the end I incorporated some of its phrases near the end of the Aries movement. This turned out to be another watershed moment in my composition practice. At that point I knew very little about bird species identification, but I found out that the bird was a pied butcherbird and began to make recordings of it whenever it sang. It was the genesis of my enduring practice of recording and transcribing birdsong with the objective of incorporating this material into my compositions. Most of the 12 movements of Resonances (1986-1997) use transcribed pied butcherbird songs and since then I have regularly written music based on pied butcherbird songs recorded in various locations. Notable examples for piano include Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Butcherbird (2008), Birds Calling in Fortitude Valley (2011), Dawn Songs (2012) and Birds Calling on Waterfall Way (2015).

More recently I have included the calls other bird species in my music. For example, Sounding Bashō for trumpet in C, percussion and Japanese calligrapher (2018) includes the calls of the following birds: Australian raven, pheasant coucal, pied butcherbird, wonga pigeon, magpie lark and common koel.

An example of one my compositions involving transcriptions of pied butcherbird song, is a live concert recording I made of Thirteen Ways of Looking a Butcherbird. I prefer to use the transcribed birdsong material at the pitch at which it was sung, which is usually very high, ranging from F on the top line of the treble clef staff up to an F two octaves above that. This explains in part why I have used the piano for most of the birdsong-based pieces I have written. Then I look for accompanying harmonic ideas derived from the pitch material of the birdsong.

In 1986 my academic career took an unusual turn when I was headhunted for the position of Head of Music at the Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education (NRCAE), a predecessor institution of Southern Cross University (SCU), based in Lismore in Northern NSW. My brief was to develop a degree in contemporary (popular) music. I jumped at the opportunity, especially since my teaching at the Queensland Conservatorium had come under fire from my department head for introducing popular music styles into my aural training and composition classes.

Lismore and nearby Byron Bay, where I lived at first, had lively contemporary arts scenes. Soon after my arrival I teamed up with a local musician, Fred Cole, to co-write electronic music scores for theatre productions and films. Our method of composing was new to me: taking turns to improvise sections or tracks using MIDI sequencer technology, often in multitracked layers, and then collaboratively editing the resulting tracks. I called this process 'comprovisation', essentially editing recorded improvised material to create electro-acoustic compositions.

In the 1990s, with the advent of the multitrack hard-disk recording and editing software, Protools, I was able to take the comprovisation principle and apply it to recordings of acoustic rather than electronic instruments. Over many years I worked with SCU music technology colleague, Mic Deacon, to produce two CDs of comprovised works. The first, Terrains (Tall Poppies, 2001), used my own piano extended technique improvisations and the second, Improvisations and Comprovisations (Wirripang Media, 2013), drew on extended technique improvisations by jazz and new music trumpet virtuoso, Scott Tinkler.

As an example, 'Desert Dance' from my CD Terrains, uses recorded improvised sounds made by bouncing thick glass rods on the upper strings and tuning pins of a grand piano. Hundreds of individual recordings were made and then edited together, including looping of some of the sounds. Another layer, with a sound produced by scraping a cluster of lower strings serves as a punctuation device.

Michael Hannan: Desert Dance

Artists working as academics in Australian universities have been under pressure, over the past 30 years, to achieve traditional research outcomes such as the publication of refereed journal articles and the winning of competitive research grants. This is in addition to their main game, disseminating their artistic work. One of the highlights of my work as an artist/academic at SCU was an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage project grant (in 2003) with my colleague Paul Thom and with Lyndon Terracini as the industry partner. Lyndon was at the time the artist director and CEO of Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA). The project had the usual kinds of traditional academic outputs such as journal articles, a book publication and a conference, but it also involved a large-scale promenade music theatre work produced by NORPA.

I wrote all the music and some of the soundscapes for this project which have been issued on my CD, The Flood (Wirripang Media, 2015). Because it was a free event in Lismore, with over 2000 locals attending, I wrote songs for it that used accessible styles such as gospel, blues, folk, salsa and tango and, more generally, songs with rhyming lyrics (written by Janis Balodis) and simple verse/chorus structures. For example the song 'Poor Boy, He', about a boy drowned in a flood, employs a first verse in D minor over three chords, a second verse using the same melody and chords in A minor and a chorus which is written over an A7 flat 9 chord which eventually resolves back to D minor. Underpinning the arrangement is an ostinato-based bass clarinet line influenced by J.S. Bach.

Michael Hannan: 'Poor Boy, He' from The Flood

Further description and analysis of the production of The Flood can be gained from an article I wrote for the UK-based Contemporary Music Review journal. You can read the abstract online.

I love being involved in community-based creative projects like The Flood but in the coming years I intend to devote my creative work principally to birdsong-influenced compositions for piano, for other high-pitched solo instruments, and for ensembles. On the other hand I am a very opportunistic composer. If someone asks me to compose something in any format or style for a recording project or a performance, I usually come to the party.

AMC resources

Michael Hannan - AMC profile.

MP3s and CDs of Michael Hannan's work available from the AMC Shop


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