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30 March 2016

AMC at 40: 'We felt an immense sense of what might be possible'

David Gulpilil and Nathan Waks in an early AMC publicity photograph Image: David Gulpilil and Nathan Waks in an early AMC publicity photograph  

A young Australian cellist called Nathan Waks was one of the five signatories of the Articles of Association for the future Australia(n) Music Centre in 1974. It took a couple more years before the AMC was ready to open its doors to the public at the end of February 1976. In this little email interview, Waks - who went on to have a multifaceted career in the arts, before reinventing himself as the owner of a wine company in the 2000s - remembers the early days of the AMC and reflects on how times have changed for the arts in Australia over four decades. See also: a historical timeline with more articles and images about the AMC's history and a related Facebook gallery.

Anni Heino: You were there already in August 1974 when the Articles of Association were signed - the other signatories were John Sturman (Chair), John Day, Prudence Neidorf, and James Penberthy. Do you remember that moment, and developments preceding it?

Nathan Waks: It was a very exciting time. The Whitlam government was making the arts an important part of government, and we felt an immense sense of what might be possible. Preceding events all centred around James Murdoch, of course, who pulled it all together, having the wisdom to involve the commercial sector via John Sturman. I was privileged at such a tender age (23) to be part of this, but it is important to remember that, in those days, extreme youth was not seen as a problem in being appointed to various boards, positions etc. These days we expect a lot more qualification and experience, which is in some ways a shame.

AH: What kind of recollections do you have? What were your other involvements in Australian musical life at the time - you'd returned home from overseas a few years before I understand?

NW: I had a dual chamber music and orchestral career at the time. The Fidelio quartet was started in 1971, and I left my position as Principal Cello with the Sydney Symphony to become principal of the Elizabethan Trust Orchestra (subsequently to become the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra), because they gave the whole quartet principal positions and encouraged our chamber music career. This is an example of the enlightened thinking at the time, and probably impossible today. My first film involvement was the following year 1975 with The Removalists, a film adaptation of the David Williamson play.

AH: Were you present at the official opening of the Centre 1.5 years later on 27 February 1976? What can you remember about the occasion, and about the atmosphere at The Rocks premises during the first months?

NW: Yes, and, as above, all very exciting. From memory, we had a jazz concert, which would have been unthinkable to many (as 'serious' music, but James was adamant that we include jazz in all our thinking and activities- quite rightly so!). The Rocks was seen to be the future arts hub, with space being made available at peppercorn rentals, although, to be honest, it has never quite developed as expected or hoped for at the time. I think the Sydney Opera House being very much on its own hindered that. It should also be remembered that Neville Wran was an extremely supportive Premier, and, despite Whitlam's sacking, Malcolm Fraser largely left the arts untouched.

AH: What kind of involvement did you have with the Australia(n) Music Centre then - and later? Did you follow the destinies of the Centre under various directors?

NW: To be honest, my main involvement was as a director. I was of course involved in many performances of new music as a performer, so in that sense interacted with the composers who were the main focus of the centre. I have stayed in contact more or less as my own career and physical location has changed. In the early days, James Murdoch was the driving force, followed by Dick Letts and of course John Davis. Our goal was to raise awareness, encourage collaboration, and be a central part of the arts renaissance of the time.

AH: You've been active in Australian musical life in a number of roles, from cellist to composer, concert organiser, record producer, and also a generous sponsor. Would you like to say something about the way you see the Australian musical life developing over the 40 years since the opening of the AMC, and how you see its future - for instance lessons that were (or were not) learned over the years?

NW: This is too big a question (or too many questions) for a simple reflection - I'd say we have certainly matured. And the AMC is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Australian music. In general there is now too much expectation of entitlement or government support, which was not the case 40 years ago. I don't think we have learned how to make Australian government (State and Federal) take the arts seriously as a matter of course, unless there is a particularly receptive politician (like Whitlam or Keating). This has been done successfully in Europe, so I don't see why we can't here. I suspect it's a failure to fully engage with successful areas with high profile, like sports, which has so much in common with arts, especially from a professional performer perspective (I have always found professional sports people to really easily understand and respect the work ethic required in the arts). We have lost much of the risk-taking which was present when I was younger, and all of the above has led to a certain predictability in the 'serious' new music arena, which in my view is not nearly as dynamic as the EDM [electronic dance music] scene for example. On the other hand, the digital world has broken down boundaries and allowed for more creativity (and junk) than ever before.

All of this creates challenges for the AMC. Not sure how it currently defines its boundaries, but if it does not include all forms of music it will become marginalised. I realise the challenge, but would not shy away from it! I am always an optimist- music of one kind or another remains a daily and important part of most people's lives. This leads to immense opportunity!

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


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