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26 November 2015

AMC at 40: The Glamorous Early Days

AMC's premises in June 1975 at 80 George St Image: AMC's premises in June 1975 at 80 George St  

The Australian Music Centre had its beginnings in the Whitlam era, with the establishing of the Australia Council for the Arts and its Music Board. Vincent Plush remembers some of the first, high-profile events organised at the new Centre, with VIP visits accompanied by flashlights, TV crews, and Charles Blackman's canvases adorning the walls. First gatherings of this kind were held at the Centre soon after it got established in its premises around August-September 1975. Officially the AMC opened its doors to the public at the end of February 1976. See also: AMC's first 41 years - timeline and articles.

It was late on a Sunday morning in January 1973, I seem to recall. Don Banks was huddled over his telephone. He had been a Creative Arts Fellow at the Australian National University and, his term over, was just about to move from his temporary home in Canberra - 16 Liversidge Street, on the ANU campus at Acton - back to London.

In the next room, his (then) young visitor from Sydney could barely make out the hushed tones: 'Yes, Mr Prime Minister... Well, not exactly, Mr Prime Minister...'. There was no mistaking who was barking down the other end of the phone. Newly elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam would not countenance Don Banks leaving Australia: he insisted that Banks, who had been at the forefront of new music organisations in the UK, stay to help set up the Music Board of his new Australian Council for the Arts.

Don stayed and assembled a 'dream team' around him at the ACA, as it was then known, installed in that ghastly orange Sabemo building in North Sydney. James Murdoch became the Music Board's 'Music Consultant', and the initial Board included veteran composer Robert Hughes and neophyte Kim Williams, who only months earlier had been dodging Vietnam.

Establishing a music centre for the dissemination of Australian music (and, with that Don meant not just notated music, but electronic music, jazz, film and experimental music, all genres he had explored himself) was always the foundation of Don Banks's vision for the future of music in Australia. Within a year, his deputy chair, Ken Tribe, had attended to the legal apparatus, and the Centre was opened in The Rocks in Spring 1975.

AMC's meeting room in 1976 with a Charles Blackman canvas on the wall.

James Murdoch moved over from the ACA to become the AMC's Foundation Director. He set about creating a vibrant, even glamorous, atmosphere there: was there ever such a team as Mary Vallentine, Jenny Vogel, Virginia Braden and the handsome Martin Buzacott, decked out in his signature green suit? James had insisted that the place be named the Australia Music Centre, not the more grammatically correct Australian Music Centre. In his Utopian vision, James had figured that it would become a kind of centre for all the world's music in Australia, not just the music produced by 'a consecrated priesthood' within our parish. To that end, he invited Peggy Glanville-Hicks, whom he had lured back to Australia in 1975, to create an Asian and Pacific Music Unit within the AMC. Peggy became a materfamilias not just for James himself, but also for the AMC and its composer stakeholders, presiding grandly over virtually all events presented there.

In May 1978, the AMC hosted one of Peggy's special projects, an exhibition of wood carvings by her American sculptor friend, Peggy Bodin. Seven of these pieces would be accompanied by music, Peggy decreed, and recordings of the music would be played as lights shone above their respective wood sculptures on rotating platforms. For this she produced what was, I think, her last completed composition, a two-minute number called Girondelle for Giraffes, scored for the improbable combination of flute, trombone, double bass and drum. The other composers were Don Banks (The Magician's Castle), Ross Edwards (Rocking Horses), David Gulpilil (Horses Fleeing), Peter Sculthorpe (Gambol), Lou Harrison (Mountain Torrent) and myself (Estuary). At the opening of the exhibition the technology failed (of course), the lights and music didn't coordinate, we composers pretended not to notice.

On that occasion, as with most others, ministers and arts flunkies swam in a sea of people and sculptures, dodging the Blackmans smiling from the walls, magnetically drawn to camera flashlights and television news crews (James was very good at producing cameras at AMC events). Deals were done and undone, new friendships made and old ones consigned to the flames. Invitations to AMC events were keenly sought after: not to attend could be construed as deleterious to one's professional career.

And the parties! Yes, there were such parties, down there in The Rocks. James Murdoch and his crew knew how to throw a good party. I remember multiple record launches and lunches for visiting composers like Luciano Berio in October 1975 and Aaron Copland in March 1978.

Performances too. Despite the somewhat flat acoustics of the space, there were many memorable performances, cheered by red wine and cheese, and genial bonhomie caused by jostling bodies on the floor. David Gulpilil and other Indigenous performers entranced us on many occasions, jazz artists and wired-up (and out) experimentalists on others. One memorable evening, the Fires of London played Peter Maxwell Davies's Alma Redemptoris Mater, with Max explaining to his capacity, spell-bound audience how he felt he had to 'earn' that shimmering chord at the centre of the work. In those early years, if the AMC itself was too small for an event, its presence would be seen and felt elsewhere: in the Cell Block Theatre, in the Recording Hall of the Sydney Opera House, in the new spaces of the Seymour Centre, as well as in various galleries and exhibition spaces in and around Sydney.

Yes, from the outset, the AMC had to wear the accusation of its 'Sydnocentricity', but where else would you have put it? There were occasional murmurs from the Melburnians who seemed to have no trouble in creating venues and performance outfits to suit their own mostly 'experimental' bents. There were roars from the typewriters of Canberra, so near, yet so far - they thundered - from the centre of Acton.

Just when it seemed that the AMC, with its acclaimed public profile, was chugging along famously, bureaucrats in the Australia Council found some irregularities in accounting procedures and closed the place down. At the time, some of us felt that this might have been another of Murdoch's much vaunted PR stunts: a fusillade of outrage would surely cause the place to be re-opened. But there was no fusillade, for now, these were the Fraser years of belt-tightening. And that was the time for me to go to the USA.

> AMC's first 41 years - timeline and more articles


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